"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Tag: clyde king

Observations From Cooperstown: King and Werth

The death of Clyde King earlier this week did not generate national headlines. Nor did it rank quite as newsworthy as the subsequent passing of Sparky Anderson, a legend among Hall of Fame managers. But the death of King struck a chord with this writer, who remembers how he tried to restore some sanity to the frenetic whirlwind that enveloped the Yankees during the 1980s.

Before discussing King’s value as the Yankee general manager in the 1980s, his story is worth telling in other regards. Though he was a southerner who hailed from Carolina, King became one of the Brooklyn Dodgers to openly accept an African American named Jackie Robinson as one of his teammates. With allies like King and Pee Wee Reese, life became a little bit easier for Robinson, who faced more than his share of dislike from opponents, fans, and even a few of his teammates. King didn’t care about the color of Robinson’s skin, and didn’t much care for the Jim Crow laws of the 1940s. With an open mind, King accepted Robinson as his teammate and close friend; that’s what mattered to King.

As a pitcher, King had a couple of decent seasons pitching middle relief for the Dodgers, but his career amounted to little more than mediocrity. Where he lacked physical talent, he made up with a knowledge of mechanics and pitching grips. He became a successful pitching coach, before earning managerial jobs with the Giants and Braves. In becoming the only man to manage both Willie Mays and Hank Aaron at the big league level, King kept flawed teams in San Francisco and Atlanta above .500. In spite of a lack of pitching depth, he led the 1969 Giants to a 90-win season. He did similar wonders during the second half of 1974, guiding the pitching-thin Braves to a .603 winning percentage after replacing Eddie Mathews in mid-stride.

The Yankee chapter of King’s long career in baseball began in 1976, when George Steinbrenner hired him to work in the front office. “The Boss” quickly took a liking to the affable and professorial King, who impressed the owner with his vast knowledge of pitching. Critics of King knocked him for licking the boots of The Boss, and for allegedly serving as the owner’s spy, but he showed versatility in undertaking any task assigned him: advisor, super scout, pitching coach, manager.

King did his best work for the Yankees when he was given the most authority. That came in the middle of the 1984 season, when Steinbrenner promoted him to general manager, replacing the overmatched Murray Cook. Shortly after becoming GM, King sent an aging Roy Smalley to the White Sox for a player to be named later, who turned out to be future ace Doug Drabek. The trade served as an omen of more good trades to come.

The Yankees finished with 87 wins that season, but King recognized that the offense, the catching, the bench and the bullpen all needed a boost. As he prepared for the winter meetings in Houston, King developed a detailed and systematic plan of attack to rebuild the bombers. On the first day of the winter meetings, King acquired platoon catcher Ron Hassey and backup outfielder Henry Cotto from the Cubs for spare parts Brian Dayett and Ray Fontenot. Hassey gave the Yankees a strong, left-handed hitting catcher, while Cotto’s speed and defense served him well as a fifth outfielder. On the second day, King made major headlines when he finalized a deal for the game’s best leadoff man, Rickey Henderson. The trade cost the Yankees a young ace in Jose Rijo, but it also gave them a dynamic presence at the top of a lineup that already featured Don Mattingly and Dave Winfield. That same day, King stole hard-throwing right-hander Brian Fisher from the Braves, giving up only journeyman catcher Rick Cerone in return. Fisher would give the Yankees an imposing set-up man fronting closer Dave Righetti.

Not satisfied with his Houston haul, King continued to do fine work that winter. He dumped two past-their-prime veterans, Steve Kemp and Tim Foli, on the Pirates, netting future star Jay Buhner in return. Except for the Buhner deal, every one of King’s trades benefited the Yankees directly in 1985. With their offense and bullpen greatly improved, the Yankees won 97 games, their best showing of the decade, but only good enough to finish second behind a powerhouse Blue Jays team that claimed 99 victories.

King took a less aggressive approach during the winter, while trying to promote younger players like Drabek, Dennis Rasmussen, Bob Tewksbury, and slugger Dan Pasqua from within the organization. As the 1986 season progressed, Steinbrenner grew jealous of the accolades being sent King’s way. The Boss became more meddlesome, putting pressure on King to make an unwise trade that sent Don Baylor to the Red Sox for Mike Easler. Growing tired of Steinbrenner’s jealousy and interference, King decided to step aside as general manager at the end of a 90-win season and return to the peaceful existence of being a trusted front office advisor.

