Emil J. “Buzzie” Bavasi, the forceful general manager who shepherded the Dodgers through their World Series-studded transition from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, died Thursday. He was 92.
Bavasi, who also had served as an executive with the Angels and San Diego Padres, died in San Diego of natural causes. His death was announced by the Seattle Mariners, whose general manager is Bill Bavasi, Buzzie’s son.
One of the last of a midcentury generation of wisecracking wheeler-dealers of ballplayers, Bavasi joined the Dodgers organization in 1938 with a minor-league job and stepped down with the Angels in 1984, lamenting that the game had changed irreversibly when agents began representing players in contract negotiations.
Along the way he built Dodgers rosters that reached eight World Series and won four championships, beginning with the team’s only title in Brooklyn, in 1955, through the 1960s glory years in Los Angeles. He also led the Angels to their first two division titles, in 1979 and 1982.
“Buzzie was one of the game’s greatest front-office executives during a period that spanned parts of six different decades,” Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement. “He loved the game and he loved talking about it. . . . I will miss our long and frequent correspondence.”
In the years before baseball free agency, Bavasi kept players’ salaries low through a variety of inventive maneuvers. But he was less successful in his two most-publicized battles -- the dual holdout of star Dodgers pitchers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale in the spring of 1966 and the failed attempt to re-sign standout pitcher Nolan Ryan with the Angels after the 1979 season.
Bavasi didn’t want to set a precedent by paying Koufax or Drysdale $100,000 salaries, but Koufax ultimately signed for a then-unheard-of $125,000, and Drysdale got $110,000. The $1-million threshold was crossed 13 years later, when Ryan signed with the Houston Astros after the Angels and Bavasi refused to meet his price.
Ryan, a Hall of Fame member, pitched 14 more seasons and is baseball’s all-time strikeout leader with 5,714.
“I’ve had to take the abuse for that over the years, but that’s fine,” Bavasi told The Times in 2005. “Stay around long enough, and there’s going to be abuse.”
Although his reputation as a dynamic baseball executive became somewhat tarnished during his time with the Padres and Angels, Bavasi will be remembered best for building championship Dodgers teams while staying within the budget of parsimonious owner Walter O’Malley.
Emil Joseph Bavasi was born in New York City on Dec. 12, 1915, and raised in Scarsdale, N.Y. His French immigrant father, Joseph, was a newspaper distributor.
His sister Lolly nicknamed him Buzzie after their mother, Sue, mentioned that he was always “buzzing around the house.”
A contact Bavasi made in high school at Fordham Prep became as valuable as his degree from DePauw University in Indiana.
The friend was Fred Frick, son of then-National League President Ford Frick. Bavasi intended to go to law school, but Ford Frick introduced him to Dodgers President Larry MacPhail, who gave Bavasi an entry-level job in the team’s minor league department for $35 a week in 1938.
Within two years, Bavasi was made general manager of the Dodgers’ Class D farm team in Americus, Ga. By 1943, Bavasi had worked his way up to the front office of the Dodgers’ Class B team in Durham, N.C., when he was drafted by the Army and sent to Italy.
He served 18 months in World War II combat as a staff sergeant in a machine gun unit and was awarded a Bronze Star.
Discharged in 1946, he became general manager of the Class B team in Nashua, N.H. Walter Alston, the future Dodgers skipper, was the manager of the team, and -- in the season before infielder Jackie Robinson broke major league baseball’s color barrier -- two of the players were African American: catcher Roy Campanella and pitcher Don Newcombe.
“I’ll never forget one night in Lynn, Mass.,” Campanella said in 1983. “Newcombe had pitched, and I hit a home run, and we won the game. We were all dressed and sitting in the bus. Buzzie said he was going inside to pick up the check. All of a sudden, we heard Buzzie and their manager fighting. We went in and broke it up. We found out later that their manager” had used a racial slur when he told Bavasi, “ ‘Without those two [black players], you wouldn’t have won.’ Buzzie went after him.”
Bavasi spent 1947 as an assistant in the Dodgers front office and the next three years as general manager of the triple-A team in Montreal.
His big break came in 1951, when O’Malley took the reins of the Dodgers from Branch Rickey and made Bavasi vice president and general manager.
Perhaps Bavasi’s biggest mistake as a Dodgers executive was allowing eventual Hall of Fame outfielder Roberto Clemente to get away.
Under the rules at the time, to keep Clemente, the Dodgers had to list him on the major league roster all season. Bavasi was willing to risk losing him and sent Clemente to their Montreal farm team, where the Pittsburgh Pirates, then being run by Branch Rickey, snapped him up in the 1954 Rule 5 draft.
