As with people, each interview is different. Some are difficult, some are easy. In the case of the interview with Buzzie Bavasi, it was difficult, not because of the way Bavasi responded to the questions (he was a joy to interview, for the record), but rather, the difficulty in this interview was the unbelievable breadth and width of his career: 60 years.
The problem is, how do you cover the life of someone that has seen some of the most critical turning points in baseball history?
Branch Rickey and the Dodgers signing of Jackie Robinson? You could do an entire interview.
The Dodgers move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles? There's another.
The near move of the Padres to Washington, DC? Another...
His time with the California Angels? Another...
It made for a difficult, yet nice problem to have... content overload.
Emil Joseph Bavasi was born Dec. 12, 1914 in New York City. His mother gave him the nickname "Buzzie" from the way he "buzzed" around the house. He went to DePauw University, which was fortuitous for Buzzie, as you will see in the interview.
Bavasi was part of organizations that won two divisional titles, nine league championships and four World Series over his more than a half-century in organized baseball. He started his career in 1939 in the minors, before spending time in the military. He was the long-time general manager for the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers (1951-67), president of the San Diego Padres (1968-77), and executive vice president of the California Angels (1978-99). Under his tenure the Dodgers won eight NL pennants and four world championships in 17 years He was a two-time executive of the year, once with the Dodgers and once in the minor leagues with the Montreal Royals.
In this interview, Bavasi talks of his start in baseball and Larry MacPhail; the relationship of Branch Rickey and Walter O'Malley; he talks of Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Don Newcombe, as well as Nolan Ryan, Fresco Thompson, Al Campanis, and of course Walter Alston. He also talks of how he felt Robert Moses miscalculated on the Dodgers' willingness to move to Los Angeles, the near move of the Padres to Washington, DC, and much, much more. – Maury Brown
BizBall: Your baptism into the front office is really quite an interesting story. Can you retell us how you bumped into Ford Frick, and what your first days of reporting to Larry MacPhail were like?
Bavasi: Well I, and Fred Frick, Ford Frick’s son, were high school and college roommates and we both went to DePauw University, which is Ford’s alma mater. And when my dad died in 1933, Ford sort of became my other father and when I graduated from college my mother gave me a new car and a year to do anything I wanted to do. Well, the best thing I wanted to do was go to Florida and watch the ballgames.
And I was sitting in Clearwater Stadium and watching the Dodgers play when Ford came by and said “What are you doing here?” and I told him, and he said, “No longer. Be in my office tomorrow morning.” So, I went back to New York and went to his office and he took me to Brooklyn to meet Larry MacPhail. And Larry MacPhail said “So you want to get into baseball?” and I said “I certainly do” and he said, “What do you know about the game?” I said “Nothing. I played in college but that’s about it.” He said, “Good. Surprised you don’t know anything about the game but it will do you some good ‘cause we have too many people around here who know everything.”
And he gave me a job as a glorified office boy. And that was it.
BizBall: Can you describe how it was to work with MacPhail, and tell us anything that occurred behind closed doors that would be a good example of how he operated?
Bavasi: One thing about Larry is that money meant nothing to him, unlike Walter O’Malley, money meant nothing to Larry. As a matter of fact, I was there for 13 weeks before I got a check.
But I’ll never forget one story.
He invited me to a Saturday meeting with Andy High, Branch Rickey, Jr. and Larry MacPhail and we were discussing players we were about to sign; there’s no draft at that time. And they came across a fellow by the name of Brenner, I think his name was, from Purdue University. A pitcher -- a right hand pitcher. Andy said he wanted to offer him $3,000, he’s worth that much. Larry said “That’s a lot of money.” So, it’s near 5:00 and we stopped and he said we’ll continue tomorrow. Well, I was happy just to be in the room. Besides that, I happened to have a book I had and it had a box score and in the box score was a game at Purdue. Well, I was lucky enough to get three hits that day and one of them a home run against this Brenner. So the next morning we went into the meeting again and we were just about ready to give this fellow $3,000 and Larry said, “Anybody else know anything about him?” At that point I pulled out the box score and had no idea [what would happen] and he looked at it and said, “Oh, I’ll be a son of a bitch if I’m gonna give a guy $3,000 if Buzzie get three hits off him.” Never gave the kid a quarter. I felt guilty. Larry was all baseball and public relations.
