Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Top 10 Best Executives in New York Sports History


This list is less about the team owners and more about the men who made the personnel decisions -- the trades, the free-agent signings, the draft picks.

Honorable Mention to John T. Brush, the owner who restored the baseball New York Giants to glory from 1902 to his death in 1912, and built the last and most familiar version of the Polo Grounds. And to Charles "Chub" Feeney, the general manager who built the Giants' 1951 National League Pennant winners and 1954 World Champions -- but was also the main force behind their attempt to move the team to Minneapolis (where their top farm team was located) for the 1958 season, and then scuttled that move when Brooklyn Dodger owner Walter O'Malley suggested to Giant owner Horace Stoneham (Chub's uncle) that both teams move to California instead, the Dodgers to Los Angeles and the Giants to San Francisco.

Honorable Mention also to Lester Patrick. One of the best players of the 1900s and 1910s, he was the Rangers' first GM (1926-46) and first head coach (1926-39), leading them to the 1928 and 1933 Stanley Cups, before stepping aside and letting his former best player, Frank Boucher, coach them to the 1940 Cup.  A charter member of the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Honorable Mention to Eddie Donovan. Bad coach with the Knicks, but great general manager, who built the 1970 and 1973 NBA Champions, although that may have been more to do with the coaching of Red Holzman. Still, Eddie hired Red, which counts for a lot.

Honorable Mention to Gabe Paul. When George Steinbrenner bought the Yankees in 1973, they were far and away New York's 2nd team behind the Mets. He had Gabe Paul as part-owner and personnel man. The team was completely overhauled. For 1974, Paul traded for Lou Piniella, Chris Chambliss and Dick Tidrow. For 1975, Paul signed free agent Catfish Hunter. For 1976, Paul traded for Willie Randolph, Mickey Rivers and Ed Figueroa. For 1977, Paul traded for Bucky Dent. Granted, bringing in manager Billy Martin and slugger Reggie Jackson were both ideas of George Steinbrenner (and George should, at least, get Honorable Mention status for those 2 moves alone), but Paul built the team.

All those years, both before and after this, he ran the Cleveland Indians, but never won anything. He never had an owner with enough money to build a champion, and, as a result, Paul often had to sell off or trade away players in salary dumps just to keep the Indians afloat. With George, Gabe finally had a man willing to spend whatever it took. And they found out what it took. It was worth every penny. If Gabe hadn't had enough of George after the 1977 victory, and had stayed, I might rank him higher.

And Honorable Mention to Al Rosen, who succeeded Gabe, and brought in Goose Gossage, vital spare parts Gary Thomasson and Jay Johnstone, and, after Billy had to go, his old Indians teammate Bob Lemon as manager. To Bob Watson, the GM who finished Gene Michael's job in 1996. And to Brian Cashman, who took over from 1998 and has continued to build the Yankee Mystique. But I can't put any of the 3 of them on this list.

10. Jerry Reese, Giants, 2004-present.  Director of Player Personnel starting in '04 and general manager since '07, he has done in those few years what all the employees that the New York Jets have ever had, combined, have not been able to do: Build a team that won 2 Super Bowls.  And yet, lots of people don't even know his name.  He has quietly rebuilt the Giants into a class organization.

But while the job he's done has been impressive -- not since the 1997-98 Broncos has any other team won 2 Super Bowls without cheating -- it wasn't nearly as important to the franchise as that done by...

9. George Young, Giants, 1979-97. After the disastrous play known as "the Miracle of the Meadowlands" against the Philadelphia Eagles on November 19, 1978, Giants owner Wellington Mara had enough. The team his father Tim founded (and Honorable Mention to him, and to Wellington) was at the bottom of the barrel. They hadn't won an NFL Championship since 1956 (Super Bowl -X, if you prefer) or made the Playoffs since 1963 (the NFL Championship Game loss to the Chicago Bears, Super Bowl -III), and he wanted a new GM and a new head coach.

Young had built the Baltimore Colts into the team that won Super Bowl V and was now the GM of the perennial Playoff team the Miami Dolphins, so he was the right GM. He hired Ray Perkins, who got the Giants into the Playoffs in 1981. When Perkins left to succeed his mentor Bear Bryant at the University of Alabama, Young hired Perkins' assistant, Bill Parcells, and that was the right coach, winning Super Bowls XXI and XXV. The Giants made the Playoffs 8 times while Young was GM, and nobody laughs at them anymore.

Honorable Mention to Parcells, who as both head coach and GM brought the Jets back from the disgrace and ineptitude of the Rich Kotite years. He's not on the main list because he didn't stick around long enough to finish the job for Gang Green the way he and Young did with Big Blue.

Honorable Mention to David "Sonny" Werblin, GM of the Jets who built their Super Bowl III Champions. If he'd been allowed to stick around longer, he might be on this list. As it is, he went on to run the New Jersey Sports & Exposition Authority and helped Governor Brendan Byrne build the Meadowlands Sports Complex, then crossed back over the Hudson River to be President of the Madison Square Garden Corporation, helping the Rangers regain their respectability in the late Seventies and put the Knicks back on solid footing in the Eighties. If you think about it, he helped out the Giants, Jets, Knicks, Rangers, Nets and Devils -- six teams! However, unless you count the one the Jets won shortly after he was fired, none of the teams won a title while he was involved with them.

8. Jacob Ruppert, Yankees, 1915-39. More specifically, 1915-20, before hiring Ed Barrow away from the Boston Red Sox, where he'd been field manager, to be his general manager. Barrow ranks considerably higher on this list, and he did have the help of Ruppert's vast personal fortune. But it was "the Colonel" who insisted that the Yankees move from being New York's 3rd team to America's 1st team. The moves he made brought in manager Miller Huggins, pitchers Bob Shawkey and Carl Mays, and, of course, Babe Ruth.  And he built Yankee Stadium. While "This Imposing Edifice," as his Monument Park Plaque called the original, is now gone, Ruppert's legacy lives. So why did it take until last fall for the greatest empire builder in the history of North American sport to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame?

Ruppert is buried in Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York. In that same cemetery are interred Billy Martin, Yankee National Anthem singer Robert Merrill, and Harry Frazee, the Red Sox owner from whom Ruppert made the purchases that made the Yankees. It is virtually next-door to Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Valhalla, final resting place of the Babe, Billy Martin, and a different kind of "Yankee Doodle Dandy," although also a Yankee Fan, James Cagney.

7. George Weiss, Yankees, 1947-60. He was the personnel man in the Yankees' most glorious period, the Casey Stengel years. It was Weiss who talked owners Dan Topping and Del Webb into hiring Stengel for the 1949 season, and the Yankees of the Fabulous Fifties were off and running. Weiss was every bit the cheap mean old bastard that his predecessor Ed Barrow was, but he was the guy who brought in Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Roger Maris, and a bunch of veterans who seemed good bets to help the Yankees win the Pennant in a particular year, some of whom stuck around to win more than one: Johnny Mize, Johnny Sain, Jim Konstanty, Bobby Schantz, Enos Slaughter. (Some of them may have been Stengel's idea, but Weiss saw the wisdom in the Ol' Perfesser's wishes.)

After the 1960 season, Topping and Webb fired both Stengel and Weiss. Weiss predicted that within 5 years, the Yankee Dynasty would be over. He was right, and he knew why: Topping and Webb had begun looking for a buyer. They figured, we're not going to own the team in 5 years, so what do we care how good the team is? So the beautiful farm system that Weiss had built as Barrow's assistant dried up. Still, Weiss is in the Hall of Fame -- but not, for some reason, in Monument Park.

6. Frank Cashen, Mets, 1980-91. He had been the GM that built the Baltimore Orioles into the 1966 and 1970 World Champions. In 1980, upon buying the Mets from Lorinda de Roulet, daughter of team founder Joan Payson, Fred Wilpon and Nelson Doubleday hired Cashen as GM. His job was more dire than that of Yankee GMs Gabe Paul in 1973 and Gene Michael in 1990. In fact, it may have been the most dire rebuilding job in New York sports since Larry MacPhail saved the Dodgers in 1938.

Think about it: The Mets weren't just no longer New York's first baseball team, they were barely its second. Since the Mets' 1973 Pennant, the Yankees had won 3 Pennants and 2 World Series; the Rangers had been to the Stanley Cup Finals; the Islanders were on their way to the first of 4 straight Cups; the Nets had won 2 ABA titles; and, while they weren't very good at the moment, the Giants and Jets already had in place the rebuilding efforts that would make them Playoff contenders throughout the Eighties. Only the Knicks were in remotely as bad a shape. (The Devils hadn't arrived yet.) The Mets had been so decimated by the moves of team chairman M. Donald Grant (fired in 1978) that Shea Stadium was averaging 12,000 fans a night and got the nickname "Grant's Tomb."

Cashen's first draft pick was Darryl Strawberry. He drafted Dwight Gooden. He got perennial All-Stars (already) Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter, in each case for next to nothing. He traded for Ron Darling and Howard Johnson. And he hired the right manager for them, Davey Johnson. (Although that may not be all that accurate: Davey may have looked too far the other way on Darryl's and Doc's substance abuse, and he has never won another Pennant with any of the 4 teams he has since managed, including botching the Washington Nationals' chances last fall.)

