Friday, February 21, 2014
The Not-So-Great Yankee Double Switch
One day after the 1964 World Series ended with the St. Louis Cardinals defeating the New York Yankees in seven, both Series managers were out, and one of them went to work for the team he'd just opposed. It was a bizarre exclamation point to a bizarre season, not to mention being slightly unethical.
It began because the Yankees in 1963 couldn't understand why fans wouldn't flock en masse to see a perennial winner anymore. They were desperate to cut into the popularity of the crosstown, comically inept New York Mets. It continued when the Cardinals found themselves willing to dump a general manager who'd actually rebuilt them to greatness. And, ready to cashier a mild-mannered manager some of whose veteran players thought him too weak to compete even if his younger players would have walked through a nuclear explosion for him.
Actually, it really began when the Yankees' general manager Roy Hamey, who'd succeeded George Weiss in the job after 1960, decided unexpectedly to retire following the 1963 World Series, settling for becoming a part-time scout instead. Field manager Ralph Houk, thought to have enough smarts, but freshly vanquished when the Sandy Koufax/Don Drysdale Dodgers swept the Yankees in the Series (the first time any Yankee team had ever lost a Series in four straight), was kicked upstairs to succeed Hamey. Leaving them in need of a new manager.
The Yankees couldn't help noticing the Mets' surreal popularity. Assembled from National League and other castoffs, veterans, and washed-ups for 1962, the Mets took hold of New York's heart and wouldn't let go. A lot of it had to do with their manager — Casey Stengel. The man who'd managed the Yankees to a surreal ten pennants and seven World Series rings (including a term-opening streak of five straight rings) in 12 seasons now managed the Mets to ... who knew what, other than the National League's basement?
All anyone knew was that New York (and, in fairness, many National League fans around the country) fell in love with this troupe who proved baseball's greatest traveling comedy show. "Come an' see my amazin' Mets," Stengel would hector the paying customers as they entered the Polo Grounds, the former home of the New York Giants, where the Mets played awaiting Shea Stadium's completion. "I been in this game a hundred years and I see new ways to lose I didn't know were invented yet."
Jimmy Breslin wrote a best selling book about the Original Mets. (Can't Anybody Here Play This Game.) Comedians worked the Mets into their routines. Most important, so far as the Yankees were concerned, the Mets actually began out-drawing the American League's perennial ogres. In fact, while the Yankees won that final old-guard pennant, the Mets out-drew them at home by half a million fans. In 1963, the Mets out-drew the Yankees within the same neighborhood. It never crossed the Yankees' minds that — allowing that the National League hadn't been in business in New York since the end of 1957 — the toddling Mets in their surreal incompetence seemed more human than the smugger-than-thou Yankees.
After Hamey retired and Houk moved upstairs, the number one thought on the Yankee mind — if you didn't count co-owners Dan Topping and Del Webb letting it be known that the Yankees were about to go on sale — was getting someone who had any kind of box-office appeal remotely comparable to Stengel's to manage the club. Mickey Mantle wasn't quite ready to retire. (And, in fairness, not even the most cynical Yankee boss would have let Mantle even think about managing a team when he could barely manage himself.) Neither was Whitey Ford, long the brainiest pitcher in the American League. Never mind the injuries beginning to catch up to both of them.
On the other hand, Yogi Berra had just finished 1963 as a player-coach. He was also the most popular man in a Yankee uniform who wasn't named Mantle or Ford. And, as things turned out, Berra actually had an offer on the table. The Baltimore Orioles wanted him to manage them. They figured Berra had some baseball smarts (Stengel usually called him "my assistant manager" during all those yummy 1950s seasons) and plenty of box office. General manager Lee MacPhail offered Yogi a contract. That, according to Bill Veeck (in The Hustler's Handbook), was when Houk made his move and decided Berra should be managing the Yankees.
It probably didn't hurt that Topping and Webb needed to make the Yankees just that much more attractive to potential buyers than a measly closet full of pennants and World Series titles and a legendary ballpark could do by themselves. By spring training 1964 the Yankees began showing their age. The farm system was parched enough; the few bona fide prospects in the Yankee system by the mid-1960s would prove to be journeyman major leaguers at best for one or another reason. And the coaching staff suffered a shakeup when respected pitching coach Johnny Sain was fired in favor of making Ford a pitcher-coach.