You know, Bill Veeck is in the Hall of Fame, and rightfully so, and I was one of the voters for him. But most of his ideas were developed in Larry’s mind. Larry was the original Bill Veeck, really.
BizBall: In your book, Off the Record, you mention that Walter O’Malley didn’t get enough credit for the hiring of Jackie Robinson, and you added that Happy Chandler took too much…
Bavasi: Well, yes, it’s true. By that what I meant was, Walter was on the board of the Dodgers.--John Smith, Walter O’Malley, and Branch Rickey. The board had to vote for him. No one mentioned that the board of directors had to vote Jackie into the Big Leagues.
Happy Chandler had nothing whatsoever to do with it. Happy Chandler liked to say that the vote was 15-1 against bringing Jackie to the major leagues. Hogwash. At the meeting Horace [Stoneham] said he would vote for the move because his club was within a mile of Harlem. Mr. Wrigley said he would vote yes because 35% of his business throughout the world came from the black people. Bill Veeck said to the Dodgers. Hurry up and bring him up because I have an African-American that might be better than Jackie. Meaning Larry Doby. John Galbreath said it was a club matter not a league matter. No vote was ever taken.
BizBall: Branch Rickey has been viewed as one of, if not the most, influential executive in sports history because of the deal to sign Robinson and break the color barrier. Yet Rickey is also known for being visionary when it came to talent, and a miser when it came to spending money.
Do you think Mr. Rickey hired Robinson as a social statement, as a great player, as a way to tap into the African-American market, or was it kind of some of all of this?
Bavasi: Well, I happen to think that he was hired him because he was a great player. Secondly, Walter thought he would be a great draw at the gate if he was successful. It was a gamble, but he was a gamble to pull it off. Mr. Rickey was the greatest baseball mind in the history of the game. There will never be another one like him.
BizBall: Can you describe the Dodgers organizational philosophy regarding international scouting and how it was developed?
Bavasi: We -- the Dodgers -- and when I say we I mean the Dodgers, we trained… I had the Montreal club, and the Dodgers trained in the Dominican Republic. We were there for thirty days, so you know it’s real. This is about 1948. We saw how much these people enjoy the game of baseball, how well they played it. And I think that got all of baseball thinking about trade rules for salary purposes. That’s where we started. We never started in Havana, we never started in the Dominican Republic before, but after we got there and stayed for months with these people we realized they were lovers of the game.
BizBall: It’s been well documented that O’Malley and Rickey were quite different people. Some might say they were oil and water…
Bavasi: The best way to describe that is with Clemente. I had a deal with Mr. Rickey. Mr. Rickey asked me to go to Pittsburgh with him. And said, I’m sorry I was going to stay with the Dodger group, whom I knew. And he wrote me a letter saying if anytime he could help me, all I had to do was pick up the phone. So, we couldn’t bring Clemente up [from Montreal] because we had to keep him on the club under the old rules if he got more than a $4,000 bonus. And I know that Rickey had first [pick in the] draft, so I flew to Pittsburgh. And he agreed with me that he would take John Rutherford that would have let us keep Clemente. So I’m home free and I call Fresco and we were happy about it. And this was a Friday. The draft is on a Monday. Sunday evening Branch Rickey, Jr. called and said “Buzzie, the deal is off” and I said, “Why?” And he said, “My father and Walter had an argument and he called my father every obscene name in the book therefore he’s going to take Clemente” and that was it.
