“Perhaps the best thing (Bud) Selig could do to improve things is get rid of General Manager Jim Baumer and Manager Alex Grammas.” – columnist Dennis Punzel, November 4, 1977.
This week in Milwaukee Brewers history (November 19, 1977), Selig did just that. He fired Grammas and Al Widmar as director of player development, plus accepted Baumer’s resignation. This front office housecleaning became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.”
Baumer had an interesting background as a player, to say the least. He’s the answer to a trivia question – who played in the majors in the 1940’s and 1960’s, but not the 1950’s? He came up with the Chicago White Sox in 1949 at age 18, had 10 at bats and went back to the minors. He didn’t see big league action again until 1961 with the Cincinnati Reds. His two stints covered a grand total of 18 games and 34 at bats. Baumer went on to play in Japan until 1967 when he retired.
Baumer became a scout for Houston and then Milwaukee, where he was promoted to director of scouting. When GM Jim Wilson left after the 1974 season to become the first Executive Director of the Major League Scouting Bureau, Baumer took over. But through three years with his leadership the Brewers posted a 201-284 record, which just happened to be the worst of any active GM with three years on the job.
Grammas had been a reserve infielder during his playing career during the 1950’s-60’s. He went into coaching immediately afterward and managed the Pittsburgh Pirates during the last five games of the 1969 season. He landed the Brewers manager job in late 1975 as a replacement for the recently fired Del Crandall. During Crandall’s years at the helm, the Brewers started moving toward .500 with a 76-86 record in 1974. But 1975 was a different story – numerous injuries and a lack of respect from players toward Crandall led to a second half collapse and 68-94 finish.
Selig said Grammas had been highly recommended and they felt there was no better man to lead the team. Grammas was optimistic and commented, “I feel this ball club can be improved tremendously.”
Baumer said, “I personally feel that hiring Alex could be the single most important thing in the history of the franchise. We have a lot of young players and he’s very good with young players. I know he’s the guy who could pull it together for all of us.”
Not the Guy
Except Grammas couldn’t pull it together. The team went 66-95 in his first season at the helm – two less wins than in 1975 under Del Crandall. The following season they tacked on one more win with a 67-95 record, giving the team a 137-191 record with Grammas as manager.
Along the way, Grammas was called out in the press and by fans over his mishandling of players. The players joined in and took a few jabs as well. Probably the most notable stab came from veteran Mike Hegan in the summer of 1977. Hegan expressed anger over a lack of playing time. He grumbled, “As a manager, Alex makes a pretty good third base coach.”
The Brewers released Hegan and he retired, saying his comments were not made with malice. Hegan hoped to unite the team, not divide it. But the divide had been growing for some time. Grammas brought the Cincinnati Reds dress code to Milwaukee that required players to remain clean shaven, so Gorman Thomas and George Scott had to ditch their Fu Manchus. When Hank Aaron played his final game on October 3, 1976, Grammas pulled him for pinch runner Jim Gantner. Aaron had hoped to score one more run to break a career tie for runs scored with Babe Ruth. Grammas claimed ignorance of Aaron’s desire and the record. He was vindicated a bit when Gantner failed to score and quipped, “Look at it this way. He (Aaron) wouldn’t have scored anyway.”
After Hegan’s comments went public, Grammas shot back that players on every major league roster “copped out” but wouldn’t name anyone specific on the Brewers. Even though he was hired on a three year contract, it seemed doubtful he would make it that far.
Selig and Baumer met with Grammas and his coaches shortly after Hegan’s comments to discuss the state of the club. The annual summer collapse was happening again – the one where the Brewers went from being around .500 to tanking in the second half. Grammas and Baumer didn’t have too many fans at that point and were still getting called out in the press for not having a clear direction for the franchise.
Baumer caught a lot of flak for letting 19 year old pitching prospect Rick O’Keefe go in the deal to get lefty journeyman Mike Caldwell. Unfortunately Baumer wasn’t in the job long enough to see his trade work out to the tune of 22 wins by Caldwell in 1978. He also had been railed over his trade of catcher Darrell Porter to Kansas City that left Charlie Moore as the main backstop.
The Solution to all the Brewers Problems
Baumer’s name dropped off in newspaper stories in early November, and he hadn’t been mentioned much in the previous month. Jim Gantner blasted him in early October about being promised a chance to make the team in spring training, then “getting only five at bats.”
Columnist Stew Rieckman also roasted Baumer as well as Selig over having “the solution to all the Brewers problems.” His column about the statewide search for a new team logo was bitingly sarcastic: no trades, no spending on the free agent market – just a new logo to inspire the team to greatness.
