Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Chemistry 101: Why an Extremely Talented Twins Team Failed to Win the 1967 Pennant

 Team chemistry is one of those nebulous terms often tossed about by sportswriters. Like industrial chemistry, when it's good, often no one notices, but when it's bad, it leads to a huge pile of foul-smelling toxic waste.

Regarding this topic, I decided to discuss one of the mysteries of my youth: why didn't the powerful Minnesota Twins run away with the 1967 AL pennant--a pennant no one seemed to want for much of the season, one that was there for the taking if they had only played up to a portion of their potential. It's a worthwhile exercise if only because it involves so many classic characters.

The biggest puzzle of the first two months of the 1967 season was the American League team from Minnesota. A deep, talented bunch with the best hitting and best pitching from top to bottom in the majors, a team that had taken Sandy Koufax and the Dodgers to the brink in the 1965 World Series, they floundered spectacularly.

The Twins were managed by Sam Mele, a cliche-spouting, amiable man who had been in the top position since mid-1961. He had taken over a perpetual second division club and made them into one of the best teams in the American League. They had finished in second place in 1962, third in 1963 and won the pennant in 1965.



But while Mele wore a uniform and filled out the line-up card, he was actually little more than a puppet and, unfortunately, everyone knew it. Owner and President Calvin Griffith had been in charge since taking over from the uncle who raised him in 1955. Griffith was one of the last of the baron baseball owners, a man whose business interests started and ended with the team. While some good owners, aware of their own deficiencies, leave the professionals to run their clubs, Griffith had grown up with baseball—albeit mostly losing baseball—and involved himself in every aspect of his team. He functioned as his own general manager and often made trades without consulting his manager. He was quoted in the papers more often than any of his players or managers. Griffith was such a notorious skin-flint that the joke around baseball was that swimming had been invented the first time Calvin Griffith had driven up to a toll-bridge.


Griffith made a habit of meeting with his manager nearly every day at 4 PM to go over the status of the team, what he expected and what he wanted to do. Being late for the meeting was not tolerated because 5 PM was Griffith's nap time.

 While he sometimes publicly complained that Mele was too nice a guy, Griffith’s relationship with Mele was generally supportive. In 1964, however, Mele had endured the public indignity of having his salary slashed by Griffith because of a drop in the standings, one of the few times a manager had this happen; but at least he retained his job.

Whereas other laid back managers similar to Mele have led successful teams, the constant, very public, emasculation by Griffith made it inevitable that Mele would not be able to maintain the respect of a room full of hyper-testosteroned competitive men.

But Griffith did have a good eye for talent, both on and off the field. Before the 1965 season, he had pulled off a masterpiece by bringing in two excellent assistant coaches to help Mele: Billy Martin and Johnny Sain.

 Martin was recommended by Mele. They had been friendly rivals when Mele played for the Red Sox in the fifties. Martin had played with the Twins at the end of his playing career in 1961. When Mele was forced to cut him in the spring of 1962, convinced that he had all the makings of the classic feisty second baseman-turned-great-manager, he promised to find him a job in the organization.

True to his word, Mele convinced Griffith to hire Martin, starting him out as a scout. Martin quickly showed an aptitude for the management side of the business and worked his way up the ladder. Mele recommended Martin for the third base coaching position before the 1965 season, then gave him extra responsibility. With the directive to get the power-hitting Twins moving, Martin laid the foundations for what would later be called Billyball. Suddenly even refrigerator-with-muscles Harmon Killebrew was sliding into bases like a ballerina and the Twins drove teams crazy on the basepaths.
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Martin showed that he not only knew the game, but he was a great teacher. One of his prized pupils in 1965 was shortstop Zollo Versalles. A multitalented, tempermental hot dog, Versalles was a puzzle. At times, he looked like the best all-around shortstop in baseball. Other times, he was prone to sloppy errors and sulking. In the spring of 1965, Versalles became enraged when Mele pulled him out of an exhibition game for giving a less than satisfactory effort and complained to reporters that he was through listening to his manager.

But Martin was able to work wonders with Versalles, harnessing the talent and keeping the temper under control. Versalles continued to openly defy Mele, telling the press that he would do what Martin directed, not what Mele ordered, but he hustled and sparked the team all year, ending up as the 1965 AL MVP, leading the league in doubles and triples and winning a gold glove.


