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:
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:
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.]
I love this story, and all your Giants writings. I got on the bus for the Giants and baseball in mid-1971 and having the backstory like this is like a late Christmas present.
Posted by: achiappanza at January 5, 2006 7:03 AM
I too loved this story Steve and your Giants articles. I got my first glove in the spring of '71 and chose the Giants as my team, despite living in the East Bay, because I was born in SF and lived there until mid-68, transplanting over to a lovely retirement/industrial EB town. As I am a second generation American, my first generation immigrant father wasn't into following any of the major sports, so I didn't have a household of fellow Giants fans, I only had a couple of fellow Giants fans at school to commisserate with during the 70's, so this article is nice for giving me the backdrop of what came for the Giants just before I started following them.
So apparently Stoneham went senile sometime just before the 1971 season began, based on the timeline of the horrible trades that decimated the Giants chances while I was following them. If we at least had Foster instead of Kingman, perhaps the teams would have been better during the mid-70's and if we had Perry still, perhaps we would have been competitive.
Keep up the great work! I'm curious, did you ever listen to Jerry Gordon's Golden Age of Comedy that usually came on KSFO after the night games at home? I loved that show but there's nothing like that on anymore that I know of.
Posted by: biasedgiantsfanatic at January 5, 2006 1:47 PM
I hadn't remembered Jerry Gordon's Golden Age of Comedy until now. Yes! I listened to a lot of the great stuff on KSFO: old radio programs from the 1940s, Jean Shepard stories. Radio could be great then, before it got all "programmed."
Posted by: Steve Treder at January 5, 2006 4:50 PM
Great stuff, Steve, and boy do you bring back some memories. Apparently we're about the same age, although I grew up in a household where no one else ever cared a whit about sports and I don't have any memories of following professional sports before 1967, when I avidly followed the Raiders' 13-1 season. I lived in Oakland, but when I finally turned on to sports I followed all the local teams.
That 1971 season... I have a really rotten memory, but at that time my young mind was still capable of vividly latching onto some things and retaining them, and I'm sure I have more bits and pieces of memories from 1971 than from any other year. Vida Blue seemed to pitch nothing but shutouts the first half of the season, hitting the All-Star break at 17-3. But it's that Giants' start that is particularly seared into my memory.
This is all from memory; I'll check Retrosheet later. If what I write turns out all to be bunk, it just means my memory is even rottener than I'd thought. But here are a few things I think I remember:
As you wrote, they couldn't seem to lose in April and May. Mays seemed to have a last flowering of greatness; hammering game-winning hits into the Candlestick wind. I assume that 37-14 record you reference was where they stood at the end of May.
The local writers loved to go on about the Giants supposed annual "June Swoon," and that year it arrived with a vengeance. Starting promptly on June 1, they lost 7 straight games. I seem to remember that they turned right around and won the next 7, including 2 against the Cubs and a 5-games-in-48-hours sweep against the Padres (twi-night doubleheader, day game on Saturday, Sunday doubleheader). In one of those Padres games, perhaps the Friday nightcap, Jerry Johnson came on to protect a 5-4 lead in the ninth, and crushed me by giving up 5 runs, I think including a Nate Colbert grand slam. But the Giants proceeded to put up 5 runs in the bottom of the 9th to come out with a 10-9 win. I may be mixing my memories here, but I think the only two outs made during the winning rally were foulouts by none other than Willie Mays and Willie McCovey, with the lesser players providing the comeback.
I think that was a brief respite from the June swoon, not a banishing of it. I remember that for the last 4 months of the season (starting June 1) the Giants actually had a losing record, surviving by just 1 game over the Dodgers, having a mediocre winning percentage like maybe .532. But win they did.
I'm ardently and exclusively an A's fan these days; with "maturity" it seems to be harder to keep multiple, promiscuous, rather conflicting loyalties, and the Billy Martin hiring and sale to the Haas family sealed my rooting interests for good. But to this day I can't remember who I would have been rooting for in the 1971 World Series, had both the Giants and A's got in. Alas, both were unceremoniously dumped in the playoffs, even though the Giants had dominated the Pirates during the regular season.
Don't know how I ever got any homework done listening to all those damn ballgames... Thanks for providing the excuse for me to ramble on like this.
Posted by: Faust at January 5, 2006 6:20 PM
OK, now I've checked Retrosheet and I see I got some things wrong, and some right. The Giants' 37-14 record was indeed through May 31, after which they lost 8 of 9, not 7 straight as I wrote. Also, the Giants' 7-game winning streak was later in the month, not right after the dismal start. And their eventual winning percentage was a respectable .556, although their record from June 1 forward was only 53-58. But I remembered the 5-game Padres series mostly right. Nate Colbert actually led off that 9th inning with a home run; it was Bob Barton who capped the rally with a grand slam off Johnson. (The perils of being a closer, although we didn't call them that at the time: this game is my definitive memory of Jerry Johnson.) And in the Giants' winning 5-run rally in the bottom of the inning, the only two outs were indeed foulouts by Mays and McCovey.
Posted by: Faust at January 5, 2006 6:52 PM
The Giants always had problems at the major league level but Carl Hubbell belongs in the Hall of Fame simply for his work as the Giants farm director for many years
Posted by: T.R. Sullivan at January 6, 2006 6:02 AM
"The Giants always had problems at the major league level but Carl Hubbell belongs in the Hall of Fame simply for his work as the Giants farm director for many years."
I'm inclined to agree with this. The productivity of the Giants' minor league system from essentially 1945 through 1975 was staggering.
