May 7, 2008
Prospectus Hit and Run
The Life and Times of Buzzie Bavasi, Part One
The baseball world lost one of its titans last week, when Buzzie Bavasi died at the age of 93. A colorful veteran of nearly 50 years in the game, he was the architect of four World Championship teams, and played a pivotal role in some of baseball's biggest changes amid a career that embodied the highest highs and lowest lows of working as a front office executive.
The Manhattan-born Bavasi joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1939 (some sources say 1938) after graduating from DePauw University. Right off the bat, he was able to take advantage of the old boy network; Dodger president Larry MacPhail hired him on the recommendation of National League president Ford Frick, whose son Fred had roomed with Bavasi at DePauw. Bavasi's first notable contribution, so the story goes, was dissuading MacPhail from signing a Purdue pitcher off whom Bavasi had enjoyed some success one day. "If you can get three hits off him, we don't want him," said MacPhail as he tore up the contract.
In 1940, Bavasi was named business manager of the Dodgers' minor league club in the Class D Georgia-Florida League, the Americus Pioneers. He spent three seasons with the club before joining the Army for World War II. He earned a Bronze Star as a machine-gunner in Italy before returning to the Dodgers in late 1945, by which time the mad genius MacPhail, who had already introduced night baseball and commercial air travel to the major leagues and had overseen the Dodgers' first pennant in 21 years, had been drafted into the Army. He was replaced as team president by Branch Rickey, who'd already made a name for himself by introducing the minor league farm system and building six pennant winners and four World Champions with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Bavasi in the Bushes
Rickey had a mission for young Bavasi: to find a suitable city in the Class B New England League for the Dodgers to play. By that point, the Mahatma had begun laying the groundwork to integrate organized baseball, signing Negro League star Jackie Robinson on August 28, 1945, and announcing that Robinson would join the team's International League affiliate in Montreal for the 1946 season. Bavasi suspected that Rickey would need additional affiliates where he could assign more black players, preferably outside of the South. He settled on Nashua, New Hampshire, with a relatively new ballpark in Holman Stadium.
In the spring of 1946, Rickey quietly signed four more Negro League players: Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Roy Partlow, and John Wright. The latter duo were assigned to a Canadian club, while Newcombe and Campanella were assigned to Nashua, where Bavasi willingly accepted the pair and offered his total support. He spent a month laying the groundwork, hiring the managing editor of the Nashua Telegraph to be the team president in order to gain the backing of the town's press. Despite Nashua's lack of racial diversity--some estimated 50 blacks in a town of 35,000--Campy and Newk were treated well by the town, and while the ride was rockier on the road, they faced nowhere near the scrutiny and abuse that Robinson faced.
Thus, Bavasi's Nashua club can claim credit for fielding the first racially integrated professional baseball lineup in the US. Skippered by former Cardinal farmhand Walter Alston, they went 80-41 and finished second place during the regular season, with Campanella and Newcombe both starring. Bavasi distinguished himself in one game after a victory over the first-place Lynn Red Sox, whose manager taunted the two black players and Alston with a torrent of racial epithets. As with Robinson, both Campanella and Newcombe had been expressly forbidden by Rickey to retaliate, so Bavasi took it upon himself. When he went to pick up the team's share of the gate receipts, he challenged the Sox manager: "If you have any guts you'll say to me what you said to them," recalled Newcombe of Bavasi's words. Bavasi had to be restrained before punches were thrown, but the Dodgers had the last laugh, beating Lynn in a playoff to win the league championship.
Bavasi further helped the Dodgers' integration efforts the late following year. He became Rickey's point man in the team's efforts to create a safe haven Florida where the Dodgers, who now included Robinson and were preparing for Campanella's arrival, could train. Bavasi scouted a Vero Beach naval base and was so overwhelmed by the civic leaders' hospitality--winding up at a stag party on Vero Beach airport manager Bud Holman's ranch--that he never made it to the other two sites on his itinerary. Bavasi hammered out an agreement with town officials, and the Dodgertown complex was born.