One of the last mentions of Baumer before his firing came on November 6. The baseball free agent re-entry draft had just happened, allowing 14 teams (13 new teams and the free agent’s former team) to go through open bidding for the player. The Brewers had been successful in landing Sal Bando the previous fall in the re-entry draft.
Baumer and Selig listed 14 players in the draft, with their top selections being slugging Minnesota outfielder Larry Hisle and his teammate Lyman Bostock. The two expressed a desire to sign together with a team. Catcher Ray Fosse was also on the list, and he eventually signed with the Brewers on New Year’s Eve.
“We feel we have a good chance of signing both,” Baumer said of Bostock and Hisle.
“If they can get Lyman, I’d walk to Milwaukee to sign,” Hisle said.
Ultimately the Brewers didn’t get Bostock and Hisle signed with Milwaukee anyway. He spurned a reportedly similar offer from Texas. Much of Hisle’s decision came down to the way he was courted by the Brewers – including Selig himself. Sal Bando and Cecil Cooper gave Hisle a tour of the city and he later admitted “this is the type of area I can fit into. I’m not a big city type.”
Selig also mentioned that being able to sign higher tier free agents was contagious, although he admitted that after landing Hisle, the team would not also be able to pursue Bostock due to economic constraints. Selig also told reporters that Hisle was not a one-man team – but this one man would slot in nicely with Bando, Cooper, Don Money, Robin Yount, and Sixto Lezcano.
Little by little, a contender was being built – but a few more pieces needed to be put into place to get there. But it was becoming apparent that Jim Baumer would not be the one to acquire those pieces. Nowhere in the flurry of activity surrounding Hisle or the re-signing of Money was a mention of Baumer. Selig was the only one speaking to the press at that point, with comments such as this one-liner that was perhaps a tip of the upcoming front office shakeup:
“Many of the things that have gone on here for eight years will not go on in the future,” Selig said.
The Future is Now
Grammas didn’t see his dismissal coming and thought it was a bit late since the season had been over for nearly two months. He went back to his old job as a coach under Sparky Anderson with the Reds. Baumer had an offer to remain with the team in a scouting capacity, but by mid-December said that he didn’t see any available openings. He eventually took a job scouting for the Philadelphia Phillies.
Within 24 hours of the front office massacre, Selig named California Angels GM Harry Dalton as Baumer’s replacement. Dalton felt his role with the Angels would have been lessened due to the hiring of Buzzy Bavasi as an assistant, and saw it as an opportunity to move on. Dalton had an excellent track record of being behind the success of the Baltimore Orioles from 1966-71, before moving into the job with California. He was named Executive of the Year in 1970.
Dalton received a six year contract and named off a long list of areas he wanted to address. His key areas were to upgrade the farm club, fill the holes on the big league roster, and bring some maturity to the pitching staff. Dalton didn’t feel he needed to hire a manager right away.
Dalton said, “Unlike some of you, I don’t think there’s an urgency to name a manager. I have no self-imposed deadlines. I’d rather take 45-50 days and find the right man.”
The right man turned out to be 52 year old George “Bambi” Bamberger, hired away from his role as pitching coach for the Baltimore Orioles. When the announcement came in January, 1978, Dalton said Bamberger was his only candidate for the job. Bamberger had coached 18 twenty game winners with Baltimore and six Cy Young Award winners. He had a reputation for bringing out the best in young pitchers and developing them into long-term success stories.
It was Bamberger who noticed the absence of Gorman Thomas from the Brewers roster and asked where the big kid was who loved to catch the ball. Turned out he was with Texas, sent over the previous October as the “player to be named later” from the August trade with the Rangers for Ed Kirkpatrick. He was out of options, so the Brewers could no longer send him back down to the minors. But he never played an inning with the Rangers and found his way home to Milwaukee in the sping of 1978.
When Thomas returned he expressed an opinion that Baumer and Grammas had banished him to Spokane the previous season as punishment. “That was meant as torture,” he said. But it didn’t end up being a bad experience. Thomas told reporters that he wound up having fun playing for the “Orange Crush” – a team nicknamed for their prodigious hitting. He acknowledged a big change in atmosphere with the new Brewers leadership, and was grateful for a second chance to prove himself.
Thomas wasn’t the only one with a second chance. Other players like Moore, Gantner, Caldwell, Lezcano, Moose Haas, and Lary Sorensen all had a chance to shine with Bamberger running the show. Under Bambi, the Brewers focused on pitching and had a freewheeling style at the plate. “Bambi’s Bombers” soared to a 93-69 record in 1978, good for third place in the tough AL East. This started a five year run of contending for the American League East pennant on an annual basis, and a World Series berth in 1982. Dalton remained as GM until 1991 and ushered in another era of winning baseball for the team in 1987.
Oh – and that new logo? That worked out pretty well too!