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April 26, 2008

You Could Look It Up

Who Really Needed an Early Pink Slip?

by Steven Goldman

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In honor of Wayne Krivsky, let's talk about five general managers who should have been canned faster than he was, but weren't. In compiling this list, the vasty list of candidates clamoring for inclusion was pared by eliminating any GM who worked more recently than 20 years ago. That means no Cam Bonifay of the Pirates, and no Chuck LaMar of the Devil Rays. We need not kick the Pat Meares deal again, as much fun as that might be. Even with that restriction, the final list of honorees is by no means exhaustive.

It should be noted that even the worst general managers luck into the odd good move, here we can operate on the "even blind squirrels find a few nuts" theory (and sometimes something bigger-a myopic squirrel once snatched a gyro out of my hand) and consider the big picture to be the more valid measure of the success or failure of an administration, rather than any single deal.

5. WILLIAM WALKER, Chicago Cubs (January 11, 1934-October 23, 1934): In the fall of 1933, longtime Cubs president William Veeck (father of the great, midget-signing Bill) unexpectedly took ill and died-some sources blame influenza, others leukemia. None say it was "the Cubs." Rather than opt for an experienced baseball man to run the team, owner Phil Wrigley elevated one of his minority partners, seafood dealer William Walker. You know those bar bores who insist that if they were running the local nine they could do a better job than the current management? That was Walker. He really liked baseball and thought he knew a lot about it. As it turned out, his area of expertise was limited to scales, fins, and gills.

Christina Kahrl wrote about Walker's brief reign a bit in our recent book It Ain't Over. Whatever he understood about baseball, that knowledge set didn't include park effects. To be fair, it's not clear how much anyone was thinking about park effects in those days, but even without the statistics, savvier baseball minds were aware that such things existed. When Ty Cobb dropped in to check out Braves Field in 1915 during its construction and noted the huge outfield dimensions, then said something like, "No one is ever going to hit a ball out of this place," he was observing a park effect.

Walker's ignorance expressed itself in his dealings with the Phillies. The Phillies played in a bathtub of a ballpark called the Baker Bowl. The park, and specifically its 280 foot right-field line, famously expressed its prejudices in the stat line of right fielder Chuck Klein, who batted .359/.412/.632 in his first six seasons with the team, while also racking up as many as 44 assists in a season by standing in short right and nailing runners at first base on singles.

Guess who Walker's first trade target was? To be fair, Walker was trying to complete a move that Veeck had been exploring at the time of his death, and Klein's numbers were so good that even if park effects had been considered, they probably would have been dismissed with a cavalier, "Hey, if he's 60 percent of that player for us, he'll still be great." On November 11, 1934, Walker sent Ted Kleinhans, Mark Koenig, Harvey Hendrick, and $65,000 to the cash-strapped Phils (see below) for Klein.

Klein turned out to be a terrific disappointment. He batted .297/.366/.497 as a Cub, which sounds grand until one realizes that this is the 1930s were talking about. Although National League offensive levels settled down faster than they did in the American League after the crazy rabbit-ball season of 1930, they were still quite high. Klein also proved to be unmotivated-playing for the Phillies did that to a guy in those days-and needed to be platooned. In 1936, the Cubs shipped him back to Philadelphia, but Walker was long gone by then.

Walker made a far more disastrous trade that June, when he "solved" the team's first base problem by dealing the solution to the Phillies. In trading for 28-year-old Don Hurst, Walker acquired a .303/.382/.488 career hitter whose mediocrity was obscured by his park and the high-offense era in which he played. Hurst's 1932 season, in which he batted .339/.412/.547, had some genuine value, but everything else was out of Tino Martinez's "Off-Year Songbook." Hurst batted .199/.239/.291 in 51 games for the Cubs, just enough to cripple their stretch drive, and was then out of the majors. All he cost Chicago was Dolph Camilli, a more or less picture-perfect "one-dimensional slugger" who would play regularly through World War II, annually placing in the top ten in home runs. He was good enough at it to win the 1941 MVP award as a member of the pennant-winning Brooklyn Dodgers.

