Buzzie, wherever you are right now, the world is a different place without you. Yes, you were part of the “old-guard”, but you saw so much, and lived more than anyone that I’ve ever met.
Ford Frick, Larry MacPhail, Branch Rickey, Jackie Robinson, Walter O’Malley, Walter Alston, Fresco Thompson, Don Newcombe, Roy Campanella, Ray Kroc, Nolan Ryan, Sandy Kofax... the Dodgers, Angels, and Padres. You could continue on and fill the page.
I first contacted him in 2005 for an interview (read the interview here), and to date, it is still one of those conversations that was not nearly long enough. How do you do an interview with someone that spent 60 years in baseball? As I wrote then, “Branch Rickey and the Dodgers signing of Jackie Robinson? You could do an entire interview. The Dodgers move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles? There's another. The near move of the Padres to Washington, DC? Another... His time with the California Angels? Another... It made for a difficult, yet nice problem to have... content overload.”
The great thing about Buzzie was he kind of flew in the face of conventional wisdom of what an “old guy” was supposed to be like. For one, he had an email account, and checked it often (Bud Selig reportedly doesn't have a compter, but here's 92-year-old Buzzie surfing the web). And so, for the past 3 years I have been in contact with him regularly, asking him to weigh in on a variety of topics for The Biz of Baseball, as well as for Baseball Prospectus.
He answered every question I ever had of him. Well, all but one.
When I asked him to add to a compilation of comments on Barry Bonds, shortly after he was indicted, he declined.
“I prefer waiting before making a comment,” he said. “Barry could be guilty or innocent. Would be glad to make a statement at a later date.”
Sadly, that later date won’t be coming.
He was kind and open. And even when talking over the phone, he sounded like a baseball man from that time long forgotten. That time when reserve clause still ruled the roost, and the relationship between management and players was, in many ways, closer, and yet somehow farther.
“Hate to say this Maury, I have a love affair with baseball, but then both players and management were motivated by pride,” he said to me in 2006. “Today both are motivated by money.”
He was part of organizations that won two divisional titles, nine league championships and four World Series over his more than a half-century in organized baseball. He started his career in 1939 in the minors, before spending time in the military. He was the long-time general manager for the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers (1951-67), president of the San Diego Padres (1968-77), and executive vice president of the California Angels (1978-99). Under his tenure the Dodgers won eight NL pennants and four World Series championships in 17 years. He was a two-time executive of the year, once with the Dodgers and once in the minor leagues with the Montreal Royals.
He also served on the Veterans Committee for the Hall of Fame, and has been on the ballot for induction. Sadly, Buzzie, you’ll have to be looking on from elsewhere, should that day arrive.
Last year, I wrote him to wish him well on the eve of the Veterans Committee vote. His reply was pure Buzzie.
“Many thanks Maury, but if you have any influence, give any and all my votes to Gil Hodges. Gil gave up almost five years of his baseball life to the military service. Yet his records compare favorably to Tony Perez, who is in the Hall and should be, but Perez has only nine home runs more than Gil with 2,730 more at bats. Had Gil had those at bats Bonds would be chasing him not Hank.”
It also seemed oddly ironic that the year marking the end of Dodgertown, marks the end of the man that helped find its beginnings. Recently, I asked him about the Spring Training home for the Dodgers for over 60 years.
“Vero Beach was good for the Dodgers and the Dodgers were good for Vero Beach,” he said.
“In the fall of 1947 Mr. Rickey sent me to Florida to visit with the folks at Vero Beach, Stuart and Fort Pierce. Bud Holman met me at the Rail Road station and we went directly to City Hall.
“Vero Beach had exactly what we wanted. The big attraction was the 18 small apartments that were located pool side. These would be great for staff and newsmen. The City however would not include them in the lease. They finally agreed to pay, I believe it was about $5,400.00, covering the two month period that both the Dodgers and the minor league clubs would use the facilities.”
He then added, “We never did visit with the folks at Fort Pierce or Stuart.”
He also had an incredible sense of humor when looking at the game now, compared to when he was involved. Yes, many will say that he was out of touch with the realities of the game today, and you know what, maybe that is. Still, he said some things that had to bring a smile to your face.
Certainly, something that was never part of the baseball landscape during his time in the front office was the now omnipresent issue of steroids and performance-enhancing drugs. In a sign that Buzzie still saw the addition of free agency – ergo, the incredible increases in salaries that the players would then make – having changed matters, he was still gracious regarding the new leadership in baseball, when it came to PED culture in baseball… but, not before getting a jab in.
“I, like many other former GMs, am highly impressed with the job Bud Selig and Don Fehr have done regarding the drug problem,” he said to me in 2005. “During my Dodger days, both in Brooklyn and Los Angeles, my players were lucky if they could afford a beer; no less steroids. The problem came about when player salaries reached a level where one and all could afford a drug or two. I am sure that Mr. Fehr and Mr Orza will attest to this.”
Yes, Buzzie, you were old-school before there was such a thing.
You might get the sense from some of this that he was somehow bitter about the changes that came with the institution of the MLB Player’s Association. What was said back then, I cannot say. I can say this; he thought it was a travesty that Marvin Miller had not yet been inducted.
“I am sorry to say, Marvin Miller belongs in the Hall of Fame,” he said in that wide-ranging interview from 2005. “This might sound strange, but… he never did anything to hurt the game. Marvin was very honest and square with the baseball people…. But Marvin Miller never did one thing to hurt the game of baseball.”
I wish we could have met face to face. I never got the chance. I had hoped to see him when he was inducted into the San Diego Hall of Champions. Disappointed, I instead had one of the best phone conversations on baseball with his son Peter, as he was driving back north from Buzzie's induction. I then spoke to Bob Bavasi afterwards, and it became an article. Baseball Prospectus wasn’t initially keen on running, but to date it is one of my favorites (read MLB Needs to Reconnect). The article touches on this easy going “road trip” conversation with Peter as he was cruising through the rolling hills between Sacramento and Redding. When it was finished, Buzzie liked it so much, he asked to send it to everyone in his family.
In other words, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree, Buzzie. You had one heck of a life. You were part of baseball through the most incredible changes in the game: the breaking of the color barrier, the expansion of MLB to the West Coast, and how free agency altered the landscape. You have kids that were at the highest levels of baseball, or are now. My heart goes out to them.
Luminaries far greater than I have talked of your passing. Bud, Frank McCourt, Don Newcombe… more than I can count are talking of your passing. I suppose, in some senses, I was born at the wrong time.
Whether it was a case of simply being nice, or whether it was heartfelt, he surprised the heck out of me one day by saying, “I read your stuff. Baseball is lucky to have you around. If I were still operating in the game you would have been my General Manager and we would probably be playing in October."
God bless you, Emil “Buzzie” Bavasi. Say hi to Jackie and Walter. Branch and Roy. And, all those others that passed your way now gone. The world is a far more boring today without you in it.