Posted by: Steve Treder at January 6, 2006 9:19 AM
1. I would've quoted Russ Hodges' opening as How Ya doin' everybody.
2. We used to bring a "We Want Ron" banner to Candlestick because it seemed they never played Ron Hunt.
3. Gene Nelson originated and hosted the comedy hour on KSFO when he was still doing the evening shift.
4. I was sure the A's and Giants were going to meet in the '71 series.
5. The Giants had another big crop of talented newcomers in '73 to go with the few holdovers from '71.
6. Like the poster above, I'd rather go see the A's today.
p.s. to Steve: I got my first Strat-O-Matic teams in '66 and I got Cap Peterson's autograph (still have it, he was also my personal favorite, oddly enough) at camera day that same year.
Posted by: Chris at January 6, 2006 3:02 PM
"I would've quoted Russ Hodges' opening as How Ya doin' everybody."
No, no, no. Wrong. It was distinctly "how're," in his friendly Ohio chain-smoker's brogue.
"We used to bring a 'We Want Ron' banner to Candlestick because it seemed they never played Ron Hunt."
Were you the same family that brought the "Tito to Fresno, We Want Arnold" banner in 1973?
"Gene Nelson originated and hosted the comedy hour on KSFO when he was still doing the evening shift."
Remember when he was Emperor Gene Nelson, on KYA in the early 60s?
"I was sure the A's and Giants were going to meet in the '71 series."
Not me. It was pretty clear that both teams had peaked early. Blue kind of coasted in the second half, and the Giants got in on bailing wire and fumes. I was just glad the Giants didn't get swept. Did you see McCovey's HR in the first playoff game?
"The Giants had another big crop of talented newcomers in '73 to go with the few holdovers from '71."
They sure did. That was the Matthews/Thomasson/Ontiveros vintage.
"Like the poster above, I'd rather go see the A's today."
I like the A's, and I root for them. But the Giants will always be my team.
"I got my first Strat-O-Matic teams in '66 and I got Cap Peterson's autograph (still have it, he was also my personal favorite, oddly enough) at camera day that same year."
Cappie! Why he was my hero, I have no idea, but he was.
Posted by: Steve Treder at January 6, 2006 4:38 PM
"in his friendly Ohio chain-smoker's brogue."
Did you see the cover of the record Chesterfield put out of Russ's call of the Miracle of Coogan's Bluff (it's on display at the Cooperstown exhibit at the Oakland Museum). It depicts Russ yelling "the Giants win the pennant" while waving a cigarette.
Were you the same family that brought the "Tito to Fresno, We Want Arnold" banner in 1973?
Actually, (until we got driver's licenses) it was me and two friends from junior high school in Oakland, and we used to take the bus SF, then walk from the Transbay Terminal and catch the Muni ballpark express to Candlestick. By '70 we were making "Tito" banners.
"Remember when he was Emperor Gene Nelson, on KYA in the early 60s?"
"It was pretty clear that both teams had peaked early." But it was the "Year of the Fox, and the Giants are going to do it this year" (I still have the retrospective record KSFO put out that year with that promo). And the A's, as it turned out, were only a year away. They actually gave out passes at my high school to kids who said they were going to attend the first A's home playoff game in '71. I got one -- and actually went to the game.
"I like the A's, and I root for them. But the Giants will always be my team."
Ten years ago I would've said the same thing. But today it would be the opposite. The Giants of today are not the Giants of my youth or even the Giants of the Lurie years. My family always has a much better time in the working-class atmosphere of the Coliseum than it does at Ma Bell Park.
As for Cappie Peterson, I think he hit a game-winning pinch-hit HR in '65 and caught my imagination forever. I still can't believe he died so young.
Posted by: Chris at January 8, 2006 1:10 AM
Loved this article-another young player you developed was Gary Maddox, who in 72 you brought up and put him all over the OF,Bonds and Henderson even moved to CF for a time as Maddox was brought up to play CF(soon after Mays was traded to NY) than shifted to LF and even RF before settlnig again in CF-this is an odd thing to do with a young OF(you also seemed to bounce Kingman all over the place-although, with him i guess his job was to mash the ball, not play defense)anyway Maddox was traded after starting out the 75 season at .135 in 17 games, still he was only 25 years old, and had hit .266,.319, and .284 averaging around 10 hr and 20 sb's a season in his first 3 years...not bad for a young player in the 70's...you did get Willie Montanez for him to play 1B(replacing a legend McCovey after the Kingman,Ed Goodson experiment in 74 seemed to fail) so what does Montanez do-he hits around .310 in in 185 games between 75 and 76 and is promptly traded to Atlanta for Darrel Evans(Marty Perez) and Evans has a solid career in SF...so if you say Maddox was traded for Evans than I believe both Philly and SF got solid players for the rest of the 70's and the first half of the 80's...
A side note, the Al Gallagher you mentioned(who actually has the longest given name in the baseball encyclopedia-Alan Mitchell Edward George Patrick Henry Gallagher) or "dirty Al" is the current manager of the independant team here in KC the T-Bones...
Posted by: Greg Schaum at January 9, 2006 10:12 AM
Steve, thanks so much for the fascinating article. Growing up in a Sacramento suburb, I distinctly remember following the Giants in the '71 season and being thrilled that we finally won the division and beat the hated Dodgers. I was only fifteen, and there was no internet, and certainly the local sports coverage wasn't as extensive as it would have been in SF, so your information really helps fill in the blanks. Thank you so much for bringing back some terrific memories!
Posted by: Lyle at January 16, 2006 5:55 AM
yeah, my coming of age as a baseball/Giants fan coincided precisely with their '70's decline. Watching the Dodgers succeed while my Giants failed probably has left a lasting mark in my being. It was interesting, though, to find a telling statement in the book about the '65 Twins, "Cool of the Evening," which said that the main difference between the Dodgers of that era and the Giants was Ron Perranoski, the Dodgers terrific left-handed reliever.
Posted by: Brad Owens at May 31, 2006 11:29 PM