The Yankees struggled to stay on or close to the top through the first half of 1964, and a number of disgruntled players found themselves a convenient outlet for their displeasure. Houk turned out to be keeping his door open to anyone wanted to kvetch about Berra, who'd gone from teammate to boss practically overnight, and who struggled to establish his authority while his field strategies raised a few eyebrows and hackles. As Veeck would put it, "He was using his long relievers short and his short relievers long, and like all new managers he was waiting too long before he got his starting pitchers out of there.
"Still," Veeck continued, "he was operating under a major handicap. The relief pitcher who can come in over the last two innings and get the other side out can cover up a multitude of sins. Yogi didn't have him. Except for one brief period early in the season when Steve Hamilton was stopping them, and the final month of the season when they had [Pedro] Ramos, the Yankee bullpen was useless."
By August 1964, the Yankees were sold — to the Columbia Broadcasting System — but it looked like there would be no Yankee pennant for only the third time since 1949. Making matters testier, the sale to CBS itself proved controversial before the network exercised one muscle of its new ownership.
American League president Joe Cronin (himself a Hall of Fame shortstop) tried to ram the sale through by way of a telephone/telegraph vote—against league rules, which required a vote at an official, formal, in-person meeting unless the vote was known to be unanimous in the making. Two owners—Charlie Finley of the Kansas City Athletics, Arthur Allyn of the Chicago White Sox—were ready to vote no to the sale. Eight teams needed to approve the deal. And Baltimore owner Joe Iglehart, whose employee Berra might have become if Lee MacPhail had had his way, was considered the swing vote who just might join Finley and Allyn. Might.
But Iglehart had one whale of a conflict of interest of his own: he not only owned the Orioles, he chaired CBS's Financial Board and owned considerable enough CBS stock. He ended up voting to approve the sale and unloading his Oriole ownership posthaste. And even that was nothing compared to the devious double switch the Yankees planned to execute at Berra's expense.
The Yankees were still struggling to stay at the top of the race at the time of the CBS deal. And Houk (who'd once been a third-string Yankee catcher, behind Berra and Charley Silvera) decided he was going to dump Berra at season's end no matter how it ended. Veeck swore Houk told CBS the Yankees weren't going to win the pennant and it was all Yogi's fault and everything would be rosy once the Yankees could dump him at season's end. What Houk didn't tell anyone, publicly, anyway, was that he had a potential successor in mind already.
Johnny Keane, managing the 1964 Cardinals, was struggling likewise. Hard enough trying to keep the Philadelphia Phillies in sight while the Phillies looked to be running away with the pennant, about which more anon. But Keane — respected as a players' manager who was particularly adept at shepherding young talent, particularly young black talent — suffered a similar malady to Berra: players finding an open door in the front office to gripe. What Keane had that Berra didn't, though, was a boss who let those players air it out but stood by his manager regardless: general manager Bing Devine.
By August 1964, the Cardinals were still struggling to stay in the National League race despite the deal soon to become infamy in Chicago Cubs lore: the swap of Cardinals pitcher Ernie Broglio for young Cubs outfielder Lou Brock — despite warnings (mostly from Lew Burdette, whom the Cubs had acquired from the Cardinals before the Brock-Broglio swap) that Broglio's arm was just about dead. For whatever fool reason, the Cardinals dumped Devine. And now they were also preparing to dump his manager, even going so far as to reach out to Leo Durocher, then a coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Apparently, both the Cardinals' and the Yankees' front offices were convinced by now that their teams wouldn't be seen in October and thus would come the cover under which they could change their managers without a big stink. And assorted published sources since have intimated that, when contacted informally by Houk, Keane said yes, he'd be interested in taking the Yankee job if Berra really was going to be executed at season's end.
What happened next upended just about everyone in baseball:
* The Phillies fell into that infamous September collapse, the notorious ten-game losing streak that sent them reeling from a six-game lead and the pennant practically in the bank to a closing weekend in which the National League race could theoretically end in a three-way tie between themselves, the Cardinals, and the Cincinnati Reds, who were trying to win one for cancer-stricken manager Fred Hutchinson.
* The last National League team standing proved to be the Cardinals — and they had to win on the final day of the regular season. The Mets, of all people, beat them in the first two games of that season-ending set, including stout Met left-hander Al Jackson (a Stengel favorite who often pitched in hard luck) out-dueling Bob Gibson to throw a 1-0 shutout in the set opener. (The game's only run came in the third inning, when Mets first baseman Ed Kranepool singled home George Altman.) On the same weekend, the Phillies lost their final two to the Reds, letting both finish tied for second, one game back of the Cardinals.