Martin also greatly helped jack-of-all-trades Cesar Tovar and, in 1967, a sweet-swinging, stone-handed young second baseman named Rod Carew. Shy and temperamental, the 22-year-old Carew had temporarily bolted two minor league teams (in Wilson, North Carolina and Orlando) after disagreements with managers and disappointing performances. In 1968 he would try the same with the Twins after being benched: he packed his bags, headed to the airport and the Twins manager was forced to dispatch a coach to drag him back.

In the spring of 1967, Carew was a guy from the low minors and most doubted he was ready for the majors. After tutoring Carew, and being impressed that he drank up instruction and worked hard, Martin told Griffith, "I think the kid can make it." Martin spent hours helping Carew's infield play that spring. Carew became an immediate All-Star and proceeded to hit .292 and win the AL Rookie of the Year Award.

By all accounts, Mele and Martin held mutual admiration for each other, worked well together and were genuine friends. Not so with the other coaching prodigy.

Johnny Sain was a pitcher-whisperer who manufactured 20-game winners wherever he went. Griffith had coaxed him to Minnesota with an offer of $25,000 a year, making him the highest paid coach in American League history. The Twins ERA dropped from 3.57 in 1964 to 3.14 in 1965. Big lefty Jim Kaat won 18 games. Mudcat Grant became an ace, winning 21. Twin pitchers loved their new coach. "Johnny was the best thing that ever happened to me," Grant said in 1968.

         

 The 1965 Minnesota Twins ran away with the American League pennant and extended the Los Angeles Dodgers to seven games in the World Series—only losing to Sandy Koufax’s Game Seven excellence.





Everyone was happy in the glow of a pennant celebration.


But things soon changed.


While Martin and Sain had proven to be great coaches and were key figures in the team's success, there were a few mildly annoying habits a team and its management needed to put up with; a quid pro quo for the use of their brilliance.

Martin had a temper and was a mean drunk. This was unfortunate because being drunk was a frequent off-field state for Billy the Kid.

Sain was a true iconoclast when it came to leading a pitching staff. He defied old-style pitching commandments such as excessive running and treated his pitchers as men first, professionals second. The prototype teacher-coach, he developed personal relationships with each pitcher and didn't give orders, he made suggestions and explained things intellectually. He was also very territorial, treating his pitchers almost like a separate team. He stated, "My pitchers come first. The press, the manager, and the front office come second." He greatly irritated owners by encouraging his pitchers to "climb the golden staircase" and demand what they were worth in salary negotiations.

Not surprisingly, Sain was very popular with his pitchers. He developed almost a cult following. And he didn't hesitate to correct superiors who interfered. He knew what he was doing, got good results which were plainly visible for all to see and felt like he should be left alone to do his job. The media often felt this way as well and irritated his superiors by stating so in print. Sain’s unsolicited advice about who should pitch, and when, in the rotation and when pitchers should be removed from games—decisions usually left to the manager (and decisions which, if they go wrong, frequently cost the manager his job) were a constant source of irritation to his managers.

In mid-1966, the inevitable happened in Kansas City. Martin erupted and cussed out one of Sain's pitchers after a failed bunt attempt. Sain took personal the fact that someone else had dared upbraid one of his minions, had words with Martin and the match was lit on the powder keg. The conversation reportedly included this exchange:

Sain: "Getting a bunt down on a squeeze play is not that easy."
Martin: "Yeah it is. That's why we used to beat your asses, because we executed and you made excuses."
From there, the argument degenerated into personal attacks which left feelings irreparably hurt.

Already annoyed that Sain was undermining his authority, Mele sided with his friend Martin. The pitchers, demonstrating that while you sometimes can't live with them, you certainly can't live without them either, rallied around their pitching coach. Sain moved his stuff out of the coaches dressing area and took a locker among his pitchers, dressing there the rest of the season.

Mele rarely talked to Sain the last half of the 1966 season. At times, the two only communicated by notes passed through another coach. At the conclusion of the 89-win 1966 season, Mele told Griffith that he could no longer work with Sain, suggesting, “Either he goes or I go.” Griffith, also annoyed at Sain's insubordination, backed his manager and parted ways with Sain.

