The Rebuilding of the Giants, 1969-70
I came to know baseball in the early-to-mid 1960s, in the San Francisco Bay Area, in a houseful of Giants' fans. I can't remember not hearing the Giants' game on the radio, ubiquitously, in the house or in the car ...
"How're you doing, everybody? This is Russ Hodges, along with Lon Simmons, welcoming you to another broadcast of San Francisco Giants baseball ..."
Coming of age as a fan of this team in this period was, it's fair to say, a mixed blessing. On the one hand, I got to enjoy the thrilling exploits of a core of brilliant stars the likes of which few ball clubs in history have ever amassed: Hall of Famers Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry, and Orlando Cepeda were all there. On the other hand, for all their talent, the Giants of that period displayed a maddening incapacity to get over the hump, to fill that last remaining hole or two in the lineup and become a great ball club instead of a very good one. After winning a pennant in extremely exciting fashion in 1962, the Giants reeled off a sequence of seasons in which they won 88, 90, 95, 93, 91, 88, and 90 games - and finished third, fourth, second, second, second, second, and second.
Being a Giants' fan in those days was - let's see, how best to put it: it was like going out on an elegant, romantic dinner-and-dancing date with a stunningly gorgeous woman, and then going back to her place - and on her doorstep, she gives you a quick handshake, a peck on the cheek, and a good night, buster. Yes, there are worse ways to spend an evening, but there might well have been, shall we say, more satisfying conclusions as well.
Winning Now, the Stoneham Way
The Giants were owned by Horace Stoneham, then in his early sixties. Stoneham - bald, round, bespectacled, publicity-shunning - was a mild, genial fellow who'd inherited the ball club from his father in 1935, and running the Giants was, quite literally, the family business, his life's work. Stoneham never employed a General Manager in the modern sense; working in close consultation with a close-knit team of executives, most of whom had worked for him for decades (including Rosy Ryan, Tom Sheehan, Carl Hubbell, and Stoneham's nephew Chub Feeney), Stoneham oversaw everything, and authorized every major player transaction.
Even to a very young fan like me, riding his bike to the A&W in Keds and hand-me-down jeans, it was obvious that Stoneham and his management team understood where they were in the success cycle: they had a core of superstars, and it was time to make hay while the sun shines, to win now. The Giants "got" that. Their problem, which so frustrated my brother and me, was that they didn't seem to have a clue as to how to actually patch those last few remaining holes on the roster.
The first thing the Giants spent the mid-1960s frantically dealing for was the perfect left-handed pitcher. In a 48-month period following their '62 pennant, the Giants acquired:
Some of these southpaws did quite well, and others bombed. Some were bargains, and some cost the Giants dearly (I'm looking at you, Ray). But by golly, they were all left-handed!
The other thing the Giants thought they needed was the ultimate veteran pinch-hitter. It seemed between 1963 and 1969 that a faded star's decline phase wasn't officially complete unless and until the Giants created a spot for him on the end of their bench:
- In '63, 32-year-old Norm Larker, for the final stint of his career
- In '64, 34-year-old Del Crandall
- In '64, 37-year-old Duke Snider, for the final stint of his career
- In '65, 34-year-old Ed Bailey
- In '67, 33-year-old Norm Siebern
- In '67, 36-year-old Dick Groat, for the final stint of his career
- In '69, 35-year-old Leon Wagner, for the final stint of his career
This Geezer of the Year club put up an aggregate line of .200/.296/.281 in 544 at-bats, for a combined OPS+ of 63.
Still, the issue with both of these patterns wasn't so much that they were bad moves in and of themselves. (Well, besides the Cepeda-for-Sadecki trade, anyway.) The issue was that this focus on southpaws and senior citizens ignored the vastly larger problems festering away on the roster: the offensive sinkholes at shortstop and second base, as well as (usually, and shockingly) left field and right field. Season after season went by, and the team's core of prodigious sluggers had no one on base to drive in except one other. The Jesus Alous and Hal Laniers kept racking up the at-bats, while management kept obsessing over the arrangement of the deck chairs and remaining oblivious to the icebergs. All the while, the Giants kept falling just short of the pennant.
And so, while forlornly reading in every October's sports sections about the Dodgers' or Cardinals' exploits in the World Series, my brother and I drew the conclusion that Stoneham and his doddering cronies had skill at signing and developing young talent, but were completely inept at the tasks of making trades and fashioning the full major league roster. We took to deriving bitter laughs from role-playing games, in which one of us would be Stoneham (or better yet, Chub Feeney - the name alone was gut-busting), and the other would be a rival GM, and we'd conduct a trade negotiation. The Giants would invariably wind up swapping Marichal and McCovey for Gerry Arrigo and Floyd Robinson, or some such. "Are ya sure ya don't want me to throw in Jim Ray Hart there too, young fella?"
