A lot of people had a hand in making the Detroit Tigers the World Series champions in 1984, but by far the biggest hand belonged to Bill Lajoie, extraordinary scout and general manager.
Lajoie always found the best part of his job to be finding talent. He considered himself a scout at heart, first and foremost. It’s one of the reasons he quit being the Tigers’ general manager in 1991 and one of the reasons he remained in baseball even as he aged into his 70s in the first decade of the 21st century.
Lajoie directed the drafts that landed the Tigers the bulk of their homegrown teams of the 1980s and his free-agent and trade acquisitions kept the franchise viable for several seasons after he left.
Mainstays of the ’84 team were Jack Morris, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Lance Parrish, Dan Petry, Kirk Gibson, Tom Brookens, and Howard Johnson, all of whom were drafted either by Lajoie or under his direction. Morris, Trammell, Petry, and Steve Kemp were all taken in Lajoie’s 1976 draft (Kemp in January, the others in June), still regarded as one of the best in baseball history.
Lajoie stole Gibson from the National Football League, which would have certainly made him a first-round draft choice had Detroit not signed him in 1978 following his junior year at Michigan State; and his coup of getting left-handed reliever Willie Hernandez and first baseman Dave Bergman from Philadelphia for outfielder Glenn Wilson and utilityman John Wockenfuss on March 24, 1984, was the deal that catapulted the Tigers to the top of the baseball world that year.
Lajoie was a master at finding pieces of the puzzle that were missing. Time and again he brought in key players or role performers who could do things to help the Tigers.
“I’m not interested in what they can’t do,” he would often say. “I’m interested in what they can do.”
It’s a philosophy that works well for getting those one or two final pieces to the championship puzzle.
You have to give up to get, though, and sometimes what you give up turns out to be something very good indeed.
Lajoie got roasted a lot for trading an obscure right-handed minor-league pitcher to Atlanta to get crafty veteran right-hander Doyle Alexander, a move designed to get Detroit to the 1987 postseason. The obscure right-hander Lajoie traded on August 12 wasn’t obscure very long, though, and John Smoltz went on to be a very good pitcher for the Braves for a very long time.
There was no carping about the move while the crafty Alexander was going 9-0 down the stretch with a 1.53 ERA in 88⅓ innings to help Detroit sneak past Toronto for the American League East title. The shine came off that feat, though, when Minnesota roughed Alexander up twice in the playoffs, knocking out a heavily favored Detroit team. Alexander started out decently in 1988 but had an up-and-down 14-11 season and sputtered through 1989, going 6-18 in the Tigers’ horrible 53-109 season. Lajoie didn’t care; his objective was getting Detroit into the playoffs, and that objective was met.
Although he wasn’t named general manager until after the 1983 season, Lajoie said he “had been making the trades and such for a couple of years.”
His first move as the announced general manager was the signing of free agent corner infielder Darrell Evans on December 17, 1983. It was the Tigers’ first significant free-agent acquisition, designed to fill a hole — a power void at first base.
It was also a signal that Detroit, previously not a significant player in the free-agent market, was now serious about obtaining players who might put them into the playoffs.
Later in his tenure, Lajoie signed free agents like infielder Bill Madlock, who also played an important role in getting Detroit the American League East championship in 1987. After the disastrous 1989 season, he signed utilityman Tony Phillips, center fielder Lloyd Moseby, and first baseman Cecil Fielder to bring the Tigers back to respectability. Among his trade acquisitions were right-hander Walt Terrell before the 1985 season, left-hander Frank Tanana in June 1985, and catcher Mike Heath in August 1986.
The deal that made the difference in 1984 was the late spring-training swap that brought Hernandez and Bergman over from Philadelphia, a trade that had its seeds during the 1983 postseason when manager Sparky Anderson, doing radio commentary, eyeballed the left-handed workhorse reliever in the World Series.
“You get that guy,” Anderson told Lajoie after the Series, “and we’ll win it next year.”