Given his track record, I think it’s fair to regard King as the Yankees’ most effective general manager of the 1980s. If he had remained in power, it’s possible that the Yankees would not have traded Buhner, Drabek, Tewksbury, and other promising youngsters for fading veterans. With King in control, the Yankees might have avoided the embarrassments of the 1989 and 1990 seasons, when the franchise became a laughingstock.

As it turned out, King lost out on his chance for fame and glory, and transitioned into relative obscurity. That didn’t seem to bother King, who remained one of the game’s great storytellers. Always recognizable in his trademark horn-rimmed glasses, he loved to talk baseball, never turning down requests for interviews, and ceaselessly spinning his tales in his friendly southern drawl.

Sadly, we won’t be able to hear those stories directly from the source anymore. Yet, many of those stories can be found in a book that King co-authored, called A King’s Legacy. And even though he’s gone now, we shouldn’t forget that Clyde King was just about the best thing going for the Yankee front office during those wild times of the 1980s.


Passing of a King

When thinking of former Yankee managers, Clyde King is hardly the first name that comes to mind. But when it comes to former Yankee skippers who devoted their lives to the game, while doing so with intelligence, enthusiasm, and style, King’s name should be placed near the top of the list. One of the few men who served George Steinbrenner as both manager and general manager, King died Tuesday from heart-related problems. King was 86.

With baseball ravaged by World War II, King made his major league debut as a right-hander with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1944. He returned to the minor leagues after the war, but eventually returned to Brooklyn, becoming a contributor to the Dodgers’ staff in the late forties and early fifties. While with the Dodgers, King became close friends with Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play in the major leagues during the 20th century. The friendship surprised some, given the southern heritage of the Carolina-born King, but it was emblematic of his open-minded, outgoing, and accepting nature.

After his playing days came to an end with the Reds in 1953, King became a successful minor league manager with teams like the Atlanta Crackers and the Hollywood Stars. Noted for his knowledge of pitching, King turned to coaching with the Reds and Pirates, a springboard to his first big league managerial post in San Francisco, followed by a later stint with the Braves. As a manager, King forged a record five games better than .500, at 234-229.

King joined the Yankee front office in 1976, quickly becoming a trusted confidante of Steinbrenner. He remained with the Yankees for the next three decades, serving alternately as a super scout, coach, manager, general manager, and special advisor. King became one of Steinbrenner’s go-to men, a troubleshooter who would fill any capacity requested by the principal owner.

King moved into the Yankee spotlight in the middle of the 1982 season, when he became the team’s third manager that summer, succeeding Bob Lemon and Gene “Stick“ Michael. Under King’s leadership, the Yankees limped to a 29-33 finish. Several of the veteran Yankees claimed that he was actually a spy for Steinbrenner, a charge that King denied.

After the season, the Yankees bumped King back to the front office. In the mid-1980s, with the Yankee front office in a state of constant turmoil and upheaval, Steinbrenner turned to King to run the entire baseball operation. He promoted King to general manager, giving him [relatively] full authority to make trades and sign free agents. King impressed a number of Yankee watchers at the 1984 winter meetings. Coming to the meetings with a detailed and organized plan, King engineered a blockbuster trade for Hall of Fame leadoff man Rickey Henderson. King also swung lesser trades for useful role players like Ron Hassey and Henry Cotto, and stole hard-throwing reliever Brian Fisher from the Braves for a declining Rick Cerone. (After the winter meetings, King also acquired a young Jay Buhner from the Pirates in exchange for the washed up pair of Steve Kemp and Tim Foli.) Bolstered by the wintertime pickups, the Yankees improved by ten games in 1985, winning 97 games. Unfortunately, the Yankees ran second to a powerhouse Blue Jays team that won 99 games and claimed the American League East.

Some historians, including this one, regard King as the Yankees’ most effective general manager of the 1980s, but that stature did not prevent him from being fired in 1986. Now demoted, King returned to being a lesser known member of the front office. Whether working in a position of power or simply serving as a scout, King also developed a reputation as one of the game’s great storytellers. Always approachable, King loved to talk baseball, spinning his tales in his trademark southern drawl.

Along the way, King managed to accomplish something that few others can claim. He somehow worked for 30 years under the imposing thumb of George Steinbrenner, before finally retiring in 2005. If nothing else, lasting that long while working for “The Boss” should earn Clyde King at least half of a plaque here in Cooperstown.

feed Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via email
"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver