Farewell to a Much Better Buzz

“Who else played golf with Babe Ruth, had dinner with Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale and worked for people of the stature of Larry MacPhail, Walter O’Malley, Gene Autry and Ray Kroc?”
–Buzzie Bavasi (1914-2008)

While Buzz Bissinger continues to be raked over the coals, the baseball world lost one of its titans on Thursday, as longtime executive Buzzie Bavasi died at age 92. The old-school Bavasi is best remembered as the architect of four World Champion Dodgers teams and eight pennant winners (1952, ’53, ’55, ’56, ’59, ’63, ’65, ’66, champions in bold), serving as the team’s general manager from late 1950 (when he took over from Branch Rickey) to mid-1968, a period encompassing the franchise’s transcontinental shift from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, their longest run of success and their days as the National League’s predominant powerhouse.

Bavasi’s accomplishments weren’t limited to that span, however. He joined the Dodger organization in 1938, and worked in their farm system until 1943, stepping aside to serve in the Army during World War II. When he returned he played a key role in the game’s integration: in 1946, as Jackie Robinson was smashing through organized baseball’s color barrier in Montreal, Bavasi took the fight to American soil, running the Dodgers’ Class B Nashua affiliate, which featured Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe and was skippered by Walter Alston. As the Los Angeles Times‘ obituary recounts:

“I’ll never forget one night in Lynn, Mass.,” Campanella said in 1983. “Newcombe had pitched, and I hit a home run, and we won the game. We were all dressed and sitting in the bus. Buzzie said he was going inside to pick up the check. All of a sudden, we heard Buzzie and their manager fighting. We went in and broke it up. We found out later that their manager” had used a racial slur when he told Bavasi, ” ‘Without those two [black players], you wouldn’t have won.’ Buzzie went after him.”

In 1947, he was summoned to work for the Dodgers, and one of his duties was to scout the Vero Beach Army base that became Dodgertown and hammer out an agreement with the city. Bavasi then spent three years as the Montreal Royals’ GM before being named to the Dodger post in late 1950. As the club’s GM, he was well known for both his tight purse strings and his paternal attitude towards players:

I always had a warm feeling of gratitude toward Buzzie because he took a chance on bringing me up from the minors after eight years. He stuck by me,” former Dodgers shortstop Maury Wills said Thursday. “He had a way of getting me to play hard without paying me a lot of money.”

One of Bavasi’s favorite ploys was to draw up a phony contract in the name of a player coming off an excellent season and type in an artificially low salary. When another player who wasn’t as good came into his office to negotiate, Bavasi would leave the phony contract on his desk, then excuse himself from the room. The player inevitably would take a peek at the contract, read the low-ball salary and back down in his own negotiations when Bavasi would return to the room.

Bavasi took pride in his ability to operate on a budget, but as the Dodgers’ success took its toll on their payroll, he met something of a personal Waterloo when he presided over the dual holdout of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale in the spring of 1966, a year which wound up being the final season of Koufax’s career and the Dodgers’ last pennant until 1974. As Bavasi recounted in Sports Illustrated in 1967:

To tell the truth, I wasn’t too successful in the famous Koufax-Drysdale double holdout in 1966. I mean, when the smoke had cleared they stood together on the battlefield with $235,000 between them, and I stood there With a blood-stained cashbox. Well, they had a gimmick and it worked; I’m not denying it. They said that one wouldn’t sign unless the other signed. Since one of the two was the greatest pitcher I’ve ever seen (and possibly the greatest anybody has ever seen), the gimmick worked. But be sure to stick around for the fun the next time somebody tries that gimmick. I don’t care if the whole infield comes in as a package; the next year the whole infield will be wondering what it is doing playing for the Nankai Hawks.

…The double holdout started on February 26, 1966, when spring training opened and Sandy and Donald didn’t show. It looked in the papers as though they had made a big salary demand on the club and the club had turned them down. But it wasn’t that simple. Being three good friends, as I hope we still are, Donald and Sandy and I had met and talked things over. In the first meeting, right after the 1965 season, we got no place. We sat down in my office at Dodger stadium and they said they had an agent—Sandy’s lawyer, Bill Hayes—and that they wanted a three-year no-cut contract totaling $1 million and that neither one would sign unless both were satisfied. I told them I would negotiate only with them, that any discussions they had with their agent were their own business but please keep him away from me, that the amount of money they were asking was ridiculous, and that nobody on the ball club, including me and Walter Alston, was ever going to get more than a one-year contract. As I recall, I said something like, “You’re both athletes, and what you’re selling is your physical ability, and how can you guarantee your physical ability three years in advance? If you guarantee me that you will both be healthy and strong and still winning 20 games each in 1968, I’ll give you a three-year contract.” Since not even Cassius Clay could make a guarantee like that, the meeting broke up. But there was plenty of time; this was only October, the World Series was barely over and I was in no rush to get them signed, especially at their asking price of $166,000 per year apiece. From the beginning I was willing to give them raises on their 1965 salary, which were $80,000 for Don and $85,000 for Sandy. I had it penciled into my budget: $100,000, more or less, for Sandy, and $90,000, more or less, for Donald.

