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.