Off The Wall And Over The Top

Baseball, perhaps more than any other sport, has had its share of colorful owners. The baseball world lost one of the most colorful this past week with the passing of "The Boss."

Bill James called it the "Halo Effect." It's the tendency to turn the recently-deceased into angels. And he didn't mean Gene Autry or Lyman Bostock or Donnie Moore. He was referring to the near-deification in the public eye and mind of someone who has passed away. James originally coined the term in conjunction with Hall of Fame voting, pointing out that some players' vote totals have received a boost in the election process just after they died. (Herb Pennock was an example, he was voted in a couple of months after he died.) However, it's not always a lock that a baseball figure will benefit from the Halo Effect, and it's not limited to Hall of Fame voting. Let's look in on a half dozen or so individuals who did not have, or deserve, the Halo Effect.

Chris von der Ahe was a brewer who consumed almost as much as he made. He once told a group of visitors that Sportsman's Park had the largest diamond in the world. When told that all baseball diamonds were the same size, he claimed that he had the largest infield in the world. When the Browns refused to play an exhibition game against the black Cuban Giants, he ripped the team because they were refusing to play out of spite towards him, not due to "honest prejudice." (He really said that.) Of course, the players might have had something there… von der Ahe was notorious for fining players for routine errors. He also withheld the Browns' share of World Series receipts not one, not two, but three times, mainly because they had the gall to lose the Series. Von der Ahe was the owner of the St. Louis Browns, and he was often off the wall or over the top in his actions and pronouncements.  

Barney Dreyfuss was a hard-boiled cuss. Even Fred Lieb, who almost never said anything bad about anybody, said he was hard-boiled. Despite the fact that Dreyfuss built one of the great teams of the turn of the last century, he didn't get any Halo Effect for the Hall, even though he died in 1932, shortly before the whole Hall idea got started. (He wasn't voted in until 2007, when everyone who knew him was also long dead.) Dreyfuss once got into a shouting match with a rival manager, at the ballpark, over whether or not Dreyfuss had welshed on a bet. (The famous "Hey Barney" incident.) The manager was John McGraw, who would do almost anything, but still... This same Barney Dreyfuss manipulated the National League councils in a fashion so that his flunky, Harry Pulliam, was named president of the league. Pulliam had taught Dreyfuss how to speak English, Dreyfuss then taught him how to run the NL to the Pirates' benefit. Dreyfuss was also the character who turned on his team's greatest player, Honus Wagner, when the Flying Dutchman became too old to play effectively. Nice guy, that Dreyfuss. He was owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates and he was often off the wall or over the top in his actions and pronouncements.

Horace Fogel had a checkered career as a sportswriter, manager and finally owner. As is the case with most checkers sets, he was either red (handed or necked) or black (hearted). As a sportswriter, he wrote with a stiletto dipped in battery acid and bile. As a manager, he was a better sportswriter. He tried, while running the New York Giants, to turn Christy Mathewson into a first baseman. And as an owner, he became the first of his type to get kicked out of baseball... permanently. As the front man for a group that bought the Phillies in 1909, Fogel tried to get the team's name changed to the "Live Wires." (May Danny Ozark come back as the Phillies manager if I'm making this up.) A few years later, he accused the National League and its umpires of favoring the Giants, leading to his banishment for undermining the integrity of the game. Horace Fogel was, at least in name, the owner of the Philadelphia Phillies and he was often off the wall or over the top in his actions and pronouncements.  

Emil Fuchs was a judge and a friend of the aforementioned John McGraw. He ended up running the Braves, thanks to McGraw's influence (which was considerable... Fogel wasn't too far wrong, he just flunked Diplomacy 101.) He also agreed to just about any trade McGraw wanted while he was running the Braves. As a result, it was no wonder that he wasn't satisfied with how the Braves were doing in 1929 (all their good players were in New York ), so he took over the job as manager, despite having zero baseball background. How little did he know of baseball? When one of his coaches (who really ran the team) suggested using a squeeze play, the Judge refused, stating they would win by fair means or not at all. Since the Braves lost 98 times under the Judge, it was often not at all. Finally, to top off his reign, the Judge shamelessly signed the greatest player in history, Babe Ruth, to a faux contract in 1935, in effect promising the over-the-hill Babe that he would some day manage the Braves. After serving strictly as a drawing card for about a month, the Babe was gone. Emil Fuchs was the owner of the Boston Braves and he was often off the wall or over the top in his actions and pronouncements.  

Charlie Finley... what can be said about Charlie O. that hasn't been said a thousand times before? Despite the fact that he built one of the great teams of the early and mid-1970s, he's not in the Hall and no one much seems to care. Maybe that's because... he called the Commissioner of Baseball "the village idiot," he fired Mike Andrews in the middle of the World Series for making a couple of errors (shades of Chris von der Ahe) and he also fired Ken Harrelson, making him, in effect the first valuable free agent. Maybe because, his team hated him so much that, when free agency became a reality (thanks in part to Finley trying to stiff Catfish Hunter out of $50,000), they deserted in droves from the best team in baseball. (He also hired the first designated runner, Herb Washington, neglecting to include the ability to play baseball in the job requirements.) Charlie Finley was owner of the Kansas City and Oakland Athletics (leading Connie Mack to spin like a top in his grave), and he was often off the wall or over the top in his actions and pronouncements.  