Lajoie succeeded Jim Campbell as general manager in 1983. Up to then Campbell had worn both the president’s and GM’s hats. “I only took the job because of Mr. Fetzer [John E., then owner of the franchise],” Lajoie said. “Jim didn’t want to give up anything but Mr. Fetzer sold him on making the change.”
Fetzer was looking down the road because he had been looking for a buyer for the Tigers before he died and wanted to hand over a stable organization. He wound up selling the franchise to Domino’s Pizza magnate Tom Monaghan in time for the 1984 season.
But the farm system began drying up, and Lajoie was forced to patch and fill on the open market. The loss via free agency of Lance Parrish after 1986, Gibson (in the “second look” collusion case) after 1987, and Morris after 1990 also hurt. Gibson became the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1988, led the Dodgers to the World Series, and hit one of the most dramatic World Series home runs of all time. Morris won 18 games to lead the Twins into the Series in 1991, and left them after the season to win 21 games for the Blue Jays and help them to their first World Series title.
“After we won we had a couple of pretty good years, but then it started going downhill,” Lajoie said. “I stayed in the job. I wasn’t crazy about it to start with. I felt my strength was in scouting and the farm department.”
Monaghan had brought in retired University of Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler to be president of the team and bring some football-style organization to a franchise that had slipped behind the times.
Campbell frequently sat in on Lajoie’s conversations with other general managers, scouts, and agents, which wasn’t a major hassle but was a little off-center.
When veteran baseball man Joe McDonald was brought in to run the farm system, Lajoie quietly asked to switch jobs.
“I didn’t spend 15 years training you to be a general manager just to give you your old job back,” Campbell told Lajoie.
On top of that, Monaghan was running into money problems himself. He had a fortune tied up in property, but didn’t have a quarter to buy a cup of coffee. That spilled over onto the baseball side and he too began looking for someone to take the baseball team off his hands.
He wasn’t overjoyed about that person being a pizza business rival, but since Mike Ilitch (Little Caesars) was the only one stepping up to the plate, Monaghan eventually sold the club to him in August 1992.
Before then, though, Lajoie decided the job just wasn’t fun anymore.
“My children were out of college. My wife had died. I couldn’t see taking that any more. I didn’t need anything.”
Schembechler offered to double his salary, but it never transpired. At the same time the clumsy firing of legendary Hall of Fame broadcaster Ernie Harwell in late 1990 — to take place after the 1991 season — was burning up newspapers and airwaves.
When Ilitch bought the club, he fired Campbell and Schembechler the day the deal was completed, and went looking for the best baseball guy he could find to reinvigorate the franchise. That guy was Bill Lajoie.
“I almost came back,” Lajoie said. “I agreed to terms with Mike. They always kept an apartment so I had them send the rental agreement over and I signed it.”
Ilitch, though, was tired of holding press conferences and got Lajoie to agree to return in a couple of weeks for the announcement. Lajoie said he would handle everything by himself but agreed to fly home to Florida and return later.
“I got on the flight but it stopped in Memphis,” Lajoie said. “I got off the plane to stretch my legs and asked myself, ‘What the heck are you doing? You’re stepping right back in the crap you just left.’ So I called the next day and told them I didn’t want the job. I told them, ‘You’ve got Jerry Walker and Jerry will do a good job.’ I just didn’t want to do it anymore.”
Lajoie’s retirement capped a streak of 35 years connected in some way with professional baseball. His affinity for spotting talent kept him in pro ball after he had failed to make the majors as a player.
“I was a 165-pound center fielder that didn’t have power,” he said. “And there were only 16 teams then.”
Lajoie played on perhaps the best and certainly the most successful Western Michigan University baseball team ever, the 1955 squad that lost in the NCAA championship game, 7-6, to Wake Forest.
The Broncos were 22-5 with a 9-0 record in the Mid-American Conference. They took their battle in the final game down to the eighth inning before it was decided. Lajoie had two hits, including a double, and scored two runs in the championship game.