The departure of Sain immediately caused unforeseen problems for Griffith and his team, however. Griffith had underestimated the enormous bond between Sain and his pupils. Jim Kaat, who had won 25 games in a career-year of 1966, wrote a much-publicized open letter to Twins fans and distributed it to newspapers in the Twin cities and it quickly was spread across the country on the wire services.

In the letter, Kaat called the firing of Sain "the great mistake" and said it was "like the Green Bay Packers allowing Vince Lombardi to leave." He concluded saying that "if I were ever in a position of general manager, I'd give John Sain a 'name-your-own-figure' contract to handle my pitchers (and, oh yes, I'd hire a manager who could take advantage of his talents)."

Astute observers appropriately took this as a slap at both Mele and Griffith.



 While Griffith quickly told newspaper men that he had talked to both Mele and Kaat and that things were taken care of, it was apparent in spring training that a serious rift had formed in the Twins’ clubhouse. There were now Sain-men and Mele-men. The leader of the Sain-men was obviously Kaat. Once the season started, he insisted on taking Sain's old locker and turned it into a shrine to his departed pitching coach, decorating the walls with pictures and articles of Sain. When Mele complained, Griffith made Kaat remove everything.

Several of the position players were firm Mele-men, steadfastly defending their duly-appointed field leader. Others, namely shortstop Versalles, did not care for Mele, but were staunch Martin-men and so opposed the Sain-men. The few newcomers, such as pitcher Dean Chance, had never played under Sain and so, naturally supported the manager, but were actually left confused, floating in the middle between two warring camps.


The two acknowledged leaders of the team were two of the best hitters of the era, Harmon Killebrew and Tony Oliva. They were also generally felt to be two of the nicest, most easy-to-get-along-with men in all of baseball. Few baseball men will ever be found who will say a bad thing about either the consummate gentleman Killebrew or the perpetually smiling Oliva. They led by example and by sheer force of talent, but neither was a butt kicker. And the 1967 Twins needed someone who could stand up, kick some butts and force the issue. They needed a Frank Robinson but, unfortunately for them, Frank Robinsons were hard to come by.





The real butt-kicker for the Twins should have been Jim Kaat. At $54,000, the second-highest paid player on the team, Kaat was outspoken and a ferocious competitor. He was a terrific athlete and a natural leader of men. But as one of the main men involved in the palace revolt, he could not speak to the team at large. He was part of the problem and, thus, could not be part of the solution.


The result of this was a very divisive, frustrated, tense clubhouse. And this is the way the very talented Twins’ team started the 1967 season.

Not surprisingly, the team got off to a poor start and slowly got worse. Several stars slumped, routine plays in the field were botched and previous All-Star pitchers couldn’t find the strike zone. The Twins defense throwing a ball around resembled a "company picnic softball team half way through the second keg," according to Sports Illustrated.  June 8 the Twins blew a 9th inning lead against lowly Cleveland and Griffith decided he had seen enough. His team was 25-25 and mired in sixth place, 6 games out.

Griffith surmised that Mele had lost the team and a change was needed to prevent the once promising season from slipping away. June 9, as Mele was putting on his uniform in his office at Metropolitan Stadium, Griffith called him and said that he wanted to see him in his office. Mele reported to Griffith’s office and learned that he was no longer a major league manager.

In view of the clubhouse turmoil, Griffith wisely decided to go outside the team for a new manager. This surprised many who felt that the combustible, energetic, baseball-savvy third base coach Billy Martin would be the obvious choice. Although Martin had made no secret of his ambitions to one day manage a major league team, he had taken pains to avoid any perception of back-stabbing and had remained steadfastly loyal to Mele during the troubling season. His time would come later. To finish out the 1967 season, Griffith made a brilliant choice of an outsider--a complete unknown to major league fans and writers--the manager at the Twins’ triple-A Denver club, Cal Ermer.


Calvin Coolidge Ermer was 43 years old in 1967 and had been a minor league lifer. His major league experience had consisted of the grand total of one game as a player and one season as a coach. As a late season call up for Clark Griffith’s Washington Senators in 1947, Ermer had gone 0-for-3 in his only big league game. He later told anyone who would listen that it should have been only 0-for-2, he laid down a bunt that would have been a sacrifice except for a lead-footed runner: "It was a good bunt,” he liked to say.