Bavasi climbed the organizational ladder, serving as the GM of the Montreal Royals from 1948 to 1950 before being summoned back to Brooklyn, where Rickey had been forced to sell out to Walter O'Malley after a fierce power struggle. In the wake of his departure, the 35-year-old Bavasi became the GM of the Dodgers. Over the next 18 seasons, the team would win eight pennants and four World Championships, enjoying their longest sustained stretch of success on Bavasi's watch and their heyday as the National League's pre-eminent franchise.
Bavasi's tenure as Dodger GM can more or less be divided into three phases: from 1951-1956, the Dodgers more or less dominated the National League with a team that largely bore Rickey's handprints; from 1957-1961, they endured an awkward transition that saw them shed the nucleus and move from Brooklyn to LA; and from 1962-1966, they returned to being a powerhouse while taking up residence in their new home, Dodger Stadium, in Chavez Ravine.
When Bavasi took over, the Dodgers had already won two of the previous four pennants thanks in part to their pioneering efforts to integrate. Working in concert with vice president and director of minor league operations Fresco Thompson, the young GM was able to augment that nucleus less by wheeling and dealing and more by the Dodgers' efforts in scouting and player development, including continued signings of black ballplayers, notably Joe Black, Jim Gilliam, Charlie Neal, Johnny Roseboro, and Maury Wills. The team fell agonizingly short in Bavasi's inaugural season as GM, blowing a 13 1/2-game lead and winding up in a three-game playoff that culminated in Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard Round the World." In later years, Bavasi would wistfully opine that if he'd acquired left fielder Andy Pafko from the Cubs earlier than the June 15 trading deadline, the Dodgers might have avoided their fate. There's some truth to that, as Pafko (.249/.350/.484 with 18 homers in 84 games as a Dodger, 70 as the team's left fielder) was considerably superior to the mismatched collection of left fielders that manager Charley Dressen used prior to his arrival. Don Thompson, Cal Abrams, Gene Hermanski, and Dick Williams made 123 of the team's other 136 appearances in left, and hit a combined .248/.347/.333 with just five homers.
The Dodgers bounced back from the setback and won four pennants over the next five years, including their first World Championship in 1955. With the exception of Pafko and short-lived third baseman Randy Jackson, the only turnover in the lineup during this initial period came from players developed by the Dodgers. Most notably, Gilliam took over second base from Robinson, who shifted to left field and later third base when Cuban Sandy Amoros took over left. Bavasi made one major deal for pitcher Russ Meyer, who went 15-5, albeit with a 4.56 ERA, for the 1953 club; the Dodgers obtained him in a four-way swap in which they sent Jim Pendleton, another black outfielder they'd signed, to the Braves and futility infielder extraordinaire Rocky Bridges to the Reds.
Bavasi's main impact during this initial stretch came with regards to the managerial situation. Skipper Charlie Dressen led the team to the 1952 and 1953 World Series only to lose both times to the Yankees, but was forced out by O'Malley when he vociferously demanded a three-year contract. Bavasi then tabbed Alston as the club's new manager; Alston had gone on to win two league championships in four years at Montreal after his initial success at Nashua. Walking the tightrope of a year-to-year contract situation, Alston survived a rocky 1954 season, when the New York Giants ran away with the pennant, to emerge with Brooklyn's first (and only) championship via a World Series win over the Yankees the following year.
By this time, the core of the team that Branch Rickey had assembled was aging. Robinson retired rather than report to the Giants after a 1956 trade. The 1957 season was soured by the team's inevitable departure for Los Angeles (a topic recently revisited here by Gary Gillete), while the Boys of Summer crept closer to their ruin. Campanella was paralyzed in a January 1958 auto accident, Newcombe was traded to Cincinnati after an 0-6 start, and Pee Wee Reese became a part-timer. The Dodgers finished seventh out of eight teams at 71-83 in their inaugural season in LA, their first sub-.500 campaign since 1944. Yet Bavasi was already working to rebuild his aging ballclub by remaining true to a pair of Rickey principles: a commitment to the Dodgers' player development system, and complete faith in the virtues of power pitching. He assembled an unlikely World Champion in 1959 out of that mess, one that--prior to the dawn of the Wild Card era--Bill James called the weakest of all time.