Those days were before the draft, so Lajoie took his bachelor’s degree and All-America playing status and signed with the Baltimore Orioles.
“I was on a major-league contract five times,” Lajoie said. “In fact, when I signed, I signed a major-league contract; that was 1955. I wanted to get my options out of the way so they just couldn’t keep sending me down. Later on it became a popular thing with players. I just came up with that myself; that’s what I wanted. [Orioles GM and manager] Paul Richards made the deal. He was not averse to creative thinking.”
On March 15, 1960, he was traded with slick-fielding but light-hitting shortstop Willy Miranda by Baltimore to the Los Angeles Dodgers to complete a deal in which the Orioles obtained slugging first baseman Jim Gentile.
“I broke my leg playing in Omaha, a Dodgers farm club,” he said. “I broke my leg jumping into the fence. I was hitting .320 or better, having a really good season. It happened in August and during the winter Kansas City traded for me. [Lajoie was traded to the Athletics on October 11, 1961, with Gordie Windhorn for Jay Ward, Bobby Prescott, and Stan Johnson].
“But not having therapy and the stuff they do today, I still didn’t run very well.”
He had ankle complications, and “then it became a survival thing. It was a case of hit as much as you can so you can have a job next year.
“It just went downhill from there. It became more of a job. I had a family. I tore a triceps in the spring but I was able to survive that. Finally I just started teaching school [at Detroit Northern High School]. The guy I was working with was a part-time scout for the Cincinnati Reds. He was the baseball coach, too. I started going to ballgames; started watching players for him. This was 1964, I believe.” Lajoie’s minor-league career had ended in 1964. “He gave me 10 bucks for gas after I had watched 30 days of baseball. I said, ‘You pot-licker. I drive around for a month and all you give me is 10 dollars for gas?’ So I took the reports and sent them to Cincinnati myself. I knew the scouting director [Herk Robinson] because he had signed me when I was with Baltimore. He gave me the [part-time] job the next year.
“In 1965 I was able to get the first pick in the draft [16th overall] and sign the guy — Bernie Carbo, he was Rookie of the Year in some publications. So I was on my way. They gave me hell because they took [Johnny] Bench and Hal McRae after Carbo, but I said, ‘Hey, you got all three, so quit complaining.’”
Lajoie switched to the Detroit organization after the Tigers’ 1968 world championship season, managing the system’s Bristol (Virginia) Tigers in the Rookie-level Appalachian League in 1969 before returning to the talent-search side of the business in 1970.
The native of Wyandotte, Michigan, was named scouting director in 1974 and the following season was elevated to director of player procurement, a title he held until he ascended to vice president and assistant general manager to Jim Campbell in 1979.
Even though Lajoie had professed to have had enough when he quit the Tigers, he worked as first a scout and later special assistant to Atlanta general manager John Schuerholz through the 2000 season. In 2001 and 2002 he was senior adviser of baseball operations for the Milwaukee Brewers.
Lajoie worked for the Boston Red Sox as special adviser to the general manager in scouting from 2002 to 2005, which included the team’s World Series championship in 2004. In 2006 he switched to the Los Angeles Dodgers as senior adviser to general manager Ned Colletti. His duties included professional scouting, consulting on trades, player acquisitions, and roster moves. He joined the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2009 as a senior adviser to the general manager.
Lajoie and his second wife, Mary, lived in Osprey, Florida. Lajoie died in his sleep December 28, 2010, passing away while taking a nap after lunch.
Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia. New York: Simon & Schuster. 1996.
Shook, Richard L. Telephone interview with Bill Lajoie, July 3, 2008.
Deals during Lajoie’s time as GM of the Tigers:
|Rule 5 Draft
|Rule 5 Draft Return
William Richard Lajoie
September 27, 1934 at Wyandotte, MI (US)
December 28, 2010 at Sarasota, FL (US)
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