Cashen built a team that finished 1st or 2nd every season from 1984 to 1990, and won the 1986 World Series. The reason he isn't higher on this list is that the team won only the 1 Series, and that team did tarnish themselves in some ways. But for Cashen to have taken the Mets to where they were at the dawn of the 1980s -- Met fans, surrounded by Yankee Fans' gloating, probably felt as much like hostages as those in Iran at the moment -- to where they were in October 1986 was mind-boggling. The Mets weren't just on top of New York, they were on top of the world.

As late as 1991, Cashen's last season (he resigned after a 5th-place finish), they were still, beyond question, a better organization than the Yankees. That they have never been that again is not his fault, but neither did he do much to avoid it, and that's why he's not higher on this list.

5. Larry MacPhail, Dodgers 1938-41, Yankees 1945-47. He had already restored the Cincinnati Reds, putting up Major League Baseball's first stadium lights, negotiating a lucrative radio contract (although it helped that the Reds owner who hired him, Powel Crosley, was a radio manufacturer), and making the deals that built the team that won the 1939 Pennant and the 1940 World Series.

Desperate to keep from going out of business, the financially troubled Dodgers brought him in, and the Roaring Redhead did much the same thing: He put up lights at Ebbets Field (the Polo Grounds got lights in 1940), broke the "gentlemen's agreement" against the New York teams broadcasting on radio, brought his Cincinnati broadcaster Red Barber in, renovated Ebbets Field to make it clean and family-friendly, and made the transactions that built the 1941 Pennant winners.

But MacPhail had a serious drinking problem, and the other owners forced him out after the '41 Series. In 1945, he joined with metal-industry heir Dan Topping and real estate tycoon Del Webb to buy the Yankees from Colonel Ruppert's heirs, and they modernized the team, putting lights up at Yankee Stadium in 1946 and getting the team on local television.

After winning the 1947 World Series, MacPhail got drunk and nasty at the victory party, and shortly thereafter was bought out by Topping and Webb. He never worked in baseball again, and rarely gets credit for the rebuilding that turned the Yankees into a team that won 13 Pennants in 16 seasons from 1947 to 1964.

But his legacy lives on: Aside from the Frank McCourt divorce saga (which was a mess but not an existential crisis for the club), the Dodgers have never again been in financial difficulty, not in Brooklyn, not in Los Angeles. They remain one of the model franchises in the game. MacPhail's son Bill became President of CBS Sports, his other son Lee became GM of the Orioles and Yankees and President of the American League (and they are the only father-son combination in the Hall of Fame); Lee's son Andy became GM of the Twins and president of the Cubs and Orioles; and Lee's grandson Leland Stanford MacPhail IV works with his uncle Andy in the Oriole front office.

4. Gene Michael, Yankees, 1990-95. The stereotypical "Good field, no hit" player in the late Sixties and early Seventies, "Stick" went on to serve the Yankees as minor league manager, major league coach, major league manager (twice), chief scout and general manager.

When Steinbrenner was suspended in 1990, Michael was given the keys to the kingdom, and had a hell of a mess to clean up: A number of George's trades, in the manner of the Fifties Yankees where 3 prospects would be traded for one guy who could help them win in a given year, hadn't panned out. And the Mets were, far and away, the Tri-State Area's most popular team.

Mariano Rivera and Bernie Williams had just come into the system. Michael's guidance led to the drafting of Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada. He engineered the trades for Paul O'Neill and David Cone, and the signings of Wade Boggs and Jimmy Key. Back from suspension, George removed him from the GM post, although he was still a key man in the operations, and as "superscout" his suggestions remained part of the backbone of the building of the 1996-2003 dynasty.

I hope George's sons give him his Monument Park Plaque while he's still alive, because if it wasn't for Stick, George's Monument would be a joke.

3. Bill Torrey, Islanders, 1972-92. John Brush of the baseball Giants. Jacob Ruppert, Gabe Paul and Gene Michael of the Yankees. George Young of the football Giants. Bill Parcells of both the Giants and the Jets. Sonny Werblin of the Jets, Knicks and Rangers. Lou Lamoriello of the Devils. These men took awful, even disgraceful, franchises, and brought (or restored) them to glory. And Larry MacPhail may have saved the Dodgers completely. But building a team from scratch, making them a Playoff contender within 3 years, and a World Champion within 8 years? Without Steinbrenner-type money? Impossible.

No, it's not. Torrey and Isles coach Al Arbour did it. By 1978, the team of Denis Potvin, Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy and Billy Smith was almost ready to go all the way. By 1980, they'd added Butch Goring and Clark Gillies, and 4 straight Stanley Cups followed. Torrey is in the Hockey Hall of Fame, and is honored with a banner with his signature bowtie on it in the rafters of the Nassau Coliseum.