4. SPEC RICHARDSON, Houston Astros (July 27, 1967-July 10, 1975): One of the worst traders of all time. A short list will suffice:

  • Traded Mike Cuellar, Enzo Hernandez, and Elijah Johnson to the Orioles for Curt Blefary and John Mason. Blefary was finished, while Cuellar would put up four 20-win seasons for the O's and receive the 1969 Cy Young award. (December, 1968)
  • Traded Rusty Staub to the Expos for Don Clendenon and Jesus Alou. Clendenon refused to report, so the Astros wound up with Jack Billingham, Skip Gunn, and $100,000 instead. None of the acquired players did anything for the Astros, while Staub, 25, would play for another 16 seasons, batting .282/.369/.446 in a low-offense era. (January, 1969)
  • Traded Joe Morgan, Ed Armbrister, Jack Billingham, Cesar Geronimo, and Denis Menke to the Reds for Lee May, Tommy Helms, and Jimmy Stewart. Building the Big Red Machine would be a huge credit for any GM. Unfortunately, Richardson wasn't working for the Reds when he did his part in putting them together. (November, 1971)
  • Traded Jerry Reuss to the Pirates for Milt May. May batted .265/.319/.360 in 238 games as the 'Stros backstop. Reuss pitched in the majors through 1990, occasionally at an All-Star level, and finished up his career 170-143 with a 3.50 ERA. (October, 1973)
  • Traded outfielder Jimmy Wynn to the Dodgers for pitchers Claude Osteen and Dave Culpepper. Osteen was finished and Culpepper never made it out of the minors. Wynn was just about done himself at 32, with only one great season remaining, but it was a doozy: .271/.387/.497 with 32 home runs and 108 walks (.320 EqA) in center field for the Dodgers. Are you listening, Andruw Jones? (December, 1973)

Despite all of this damage, Richardson did close out his Astros career with two terrific moves-in October, 1974, he picked up outfielder Jose Cruz from the Cardinals for cash, and in April of the following year, he sent $35,000 to the Braves for Joe Niekro.

3. GERRY NUGENT, Philadelphia Phillies (1932-1943): A unique situation, in that the GM isn't going to be fired if he's the owner's husband. When William Baker of Baker Bowl fame kicked off, he willed his shares in the club to two women, his wife and his secretary. The widow Baker initially had majority ownership, but she wasn't much interested in running the club, and when she soon after passed on, she too willed her shares to the secretary, Mary Mallon Nugent. Two years after the Angel of Death passed over the Baker family, the secretary's husband was running the cub.

It's possible that with a different attitude, Nugent would have been a good GM. He clearly recognized good players when he saw them, because he kept acquiring them. His problem was a defeatist attitude. Although he inherited the Phillies at a time when the A's were about to forever end their run as a good team, or even a serious one (at least in Philadelphia), Nugent didn't bother trying to compete with them. Instead, he developed his players, and then he sold them. He figured this was the only way he could compete, completely discounting the idea of winning.

The full list of regrettable moves made by Nugent is too long to list here; suffice it to say that the outright sale was his favorite. Among his more notable trades were two deals that saved the Brooklyn Dodgers from bankruptcy and won the team the 1941 pennant (the 1938 trade of Camilli to Brooklyn for Eddie Morgan and $45,000, and the 1940 deal that sent Kirby Higbe to the Borough of Churches for Vito Tamulis, Bill Crouch, Mickey Livingston, and $100,000). Nugent's Phillies went 662-1165 (.362), losing 100 or more games six times.

2. FRANK LANE, Cleveland Indians (1958-1960): "Trader" Frank was a baseball executive for years, and famous for being a compulsive deal-maker. He made deals just to make them, saying that if you made a bad trade, just make two more and move on with your life; Lane thought he was very smart. The only problem was that his clubs never won anything, and whereas the sheer volume of trades he made meant that he pulled off quite a few good ones, many of them were outright disasters. After years of looking up at the Yankees with the White Sox, Lane moved on to the Cardinals in 1956 and quickly alienated ownership by arguing that the best thing for the franchise would be to swap Stan Musial. He didn't last long.

