Buzzie Bavasi – The Wise Old Fox

The other day I had a very pleasant email exchange with Howard Cole of the popular ColeOnLA blog site. Howard is also the founder of the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America (IBWAA). It is Howard’s dream that one day the IBWAA will join the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) in voting for the annual year-end awards, and perhaps even the annual Hall of Fame induction voting. Howard has made it clear that he doesn’t expect the IBWAA to ever replace the BBWAA, but with the ever-increasing number of internet media sites and sources out there, it is very realistic to believe that at some point the IBWAA will be recognized and included in the voting process.

In my email exchange with Howard, he told me that when he lived in La Jolla, CA, he was fortunate enough to meet and came to know former Dodgers general manager Buzzie Bavasi, who also lived in La Jolla.

For those of you who are too young to know who Buzzie Bavasi was, he was one of the most brilliant baseball men in the history of the game. Bavasi worked himself up through the Dodger ranks under the leadership of former Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey who, of course, is responsible for signing Jackie Robinson in 1947.

Emil Joseph “Buzzie” Bavasi (left) signs Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella to their new contracts before the 1953 season. (Photo credit – Patrick Burns)

In 1948, Buzzie became the general manager of the Montreal Royals, which was the Dodgers Triple-A affiliate at the time and where Jackie Robinson broke into professional baseball. That same year, Buzzie was directed by Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley to find a better (and safer) spring training facility where their growing number of African American players would not be subjected to the extreme prejudices and threats of physical violence that they frequently encountered in the northeast. Bavasi eventually found the perfect location – Vero Beach, FL, where the Dodgers would hold their spring training for the next 60 years.

In 1951, Bavasi replaced Rickey at the Dodgers general manager and held that position for 18 years. During that time, Bavasi and the Dodgers enjoyed 8 National League pennants and four World Series titles – three of which came after the team left Brooklyn in 1958, a move that Bavasi strongly opposed. After the Dodgers defeated the White Sox in the 1959 World Series after only two seasons in Los Angeles, Bavasi was named The Sporting News Major League Executive of the Year.

Bavasi resigned from the Dodgers in 1968 to take the general manager job with the expansion San Diego Padres, where he remained for 9 seasons. In 1977, Bavasi left the Padres after California Angels owner Gene Autry hired him as executive vice president and general manager, a position which he held until his retirement in 1984. Bavasi died on May 1, 2008 at age 93.

Bavasi was named to 2012 Golden Era Veterans Committee Hall of Fame ballot (as was former Dodger great Gil Hodges), however the Veterans Committee elected former Cub Ron Santo into the Hall of Fame.

Bavasi was inducted into the San Diego Padres Hall of Fame in 2001 and into the San Diego Hall of Champions in 2007. Perhaps he will one day be elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. (Video capture courtesy of sdhoc.com)

So what does any of this have to do with some emails between Howard Cole and me, you ask? Well, as I said, Howard and Buzzie came to know one another in the early 2000s and when they ran into each other, they would, of course, talk baseball; and Howard shared a story with me that Buzzie once shared with.

The story was that of a Dodger player who had come into Bavasi’s Dodger Stadium office in the mid 60s to negotiate a contract for the upcoming season. This was, of course, before free agency and how contracts were negotiated back then. Naturally, the amount that the player was seeking was far greater than what Bavasi wanted to pay him.

As if on cue, Bavasi was suddenly summoned from his office briefly and he excused himself, telling the player that he would be right back. While the player waited for Bavasi to return, he noticed a signed contract sitting right there in plain sight on Bavasi’s desk. The contract was that of star outfielder Tommy Davis and the amount on the contract was considerably less than the amount that the player was seeking from Bavasi. Tommy Davis was the two-time defending National League batting champion and there was no way that the player could, in good conscience, ask for more money than what Tommy was going to make next season.

When Bavasi returned to his office, he apologized for the interruption and silently removed the Davis contract from his desk as though he suddenly realized that he had mistakenly and unknowing left it there.

The player and Bavasi resumed negotiations and eventually came to a mutually agreed upon amount that was roughly the same amount as the Tommy Davis contract that the player had seen on Bavasi’s desk. The player then signed his new contract, left the office, and that was that.

As you probably figured out, the Tommy Davis contract was a fake and the player had signed for much less than what Tommy Davis would actually be making.

