Niagara Gazette

October 6, 2013

SINGER: The great age of baseball bosses

By B.B. Singer
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Not long before his death Joe DiMaggio remarked that in the present environment of increasingly astronomical sports salaries, he’d have walked into the owner’s office and called him “partner.” And that’s not far-fetched, given today’s huge, multi-year contracts for players not only in pro baseball, but hockey, basketball, or football. The shoe is definitely on another foot now.

For bosses of yore were often tyrants resembling absolute monarchs of the Louis XIV type! Even great stars of bygone times used to worry like mad not only about getting a few more thou on one-year contracts, but whether they’d even be retained. And yet, there may be nostalgia around for the old-style bosses who manifested individual pizzazz, and were at best, enlightened despots able to create much interest in their franchises, and some good in the process.

Many of course have recently seen this on the big screen with Harrison Ford’s portrayal of Branch Rickey, springing Jackie Robinson to the Majors after World War II. But others come to mind as well.

A recent reissue of “Veeck: As in Wreck” concerns one of the most colorful baseball bosses, primarily of the ‘40s, ‘50s and early ‘60s, Bill Veeck, who also promoted Black players ahead of his time; and who related well to virtually everyone on the planet, drinking and talking it up day and night. Which helped blow a first marriage with two kids, but then came a strong Catholic woman, and six more offspring! And much innovative baseball success along the way, despite Marine service in World War II, leading to 36 painful operations and loss of an injured leg.

Veeck got to the top of the baseball mountain with his World Series-winning, enormously attended Cleveland Indians of 1948. Then he tried to buy control of other clubs like the Tigers, going up against rich-kid owners and being blackballed and mistreated. Finally he took the helm of Chicago’s White Sox and in 1959 helped bring them their first pennant in many years, with a team featuring more Black or Latino players than the era’s norm. Veeck also supported the idea of inter-league play well before it happened. And of hurrying up games – bigger plates one panacea, another, a count that went only to three balls (for walks) and two strikes (for outs)! And hey, why not some nuttiness, too, like putting 3’ 7” Eddie Gaedel up to bat in a game of 1951 ...

But quite obviously, the boss of bosses for many Yankee fans around here and nationally was George Steinbrenner, coming to his apogee in New York, and promoting what might be called the Steinbrenner Follies there. Or what one Yankee player in the ‘70s wrote of as “the Bronx Zoo,” where sensitive, well-remunerated stars like Reggie Jackson suffered hugely from Steinbrenner’s impulsive affinity for hiring, firing, then rehiring the ultra-competitive, alcoholic, and difficult Billy Martin as manager!

Steinbrenner himself became a New York star on equal footing with types like Barbara Walters or Howard Cosell, a fixture at certain Broadway watering holes or elite restaurants like Elaine’s. He seemed absolutely made for the city.

And then a second Steinbrenner-led dynasty ensued from 1996, including a pennant run that year under imperturbable manager, Joe Torre, and a tough Black GM, Bob Watson, raised by rock-solid grandparents, once a Marine, and like Torre, a former player of note dubbed “the Bull.” Both thrived only by standing up to the mercurial, at times impossible Steinbrenner!

Who predictably grew ballistic with worry when the Yankees went down two games to nothing against Ted Turner’s Atlanta Braves in the 1996 World Series. Torre somehow steadied his temperamental boss’s nerves, assuring him the Yanks would win the next four games and the championship, which they did. They then took several more, via on-field efforts of Paul O’Neill, Bernie Williams, the young meteor, Derek Jeter (today old and injury-prone), et al.

Now of course Steinbrenner is gone, not to mention Veeck and Rickey; and we’re in a different era, and larger-than-life bosses are few and far between, only the stuff of nostalgic books or movies. Oh well, nothing’s more constant in history (and life) than change...

B.B. Singer has taught at several colleges in the area, including Niagara University.