July 26, 2010
The White Rat Reluctant
In his 44-year career in professional baseball, Hall of Famer Whitey Herzog held a wide variety of job titles: player, scout, coach, director of player development, manager and general manager. He earned his place in Cooperstown for his 18 years as a manager, which included 1,281 victories, three pennants, and a World Series title. But Herzog also boasts an impressive resume as a general manager, though the job was one he never particularly wanted or enjoyed.
For a brief but wild 20-month period from mid-1980 to early 1982, Whitey served as the Cardinals’ GM before yielding his title, if not his power, to assistant GM Joe McDonald. Together, the two transformed a stagnant franchise into one of the National League’s best teams of the 1980s. Though Herzog’s career ended with a less successful 2 ½-year stint in the Angels’ front office, he holds the distinction of being one of the few men who both assembled and managed a world championship club.
In the early 1900s, it was not unusual for the same man to serve as both manager and GM (or player and manager) at the same time. Many clubs operated on shoestring budgets, and it was simply cheaper to hire one person to scout talent, negotiate contracts, assemble a roster, and manage the team. Branch Rickey held both jobs for the Cardinals during the early 1920s. Manager John McGraw became a part owner of the Giants – as well as general manager – when Charles Stoneham bought the club in 1919. In Philadelphia, Athletics owner Connie Mack was a one-man band for decades, controlling everything from the lineup to trades and contract negotiations.
But gradually, as the game grew and the responsibilities of each role became more complex, the jobs of general manager and field manager became distinct specialties. Only seven men since 1950 have served as both manager and GM simultaneously, and only Atlanta’s Bobby Cox – a future Hall of Famer himself – sparked the sort of turnaround Herzog produced in St. Louis. And while the Braves’ reversal of fortune was a five-year process, Herzog revamped the Cardinals in a period of about 20 months.
After Cox lost the 1985 American League Championship Series as Toronto’s manager, he signed on for a new challenge in Atlanta: working as GM for Ted Turner’s struggling Braves, who had lost 96 games the previous season. When managers Chuck Tanner (1986) and Russ Nixon (1988) proved to be disappointments, Cox returned to the dugout, handling both jobs for the final 97 games of the 1990 season. John Schuerholz became Atlanta’s GM in the offseason, giving the Braves the management team that delivered a 15-year run of dominance.
Two other GMs took over as field managers for teams that went on the win the pennant.
Yankees GM Gene Michael tried his hand at both roles, managing the club to the first-half AL East title in the strike-marred 1981 season. With the Bombers struggling in the second half, Michael was replaced as field manager by Bob Lemon, who guided the Yanks to the World Series, just as he had in 1978. But the Dodgers knocked off the Yankees this time around, and Bob Bergesch replaced Michael as GM.
And in 1983, with the Phillies just one game above the .500 mark at midseason, Philadelphia GM Paul Owens fired manager Pat Corrales and chose himself as the replacement. Owens, who had assembled the Phillies’ playoff clubs of the late 1970s and early 1980s, led Philadelphia to a 47-30 finish and the NL pennant. After the Phillies fell to Baltimore in the World Series, Owens stepped down as GM, though he managed the club to an 81-81 record in 1984.
The three other modern-era executives to hold the titles of field manager and GM simultaneously did not win much of anything. After losing 100 games in 1954, the Orioles hired White Sox manager Paul Richards to fill both roles. He led the O’s to a .500 mark in 1957 before relinquishing his GM duties after the 1958 season. Cleveland added the title of GM to manager Alvin Dark’s portfolio midway through a 99-loss season in 1969. Despite a 13-game improvement the next year, Dark was fired at midseason in1971 as the Indians careened toward 102 losses. And finally, Padres GM Jack McKeon hired himself as manager after firing Larry Bowa early in the 1988 season. McKeon pushed the Padres to a 67-48 record over the season’s final four months, then led them to 89 victories and a second-place finish in 1989. When San Diego started slowly in 1990, McKeon selected Greg Riddoch to take over as field manager.
Shuffling the Cards
Herzog did not inherit an entirely hopeless situation when St. Louis owner August Busch gave him a three-year contract to replace Ken Boyer as manager in June, 1980. Yes, at 18-33, the club was struggling. But the Cardinals had won 86 games in 1979, and the roster featured three of the 10 highest-paid players in baseball: catcher Ted Simmons, first baseman Keith Hernandez and shortstop Garry Templeton. With Bob Forsch and Pete Vuckovich leading the starting rotation and young players like Tom Herr, Leon Durham and Terry Kennedy in the wings, the organization was not without talent.