BizBall: During the negotiations in Brooklyn before the move, why do you think Robert Moses insisted on the Dodgers moving to Queens, and why do you think New York City mayor, Wagner didn’t step in when O'Malley refused to go for Moses' plan?
Bavasi: Well, number 1, Moses really didn’t believe that the Dodgers would move. He thought we would stay right where we were and that we would appreciate going to Flushing Meadows. Wagner didn’t think the Dodgers were that important. As a matter of fact, I remember Mayor Wagner proposed a tax -- an excise tax -- on baseball tickets. Not theater – just baseball – tickets. I had a dummy ticket made up with an extra stub which called it the Wagner Tax. This took care of matters immediately. Never heard another word about the proposed tax. But I think Moses just didn’t realize how attractive the Los Angeles situation was until it was too late.
BizBall: Your recommendation to Mr. O’Malley on Walter Alston proved to be very good. It was a gamble to recommend him at the time, but he had an immediate impact.
One area that is difficult to understand, is why Alston didn’t use Sandy Koufax early in Koufax’s career. I understand in ’55 and ’56 when the team was in contention and had a solid pitching staff, but after that, he sat much of the time on the bench.
Can you touch on why you feel he wasn’t used regularly? Did anything have to do with the perception that he was wild?
Bavasi: ’55 , ’56 and ’57…
Sandy was a local boy. Talking about Alston now, Alston didn’t want to pitch him because he wasn’t ready. He was too wild. He just couldn’t come close to home plate. And [Alston] didn’t want him to pitch in front of the home folks because he was a Brooklyn boy. He got to California and he still didn’t pitch him in ’58 and Sandy wanted to quit, as a matter of fact. We talked -- I talked him out of it, but Walter Alston was the only one who had a great deal of faith in Sandy Koufax. Al Campanis and Fresco Thompson thought we made a mistake. I didn’t have an opinion because I hadn’t seen Sandy pitch before he signed. If it hadn’t been for Walter Alston, our friend Sandy Koufax would not have made it in the major leagues. He had a great deal of faith in him. Both he and pitching coach Joe Becker deserve all the credit in the world for their patience with Sandy. And their belief in him.
BizBall: Let me throw out some names, and if you could, give me some thoughts on each one of them:
Fresco Thompson – Fresco Thompson was a fine baseball man. Good baseball man. Knew the game well. Knew how to play the game. Played the game the hard way. He didn’t have great deal of ability but made himself a good player. And I think he realized that because he wasn’t an established player and became a big leaguer, he knew what it took to become a good player. And if you didn’t like Fresco you didn’t like anyone.
Al Campanis – Al was a Rickey man. In other words, he believed that Mr. Rickey could do no wrong. He tried to emulate Mr. Rickey, but he didn’t have Mr. Rickey’s style. Al was a great … in my day he was the best in the business. The Dodgers started down hill when Al was named GM. Not that he couldn't do the job, but he was the best damned scouting director in the business and it was too much to ask him to handle both jobs. He loved scouting.
Roy Campanella – Campanella was with me through his entire career. I think I knew Campy better than anyone else. He was a manager's delight. I venture to say had he not been injured he would have been in line to manage the Dodgers. He would have been a good one. He knew his own limitations and would apply this practice to his players. On the other hand when Jackie asked me if I thought he would make a good manager, I said NO. Jackie, I said, you are a perfectionist and would want all your players to play the game the way you did. If I had nine Robinsons playing for me I wouldn't need a manager. Jack understood and agreed with me.
Jackie Robinson - As I have said many times, Jackie was not the greatest player to play our game, but he was the greatest competitor I ever saw. He could beat you with his glove, his legs, his bat and his desire to win. I can't say enough about his value to the Dodgers over the years.