* The Yankees took over first place in the American League between August and September, aided by two pitchers: rookie call-up Mel Stottlemyre, who went 9-3 with a 2.06 ERA down the stretch including a five-game winning streak; and, veteran pickup Pedro Ramos, a journeyman starter who proved lights out out of the bullpen, saving seven key September games. They took first place to stay September 17, but still had to ward off continued tight challenges from the White Sox and the Orioles.
* The Cardinals won that seven-game World Series, crowned in Game Seven when — with the Yankees threatening to tie the game at seven in the ninth — Keane refused to look at his bullpen while letting Bob Gibson finish what he started, saying immortally after it ended, "I had a commitment to his heart."
And the day after the Series, both managers were out.
Cardinals owner Gussie Busch called a press conference to announce his intention to re-hire Keane. Keane showed up at the press conference, too — with a letter of resignation Bill Veeck swore had been written before the World Series. In New York, Berra went to the Yankee offices thinking he'd been called in to start making plans for the 1965 season ... and came out with his head in a guillotine's catch basket. Bless his soul, Yogi probably had no clue at the time to the wheeling and dealing that preceded it, including the prospect of Keane, the man who'd just defeated him in the World Series, becoming his successor, which is exactly what happened a few days after the double switch.
What nobody in the Yankee hierarchy ever explained satisfactorily was this: If Berra was such a horrible manager, how the hell did the Yankees manage to win that pennant by winning thirty out of forty-three games, including one eleven-game winning streak and fifteen of their final nineteen games. "Unless I have been sadly misinformed by all those sensation-seeking columnists," Veeck wrote, "the manager during that stretch run was Yogi Berra."
Bing Devine — He ended 1964 by getting himself hired by the Mets to succeed George Weiss, the former Yankee general manager who'd become president of the newborn Mets for 1962. Devine would finish what Weiss started, building the groundwork for shoring up the Mets' farm system, reaching for more younger talent, pitching in particular, and thus planting the seed that would become the 1969 Miracle Mets. The irony: Not only did Devine prove the master builder of the Cardinals' 1964 and 1967 Series winner, he'd return to the Cardinals to help them shore up their 1968 pennant winner, returning after 1967 when Stan Musial decided he wasn't comfortable being the team's general manager.
Devine stayed until 1978. In the interim, he was strong-armed into the deal he lived to regret: Busch ordered him to trade Steve Carlton in 1972, after Carlton completed his first 20-win season but held out in a salary dispute. The trade of Carlton to the Phillies for Rick Wise helped make the Phillies contenders while helping push the Cardinals back to also-ran status. Devine would move to the Montreal Expos as director of player development and then the Phillies as a scout; by the turn of the century he was back in St. Louis as an advisor to general manager Walt Jocketty. Devine died in 2007 at 90.
Yogi Berra — He also moved to the crosstown Mets, reuniting with former manager Stengel as first base coach. Berra would hold that job, winning a World Series ring on the first base coaching line for the 1969 Miracle Mets, and become the Mets' manager following the unexpected death (a second heart attack) of Gil Hodges in spring 1972. Berra would manage the Mets to an unlikely pennant in 1973 — they opened September last in the NL East, won the division at the last minute, just about, then took the League Championship Series from the Cincinnati Reds before losing the Series in seven to Oakland — but he would be fired in 1975 when the team's 1970s collapse continued in earnest. In time he'd return to the Yankees as a coach and as one of George Steinbrenner's revolving door managers, fired after being promised a full season, resulting in an estrangement that endured until the late 1990s.
Johnny Keane — The mild-mannered Keane learned the hard way he'd taken on a white elephant in 1965. Mantle's long-troublesome legs and hip finally caught up to him in earnest. (He probably should have retired after 1964; biographer Jane Leavy isn't the only one to point out the Yankees needed his box office appeal.) Ford's hip and then elbow became more bothersome. Unconscionably, too, the Yankees kept the true seriousness of a wrist injury (it turned out to be fractured, sapping the man's long ball power at last) from Roger Maris. And the parching of the farm system proved more chronic during Keane's brief tenure.