Rebuilding, the Stoneham Way
And so imagine our horror when, during the December 1969 winter meetings, it became obvious that the Giants, following their fifth consecutive second place finish, had decided it was finally time to shake things up. They swung three significant trades in a week's time:
I was aghast, gnashing my braced teeth and wailing my angelic little voice in apoplexy. I understood that none of the talent they'd surrendered was star-quality, but Sadecki, Bolin, and Herbel were useful major league pitchers. And what did they get? Frank Regurb - Frank Rergreb - Frank who?!? And Bob who?!? And what are they trying to do, corner the market on lousy utility outfielders?!?
It got worse. The Giants struggled through the early part of the 1970 season, playing under .500 ball for an extended period - an experience I had never known as a fan. Worst of all, their problem in early 1970 was clearly and abundantly their pitching! As of June 5, 1970, the Giants had scored 304 runs, or 5.7 per game, far and away the most in baseball - but they had allowed 344 runs, 6.5 per game, the most in baseball by an even wider margin. Their won-lost record was a dreary 24-29, barely ahead of the hapless San Diego Padres for last place. Wouldn't they want to have Sadecki, Bolin, and Herbel back now!
I was inconsolable. Adding to my misery, in late May of 1970 the Giants traded Frank Linzy, their longtime relief ace, with over 300 bullpen appearances in his career, to the Cardinals for Jerry Johnson. Yes, the Jerry Johnson, the one with a grand total of 56 major league games under his belt, and a won-lost record of 12-17. The immortal Jerry Johnson!
It got still worse. In December of 1970, they traded second baseman Ron Hunt - the one middle infielder they had who could actually hit a little, for whom they'd given up Tom Haller a couple of years earlier - they traded Hunt to the Expos, for none other than Dave McDonald. Dave who, you ask? Well, so did we. Dave McDonald, it turned out, was a 27-year-old left-handed-hitting first baseman with the whopping figure of 9 major league games on his resume. So not only was he lousy, he was a left-handed-hitting first baseman.
Repeat, a left-handed-hitting first baseman. You've got Willie McCovey on your roster, at his monumental peak. What in the world are you doing trading a perfectly good regular second baseman for a second-rate, minor league, left-handed-hitting first baseman?!?
Amazing as it may seem, it got still worse. During spring training in 1971, the Giants sold McDonald, back to the Expos. Staggered by this latest development, I reeled. Trying to comprehend it, I sat alone in my room, miserably drawing moustaches on Pee Chee athletes, desperately clinging to the last fringe of sanity. I marveled that the Giants had surrendered Ron Hunt in exchange for the market cash value of Dave McDonald!
This was it. The apocalypse was upon us. The Giants were going down the tubes, their days as a winning team finished. And worst of all, they'd done it to themselves, squandering what supporting cast they had around their core of stars, in exchange for a pocket full of lint. As the 1971 season opened, I held my hands over my eyes, barely summoning the courage to peek through my fingers at the carnage I would surely behold.
Then the season began. The '71 Giants blasted out of the gate. They won and won, with reckless abandon, surging to 12-2. Then 18-5. Then 27-9. Then 37-14! It was their best start in my memory, their best start in fact since the hallowed season of 1962. They cooled off after that white-hot start (how could they not have?), but had enough momentum to win the division, in exhilarating fashion, over the hated Dodgers.
I was, of course, ecstatic. All was forgiven.
You Mean ... It Worked?!?
But in the forgiving, I was forced to confront some perplexing questions. Why hadn't the Giants struggled in 1971? Was it just dumb luck on their part, or had I been missing something important in my gloomy assessment of the 1969-70 transactions? Could it be that the Scotch-pickled Stoneham and his circle of old fogey advisors actually knew what they were doing?
I was forced to re-examine their moves in a new light, and I came to form an assessment that I've pretty much held ever since: while I don't think I would have done it exactly that way, there was indeed a distinct method to their madness. The Giants had a clear plan of action in the 1969-70 and 1970-71 off-seasons, and they executed it with something bordering on fanatical rigor.
The sequence of trades which had so appalled me hadn't really been much of a sequence of "trades" at all. They could more accurately be described as "dumps." The moves were far less concerned with what talent they collected, than they were with clearing room, on the roster and on the payroll.
Yes, payroll mattered, even in pre-free agency days. Giants' attendance had taken a major hit upon the arrival of the A's in Oakland in 1968, and by 1969 it was painfully clear that they would need to find a way to operate with significantly less revenue. Even - really, especially - in an era in which major league team payrolls were measured in thousands instead of millions, every few thousand dollars were important. Whatever else mid-tier veterans such as Herbel, Sadecki, Bolin, Linzy, and Hunt meant to the Giants, they each meant annual salaries of at least $10,000 more than young players replacing them. That was a cost Stoneham was now unwilling to bear. Unloading them was a business move at least as much as it was a baseball move.