Ted Turner was the second coming of Emil Fuchs, not just with the same team, but also with the same credentials for running a baseball team. None. Like the Judge, he tried to take over as the Braves manager. However, NL President Chub Feeney would have none of that nonsense, and ordered Turner out of the dugout after one game during the 1977 season, a loss that marked the 16th consecutive such result for the Braves. Turner was also the individual who got tossed from baseball for a year for tampering with Gary Mathews, and threatened to give Commissioner Kuhn's attorney a "knuckle sandwich" (he really said that) during the proceedings. He also tried to get Andy Messersmith to change his name, not to ME109 or Focke Wulf, but to "Channel" so he could wear it above his number, which was 17. (Guess what frequency Turner's TV station was.) He also popularized the infamous "Tomahawk Chop," the stupidest and most offensive fan action since the Wave. Ted Turner was owner of the Atlanta Braves and he was often off the wall or over the top in his actions and pronouncements.

And yet, none of these six individuals could top... Andrew Freedman, owner of the New York Giants in the late 1890s and the first couple of years of the 20th Century. A Tammany Hall insider, Freedman was, in James' words, a mean S.O.B. He went through managers (including Fogel) like water. He got into shouting matches with opposing players during games. He withheld his star player's salary, causing him (it was Amos Rusie) to sit out a year. He canceled free passes to Giants games, including those of sportswriters who displeased him, notably the venerable Henry Chadwick. He sued the New York Times 25 times for libel. (Guess how many he won.) He suggested that the Brooklyn team leave the NL and go into a minor league, so that he could have greater New York all to himself. He backed a scheme whereby the entire National League would have been turned into a syndicate, a trust if you will, with (naturally) the Giants holding the largest share and, in effect, running the whole league (and not just in Horace Fogel's imagination.) He wasn't just off the wall or over the top in his actions and pronouncements, he was, also in James' words, like "George Steinbrenner on Quaaludes."  

Which is where we came in... the Halo Effect and George Steinbrenner... who was really the second coming of Andrew Freedman, and not an angel. Hey out there, have you forgotten -- the pas de deux (or trois, or however many times he fired him) with Billy Martin; the fight in the elevator with a couple of Dodgers fans during the 1981 Series; the illegal campaign contribution to Richard Nixon, which got him a two-year suspension from baseball; accusing umpire Lee Weyer of calling plays in favor of National League teams (shades of Horace Fogel), which drew him a $50,000 fine; the outburst against AL President Lee McPhail for reversing the decision in the Pine Tar Game (that was worth a quarter of a mil in fines); engendering such hatred among his players that Graig Nettles publicly stated he hoped Steinbrenner's plane would crash; alienating a much-beloved former player -- Yogi Berra; paying a sleazy gambler $40,000 to get evidence against his own player, Dave Winfield (who must have a very bad memory), an action that also bought Steinbrenner a year on the sidelines.  

In addition to all that, there was a lack of baseball knowledge shown by ordering the signing of such stiffs as Rudy May, Bob Shirley, Doyle Alexander, Ed Whitson, Britt Burns, Steve Trout, Rich Dotson, Ruben Sierra, Kenny Rogers, Kevin Brown, Hideki Irabu, Ken Phelps, Jaret Wright, Tony Womack, Rondell White, Pat Kelly, Hensley Mullins, Tony Fernandez, Steve Karsay, Jack McDowell, Mel Hall, Jesse Barfield, Felix Heredia, Chuck Knoblauch, Cecil Fielder, Carl Pavano, Jason Giambi, Jeff Weaver, Denny Nagle, Drew Henson, Hal Morris, Steve Balboni and Timothy Leary (no, not the one who's dead, according to the Moody Blues in "The Legend of a Mind," the other one), mainly because they once were big names.  

In other words, Steinbrenner committed all the combined sins of the other seven off the wall or over the top owners previously mentioned... all by himself. Plus, he added a few new ones as well. And yet, remarkably, all those wretched excesses weren't his most grievous crime against baseball. All they did was embarrass, in order, himself, the Yankees, baseball. No, the worst part of George Steinbrenner was attempting, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, to subvert the competitive charm of the game, basically by means of throwing money at it (or rather at the players) with no restraint or scruples in an era of untrammeled free agency. The only thing worse than a do-anything-to-win mentality is… a do-anything-to-win mentality with basically unlimited resources. Yeah, the Yankees won seven World Series while Steinbrenner was owner, because they could, and did, outspend their mistakes, thus grossly driving up the cost of hired hands in baseball. And for that wretched excess alone, to say nothing of his other off the wall or over the top actions, there should be no Halo Effect. Pete Rose (no angel himself) damaged baseball far less than George Steinbrenner.

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