SABR

George Weiss

This article was written by Dan Levitt.

George Weiss presided over the greatest sustained run of excellence in baseball history. Under Weiss’s leadership, from 1948 through 1960, the New York Yankees won ten pennants and seven World Series. After a slip to third place in 1959 Weiss retooled his squad and returned to the top the following season. For this accomplishment The Sporting News named him Executive the Year, the fourth time Weiss had been so honored, more than anyone else in the history of the award.

Weiss understood the importance of creating a strong organization and was not afraid to have strong, intelligent men in subordinate roles. “The entire organization bears down all the time. Every day, 12 months a year,” Weiss remarked. In today’s world of 24-hour sports channels and football coaches sleeping in their office, this may seem unremarkable. But in the 1950s, with family ownership and sportsmen owners, Weiss’s professional approach was groundbreaking.

George Martin Weiss was born on June 23, 1894, in New Haven, Connecticut, the first child of Anna and Conrad Weiss. Conrad, a German immigrant, owned a grocery store. The Weisses later added a daughter, Florence, and another son, Edwin.

While still in his teens Weiss began his career in baseball promotion. At Hillhouse High School he became the business manager for the school's baseball team. After graduation Weiss held much of the high-school baseball team together, brought in a couple of new players, and promoted his squad as a semipro team. Weiss also enrolled at Yale. When his father died Weiss quit college to help run the family grocery business and concentrate on his baseball ventures. For a venue he leased the grounds at Lighthouse Point, an amusement park just outside the New Haven city limits. By guaranteeing a purse, Weiss brought in stars such as Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson to play in Sunday exhibitions—then prohibited by the Blue Laws in New York, Massachusetts, and New Haven proper—with his semipro team.

Weiss's promotional skills made his semipro team so popular that it began siphoning off interest from New Haven's Organized Baseball team in the Eastern League. Rather than continue to struggle for the same fans, the league approached Weiss in 1919 and offered him an opportunity to buy the team for $5,000. Weiss borrowed the money and purchased the franchise. He quickly turned around the team’s on-field fortunes, and New Haven won the Eastern League pennant in 1920.

In December 1923 disaster struck Weiss and New Haven manager Wild Bill Donovan, traveling to the winter meetings in Chicago aboard the Twentieth Century Limited. Outside of Forsyth, New York the train crashed, killing Donovan and eight other passengers. Badly injured with lacerations to his back, Weiss spent the next month hospitalized in Erie, Pennsylvania, followed by a long convalescence at home.

As a Minor League operator, Weiss learned quickly that financial survival depended on player sales to Major League and higher-classification Minor League teams. He easily transferred his promotional skills to negotiating player sales, and during his tenure with New Haven he sold twenty-six players for about $300,000. Weiss’s club was also highly competitive on the field. From 1920 through 1928 New Haven won three Eastern League pennants and had only two losing seasons.

In late 1928 Jack Dunn, the principal owner of the International League’s Baltimore Orioles, died. The remaining stockholders concluded they needed an experienced baseball executive to run the franchise and turned to Weiss. Ready for a new challenge at a higher level, Weiss accepted the Baltimore offer, sold the New Haven team, and took over the Orioles. Over the next three seasons Weiss rebuilt the struggling Baltimore franchise and earned another $242,000 on player sales.1 Under his leadership the Orioles won at least 90 games each season for the next four years.

As the Depression deepened in the early 1930s, Organized Baseball relaxed the roster rules to make it advantageous for Major League teams to invest in the minors. New York Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert was one of the first to grasp the true impact of this change, which suddenly made establishing a farm system worthwhile. Late in 1931 the Yankees purchased the International League’s Newark franchise and soon thereafter announced that they intended to own or control four Minor League franchises in different classifications.2 With their commitment to a Minor League farm system, the Yankees needed someone to run it. Ruppert chose Weiss, who was only thirty-seven years old, but had already spent nearly twenty years in baseball.