And from a pure baseball perspective, it also made sense to clear space on the roster for younger talent to fill the significant roles those veterans had been holding. The Giants, whatever major faults they demonstrated during Stoneham's entire 40-year tenure, were remarkably good - tremendous, actually - at producing talent with their minor league system. They had lots of it coming along in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And young players, no matter how talented and well-developed they may be when coming out of the minors, require substantial playing time at the big league level to attain full competence. And even with substantial major league playing time, not all prospects, no matter how good, make the grade in the majors.
There's one and only one way to find out if talented young players will become good big leaguers, and that's to give them the opportunity to play in the majors, if not as full-time regulars, then at least in more than bench-warmer roles. The Giants, beginning in 1969, and accelerating in '70 and '71 (and beyond), provided genuine, substantial opportunities for their young talent.
A couple of the players netted in the three December '69 trades were more than mere triple-A filler: pitcher Frank Reberger and middle infielder Bob Heise were decent prospects, and both were given reasonable chances with the Giants. Jerry Johnson was also (I came to realize) a talented young player, and the Giants gave him room to develop as a relief specialist, focusing on his fastball. Another veteran traded in mid-1970, pitcher Mike McCormick, netted a young pitcher, John Cumberland, who was given a full shot.
Moreover, the freed-up roster space created opportunities for many more young talents from the Giants' own system. Pitchers Rich Robertson, Ron Bryant, Skip Pitlock, Steve Stone, and Don Carrithers were all given serious shots. Outfielder Ken Henderson, who'd gotten his initial opportunity in 1969 when shoulder problems sidelined Jim Ray Hart, was given a full chance as a regular in 1970. Catcher Dick Dietz had been used as a semi-regular for a couple of years, but in 1970 the Giants went ahead and committed to him full-time. Infielder Tito Fuentes had been up and down with the Giants for several years, but in Hunt's absence, the team gave him another opportunity as a regular second baseman in 1971. Twenty-one-year-old Chris Speier was allowed to bypass triple-A and installed as the regular shortstop in '71. Young third baseman Alan Gallagher was granted substantial playing time in '70 and '71.
Not all of these youngsters did well; indeed a few bombed. But others blossomed wonderfully. All in all, the team took some lumps, patiently suffering through some struggles, but also benefited from some pleasant surprises.
The team that scuffled through the early part of 1970 perked up and played much better over the second half of that season (a fact I only grudgingly semi-acknowledged at the time, insisting on viewing the glass as half-empty). And then the '71 Giants vanquished my negativity with their roaring start and eventual division triumph. The ball club in both '70 and '71 was an interesting blend of old and new:
- The core of veteran superstars (Mays, McCovey, Marichal, and Perry) was fraying around the edges, but still highly productive.
- One terrific young star stood out (Bobby Bonds).
- The bulk of the cast were the crew of newcomers, few of whom had played significant major league roles before 1970.
- A few veterans were deployed in supporting roles (defensive specialist Hal Lanier, relief pitchers Don McMahon and Steve Hamilton).
- In late '71, two more talented rookies arrived (first baseman-outfielder Dave Kingman and pitcher Jim Barr).
It had turned out to be, right before my eyes, an impressive demonstration of a contending ball club substantially restructuring while remaining competitive. The Giants had pulled off the kind of difficult feat that years later in my business career, in a different context but with similar meaning, was described to me as the challenge of metaphorically "rebuilding the airplane in mid-flight."
The Giants didn't do everything right, not by a long shot. They should have gotten more in the trade market for Ron Hunt than, effectively, nothing. And in May of 1971 they made a pointless, ridiculously foolish trade, of George Foster for Frank Duffy. That fall they made another, giving up Gaylord Perry and Duffy for an already-fading Sam McDowell.
The Giants made mistakes, and they continued to suffer poor attendance and its financial constraints. In 1972-73, they were forced to surrender Mays, McCovey, and Marichal in salary dumps. Before Stoneham finally sold his beloved ball club following the 1975 season, it would have more downs than ups. Still, through it all, as late as 1973 the Giants were putting a highly competitive team on the field. Horace Stoneham and his executive team certainly had their weaknesses, but on balance, they truly did know what they were doing.
Steve Treder is a staff writer for The Hardball Times, has presented papers to the Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and had numerous articles published in Nine: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture. A lifelong San Francisco Giants' fan, he is Vice President for Strategic Development for Western Management Group, a compensation consulting firm headquartered in Los Gatos, California.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]