Unfortunately, the Cardinals lacked speed, played poor defense and didn’t play particularly hard. The talent didn’t fit spacious Busch Stadium and its fast artificial playing surface—or many of the other similar National League ballparks at the time. The bullpen and the back end of the starting rotation were shaky, and, to make matters worse, some players were battling substance-abuse problems.
After a few weeks of watching the Redbirds from the dugout, Herzog delivered his diagnosis to Busch: the team needed wholesale changes. The club fired GM John Claiborne in early August and began a search for a replacement. But Busch responded to his new manager’s candor by giving him more authority, hiring him as GM on August 29.
“I didn’t really want to be a general manager,” Herzog wrote of the decision in his 1987 autobiography, White Rat. “They have to spend all their time in the office, summer and winter, talking on the phone all the time, dealing with agents, some of whom are jerks. A general manager’s job is nothing but putting up with [bull], day in and day out.”
Nevertheless, Herzog took the job, figuring that “unless we got someone in that office I could work with, I was going to be in trouble anyway.” Herzog turned the major-league club over to Red Schoendienst in late August, then left town to evaluate the talent on the Cards’ farm before the minor-league seasons ended. In October, he brought in an assistant, McDonald, the former Mets GM who had worked with Herzog in New York. But another decision remained: hiring a new field manager. Busch prevailed upon Herzog to return to the dugout, giving him a level of authority and autonomy unmatched in baseball.
With that, Herzog and McDonald went to work, transforming the St. Louis roster with a flurry of moves. In December alone, Herzog acquired 14 players and jettisoned 10, beginning with the signing of free-agent catcher Darrell Porter and ending with the release of 34-year-old outfielder Bobby Bonds. In between, he stole the show at the Winter Meetings in Dallas with three blockbuster trades.
In August, Herzog suspended and fined Templeton after the shortstop made obscene gestures at fans, an incident that ended with an angry Herzog pulling the player off the field by the shirt. The flap set the stage a second off-season of trades that completed the rebuilding project.
After the ’81 World Series, Herzog worked out a trade with the Yankees for Willie McGee, a 22-year-old outfielder stuck behind a collection of veterans in New York. The Cardinals famously gave up lefty pitcher Bob Sykes in the deal, though Herzog’s book charitably points out that St. Louis also included “future considerations” in the form infielder Bobby Meacham and outfielder Stan Javier, sent to New York in 1982. Sykes never pitched for the Yanks, and Meacham accumulated a WARP of 1.7 in five seasons in pinstripes. Javier played only briefly in New York before being included in a package sent to Oakland for Rickey Henderson. In his first eight seasons in St. Louis, McGee posted a WARP of 19.8, including a 7.8 mark in his 1985 MVP season.
In November, the Cards acquired 26-year-old outfielder Lonnie Smith in a three-way trade for two 26-year-old starting pitchers, Sorensen and Silvio Martinez. Sorensen made 64 starts for Cleveland, compiling a two-year WARP of 2.2 before leaving as a free agent. Martinez did not pitch again in the majors. Smith was worth nearly 12 wins in his three full seasons in St. Louis.
Finally, in December, Herzog capped his run by trading Templeton, Lezcano and reliever Luis DeLeon to San Diego for pitchers Steve Mura and Olmsted and shortstop Ozzie Smith. In nine years as a Padre, Templeton delivered a WARP of nearly 17. Lezcano had a career year in 1982, with a TAv of .323 and a WARP of 7.7, but San Diego dealt him to Philadelphia in 1983. DeLeon logged two effective seasons out of the Padres’ bullpen, with a WARP of 3.8 in 1982 and 3.1 in 1983. Mura made 30 starts for the ’82 Cards, giving Herzog 184 innings with a WARP of 0 before moving on to the White Sox. Smith’s career blossomed in St. Louis, where he played for 15 years and tallied a WARP of more than 75. He and Herzog led the Cards to three pennants and the 1982 World Series title. And Sunday, the man who persuaded him to waive his no-trade clause and come to St. Louis joined him as a member of the Hall of Fame.
Being enshrined in Cooperstown, Herzog said, “feels like going to heaven before you die.” The honor is fitting for the man who restored a winning tradition to a city that calls itself “Baseball Heaven”.