Over the next several years Weiss’s farm system began graduating players like Red Rolfe, Joe Gordon, Charlie Keller and Phil Rizzuto, who would become mainstays for the Yankees dynasty from 1936 through 1943. While the Yankees were dominating the American League, their expanding farm system further testified to the excellence of the Yankees player procurement and development organization. In 1937 Newark won the International League by a record 25 1/2 games as one of the greatest Minor League teams ever. Later that year the Yankees brought another top Minor League team, the Kansas City Blues of the American Association, into the fold with a working agreement. The Yankees now possessed a ten-team farm system: four by outright ownership and six by working agreement.

In 1937 Weiss ended his long bachelorhood, marrying Hazel Wood. Hazel was a flying enthusiast, one of relatively few women who learned how to fly a plane, and a multitalented artist.

After the 1942 season Brooklyn Dodgers president Larry MacPhail resigned to join the war effort. As finalists to replace MacPhail, the Dodgers identified Bill Terry, New York Giants manager and de facto general manager during the 1930s; Branch Rickey, legendary builder of the St. Louis Cardinals farm system; and Weiss. MacPhail later recalled that when Yankees president Ed Barrow learned the Dodgers were considering Weiss, Barrow demanding that he either affirm his interest in the Yankees or quit to pursue the Dodgers job. Fortunately for the Yankees, Weiss chose to stay in New York. He recognized that Barrow was nearing the end of his active role and naturally expected to succeed him. With Weiss no longer a candidate, the Dodgers opted for Rickey.3

Jacob Ruppert had died in January 1939, muddying the Yankees’ ownership and financial situation. In January 1945, no longer able to defer payment of the estate tax, the trustees of Ruppert’s trust sold the team to a triumvirate of Dan Topping, Del Webb, and Larry MacPhail. The mercurial MacPhail ran the team, but had little patience or tolerance for administrative structure; he was an outgoing, boisterous genius—exactly the antithesis of Ruppert and Barrow. After thirteen years building the organization and waiting his turn, Weiss found himself working for a man with whom he had no connection and who had little interest in administrative excellence.

After three uneasy years running the Yankees, the pressure and constant limelight began to affect MacPhail. MacPhail's deteriorating behavior culminated with his breakdown at the celebration dinner in the Biltmore hotel after the Yankees won the 1947 World Series. A drunken MacPhail lurched over to Weiss’s table, where he was dining with Hazel, Barrow, and several others. MacPhail started cursing Weiss and berating his work. Weiss remained as calm as possible and suggested, "We have all been drinking. I would like to wait until tomorrow and discuss this with you." MacPhail, in no condition to be mollified, responded by firing Weiss on the spot. Reason, however, won out. Webb and Topping bought out MacPhail and promoted Weiss to general manager, with Topping becoming team president.4

Taking over as the Yankees GM at the age of fifty-three, after sixteen years as farm director, Weiss dressed and acted like a corporate executive. He was often cold and unemotional to those outside his closest circle, partly out of a conscious effort to keep his distance from players and subordinates and partly out of extreme shyness.5

When Weiss was named general manager of the Yankees, they were already established as baseball’s pre-eminent organization. Yet the team Weiss inherited, like all the immediate postwar teams, was one in transition. From 1944 to 1948 five different American League teams had won the pennant. The Yankees had struggled in 1946, finishing a distant third, but had come back to win in 1947 under new manager Bucky Harris. When the Yankees slumped back to third in 1948, Weiss dumped Harris, who Weiss felt was “an old-style, ‘book’ manager.”6 Additionally, Harris was a MacPhail hire, and Weiss wanted his own man in charge on the field.

Weiss surprised the baseball community by hiring Casey Stengel, who had just won the Pacific Coast League pennant in Oakland. Weiss and Stengel had been friends for many years, dating back to Stengel’s brief managing stint in the Eastern League.

The team Weiss built won a record five consecutive World Series from 1949 through 1953. The next season the Yankees won 103 games, the high-water mark of Weiss’s tenure, but fell to second behind Cleveland, which won a then American League record 111.