Bavasi was able to rely on the nearly overripe fruits of the system to overhaul the team. Roseboro and Neal, both of whom had spent the better part of the decade in the minors, stepped into the lineup as solid regulars in 1958; Neal enjoyed a breakout year in 1959, when he was the league's top-hitting second baseman via a .287/.334/.464 performance with 19 homers and 17 steals. The speedy Wills, who had toiled for nine years in the minors, was recalled midway through 1959, replacing a slumping Don Zimmer at shortstop, and hit a sizzling .345/.382/405 in September. Bavasi also made one key trade that year, acquiring left fielder Wally Moon from the Cardinals for Gino Cimoli. The lefty-swinging Moon rebounded from an off year with St. Louis by taking advantage of his odd new environment, the Los Angeles Coliseum. Built in 1923 for University of Southern California football games, the Coliseum was a 93,000-seat football stadium ill-suited for baseball. It was 300 feet down the right field line, 440 to right center (reduced to 375 in 1959), 420 to dead center, and just 251 feet down the left field line (which was topped by a 40-foot screen). Moon quickly learned to focus on hitting to the opposite field; 14 of his 19 home runs were at home, nine of them "Moon Shots" which went over the screen.
The Dodgers used another of their new home's quirks--dim lighting and a major league-record 63 night games--to give their pitching staff an added advantage. The team had already led the league in strikeouts every year since 1948, but in 1959 they became the first staff to top 1,000 in a season, blowing away 1,077 hitters. Don Drysdale led the league with 242, while Sandy Koufax placed third with 173 despite tossing just 153 1/3 innings. Johnny Podres, the hero of the 1955 World Series, was seventh with 145 and third in strikeout rate. Koufax and Drysdale had been signed by the Dodgers in 1954; the former, a bonus baby, had joined the big club in 1955 but had struggled with the strike zone ever since, while the latter joined the staff the following year and became a rotation mainstay in 1957. The duo would anchor the team's fate for the better part of the next decade.
Further aided by another pair of pitchers Bavasi promoted in midseason--veteran Roger Craig and rookie Larry Sherry--the Dodgers won a three-way race in 1959, outlasting the Giants (now relocated to San Francisco) and the Milwaukee Braves, whom they beat in a best-of-three playoff at the end of the season (for more on that race, see my chapter in It Ain't Over: the Baseball Prospectus Pennant Race Book, now out in paperback). They then beat the Go-Go Chicago White Sox in the World Series.
They reverted to fourth place the following year, and finished second in 1961 despite holding the lead as late as August 15. They finally moved into state-of-the-art Dodger Stadium in 1962, a ballpark that dramatically favored pitchers, and won 102 games, the second-highest total of the Bavasi era. Sparked by the speedy Wills, who stole an NL record 104 bases, a new stable of homegrown youngsters, including first baseman Ron Fairly and outfielders Willie Davis, Tommy Davis (no relation), and Frank Howard, helped them finish second in the league in runs scored despite the park's suppression of offense. Drysdale and Koufax both topped 200 strikeouts, with the former leading the league for the third time in four years and winning the Cy Young on the strength of a 25-9 record, and the latter topping the circuit in ERA despite a two-month absence.
Unfortunately for the Dodgers, the Giants won 103 games, including the rubber match of a three-game playoff. That game almost cost Bavasi and Alston their jobs. Alston, forever working on one-year contracts, had been forced to swallow the irascible Leo Durocher as part of his coaching staff--"on the grounds that we don't want bridge partners or cronies for assistants," explained O'Malley--and the Lip continually undermined the manager in front of the team and second-guessed him in the press, particularly over Alston's staying with Stan Williams instead of summoning Drysdale amid a four-run ninth-inning meltdown in the deciding game of the playoff. Soon after the defeat, Durocher carped that the team would have won if he'd been in charge. Bavasi hit the roof when he found out, threatening to fire Durocher, but was overruled by O'Malley, who wanted to fire Alston in favor of Durocher. Bavasi told O'Malley, "If you fire Alston, I'm gone too. He didn't make those errors, he didn't give up those base hits. How in the hell can you say it was Alston's fault?" O'Malley backed down, and all three men kept their jobs.
To be continued next week.