Marvin Miller - I am sorry to say Marvin Miller belongs in the Hall of Fame. This might sound strange, but… for the players. But he never did anything to hurt the game. Marvin was very honest and square with the baseball people. Tell them what he wanted and where he was going to get it. But Marvin Miller never did one thing to hurt the game of baseball.Walter Alston – Well, he was my buddy. He made a name many places: Nashua, Montreal, Brooklyn, Los Angeles. He was with them wherever he went. I always saw to it that he made $5,000.00 a year more than I made.
BizBall: On the Padres… There seems to have been an overwhelming sense of the Dodger influence on the team. You were recommended by Bob Carpenter for president, and there was a long line of Dodger managers that worked for the Padres organization in the days you were involved.
Considering all that, was the Padres influenced by the “Dodger way”?
Bavasi: First of all, let me set something straight. Walter didn’t have anything to do with my getting the job down here. Baseball decided at that time that if and when they were going to expand again, that baseball people should have the first opportunity…. You know what I’m talking about. As a matter of fact, we were in contention and the bidding took place for the franchise and the price was to be $6 million. And who do you think said it needed to be $10 million? Walter O’Malley. And we had to make $10 million rather than $6 million. But baseball itself decided that in the future baseball people should be offered the first opportunity, provided they have the proper financial backing.
BizBall: Let’s talk about C. Arnholt Smith and the selling of the Padres. What was your reaction to him trying to sell the Padres to Joe Dansansky, without the League’s permission, with the idea of moving the franchise to DC the year after DC had lost the Senators?
Bavasi: It was tough to make some of those people understand. He thought that if he owned it he could sell the team. Didn’t realize he had to get permission, and I told him when he called and he said he sold the club for $12.5 million and I said, “You can’t do that without permission from the league.” He couldn’t understand that. Found out that he had to have permission. He just didn’t understand the rules and regulations of baseball. But he was a good owner. He really was at the time. I think he favored the club, I think he favored the operation. But of course he didn’t know what he was doing.
BizBall: What did you make of Ray Kroc when he was mentioned as a possible owner candidate for the Padres?
Bavasi: He was a good one. I loved that about Ray. To know Ray is to love him. He was a great guy. Great man. You wouldn’t know Ray had fifteen cents if you were around him all the time. But Ray Kroc loved the game of baseball as Gene Autry did. Loved the game. Loved the players. As a matter of fact, sometimes he loved them too much. But I’ll never forget, Don Lubin called me and told me he had a buyer for the club and I said, “Who?” And he said, “Ray Kroc” and I said, “Who’s he?” and he said, “Well, he owns 6,000 shares of McDonald’s.” To myself, I said, “McDonald’s is selling for $2.” But that was McDonnell-Douglas. I made a mistake. It was selling for $50. But when he took over this club, it was the greatest thing in the history of the town because he saved the club from being shipped out.
BizBall: When Peter Seitz ruled in favor of the players’ union in 1974, and revoked the Reserve Clause, it set in motion a drastic change in how the business of the game was conducted between the players, and those that worked with the players, such as yourself. Did the somewhat paternal relationship that was involved between those, such as yourself, and the players disappear from that time on?
Bavasi: Absolutely, absolutely. As for Peter Seitz, I don't believe his decision changed the way the game was played, but it did bring to light the agents. I have nothing against agents, but when one agent represents 8 or 9 players on one club we are asking for trouble. Think some thought should be given to limiting the number of players an agent or his firm can represent from one club. Just think of the money agents take out of the game every year without putting any of it back. If the player wants to share his income with an agent, so be it.
BizBall: In 1978 you came onboard with the California Angels, a franchise you called, at the time, a “country club” under owner, Gene Autry. At the same time, there was your relationship with Nolan Ryan. Looking back on 1979, would you have negotiated the contract with Ryan in the same way given his performance in 1978 when he went just 10-13?
