The biggest pigeons in sport are the managers of the 20 major league baseball teams. Compared to a baseball manager, a football coach has job tenure like a supreme-court justice. Of the 20 current managers, only six were in their present jobs two years ago, and if the pattern continues, a solid bet would be that more than half of the 20 will be gone in another two years.
Who hires and fires these men in such a carefree, haphazard way? Why, the general managers, of course, the men who really run the big-league ball clubs. Some own the teams they direct, some have a financial interest, some are merely hired hands themselves. They operate under a cloak of relative obscurity, but they are the ones whose mistakes in planning and execution lead to failure on the field and, almost inevitably, to the departure of the manager who had been hired so optimistically a short time before. What manner of men are they?
Well, handsome and friendly John McHale of the Atlanta Braves became the youngest general manager in baseball late in 1957 when he took over the Tigers at the age of 35, but 21 months and a lot of goodwill and bad trades later, he jumped to the Milwaukee Braves. There he inherited a team, built by John Quinn, that had won two pennants and a World Series, had not been worse than third in six years of Milwaukee residence and had, the year before McHale arrived, drawn 1,971,101 people to the ball park. Six seasons later the Braves were a consistent fifth-place team and attendance had tumbled as low as 555,589. Perhaps the drop in attendance was inevitable in a city as small as Milwaukee, but it was helped by a series of public-relations blunders, including inept trades that did nothing to stop the club's decline as a National League power. Early in 1965 the Braves announced they were moving to Atlanta. McHale's lawn was littered with firecrackers and rotten eggs, and his wife and six children were harassed by obscene phone calls. The Braves were supposed to be stimulated into contention this year by the city of Atlanta, but the stimulation foundered on the reality of inadequate pitching. Four weeks ago McHale made the standard move and fired Manager Bobby Bragan, but then the Braves made a nonstandard move by bringing in help for the general manager. Paul Richards, who previously had been instrumental in developing the White Sox, the Orioles and the Astros, was given control of the farm system, a move many see as an initial step in Richards' taking over as general manager, with McHale remaining as team president. Nice guy John will make an excellent president.
Branch Rickey brought Bob Howsam and his foreclosure smile out of Denver to the St. Louis Cardinals back in 1964 as part of a palace revolution that startled the city of St. Louis and ultimately shocked the entire baseball world. With the Cardinals in fifth place in August of 1964, Owner Gussie Busch asked Bing Devine, then general manager, for his resignation along with that of Business Manager Art Routzong. Howsam, who had twice been named Minor League Executive of the Year, came on from Colorado as the last bullet ever used by troubleshooter Rickey. After St. Louis had won both pennant and World Series, Manager Johnny Keane quit. When Rickey himself also fled in embarrassment, there stood Bob Howsam wearing a World Series ring that really belonged on the finger of Bing Devine. Under Howsam, the Cardinals finished seventh in 1965, and in the fall of the year he daringly traded away three-quarters of his All-Star infield—First Baseman Bill White, Shortstop Dick Groat and Third Baseman Ken Boyer. St. Louis fans were outraged, but Howsam explained his trades by saying that the Cards were entering a rebuilding program concentrating on youth, speed and pitching, and he begged patience. Howsam's new-look Cards came on strong at the end of spring training this year, but in the clear light of May they could be seen in ninth place. Feeling the wall against his back, Howsam traded again. Several teams had offered the Giants left-handed pitchers for Orlando Cepeda, but Howsam got him with Ray Sadecki, at the time of the trade the only Cardinal pitcher with a winning record. He seemed to be reversing his course from youth, speed and pitching, but Cepeda's presence gave the speed a chance to function and made the other hitters harder to pitch around. The Cardinals began to climb toward respectability (they got as high as fourth in July), and the fans and Gussie Busch fell in love with Orlando (Gussie puts his fingers in his mouth and whistles when Cepeda comes to bat). The crowds poured into the new stadium in downtown St. Louis, and before the end of August the Cardinals had set a new home-attendance record. Moreover, each of the four Cardinal farm teams was in first place. After the most unpromising start a general manager ever had, Howsam was sitting pretty. Give him a Houdini medal for escaping early extinction, a round of Budweiser for imagination and a case of Busch Bavarian for sheer guts.
