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One of the most-revered general managers and scouts in the game’s history finds his way to #2 on our list of the best all-time general managers
St. Louis Cardinals, 1918-42; Brooklyn Dodgers, 1943-50; Pittsburgh Pirates 1951-56
Largely due to his status as a cultural innovator, Branch Rickey is probably the most famous of the best all-time general managers in baseball history.
It was Rickey who broke the game’s color barrier in 1947, bringing Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers.
It was also Rickey who established the concept of organizing minor league teams into a major league farm system, doing so while with the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1920s.
Rickey began as baseball coach at Michigan, where he also earned a law degree. Following a modest major league playing career, he joined the Browns front office in 1915, assumed managerial duties and briefly fought in World War I. When Phil Ball purchased the Browns, Rickey seized an opportunity to become president of the cross-town Cardinals. You can read the rest of his life story in any of several award-winning biographies or on his Hall of Fame plaque.
This revered image we all hold of Rickey – he was, after all, nicknamed “The Mahatma” – doesn’t square with parts of his rankings, especially for short-term performance. Those range from good but not great to so-so. Again this is largely shaped by his experience in Brooklyn.
Two specific factors come into play. The first is that for all his game-changing accomplishments in that city, the first three of Rickey’s seven seasons in Brooklyn were at best average; his teams never finished within 10 games of the pennant.
The second is the reality that Rickey’s greatest impact on Brooklyn actually outlasted him. The core of players he brought in during the late 1940s – Gil Hodges, Duke Snider, Carl Furillo, Don Newcombe, Carl Erskine – contributed between 12 and 20 games of positive impact on Dodger championship teams in 1952, 1953, 1955 and 1956, while Rickey himself was the GM in Pittsburgh.
Put another way, Rickey’s ghost had more influence on those pennant runs than the actual Brooklyn general manager at the time, Buzzie Bavasi.
Under Sam Breaden in St. Louis, Rickey was a consistent force. His Cardinals won pennants in 1926, 1928, 1930, 1931, 1934 and 1942, and Rickey’s short-term personnel moves were the impetus behind four of those championships.
Combined with the 1949 Brooklyn pennant – ascribable to Rickey’s decision to sign and use Don Newcombe, that gives him claim to having personally maneuvered his teams to five pennants. Only one man, John Schuerholz, can claim more, and only one other, George Weiss, can claim as many.
The executive of the year award was created by the Sporting News in 1936, and Rickey was its initial winner. This involves ironic hero worship for 1936 was arguably Rickey’s worst season as a GM. His Cardinals finished five games behind the champion Giants, and Rickey was the reason, costing the Cards nearly 10 games via a series of unproductive moves.
He won the award again in 1942, a year in which he was arguably deserving, and deserved to win in 1941 but was beaten out by the Yankees’ Ed Barrow. There was no such award prior to the mid 1930s, but if there had been Rickey would also have been a logical pick in 1921, 1928 and 1932.
Rickey was hired away from the Dodgers by Pirates owner John Galbraith late in 1950 to take over that woeful team. It was an inglorious conclusion to a glorious career. Rickey’s short-term impact on the Pirates averaged -9.3 games.
If you ranked all the GMs in Pirate history for average short-term contribution, Rickey would tie for dead last; if you did the same with long-term impact, he would be fourth worst.
Yet in Pittsburgh as in Brooklyn (and as in St. Louis prior to that with Stan Musial and Enos Slaughter), Rickey’s impact far outlasted him.
Although he never got the Pirates into contention, Rickey left his successor, Joe L. Brown, with nine players who would comprise the core of the 1960 World Series champions. Those nine – Roberto Clemente, Bill Mazeroski, Bob Skinner, Vern Law, Bob Friend, Elroy Face, Dick Groat, Roman Mejias and Bill Virdon – contributed +12 games of value to that team.
As in St. Louis and Brooklyn, the legacy was long-lived, Clemente and Mazeroski playing central roles in Pittsburgh’s divisional titles in 1970, 1971 and 1972, including the 1971 World Series victory over Baltimore. The total Rickey residual impact on the Pirates through 1972: +81.8 games.
Rickey was by nature a long-termer, as witnessed by the -2.39 average short-term impact and his +5.58 average long-term impact of his moves on his teams. The byproduct of that long-term focus, his unparalleled legacy achievements, are the reason he ranks second on the all-time list.
His cumulative residual impact on teams he had formerly overseen was a staggering +337.5 games, more than 8.6 standard deviations above the +23.07 average for all GMs in the ranking. For comparative purposes, the second highest residual impact all time, by Larry McPhail on the Reds, Dodgers and Yankees, measures +161.9 games, less than half Rickey’s total.
When his sentence in Pittsburgh finally expired, Rickey became the face of the Continental League, a Potemkin third major league envisioned in the late 1950s whose mere potential forced the two existing leagues to expand back into New York along with a few other cities.
In the first six categories, values reflect the standard deviation of the GM’s performance above or below the historical mean for that category. Category 7 awards or deducts points for seasons in which the GM’s short-term impact exceeded the margin by which his team either reached post-season or failed to do so. Category 8 represents post-season appearances; in categories 7 and 8 indicated points are based on numbers of teams and post-season berths.
1 Short-term average: -0.37
2 Short-term total: -1.85
3 Long-term average: +0.48
4 Long-term total: +2.60
5 Residual average: +1.57
6 Residual total: +8.63
7 GM’s post-season shares:
1928 award +1.0. Rickey aided the Cardinals by +7.6 games; they qualified for post-season by 2 games. Key moves: Acquired George Harper +1.5; signed Clarence Mitchell +1.3; traded Jimmy Ring -3.7; traded Bob McGraw -1.8.
1930 award +1.0. Rickey aided the Cardinals by +5.0 games; they qualified for post-season by 2 games. Key moves: Acquired Burleigh Grimes +3.6; promoted rookie Gus Mancuso +1.4,
1934 award +1.0. Rickey aided the Cardinals by +4.1 games; they qualified for post-season by 2 games. Key moves: Acquired Spud Davis +1.4; promoted rookie Paul Dean, +2.5; promoted rookie Bill Delancey +2.5.
1936 penalty -1.0. Rickey hurt the Cardinals by -9.8 games; they failed to qualify for post-season by 5 games. Key moves: Acquired Roy Parmelee -1.3; released Gene Moore +1.6; traded Burgess Whitehead +2.4; promoted Bruce Ogrodowski -1.1; promoted rookie Art Garibaldi -1.0.
1942 award +1.0. Rickey aided the Cardinals by +4.9 games; they qualified for post-season by 2 games. Key moves: Promoted rookie Johnny Beazley +3.5; promoted rookie Stan Musial +3.2; promoted rookie Whitey Kurowski +1.1.
1949 award +1.0. Rickey aided the Dodgers by +2.3 games; they qualified for post-season by 1 game. Key moves: Promoted rookie Don Newcombe +2.9.
1950 penalty -1.0. Rickey hurt the Dodgers by -4.2 games; they failed to qualify for post-season by 2 games. Key moves: Promoted rookie Don Bankhead -1.7; promoted rookie Bud Podbelian -1.2; sold Johnny Hopp +1.7.
Category 7 total: +3.00
8 Credit for post-season appearances (1926, +1.0; 1928, +1.0; 1930, +1.0; 1931, +1.0; 1934, +1.0; 1942, +1.0; 1947, +1.0; 1949, +1.0): +8.00
Grand total: +22.06
NEXT: Best all-time GMs #3 Ed Barrow
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