“We can blame the rules for part of it, but part of it was our judgment,” Bavasi said at the time. “I don’t know how, but I should have figured out some way to get around the rule.”
Most of the time, he found a way to get what he wanted. Bavasi seemed to find winning at the negotiating table as enjoyable as winning on the field.
“I always had a warm feeling of gratitude toward Buzzie because he took a chance on bringing me up from the minors after eight years. He stuck by me,” former Dodgers shortstop Maury Wills said Thursday. “He had a way of getting me to play hard without paying me a lot of money.”
One of Bavasi’s favorite ploys was to draw up a phony contract in the name of a player coming off an excellent season and type in an artificially low salary. When another player who wasn’t as good came into his office to negotiate, Bavasi would leave the phony contract on his desk, then excuse himself from the room. The player inevitably would take a peek at the contract, read the low-ball salary and back down in his own negotiations when Bavasi would return to the room.
It took Koufax and Drysdale, then the best pitching tandem in baseball, to join forces to coax significant raises out of Bavasi before the 1966 season. The players realized during a dinner together that Bavasi and O’Malley had lied to them for years, telling one that the other was asking for less money than he really had been.
They each demanded a three-year, $500,000 deal and did not report to spring training after the Dodgers denied their requests. The holdout dragged on for more than a month before they signed, and although Koufax and Drysdale became the first players to break the $100,000 barrier, they didn’t get multiyear contracts.
Moved to Padres
After eighth-place finishes in 1967 and 1968, Bavasi left the Dodgers to become president of the expansion San Diego Padres.
Bavasi hired his oldest son, Peter, as minor league director and in 1973 made him vice president and general manager. Peter later served as president of the Toronto Blue Jays and Cleveland Indians.
Eventually, two other sons got into baseball. Bob owned a minor league team in Everett, Wash., from 1983 to 1999, and Bill was general manager of the Angels from 1994 to 1999. A fourth son, Chris, became mayor of Flagstaff, Ariz.
There was little to like about the Padres in their early years, and Bavasi could do little about it. They struggled on and off the field.
It appeared the Padres would relocate until McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc bought them. In 1975 the Padres improved modestly -- finishing out of the National League West Division cellar for the first time -- but Bavasi’s relationship with the new owner soured in 1977 because Kroc’s wife, Joan, overheard him criticize Manager Alvin Dark, who was favored by the Krocs.
Bavasi resigned before the season ended, and Angels owner Gene Autry hired him two months later, calling Bavasi his “right-hand man” and handing him the title of executive vice president.
As salaries escalated and agents began representing players, Bavasi struggled to adjust. The glow of the Angels’ first division championship in 1979 dimmed quickly when pitching mainstay Ryan signed with the Astros and had harsh words for Bavasi on the way out.
For his part, Bavasi retorted that Ryan could be replaced by “two 8-7 pitchers,” a reference to the right-hander’s 16-14 record in 1979. Later, though, Bavasi admitted that failing to re-sign Ryan was a mistake, as was an offhand comment he made that angered power hitter Don Baylor after the Angels won the division in 1982.
When Baylor’s picture appeared on a program with two other players who had won most-valuable-player awards as Angels -- Rod Carew and Fred Lynn -- Bavasi said, “What’s Don doing in that picture with the two hitters?”
Baylor became so angry that he signed with the New York Yankees for the same amount the Angels offered, and Bavasi, who before free agency was able to make wisecracks with impunity because players had no leverage, regretted the comment.
‘Can’t help players anymore’
Changes in baseball’s economic structure seemed to perplex Bavasi, and he often became nostalgic.
“Paternalism has gone out of the game,” he said in the 1980s.
“You can’t help players anymore. They help you. When I left San Diego, one of my players, George Hendrick, called me and wanted to know if I needed any money. Geez, I used to lend them money.”
Bavasi enjoyed retirement, rarely leaving the comfortable hilltop home in La Jolla he shared with his wife, Evit, whom he married in 1941. He is survived by his wife, four sons, nine grandchildren and several great-grandchildren.
He had plenty of time to reflect on his accomplishments and eventful life in baseball.
“Who else played golf with Babe Ruth, had dinner with Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale and worked for people of the stature of Larry MacPhail, Walter O’Malley, Gene Autry and Ray Kroc?” he said. “There are 20 guys on every team now who make more in a year than I did in 30 or 40, but no one had more fun.”
Services will be private.
Instead of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the Baseball Assistance Team, 245 Park Ave., 31st Floor, New York, NY 10167, or the Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation, 9665 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 801, Beverly Hills, CA 90210.
Times staff writer Dylan Hernandez, in Miami, contributed to this report.