Yankees Architect and Beloved Baseball Figure Gene Michael Dies at 79

by Rocco Constantino | Posted on Thursday, September 7th, 2017
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Whether you’re a fan of them or not, it’s hard to argue that the New York Yankees are the most celebrated franchise in Major League Baseball history.  The roll call of legends who have worn the pinstripes is a list of the game’s immortals from Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, on to Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle and straight through to Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter.  Despite never coming close to that level as a player, Gene Michael should be considered among them when considering the men vital to the Yankees’ proud history.

Michael died Thursday after suffering a heart attack at the age of 79.  He had quietly undergone a heart procedure earlier this year, but news of his passing came as a shock to the Yankees family and Major League Baseball.

Michael served in many roles for the Yankees, but perhaps did his best work scouting talent, especially infield talent.

Orioles manager Buck Showalter, who was hired by Michael as the Yankees manager in 1992, commented on Michael in the New York Daily News upon hearing of Michael’s passing.

“He was the best baseball man I ever saw,” the Orioles manager said before his club faced the Yankees in Baltimore. “He never missed on an infielder.”‘

Michael signed as an amateur free agent with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1959 as a lanky, but athletic shortstop out of Kent State University.  It took nine years for Michael to reach the majors, but once he got there, he stuck around in one capacity or another for nearly 50 years.  He was the definition of a baseball lifer, who was still an active scout and essential member of the Yankees organization right up until the time of his death.

As a player, Michael was purchased by the Yankees after spending the 1967 season as the shortstop for the Los Angeles Dodgers.   He arrived in the Bronx just as the Yankees were moving into one of their more infamous eras, as Mantle was nearing the end of his career in what has become known to Yankee fans as the “Horace Clarke years.”

Michael batted .233 in seven seasons as the Yankees shortstop.  In his final year with the Yankees, Michael, then 36 years old, surrendered his shortstop position to Jim Mason, who was 13 years younger.  After being released by the Yankees after the 1974 season, Michael signed with the Detroit Tigers and played one season as the backup infielder where he batted .214 in  56 games before retiring at the end of the season.

Coincidentally,  Michael’s last Major League game came against the Yankees on September 9, 1975.  He doubled off of Doc Medich for the final hit of his career as a pinch hitter.  The final start of his career came exactly 42 years ago today against the Cleveland Indians.  His good friend and former Yankees teammate Fritz Peterson was on the mound for the Indians that game.

While Michael’s playing career was nondescript, he embarked on a managerial and executive career immediately upon retirement and had his hand in shaping many of the great teams and moments in Yankees history over the next 40 years.

Michael began as a bench coach with the Yankees and played a vital role in one of the game’s iconic performances.  In a New York Post article in 2009, Reggie Jackson cited scouting reports from Birdie Tebbetts and Michael that helped him connect on the first two of three home runs he famously hit against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series.

Michael then served as manager of the Yankees AAA team in 1979, General Manager of the Yankees in 1980 and then Yankees manager in 1981 and ’82.  Michael’s involvement with the Yankees coincided with the craziest times of the George Steinbrenner era, and Michael was not immune to The Boss’s whims.  Michael was fired as manager on August 4, 1982, but even in his firing, Steinbrenner lauded Michael as a valuable member of the organization.

At the time, Steinbrenner said, “I’ve talked to Stick and I hope he’ll come up into the office with us.  I wish sometimes you could let go some of the players instead of the manager, but that’s not how the game is structured. We have some players who aren’t as good as they think they are. I’m not blaming Stick. I just feel a change is necessary.”

After managing the Chicago Cubs for two seasons, Michael returned to the Yankees as the team’s General manager once again in 1990 and began laying the groundwork for the most recent Yankees dynasty by rebuilding the farm system from the ground up.  The move came just three weeks after Steinbrenner learned that he would have to cede control of the team for his involvement in the Howie Spira controversy.  Steinbrenner was able to tie up the team’s loose ends before surrendering day-to-day operations.  Hiring Michael as the General Manager was a surprise at the time, but was one of the key moves Steinbrenner made in his career.

”I have great confidence in him,” Steinbrenner said of Michael at the time at a news conference held in the basement of Yankee Stadium 90 minutes before last night’s game against the Blue Jays. ”No one is more knowledgeable in the organization.”

With Steinbrenner out of the way, Michael changed the course of the franchise with a philosophical change in the way the organization would run.  After the Yankees had traded away young budding talent like Willie McGee, Fred McGriff and Jay Buhner in the 1908’s, Michael felt the Yankees needed to acquire young talent and develop those players in their system.  As a result, Michael drafted or signed Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams and Andy Pettitte, who would go on to become the new wave of Yankee home-grown legends.

In an interview with Bronx Pinstripes just three months ago, Michael recalled that a little luck played a role in that foundation as well.

In the interview, Michael said, “We didn’t know who was going to be the best. We had [Sterling] Hitchcock in [the system]. It was between Hitchcock or Pettitte that was going to Seattle when we got [Jeff] Nelson with [Tino] Martinez. That worked out great for us. We got lucky with that trade. Pettitte had big time endurance, big aptitude and a big heart.”

Michael remained as the team’s General Manager until 1995, when he was fired as General Manager.  Michael had stated in interviews that the player’s strike of 1994 cost him his job as General Manager.  He was hired as Vice President of Major League Scouting in 1996 and remained with the team’s scouting department in some capacity until his passing today.

With Michael’s death, the Yankees and Major League Baseball lost one of the game’s most respected elder statesmen.  Many of the great Yankees players of the past 30 years owe their time in pinstripes to Stick, and they recognize that for sure.  During deeply their nostalgic annual Yankees Old Timers Day, Michael was one of the Old Timers who received the biggest cheers from fans when he was announced.  The adulation and appreciation was very well-deserved and it won’t come as a surprise if the Yankees find a way to permanently honor the man who was able to weather Steinbrenner’s storms and shape the franchise over the past three decades.

 

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Rocco Constantino
About the Author

Rocco is the author of 50 Moments That Defined Major League Baseball (Available on Amazon now!) and former Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report. He is also a die hard Mets fan going back to the awful early 80's and ready for the revival. D2 NCAA softball coach and athletics administrator. Follow Rocco on Twitter @mlb100years.







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