Why can't I give any more than an Honorable Mention to Lamoriello, the Devils' GM since 1987? After all, he's built a team that's made the Playoffs every season but one since 1991, has reached the Conference Finals 6 times, the Cup Finals 4 times and won the Cup 3 times. But he's also short-circuited the Meadowlands Marauders' (now the Mulberry Street Marauders') chances to win more by some truly baffling trades -- Claude Lemieux for Steve Thomas? John MacLean for Doug Bodger? -- and letting star players go to save money. Letting Scott Gomez get away was, I suppose, understandable... but to the Rangers? To The Scum?!? And it is neither secret nor coincidence that, after he let defensemen Scott Niedermayer and Brian Rafalski go after the 2006 season, the next 2 Cups were won by Niedermayer's Anaheim Ducks and Rafalski's Detroit Red Wings. Sure, I understand, the Ducks were a good team and Nieder wanted to play with his brother Rob; and the Wings were great and Raffy's from the Detroit area.

But how exactly have the Devils done since they left? Okay, they got to the Finals last year.  But Lou Lam, El Baldo, is not getting on this list even if the Devils win a 4th Cup. Maybe they would never have won 4 straight as the Isles did under Torrey, but they might've won a 4th, a 5th, even a 6th by now (which would place them 2nd behind the Wings among U.S.-based teams) if he'd just opened his wallet a little more.

2. Branch Rickey, Dodgers, 1942-50. MacPhail's successor as Dodger President & GM was already a baseball legend. As GM of the St. Louis Cardinals, he established the concept of the minor-league farm system. (He didn't totally invent it, but most teams had relationships with maybe one minor-league club: The Boston Red Sox with the Providence Grays, and the Philadelphia Athletics with the pre-1954 Baltimore Orioles.) That way of doing business helped the Cards win 9 Pennants and 6 World Series from 1926 to 1946.

This made Rickey a hot property when the Dodgers fired MacPhail, and Rickey built the team that won 8 Pennants (and just missed 2 others) and a World Series from 1947 to 1959. (By the Maury Wills season of 1962, nobody from the "Boys of Summer" was still contributing, and the L.A. Dodgers were Buzzie Bavasi's team all the way.) And if that had been the extent of Rickey's building, that would be enough to get him on this list, and maybe into the Hall of Fame (which he is in).

But Rickey realized, from standpoints both moral and competitive, that it was time to bring nonwhite players into what was then nicknamed "Organized Baseball." He signed Jackie Robinson. He followed that with Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe and Joe Black. (Jim Gilliam and Sandy Amoros came after Rickey left.) Along with the already-present Pee Wee Reese and Gil Hodges, and Rickey acquisitions Duke Snider, Carl Furillo, Preacher Roe, Billy Cox, Carl Erskine and Clem Labine, these were what Roger Kahn, Dodger beat writer for the New York Herald Tribune in 1952 and '53, called "The Boys of Summer" in his 1972 book of the same title that romanticized the Dodgers for generations of fans that would never see them play. (Like me.)

After the 1950 season, part-owner Walter O'Malley, who hated Rickey's guts (and Rickey was no fan of the unscrupluous O'Malley, either), bought out his share and the shares of the other stockholders. Rickey moved on to the Pittsburgh Pirates, and although he was gone by the time his plans bore fruit, the team he built did win the 1960 World Series. He is in the Hall of Fame, and, despite the claims of historian Robert W. Creamer that Babe Ruth and Casey Stengel (both of whom were the subject of Creamer biographies) were the two most interesting men ever involved with the game, I think a better case can be made for Wesley Branch Rickey and the man with whom he changed the game, and America, forever, Jack Roosevelt Robinson.

Honorable Mention to Emil "Buzzie" Bavasi, who took over as O'Malley's GM after Rickey was bought out, and continued to build the Dodgers up into a team that won 8 Pennants and 4 World Series from 1952 to 1966.

1. Ed Barrow, Yankees, 1921-46. Arrived in time to build the Yankees' first American League Pennant winner. By the time he quit, not happy with Dan Topping, Del Webb and Larry MacPhail, who had bought the team from Ruppert's heirs, he had built a team that won 14 Pennants and 10 World Series. He had brought Hall of Famer pitchers Waite Hoyt and Herb Pennock to the team, and also Hall of Fame center fielder Earle Combs, and his greatest signing, Hall of Fame 1st baseman Lou Gehrig. And that was just from 1921 to 1925.

In 1930, he brought in 2 more Hall of Fame pitchers, Charles "Red" Ruffing (who went from a lousy pitcher with the Red Sox to brilliance with the Yankees) and Vernon "Lefty" Gomez. He ran the scouting department that found the Hall of Fame Yankees at the position of shortstop, Phil Rizzuto, and catcher, Yogi Berra. And, in 1934, when a bad ankle caused many big-league clubs to shy away from the Pacific Coast League superstar, Barrow took a chance on Joe DiMaggio. It paid off. Top that. Barrow is in the Hall of Fame, and in Monument Park.

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