…The double holdout was over, but I can’t say that I felt good about it. We wound up giving the boys much more money than we had intended, and if you had to pick a winner in the whole argument, you’d have to say it was Drysdale and Koufax. Donald got a $30,000 raise and Sandy got a $40,000 raise, and neither would have commanded that much money negotiating alone. After all, they got the biggest raises in baseball history. To that extent, the double holdout worked, although they gave in on the three-year contract for $1 million, which I don’t think they ever meant, anyway. But, as I said before, the plan only worked because the greatest pitcher in baseball was in on it, and also they caught us by surprise. Believe me, Walter O’Malley and I have talked the problem over many times, and no double holdout will ever work again on the Los Angeles Dodgers. We’re firm on that. The next time two of them come walking in together, they’ll go walking out together. Koufax and Drysdale took advantage of a good thing, that’s one way to look at it, and another way to look at it is, why shouldn’t they? All’s fair in negotiating, as I have also said before. This was a unique situation, and it will never happen again.

Anyway, the double holdout didn’t cost the ball club quite as much as the figures would seem to indicate. In the first place, I had anticipated the possibility of having to come up with high figures for Don and Sandy, especially after the season they had had, and therefore I had not been quite as generous with some of the other players as I might have been. I don’t mean I cut anybody just to get money to pay the two pitchers. It worked more like this: let’s say a kid comes into my office and I’ve got him penciled in for $27,000, and he sits down and says that he wants $23,000. This happens all the time, believe me, and my natural inclination is to say, “I’ve got you down for $27,000, and that’s what you are going to get.” But not this time. This time if the kid said he’d sign for $23,000 I’d let it go at that, or maybe I’d sign him for a thousand more. The net result was that our 1966 budget for ballplayers went up exactly the $100,000 I had planned on, with Koufax and Drysdale getting $70,000 of the increase and the other 24 guys getting the rest. I’d have liked to give the other players more, but a budget is a budget and I stuck to it.

Full of more than a little bravado, the four-part series offers a revealing window into the tactics of a Reserve Clause-era executive so smug about holding the best cards in the negotiation game that he could afford to lay them on the table for the world to see. These fascinating articles — first brought to my attention by Alex Belth, who dug them out of the SI clip library for me a couple years back — are now fully available online via the recently debuted SI Vault :

May 15, 1967: The Great Holdout

May 22, 1967: Money Makes the Player Go

May 29, 1967: They May Have Been A Headache But They Never Were A Bore

June 5, 1967: The Real Secret Of Trading

After 1968, Bavasi left the Dodgers for the expansion San Diego Padres, where he served as team president and part-owner, but he couldn’t replicate his success, as the team finished in the NL West cellar for its first six years. The Padres’ fate improved in 1975, as they escaped the basement for the first time, but Bavasi clashed with new owner Ray Kroc and left following the 1977 season.

Angels owner Gene Autry soon hired him to be his team’s executive vice president, and Bavasi oversaw their first division championship in 1979, an accomplishment that was dimmed by the acrimonious departure of Nolan Ryan following the season. The Angels won the AL West again on Bavasi’s watch in 1982, but although he signed big-name free agents such as Don Baylor, Rod Carew, Bobby Grich, Reggie Jackson and Fred Lynn, he struggled to adjust to the GM’s loss of leverage in the post-Reserve Clause era, traded far too much of the Angels’ young talent (Willie Mays Aikens, Tom Brunansky, Brian Harper, Carney Lansford, Rance Mulliniks, Dickie Thon…) and retired in 1984. Two of his sons, Peter and Bill, became GMs at the major league level, though neither has come close to filling their father’s shoes; the latter is currently the Seattle Mariners’ GM.

Bavasi remained lucid and communicative well into his later years; both Biz of Baseball domo Maury Brown and New York Times columnist Dave Anderson recount their correspondences with him in recent articles. The Times also carries the inevitable obit, and there’s another worthwhile one over at MLB.com.

Update: The San Diego Union-Tribune obit is worth a read as well, particularly for the sidebar of short, colorful stories: “Don Zimmer said ‘Play me or trade me.’ We played him, and now we can’t trade him.”

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