Rating Cards GMs: The Past 50 Years

On the departure of Walt Jocketty, the worst-to-best performances by St. Louis Cardinals general managers are revisited.

Ironically, this week's developments brought this subject to the forefront, but the genesis of this article actually came few weeks ago in a message board thread on possible future St. Louis Cardinals managers.

It should be noted, first of all, that the Cardinals, for the greater part of their history, did not employ a general manager in the now-traditional sense of the word, as owner Sam Breadon and team president Branch Rickey handled those duties - sometimes in tandem, sometimes not. Breadon, for instance, made the Rogers Hornsby-for-Frank Frisch trade, whereas Rickey engineered the sending of Johnny Mize to the Giants.

After Rickey left the Cards following the 1942 season, Breadon and his successor as owner, Fred Saigh, pretty much handled the duties themselves, and the Cards aren't listed as having an actual general manager until Dick Meyer, an executive with Anheuser-Busch, was assigned to the job by Gussie Busch in 1953.

It's hard to count Meyer as a real GM, though, given his virtual lack of baseball background. Gussie gave him the job because Meyer had played a little baseball in college. Meyer knew his limitations – and was thus looking for a real baseball man to put into the position.

With that in mind, he was grooming a young front-office man who had been running various teams for the Cards in the minor leagues, Bing Devine. Devine was all set to take the job when Busch was convinced by one of his cronies to instead hire Frank Lane – yes, *the* "Trader Frank" Lane.

Lane only lasted a few years, though, and the Cards have employed eight men as GM in the fifty years since he left – Bing Devine, Bob Howsam, Stan Musial, Devine again, John Claiborne, Whitey Herzog, Joe McDonald, Dal Maxvill, and Walt Jocketty.

What I did in the message board thread was to rate the GM's best-to-worst. "BicycleMike" suggested in that thread, however, that Devine's two tenures should be rated separately (perhaps thinking of Grover Cleveland – the 22nd and 24th president, not the old pitcher!) and I tend to agree with that.

In addition, in the thread, I suggested that Herzog and McDonald should be rated together, as McDonald was Herzog's hand-picked successor in the GM chair – mainly so Whitey could go fishing instead of sitting in an office all day – and the two rarely made a personnel move without the other.

Finally, for the sake of drama, I'll start at the bottom and work my way up. And away we go….

9. John Claiborne – hired to succeed Devine in 1978, Claiborne's tenure in St. Louis was an unmitigated disaster. A young guy with little experience hired out of the Boston system (that was asking for trouble right there), he was overmatched in his dealings as the Cards were unable to sign a single free agent beyond such disposables as Darold Knowles in those early days of free agency. The only good move he really made was to hire Whitey Herzog in 1980.

8. Bob Howsam – Branch Rickey's handpicked choice to lead the team after Devine's first ouster, ironically Howsam's first assigned task was to fire Rickey, his mentor. While Howsam later became famous as the architect of the "Big Red Machine" in Cincinnati, his tenure in St. Louis was considerably less than stellar, as he was widely despised by the Cardinal players (Bob Uecker's impression of the prissy Howsam was the main reason Uke was included – at Howsam's insistence – in the disastrous White-and-Groat trade with the Phillies).

Besides the dealing of White and Groat, Howsam also dealt Ken Boyer to the Mets and left the Cards with no power hitter (he was counting on someone named George Cernak to provide that power) and had to scramble when the new Busch Stadium opened in 1966 to find someone – anyone – who could hit a home run.

Luckily for him, the Giants had run out of patience with Orlando Cepeda, and Howsam was able to pick up Cepeda for Ray Sadecki in mid-season. Getting back to his relationship with the Cardinal players, though, both Curt Flood and Bob Gibson have written about how they didn't like Howsam's attitude toward the players, which was strained enough to where he could only communicate with the team via memo, and could only refer to the players by uniform number (as in "tell #19 to get a haircut"). The players shed no tears when Howsam quit after the 1966 season and moved to Cincinnati.