Ermer had fashioned an impressive reputation managing the likes of the Chattanooga Lookouts and the Birmingham Barons, winning several Southern Association titles in the 1950s. He had a taste of the major leagues as a coach with the Orioles in 1962, then went back to the minors to manage in the Twins system. Ermer was known as a good teacher and was had been popular with his minor league players.

One of those players, at Chattanooga in 1957, was a powerfully-built youngster who had spent several years sitting on the bench of the Senators, losing his confidence as the result of the bonus rule. Ermer spent hours alone with Harmon Killebrew, throwing him extra batting practice and building up his confidence. Within two years, Killebrew was the best slugger in the American League.

Killebrew never forgot and was forever an Ermer fan. Years later, he would say Ermer "helped me more than anyone."  When Killebrew was offered the Texas Ranger managerial job in 1976, he initially made it a condition of the job that he would only take it if Ermer was brought in also (he later decided against becoming a manager).
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While it is standard operating procedure for owners to replace a fiery manager with a laid-back one, and vice versa, Griffith violated protocol by picking one almost identical to the one he had fired.  Ermer was friendly, rarely cursed, except during conversations with umpires, and was considered to be one of the best dugout story-tellers in baseball. With his premature gray hair and lanky build, he was almost identical to the easy-going Mele, in appearance and temperament. In fact, Ermer had sometimes been mistaken for Mele at the Twins’ spring training complex while he was there with his Denver team. Griffith apparently felt the problem with the team wasn’t necessarily the disposition of the manager, but the personality problems that were hurting the atmosphere in the clubhouse, causing his key players to underperform. "I still think this team can win the pennant," Griffith told reporters. "I think new leadership can provide the spark to get us going."

Ermer received the call from Griffith in Denver at 2:30 PM. At 4:30 he was was on a plane for Minneapolis. He climbed into a uniform 20 minutes before the game, then watched his new team get trounced by the Orioles 11-2.

After the first loss, the Twins won 5 of the next 7 and 20 of 31. Kaat immediately turned around--he had been 1-7 with an ERA of 6.38 and 0 complete games under Mele. After Mele was fired, he proceeded to win 7 of his next 8 starts and would go 15-6 with an ERA of 2.13 and 13 complete games the rest of the season.

But getting rid of Mele didn't suddenly cause the Twins to sit around the clubhouse holding hands and singing campfire songs after each game. There were two more causes of serious friction.

The pitching staff was overloaded with great starters; on the surface, a nice problem to have but, in reality, it caused trouble. In the offseason, they had landed Dean Chance who possessed perhaps the most electric stuff in the league; a 26-year-old who had won the AL Cy Young Award in 1964 with the lowly Angels by going 20-9 with a 1.65 ERA. Based on his overpowering arm, Chance immediately became the ace of the talented staff. In addition to Kaat and Grant, the Twins also had hardthrowing 22-year-old Dave Boswell, who would win 20 games in 1969, 23-year-old lefty Jim Merritt who would win 20 games with the Reds in 1970 and Jim Perry who would win 20 and 24 games for the Twins in 1969 and 1970. If you're scoring at home, that's six pitchers on the staff with the talent to win 20 games within a 5 year period.

 The problem was that there was only one ball and no way to keep everyone happy. In the mid-60s no one wanted to be a reliever. Several pitchers grumbled about not getting enough work. Perry and Grant were most consistently the odd men out, moving in and out of the rotation, becoming frustrated.

Also, there was a serious race problem on the team. Griffith had accumulated a very diverse team, based on talent. The Twins clubhouse contained Cubans Sandy Valdespino, Versalles, and Tony Oliva, Cesar Tovar from Venezuela and rookie Rod Carew, who had been born in Panama and moved to New York at the age of 14. Mudcat Grant and catcher Earl Battey were African Americans.

But Griffith was far from an enlightened owner. He was notoriously cheap and "plantation" was a term often bandied about by both players and writers. The players did not mesh--several groups kept to themselves, mostly along race and language lines. One former Twin later said of a white teammate "you could tell he didn't like blacks."

In 1962, catcher Earl Battey had filed a complaint with the Minnesota State Commission on Discrimination against the Twins because they were the only team that still segregated players during spring training in Florida. Despite heavy pressure from media and civil rights groups, the team's policy remained unchanged until 1964.