In olden, golden days, stolid, unsmiling George Weiss used to sit still and make the trades that insured pennant after pennant for the Yankees. But he grew old, and the Yanks let him out. He went over to the Mets, where he did a bad job of picking players in the expansion draft, and he had to let the New York press and Shea Stadium make his terrible team a gate attraction. He did, however, hire Casey Stengel, who covered the blunders in a fog of words. Give George credit for not stepping on a good thing. And if he retires this winter (to be succeeded by Bing Devine), give him a big wave with a Rod Kanehl banner.
Buzzie Bavasi of the Los Angeles Dodgers got Relief Pitcher Phil Regan (12-1 as the season entered its last month) from the Tigers this year for Infielder Dick Tracewski (.231 lifetime batting average). It was only the latest in a series of shrewd manipulations that mark Bavasi as the best general manager in baseball (the most patient, too: he has had the same field manager for 13 seasons). The Dodgers have won more games and attracted bigger crowds the past five years than any other team. All five Dodger farms are currently in the first division, and Bavasi has also helped, inadvertently, to build a strong junior varsity in Washington for his former first baseman, Gil Hodges. Possibly Bavasi's farseeing eye sees Hodges as his manager after Walter Alston retires.
The way the general-manager system works in San Francisco is simple. Vice President Chub Feeney, a cigar-smoking Dartmouth man who is Owner Horace Stoneham's nephew, does all the work a general manager does, and then Horace says, "No." Or "Yes." Whatever it is, Horace has the last word. The method has worked miraculously well in the past, but this season it produced one of the great lemons in baseball-trading history. Manager Herman Franks was all set to trade Orlando Cepeda to the Cubs for left-hander Dick Ellsworth, a solid starting pitcher. Horace said, "No." In May the Giants worked out another Cepeda trade, this one with the Cardinals for left-hander Ray Sadecki, an unsolid starting pitcher. This time Horace said, "Yes." Cepeda's hitting turned St. Louis into a team; Sadecki's pitching won two games for the Giants in 3� months.
Joe L. Brown of the Pittsburgh Pirates stood at a bar this winter with Ralph Houk, then the Yankee general manager, and the two agreed to make a trade involving Bob Friend. Houk sent a list of players to Brown and from it, after talking to several people (including deposed Yankee Pitching Coach Cot Deal), Joe selected Relief Pitcher Pete Mikkelsen. Friend did nothing for the Yanks and was sold for money to the Mets, who do not need money. Mikkelsen has won eight games for the Pirates and saved nine others. Joe is more handsome and less funny than his comedian father, though he has made some hilarious deals in the past (like trading away Dick Groat in 1962 for Julio Gotay and Don Cardwell). But he has his team fighting for the pennant, and you can't laugh that off.
Bill DeWitt of the Cincinnati Reds made a slight mistake between the closing of last season and the opening of this one. On paper, trading Frank Robinson for a couple of pitchers and an outfielder didn't look too bad, but ugh! Cincinnati has been wallowing most of the year while Robinson, almost certain to be named the American League's Most Valuable Player, is winning a pennant for Baltimore. Bill still feels that maybe next year the trade will look a little better. That's next year. This year DeWitt is making baseball history: only once before has a team traded a man who became an MVP for someone else the next season (that was when high-salaried Rogers Hornsby was sent from the Braves to the Cubs back in 1928).
Give them a chance and the people in Philadelphia would boo a funeral. John Quinn made Milwaukee the strongest team in the league in the 1950s but resigned and moved to the Phillies, who were a chronic last-place club. Quinn shook up the farm system, made an unbelievable number of good trades and developed the Phils into a consistent contender. And still the people boo. Their favorite target nowadays is Manager Gene Mauch, but Quinn stuck with Mauch through a 23-game losing streak in 1961 (which could have got him thrown out of the general managers' union). It would be an upset if Quinn quit on Mauch now.