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November 5, 2004

Herskowitz on Stros GM's

Longtime Houston sportswriter Mickey Herskowitz, who I have mentioned frequently in these earlier posts, is my favorite sportswriter. Mickey's blend of insight, humor and historical perspective is sadly lacking in much of the sportswriting that we must endure these days.

Earlier this week, fellow Chronicle sportswriter Richard Justice blasted Stros' owner Drayton McLane for Gerry Hunsicker's recent resignation as the Stros' general manager. Although most everyone agrees that Hunsicker was the Stros' best GM in history, I believe that McLane had reasonable reasons for not providing him a long term deal (noted in this earlier post). So, I thought that Justice's piece disparaging McLane as the "boss from hell" was way out of line, particularly given the fact that McLane is also the best owner that the Stros have ever had.

In this column, Herskowitz -- without mentioning Justice's blast at McLane -- places the decision to let Hunsicker go in historical perspective and reminds us that McLane's support of Hunsicker was the best that any Stros owner has ever provided for any Stros GM. In so doing, Herskowitz gives us this entertaining and brief "GM tree" of Stros general managers over the past 43 years:

The Astros have an interesting history with general managers. Does anyone remember Gabe Paul? He was their first, coming and going the year before the team took the field. Gabe had held the same position in Cincinnati, but left Houston when he did not want Judge Roy Hofheinz breathing on his neck.

But Gabe left a legacy -- two bright, young staffers named Tal Smith and Bill Giles. The latter would one day become the owner of the Phillies.

Paul Richards drafted and molded the team that finished ahead of the Cubs and Mets in its first season, 1962. Richards signed the first wave of prospects, including Rusty Staub, Larry Dierker and Joe Morgan.

The torch was passed to Spec Richardson, who had paid his dues with the Houston Buffs but did not have a big imagination. Smith returned from New York, after getting a graduate degree at the Steinbrenner Institute for Pain.

Tal hired Bill Virdon as his manager and raised the Astros out of the primeval muck, 43 games out of first place (in 1975) to within three outs of the World Series in 1980. The Sporting News would name Smith as the executive of the year for '80, but John McMullen, the new owner, fired him anyway.

McMullen lived in New Jersey, but he knew how to use a phone. He wanted a general manager who would not make moves or express an opinion without consulting him.

Into the breach came Al Rosen, who had set home run records as a third baseman in Cleveland. Rosen was good-natured and considerate. He lasted until 1985 and received the news of his dismissal not with anger but puzzlement.

"I don't understand why I was fired," he said to a friend.

The friend did not offer him sympathy.

"If you don't know," he said, "imagine how Tal Smith must have felt."

Replied Rosen: "I don't know why he fired Tal, either."

At that point, there seemed to be something in the air that created turmoil among Houston's sports teams, possibly spillage from the chemical plants in Pasadena.

But turmoil appeared to be our destiny. In this context, the new GM was Dick Wagner, the man who dismantled the Big Red Machine and fired Sparky Anderson in Cincinnati.

The Astros did not leave the plantation for Bill Wood, an intense, studious type whose life was baseball. Wood gave way to Bob Watson, a slugging first baseman and fan favorite in the 1970s.

Feeling he had not suffered enough here, Watson went to New York, guided the Yankees to a world championship and resigned. He is now with the commissioner's office.

Hunsicker filled the opening in Houston, . . .

And with the depth of having seen many Stros GM's and owners come and go, Herskowitz notes the bottom line of Hunsicker's resignation:

After nine years, Gerry Hunsicker leaves on a high note, and by his choice -- which is the best way.

Posted by Tom at November 5, 2004 5:47 AM |

Comments

What do you suppose would be the effect of having coaches serve terms rather than simply serving at the whim of management? It seems to me that sports towns and their fans tend to be incredibly fickle. In Arkansas, for instance, we are going through a major crisis with UAís football coach, stemming from the departure of a big-time quarterback who left because he felt he wasnít getting to throw enough under the current system. Weíre having this despite the fact that we won our half of the SEC and came close to winning the SEC championship, and have a sophomore running back who finished second in the Heisman voting. I just wonder if giving sports coaches terms might calm the troubled waters in some situations. Of course, Iím sure the public would find a way around it. After all, California managed to recall their last governor and put an abrupt end to his term.

Posted by: Vacuum Cleaner Author Profile Page at June 1, 2007 10:06 AM

You are right that good sportswriters do seem to be a dying breed. For a long time, I felt that a lot of sports writing going on in America was almost literary in its quality. Dick Schaap, for instance, who participated in the New Journalism movement with Tom Wolfe and others, really helped to revolutionize not only sports writing but writing in general. Good writing isnít completely dead, though. If you havenít read John Feinstein, you certainly should. I first discovered him by reading his work, The Majors, a close look at all four golf tournaments over the course of a single year. As you mention in terms of Herskowitz, one of the best things about Feinstein is his understanding of history, and he includes a great deal of this in The Majors. Another good one from him is The Punch, which takes an incredibly innovative approach to analysis of a single moment in time that had tremendous implications for the history of the NBA.

Posted by: Vacuum Cleaner Author Profile Page at June 14, 2007 1:32 PM

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