7. Frank Lane – hired instead of Bing Devine in the mid-1950's, Lane proceeded to live up to his reputation as a compulsive trader by making deal after deal after deal, many of which made no sense. Lane is the guy who traded Bill Virdon to the Pirates after Virdon had won Rookie of the Year with the Cardinals, traded for a pitcher who had beaten the Cards five or six times in one season – only to discover that the Cards were the only team he could beat, traded for the incompetent Bobby Del Greco, and worst of all, traded fan-favorite Red Schoendienst to the Giants for Alvin Dark.

Finally, Lane was about to administer the coup de grace by trading Stan Musial to the Phillies for Robin Roberts – and at that point, Gussie Busch stepped in, pulling the plug by telling Lane any future trades would have to be cleared by him. Not long thereafter, Lane quit the Cards, but didn't quit dealing – his trade of Rocky Colavito (the home run champ) for Harvey Kuenn (the batting champ) and his trade of managers (Jimmy Dykes for Joe Gordon, if I recall correctly) were still in the future.

6. Bing Devine (the second time around) – Devine returned to the Cards in 1968, just a few years after he had been fired in mid-1964, but unfortunately his second tenure in St. Louis wasn't as successful as his first one. As successful as his deals for Bill White and Julian Javier and Lou Brock were during his first go-round, his dealing-away of Steve Carlton, Jerry Reuss, Mike Torrez, and others directly led to the collapse of the 1960's Cardinal dynasty (as Bob Gibson wrote in "Stranger to the Game", by 1971 the Cards had become just another good team).

In Devine's defense, Gussie Busch's intransigence led to the Carlton and Reuss trades – Carlton over money, Reuss over the facial-hair issue - but nobody forced Devine to make some of the other disastrous trades of the 1970's. By the mid-1970's, the Cards weren't even a good team. Devine, however, may have been the most beloved of Cardinal GMs (not counting Musial, who holds a special place in in everyone's heart unrelated to his tenure as GM) and came back to the Cards in the 1990's, working as a special consultant until his death at age 90.

5. Dal Maxvill – Maxie, the former Cardinals shortstop-turned-coach, was the surprise choice as Cards' GM in 1985, after the firing of Joe McDonald, and he started off well, making the deals for Jack Clark and John Tudor. Subsequent deals didn't work as well, though, and the team's hardballing of Clark following the 1987 season backfired, with Clark signing with the Yankees and the Cards forced to sign Bob Horner (for more money than Clark had wanted!) as his replacement, a signing that Herzog didn't even know about until he read about it in the paper.

With Gussie Busch's influence on the team waning, Herzog's power also waned – and it eventually resulted in Herzog's leaving the team in mid-1990, as the Cards eventually finished in last place that season – their only last-place finish since 1918. In the 1990's, Maxvill was never able to get the Cards over the hump, as he was hamstrung by the brewery in the post-Gussie years, and finally was fired after telling off August Busch III (a story that Joe Torre tells in his autobiography).

4. Stan Musial – Stan's ranking as high as this might be a surprise to some, but it's hard to argue with a guy who wins a World Series in his only year as GM. Stan's greatest strength was in that having a good team, he had the good sense to leave them alone and let them play ball – he only made two real deals, the trade for Roger Maris before the 1967 season and the mid-season pickup of pitcher Jack Lamabe. When asked why he didn't watch the waiver wire much, Stan is said to have replied, "If they can't help their old teams, what makes you think they could help us?"

3. Bing Devine (the first time around) – the years 1957 to 1964 were the years that made Bing Devine's reputation, as he took over a team that was left in shambles after the Trader Frank Lane era and made several good deals (the aforementioned White, Javier, and Brock deals) that jump-started the 1960's Cardinal dynasty. Even then, though, Devine was somewhat hamstrung by Gussie Busch – which is why the Cards wound up hiring Solly Hemus as manager in 1959 instead of Johnny Keane, who would finally get his chance in 1961.