One of the keys to the Yankees’ success was their remarkable farm system. All-time greats Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford graduated to the Yankees early in Weiss’s tenure as general manager. Yogi Berra was called up just prior to Weiss’s promotion while he still ran the farm system.

Weiss believed his scouts could outhustle their competitors and dig up amateurs others might miss or whose potential they might not fully recognize. They proved him right: Mantle, Berra, Ford, and future stars such as Bill Skowron, Gil McDougald, Hank Bauer, Bobby Richardson, and Tony Kubek all cost less than $7,000 to sign.7

The Yankees’ farm system proved much more successful at developing position players than pitchers. Other than Ford and Vic Raschi, most of the Yankees’ top pitching during Weiss’s tenure—men like Allie Reynolds, Ed Lopat, and Bob Turley—came through trades. Weiss trusted his scouts to be able to recognize pitchers of ability often struggling with poor win-loss records on second-division teams. He would then acquire these hurlers by surrendering prospects and occasionally cash.

The first of these turned out to be the worst. After the 1948 season Weiss sent three players and $100,000 to the St. Louis Browns for pitcher Fred Sanford and a throw-in catcher, Roy Partee. Sanford never performed the way the Yankees hoped he would. Weiss remembered the trade with dismay for the rest of his career. He later blamed the deal on his succumbing to pressure from the press and co-owner Dan Topping.

Weiss became a master of the midseason trade, often using his cash and prospects to add a valuable veteran for the stretch drive. He described his thinking on trades: “Our trading philosophy has been one of trying to get a man to fill a needed gap, often short-term, without helping the opposition too much and without trading away a star.”8 Late in the 1949 season Weiss purchased aging veteran Johnny Mize, who still had a couple of good years left, for $40,000. At the 1950 trading deadline he picked up pitchers Tom Ferrick and Joe Ostrowski for several players and $40,000. “They weren’t stars,” Weiss explained, “but they helped us considerably.” The next year Weiss made another poor trade—sending pitcher Tommy Byrne and $25,000 to the St. Louis Browns for Stubby Overmire—which he again blamed on Topping’s influence. A couple of years later, after Byrne had been sent back to the minors, Weiss reacquired him, and Byrne turned in several good seasons for the Yankees. Other midseason acquisitions included Johnny Sain, Johnny Hopp, Ewell Blackwell, Harry Simpson, and Ryne Duren.9

Weiss found another source of talent in the Kansas City Athletics. The Athletics franchise had been purchased by Dan Topping’s close pal Arnold Johnson after the 1953 season and moved from Philadelphia. Johnson had little interest in building a winner. Throughout his tenure the Athletics were consistently woeful on the field. Weiss made numerous trades with Johnson and Kansas City general manager Parke Carroll, who had once worked for the Yankees. Yet other than the deal that brought Roger Maris to New York, the trades were not nearly as one-sided as is often remembered. Weiss summarized Johnson’s typical response to the criticism, which was to argue that he was “out to improve the A’s whether it helps the Yanks or not.”10

Weiss and the Yankees have been criticized for their slow reaction to bringing in black players. The team’s first black player, Elston Howard, did not appear with the Yankees until 1955, eight years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Brooklyn. Weiss, however, was certainly not alone in either baseball or American society in being slow to integrate. Ten of the sixteen teams still had no black players as late as September 1953. Moreover, most teams integrated not simply out of some moral imperative, but because once the door was opened, integration was the quickest and cheapest way to grab top talent. The Yankees, however, alone among the Major League teams, continued to win without aggressively acquiring black stars.

While the Yankees continued to shy away from black players for the first couple of years after Robinson signed with Organized Baseball, by the late 1940s they were actively scouting the Negro Leagues. In addition to Howard, the Yankees made a couple of notable acquisitions, including Vic Power and Luis Marquez. Weiss was later criticized for trading Power before he appeared in the majors with the Yankees. On the other hand Weiss was livid when Commissioner Happy Chandler awarded Marquez to Cleveland because of a dispute over which Negro League club held his rights. “This decision soured George Weiss on Chandler,” Lee MacPhail wrote. “Del Webb was already against him and the Yankees then took the lead in putting together enough votes to eventually unseat Chandler as commissioner.”11

Weiss had a reputation as a rough negotiator with his players, which in fact made him little different from most other front-office executives. In this era before free agency a player was effectively bound to his team for life, or until the team wanted to trade or release him.