Lane arrived in Cleveland at a sensitive time. The Indians had fielded very strong clubs for about a decade, winning the 1948 championship and the 1954 pennant, but they were sliding. From 1955 to 1957, the club slid from 93 wins to 88 to 76. The team's all-time great pitching staff was aging, with Early Wynn, Mike Garcia, and Bob Lemon all already in their thirties, but the club still had hope because the offensive core was decent and there were still good young players coming along, among them the young outfielders Roger Maris and Rocky Colavito. Some decent pitchers were also in the pipeline, including Mudcat Grant, Jim Perry, and Gary Bell.

You probably can guess where this is going. Lane's maniacal trading helped put the Indians in a hole it would take them roughly 35 years to climb out of. Early Wynn had a few years of good pitching left, but he was dealt for two seasons of an aging Minnie Minoso. Maris went to the A's for Woodie Held and Vic Power. Hoyt Wilhelm was sold to the Orioles for the waiver price. While Lane successfully got the White Sox to bite on old man Minoso in 1959 and getting catcher Johnny Romano and then-unheralded first baseman Norm Cash in the deal, he quickly flipped Cash to the Tigers for third baseman Steve Demeter.

Most infamously of all, on April 17, 1960, Lane sent Rocky Colavito to the Tigers for Harvey Kuenn. He wasn't yet done-before being asked to leave town, he even traded managers, swapping Joe Gordon to the Tigers (again) for Jimmy Dykes. By the time he was through, the Indians no longer bore any resemblance to what had been a great team with a winning tradition.

1. HAWK HARRELSON, Chicago White Sox (October 2, 1985-October 29, 1985): Succinctly, the bill of indictment. First, he fired Tony La Russa, who had brought the team its first taste of the postseason since 1959. He decided to emphasize speed and defense by pushing out the outfield fences, then bizarrely released the team's main speed threat, Rudy Law, and moved future Hall of Fame catcher Carlton Fisk to left field, where he could run down anything that was hit where he happened to be standing. That couldn't last, and the Sox ended up with just one regular outfielder, right fielder Harold Baines, with John Cangelosi and Darryl Boston splitting the season in center and about a dozen guys trying to play left, including Steve Lyons, George Foster, Ron Kittle, Bobby Bonilla, and Ivan Calderon.

Harrelson's trading record was a mixed bag, and in the long view not altogether disastrous. Sending useful infielder Scott Fletcher and highly-regarded pitching prospect Ed Correa to the Rangers for Wayne Tolleson and Dave Schmidt didn't make much sense, while the deal that sent lefty starter Britt Burns to the Yankees for Joe Cowley and Ron Hassey is tough to evaluate-it was a brilliant steal if Harrelson knew that a hip condition would prevent Burns from ever pitching again, and a mismatch in favor of the Yankees if he didn't. A subsequent deal with the Yankees (there were seemingly hundreds) allowed Harrelson to pick up catcher Scott Bradley, who he later moved to Seattle for the hard-hitting but injury-prone outfielder, Ivan Calderon, a small-scale win for the club. The trade of Tom Seaver to the Red Sox brought Lyons to the South Side, while the big July 30 deal with the Yankees gave away Kittle, Tolleson, and catching prospect Joel Skinner for Hassey (the third time he had moved between the two clubs that year), Carlos Martinez, and Bill Lindsey. Perhaps most damaging of all, someone on the club had had the prescience to pluck Bobby Bonilla from the Pirates in the Rule 5 draft back in December; in July, Harrelson sent him back to Pittsburgh for the hard-throwing right-hander Jose DeLeon.

The 1986 White Sox went 72-90 after going 85-77 the year before. They wouldn't post another winning season until 1990, though perhaps that wasn't due to Harrelson's ineptitude so much as the general shortcomings of the club at the time Harrelson took it over. Still, he did little to address those weaknesses, missed opportunities to bolster the club's talent pool through meaningless trades, and overall only succeeded in demonstrating what a year of aimless, undirected activity with no thinking behind it can do to disrupt a baseball team.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

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