Tommy Davis (seen here with yours truly at Camelback Ranch in 2011) won consecutive NL Batting titles in 1962 and 1963. He still holds the Dodgers all-time RBI record with 153. (Photo credit – Ron Cervenka)

After hearing this story from Howard, I informed him that I had read about this story in the Don Drysdale autobiography “Once a Bum, Always a Dodger” (a must-read book for every true Dodger fan) and informed him that the player in question was Maury Wills. Howard said that it very well may have been Maury Wills but quickly added that Bavasi claimed to have used this same ruse several times during his many years as a general manager. Incidentally, Bavasi tried it on Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax during the great holdout of 1966, but the two future Hall of Famers had already been tipped off by Maury. Drysdale and Koufax eventually came to terms with Bavasi and the Dodgers for an unheard of $110,000 and $125,000 respectively for the 1966 season (and Kershaw is looking to make how much per season?)

Regardless, this story shows the tremendous cleverness and ingenuity of Buzzie Bavasi, but make no mistake about it – the gruff speaking, hard as nails GM was absolutely adored and greatly respected by his players and by all who knew him. Buzzie’s love of the game and love of people made him one of the greatest baseball executives the game has ever seen; and I, for one, sincerely hope that one day the Golden Era Veterans Committee elect Bavasi into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, where he rightfully deserves to be.

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5 Responses to “Buzzie Bavasi – The Wise Old Fox”

  1. Truebluewill says:

    I read that story many times and it’s a great story no matter how many times I’ve heard it. I hope Buzzie makes it to the Hall of Fame this year. Gil has to wait until 2014 for his next chance to get in. That’s a crying shame.

    • Ron Cervenka says:

      I, too, had heard that story before, TBW, but what I hadn’t heard is that sly old Bavasi had used this trick several times during his time as a GM. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to learn that he used it with the Padres, as well; or that other GMs used it too – prior to free agency, that is.

      Speaking of which, when you hear stories like this, it’s no wonder that free agency is what it is today, although I don’t think anyone would have ever predicted the outlandish salaries of today’s MLB players.

      By the way – the Drysdale/Koufax great holdout of 1966 is thought by many to be the very first steps towards free agency, even before the Curt Flood and Andy Messersmith cases.

      Check out this great video from the MLB Network that I stumbled on while researching the Bavasi article: The Great Holdout
      (sorry about the commercials).

  2. Evan Bladh says:

    An honest assessment of Bavasi’s career would not be made if his lackluster years with the expansion San Diego Padres (69-77) and California Angels (77-84) were not addressed. Hampered by a lack of spending power in San Diego, Bavasi sold off players left and right. When taking over the ’69 Padres, he was manipulative from the start, having warned his former Dodgers team to protect such players as Bill Russell and Jim Brewer in the expansion draft, otherwise he was going to select them. It was collusion at it’s finest and it is surprising that the travesty of the situation isn’t discussed more openly today.

    Think about that. He colluded with the Dodgers to protect his former team to the detriment of the expansion Padres. That would be grounds for banishment from the game today. But it was a different world back then.

    It is reported that he reached out to Sandy Koufax to try and coax him out of retirement to pitch for San Diego. Thank goodness that didn’t happen. Could you imagine Sandy wearing those yellow road uniforms? (I guess I can, since I’ve seen photos of him in Albuquerque Dukes duds).

    I think Bavasi belongs in the Hall though. His early career was knee deep involved in baseball history. Not only did he find Vero Beach and coordinate and organize that place but previously Rickey assigned him to find a place in the minors where Newcombe and Campanella could be groomed for the big leagues with the fewest interruptions. He moved the Dodgers Class B farm team to Nashua, NH, (the smallest city in the league). There he hired Manager Walter Alston to take control of the club. It is reported that when a fight with racial tensions stopped a game there, Bavasi challenged the entire opposing team to a fight as they boarded their bus out of town.

    Bavasi served as the liaison between O’Malley and Walter Alston, who the owner wanted to fire immediately after the ’62 playoff loss in an impulsive emotional move. Buzzie was able to calm the enraged owner and let cooler heads prevail. (O’Malley wanted to put Durocher at the helm). Results: ’63, ’65 WS and ’66 Pennant. Yes, he’s a Hall of Famer.

  3. echavez2 says:

    That post was AWSOME! I love Dodgers history, and stories like that! I could read that over and over! Love it!

    • Ron Cervenka says:

      Thanks Evan. I know that I briefly mentioned it in the article, but if you haven’t read Drysdale’s autobiography, you really ought to. You can get it on eBay for like $5. I also highly recommend ‘Game of My Life – Dodgers’ by Dodgers historian Mark Langill.

      I am grateful that I got into that email exchange with Howard Cole, as I had an absolute blast researching this article.

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