In December 1958, with the impending retirement of American League president Will Harridge, a group of owners approached Weiss. They informally offered him first shot at taking over from Harridge. After bouncing the opportunity off Webb and Topping, Weiss decided to stay with the Yankees. “It was a nice honor to receive after a long run,” Weiss acknowledged, “but the aspirin bills would have been terrific.”12 His wife, Hazel, later revealed he had turned the job down because of his morbid fear of public speaking. “You have to go all over and talk,” Hazel remembered her husband complaining. “He wouldn’t do it.”13

After four more consecutive pennants, from 1955 to 1958, the Yankees fell to third in 1959. “Injuries ruined the team,” Weiss explained, but he also thought that his players maybe weren’t hungry enough. The team rebounded in 1960 to capture the pennant before losing a heartbreaking seven-game World Series to the Pittsburgh Pirates.14

In the aftermath of the 1960 Series, Topping eased both Stengel and Weiss out of their positions. At Topping’s request both the seventy-year-old manager and the sixty-six-year-old general manager announced at their press conferences that they had decided to retire. Stengel managed to convey that he was not quitting voluntarily. Weiss was a little less transparent, but he “did not sound altogether happy, despite his protestations to the contrary.”15

Exactly why the Yankee owners fired Weiss and Stengel remains murky. The stated reason of looking to get younger—the Yankees instituted a mandatory 65-year-old retirement age—probably had a grain of truth. Topping wanted to get more directly involved in the operation of the franchise, something that would have been much trickier with the imperial Weiss still nominally in charge.

Weiss still had one act remaining in his baseball career. On March 1, 1961, he drove to Florida to meet with Joan Whitney Payson, principal owner of the expansion New York Mets, who would begin play in 1962. Payson needed a baseball man to run the franchise and after the meeting offered the team presidency to Weiss. Weiss eagerly jumped into all the challenges and headaches of building a baseball organization from scratch. He hired his old friend Casey Stengel to manage and quickly assembled an excellent team of scouts and a solid organization. He also negotiated radio and TV contracts and involved himself in all aspects of the design of Shea Stadium, the new ballpark being built in Queens.16

The problem of landing good players turned out to be much more difficult than Weiss ever imagined. The lack of talent quickly became apparent, and for their first several years the Mets were the laughingstock of baseball.

In September 1964 the club hired Bing Devine as a special assistant to Weiss. Devine had just been unceremoniously dumped as general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. With Weiss on the last year of his contract, the Mets wanted to put a succession plan in place and jumped at the now available Devine. Once on board, Devine assumed most of the general manager’s day-to-day duties. Weiss, however, was not quite ready to retire and exercised an option in his contract to run the operation for one more season. In his six years running the franchise Weiss assembled the front-office infrastructure that would create the “miracle” 1969 World Series champion.

After the 1966 season the seventy-two-year-old Weiss finally retired. At his retirement party Weiss joked about his well-known fear of public speaking: “Now that I have the time to take a course in public speaking, I’ll probably never have another opportunity to speak.” In retirement, honors continued to come Weiss’s way, culminating with election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1971. Weiss died one year later, on August 13, 1972, at a nursing home in Greenwich, Connecticut.

For someone not supposed to be emotional, Weiss was surprisingly sentimental about his baseball career. In his stately old home in Greenwich, Weiss had what he called his “Baseball Room.” It was filled with all sorts of memorabilia, including original player contracts and personalized mementoes from baseball greats Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson through Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. Visitors to the sanctum were “never disappointed.”17 The room reflected Weiss’s life. He had spent his entire adult life in baseball with few hobbies. The mementoes and memories were well earned.

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