He practiced a typically National League style of run-and-gun, station-to-station baseball that didn't mesh with the Yankees' having been built as always “to going for the big inning,” as first baseman Joe Pepitone would phrase it. (Jim Bouton, by then beset with the first of the arm troubles that would reduce him to marginal relief pitching, would call it “sacrificing a season to win a game.”) The Yankees finished 1965 in sixth place and opened 1966 going 4-16. Keane was fired in favor of Ralph Houk, who'd had it with front office work; Houk would manage the 1966 Yankees all the way to last place —a slot in the standings the franchise hadn't seen since 1912.
Keane accepted a scouting job with the California Angels after the season—shortly before his unexpected death of a heart attack. At age 55, and looking about 20 years older.
Ralph Houk — Houk returned to the Yankee dugout after Keane's firing, succeeded as general manager by Lee MacPhail — the man whose bid to hire Yogi Berra to manage the Orioles for 1964 provoked Houk to name Yogi the Yankee manager in the first place. As general manager, Houk ran afoul of baseball government when he attempted to fine holdout pitcher Jim Bouton $100 a day for every day Bouton held out.
When he returned as manager, Houk would never again manage the Yankees to a pennant, though he would return to his former ways as a players' manager who refused to criticize them publicly — even though he was just as notorious for reading them the riot act behind closed doors. But he did stay long enough to see the continuing seeds of the coming Yankee resurrection join the team before he resigned after 1973. And, he handled things with strained but real dignity when two Yankee pitchers, Fritz Peterson and Mike Kekich, swapped wives and children in spring 1972.
Houk took the managing job in Detroit and helped shepherd the Tigers back to respectability, including presiding over Mark (The Bird) Fidrych's sensational rookie season and guiding coming stars such as Alan Trammell, Lou Whittaker, and Jack Morris to full major league readiness. He retired after 1978 but returned to manage the Boston Red Sox in 1980, and helped shepherd another rebuilding team, bringing home three winning records before stepping down after 1984 in favor of John McNamara, who'd manage the team Houk helped rebuild to the 1986 pennant.
Houk would serve as a Minnesota special advisor from 1987 to 1989 before retiring for good. He died in 2010, four years after his wife, Bette, passed away.
CBS — The Tiffany Network CBS might have been, but the network who opened 1964 with a bang when the Beatles made their first live American television appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show proved to know about as much about running a baseball team as the Beatles knew about playing the game.
CBS was caught flatfoot when baseball instituted the amateur draft, taking away the once-fabled Yankee ability to sign anyone they pleased when they pleased and where they pleased, a key part of their championship foundations. Barely able to navigate these new waters, and with a still-struggling farm system, the Yankees under CBS developed extremely few viable major leaguers. Ill-fated catcher Thurman Munson would be one, drafted in 1968, and he did prove the first building block in restoring the Yankees to greatness, his solid career (he was the American League's Most Valuable Player in 1976 — the year the Yankees returned to the World Series) ending in the crash of his Cessna jet in 1979. But Munson was an exception.
The network also stood flatfoot when it came to dumping two beloved Yankee announcers. Longtime lead announcer Mel Allen got it in 1964. Allen himself later revealed the firing was instigated by then-sponsor Ballantine Beer in a cost-cutting move; the brewer would be out of business as an independent by 1969, selling to Falstaff. He'd remain a Yankee loyalist, though, and eventually forged a second career as the original and beloved voice of television's This Week in Baseball.
Another broadcast legend, Red Barber, got his in late 1966. Once a legendary Brooklyn Dodgers announcer (he quit when the Gillette Safety Razor Company, sponsors of the World Series, refused to raise his Series pay after several years), Barber in September 1966 was quietly aghast when the Yankee collapse resulted in one late September game's paid attendance of (count 'em) 413. It provoked the courtly Barber to ask for a camera pan of the park, which was denied him, prompting him to tell his viewers, “It is the smallest crowd in the history of Yankee Stadium, and this crowd is the story, not the game.”
The problem was that one of the 413 was CBS executive Mike Burke, attending his first Yankee game after being named the team's president. One week later, the season over, Burke ordered Barber to the CBS offices and put Barber's head into the noose. Barber retired from full-time baseball broadcasting after that.
By 1973, CBS was only too willing to sell the team to a group led by Cleveland shipbuilder George Steinbrenner; the Yankees finished higher than fourth place only once (in 1970) while CBS owned the team. CBS's exit would open the way to another wild and crazy Yankee era, but there would be those who would say not even The Boss's extraterrestrial King-of-Hearts ways would equal the wheeling, dealing, and backstabbing that animated the Yogi Berra-Johnny Keane double switch of 1964.