Bavasi: Let me tell you what happened there. I like Nolan. To me, Sandy Koufax was the greatest pitcher I ever saw. But I liked Nolan. Nolan and his agent had sent me a three-page letter. (His agent was uh…. He worked with the association for a while. I forget his name, but he sent me a three-page letter.) In it, he stipulated that we had to take out an insurance policy, and it was going to cost us $135,000. This is it. Gene [Autry] who loved, loved Nolan couldn’t go along with it. He said it would set a precedent, we’d have to take out – on every player – an insurance policy. We can’t do that. This was a life insurance policy; had nothing to do with baseball. But so we said the contract is valid, except for the insurance policy. With that, the agent said, “Get lost.” Never gave us a chance to negotiate.
BizBall: On Ryan’s contact negotiation… Ryan had always negotiated his own contacts before the ’78 season, but opted to hire Dick Moss…
Bavasi: Dick Moss! That’s [who the agent was!]
BizBall: …for his negotiations after ’79. Can you recall how those negotiations with Moss and how it went?
Bavasi: There was no negotiation whatsoever. He just sent me a letter – a three-page letter – saying yes or no. We had to answer by March 12. I got the letter March 9. I was surprised that Gene didn’t… He had two great favorites – he had Nolan Ryan and Jim Fregosi. I was surprised that he didn’t go for the $135,000.
BizBall: What types of challenges faced your son, Peter, and now your son, Bill, that you never had to deal with?
Bavasi: You know, money-wise, in my 1955 club – the only championship club in Brooklyn – their total payroll was $495,000. They (Peter and Bill) came along when the agents were really running the game. Players are now motivated by money rather than pride. The average salary today is just about what I received during my entire 30 years with the Dodgers. BizBall: I want to throw out a quote from former commissioner Bowie Kuhn’s book, Hardball, and if you would, comment on it: "Buzzie was one of baseball's free spirits. He had a catlike ability to spring over, around and under the rules. He knew where all the bodies were buried, and more often than not, who had put them there.”
Bavasi: Well, I think he’s right. He’s a good man. I like Bowie. I think he was great for the game. Bowie took over in 1969. I was already in baseball for some 30 years. Knew what was going on and warned Bowie as much as I could. I like him. Still do. Think he did a fine job. Guess he made a mistake in fining Gussie Busch and Ted Turner for a rule infraction.
At the Stadium, Branch Rickey, Jr. and I would study the Blue Book every day. It used to be called the Blue Book. The only way to understand the rules is to find out how to beat the rules. Plus to beat a rule you need a rule – and look, it wasn’t underhanded, I just thought that if there was a way to get things done, I did it. And it seemed to work. And Bowie’s right.
BizBall: What do you miss about how baseball was during your time, and what is good and bad about baseball today?
Bavasi: I enjoy it immensely. If the Cubs are at home I get to watch three games a day. The game hasn't changed the people have changed. Think we need more people like George Steinbrenner. Sure he spends a lot of money, but spends it wisely. Others spend a lot of money, but not very wisely.
But, I enjoy the games; I’ll watch two games in a day. But I don’t enjoy the fact that there’s more than one winner. Now you’ve got, what, four winners? I hate tournaments. There should be one champion; … there was no other winner… there was no second place prize. To win a championship in the old days, it was tough. It was tough to win a championship.
BizBall: Finally, do you have any regrets, and what are your greatest accomplishments, do you think?
Bavasi: Of course, in baseball the accomplishment is getting to the World Series. And, my Clubs in 60 years finished first or tied for first ten times, which isn’t bad. But I’d say my biggest disappointment was 1962. If you remember that, we lost the playoffs to the Giants. I think Sandy Koufax opened up and they scored five runs off of him in the first inning if I remember correctly. But not winning in ‘62 is my disappointment because Walter -- I'm talking about O' Malley -- that’s what he wanted. I couldn’t do that… I couldn’t do that. ‘62 was my biggest disappointment.
Interview conducted by Maury Brown on 4/23/05.
Transcribed by Andy Gefen, Maury Brown, Cameron Doolittle, John Hagemann, Don Ward and Steven Charnick.