At least twice in 1967, race-related incidents flared into nasty confrontations. In mid-June, during a bus ride from the airport in Detroit, back of the bus fooling around by Boswell led to a verbal duel between Ted Uhlaender and Sandy Valdespino. Teammates and coaches intervened to keep them from taking swings.

Grant didn't get along with either Ermer or new tough-guy pitching coach Early Wynn, whose solution for whatever ailed a pitcher was to run his legs off. Grant also smelled racism on the team.
In July, after losing his starting spot while battling knee problems, he complained to reporters about his bullpen role and asked to be traded. "My mind was warped," said Grant in 1968. "For the first time in my life I had hate in my heart. . . I got to hating just about everybody. I thought every white man was a ****. I was crawling with hate."

Griffith's cheapness and race feelings apparently changed little from decade to decade. Pedro Ramos, a Cuban pitcher in the 1950s, later said of trying to negotiate a $500 raise out of Griffith, "He told me if I didn't like that I could stay in Cuba and cut sugar cane . . .We were like slaves."

In 1978 a boozed-up Griffith told a gathering at a Lions Club that he had moved his franchise from Washington to Minnesota because "I found out you only had 15,000 black people here. . . we came here because you've got good, hardworking white people here."

Rod Carew responded to some name-calling in the same speech by telling a reporter, "I'm not going to be another nigger on his plantation."

And then there were the players who were just hard-headed, slumping and unhappy, like shortstop Versalles, who was in the process of experiencing one of the most perplexing and precipitous plunges of any MVP in history. He would end the season at an even .200 and lead the league's shortstops in errors for the third straight year, mostly on foolish throws. He publicly ripped Ermer when he was finally benched in August and was essentially worthless the rest of the season. After being traded at the end of the season, he would complain that the Twins would have won the pennant with Mele [whom he had also hated].

Despite the continued turmoil, the talented Twins played good ball under Ermer. They took over first place August 13 and held either all or part of first place every day from September 2 to the end of the season except for two days in mid-month.

They pulled into Boston for the final two games of the season with the standings looking like this:

Twins     91-69
Red Sox 90-70

The Twins had gone 66-42 since Ermer took over. Ermer was on the verge of becoming the first man to lead an American League team to a pennant after taking over in midseason. They had Kaat, who was coming off a monster September, winning 5 games, and Chance, who had already won his 20th game, ready.

But old feuds proved fatal. On the Friday before the final two games that would decide the pennant, the team met to decide on postseason shares. Normally this is a mere formality, with little quibbling and often great generosity being shown to bat boys and clubhouse attendants. The Twins, however, quickly degenerated into an enraged mob as they debated whether or not to give Mele any portion of a share.

Kaat told a reporter, "It was just an overwhelming majority against him [Mele] getting a share. Nobody led any opposition group to Mele."

Kaat's opinion was not shared by everyone, however. "I was never so ashamed of anything in my life," an unnamed veteran was quoted in Sports Illustrated. "And we had enough problems before that came up." Eleven players and one coach said that if commissioner Eckert didn't order the Twins to give Mele a share, they would give it to him out of their own pockets.


In that state of lack of cohesiveness, the Twins went out the next day for a date with destiny at Fenway Park. They proceeded to drop both games to the Red Sox and Carl Yastrzemski. The season was over.










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Johnny Sain had moved to Detroit for the 1967 season, where he turned around their talented but underperforming pitching staff. The next year Denny McLain would win 31 games and Mickey Lolich would take three in the World Series. Sain would be fired after the 1969 season at the urging of the Tigers manager, Mayo Smith, who felt that Sain had too much power and didn't communicate. Sain would move to Chicago where he would help newly-acquired struggling lefthander Jim Kaat win 20 games two more times.

Cal Ermer, the toast of the American League the last half of 1967, would be fired at the end of the 1968 season in which the Twins finished in 7th place, 24 games behind the Tigers. Griffith stated he felt Ermer was too nice and lacked firm control. Billy Martin, who was definitely not too nice, was named manager. Late in the 1969 season he would punch out his 20-game winning pitcher Dave Boswell in an alley behind a Detroit bar. He would lead the Twins to the west division championship but would be fired at the end of the season.

The Twins would not win another American League pennant until 1987, three years after Calvin Griffith had sold the team.
            

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