Devine will, of course, be forever remembered for Brock-for-Broglio, as well he should be – but, as mentioned earlier, his disastrous deals in his second tenure do tend to tarnish der Bingle's reputation. It's ironic to note, by the way, that while Devine is credited with building both the 1960's Cardinal dynasty and the 1969 Miracle Mets, he never actually won a World Series as GM – although he did get a ring from the Cardinal players in 1964.

In a famous anecdote, during the players' meeting to discuss postseason shares, Ken Boyer stood up and said, "After all that's happened, it would be an insult to give Bing money – but we should at least give him a ring." Bob Uecker immediately leaped to his feat and said, "I'll call him!"

2. Whitey Herzog/Joe McDonald – the tandem, Herzog was elevated from the manager's chair after the firing of the incompetent-and-outmatched John Claiborne in late 1980, and took the job only on the condition that he could step down any time he wanted to without jeopardizing his job as manager.

Turning the reins over to Red Schoendienst for the rest of the 1980 season, Herzog scouted his farm system and made his plans for the big turnover ("Whitey Shuffles the Cards") in the winter of 1980 - that famous week's worth of deals that ended the Ted Simmons era and brought the Cards such players as Darrell Porter and Bruce Sutter.

His later deals for Joaquin Andujar, Ozzie Smith, and Lonnie Smith set the stage for 1982, when Herzog brought in McDonald to handle the front office duties and concentrated full-time on his dugout chores. After all, Whitey always said he hated spending all his time locked up in an office with player agents when he could be out fishing.

The Herzog/McDonald tandem worked well, but things began to fall apart in 1983, when the drug problems and the lack of pitching forced the disastrous Hernandez-for-Allen trade on June 15. This trade is generally considered the second-worst deal in Cardinal history, eclipsed only by Carlton-for-Wise.

Then, McDonald was fired after the 1984 season when David Green went into rehab and McDonald neglected to inform Gussie Busch of the occurrence before Busch heard about it on the news. Once McDonald was gone and Maxvill was in, Herzog's influence seemed to wane, and ultimately (although it took nearly six more years) Herzog quit in mid-1990, a move that is still puzzling and controversial to this day.

1. Walt Jocketty – the most successful GM in Cards history, as the team went to the postseason seven times in his 13 years at the helm. The Cards only won two pennants in those years, while Herzog won three – but those three pennant years for Whitey were the only times his teams ever made the postseason.

Jocketty was regarded as perhaps the most honest general manager in a field largely populated by thieves, liars, and incompetents; it's been said and written (most notably by Buzz Bissinger in "Three Nights in August") that Jocketty would never make a deal by withholding information about a player that might possibly kill the deal – and yet, it's remarkable how many deals Jocketty was able to make to pick up valuable players for young players, and how remarkably few of those deals ever came back to hurt the Cards.

In recent years, of course, Jocketty's track record began to become tarnished as it became harder and harder for him to make a good deal any more – perhaps the other GM's had become wary – and it became well-nigh impossible, under ownership's budget restraints, for the Cards to either sign a marquee (not Marquis) free agent or keep the free agents they had.

We saw this beginning, actually, after the 2002 season when Jocketty traded for pitcher Chuck Finley, a deal which was vital to the team's division-winning effort that year, but was unable to persuade him to return for the 2003 season. Although the team won 105 games and the NL pennant in 2004 and an additional 100 games in 2005, it seems as if that was the breakwater point in Jocketty's tenure.

From there, Cardinal deals seemed to be more of the "scrap-heap" variety – some of which worked (Tony Womack, for instance) and some of which did not (Kip Wells). His most debated recent trade, the trade of Dan Haren, Kiko Calero, and Daric Barton to the A's for Mark Mulder, seems to have been the last straw for many fans, although the deterioration of relationships in the front office is being cited for his recent dismissal as GM.

Ironic, indeed, that three of the best GM's in team history (Jocketty, Herzog, and Devine) were eventually ousted as a result of front-office/ownership politics which saw them stripped of much of their power and influence.

At any rate, there you have it – the Cardinal general managers for the past 50 years, from worst to first – and except for Claiborne, who couldn't do anything right, even those lower on the list had their moments.

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