Forgive Gene Michael if he looks a little dazed in his 1969 Topps card. He’s shown as a member of the Yankees, even though he’s wearing the colors of the Pirates, a team that he hadn’t played for since 1966. Somehow Topps could not find a picture of Michael with either the Yankees or the Dodgers, the team that actually traded him to the Yankees.
Now that I’ve thoroughly confused you, I can tell you this without hesitation: Michael’s move to New York, which coincided with the start of the 1968 season, helped change his career for the better, more subtly in the short term and quite significantly over the long haul.
At one time traded for Maury Wills, Michael had fallen into disfavor with the Dodgers because of his lack of hitting. After the 1967 season, the Dodgers dealt him to the Yankees, where he would eventually replace Tom Tresh as the starting shortstop. Like many shortstops of the era, Michael couldn’t hit worth a damn, but he could field the position with a smooth alacrity that the Yankees hadn’t seen since the prime years of Tony Kubek.
It was during his Yankee years that Michael established a reputation as the master of the hidden ball trick. With the runner at second base thinking that the pitcher already had the ball, Michael would blithely move toward him and then place a tag on the unsuspecting victim before showing the ball to the umpire. It’s a play that major leaguers occasionally pull off in today’s game, but Michael did it with a stunning degree of frequency, at least five times that have been documented. Considering that the hidden ball trick relies on heavy doses of surprise and deception, it’s remarkable that Michael was able to execute it more than once or twice. He was that good at it.
The hidden ball trick epitomized Michael’s intelligence. He had little obvious talent, possessing no power, average speed, and an overall gawkiness that came with his rail-like frame of six feet, two inches, and a mere 180 pounds. Yet, he was surprisingly athletic, enough to have starred as a college basketball player at Kent State, where his lean look earned him the nickname of “Stick.” As a major league shortstop, he made up for his lack of footspeed and arm strength with good hands and quick feet, and by studying the tendencies of opposing hitters and baserunners. How good was Michael defensively? I’d call him a poor man’s Mark Belanger. Like Michael, Belanger was tall and thin, and overmatched at the plate. But Belanger was arguably the best defensive shortstop of his era, so it’s no insult to put Michael in a slightly lower class of fielders.
Michael served the Yankees well as their starting shortstop from 1969 to 1973, but age and injuries began to catch up with him in 1974. At the age of 36, Michael received his unconditional release. He eventually signed with the Tigers, where he played sparingly in 1975, before being returned to the unemployment line. In February of 1976, Stick signed with the dreaded Red Sox, but he could do no more than earn a minor league assignment. In May, the Red Sox released Michael, who never did appear in a game for Boston.
With his playing career over, Michael quickly embarked on his second life in baseball. George Steinbrenner, remembering him as one of the original Yankees from his first year as ownership, gave him a job as a coach. From there Stick became a front office executive and then a two-time Yankee manager, serving separate stints in 1981 and ’82. Like all Yankee managers of that era, Michael was fired. He left the organization to manage the Cubs, where he clashed with his new boss, Dallas Green.
After a brief respite from the reign of Steinbrenner, Michael eventually returned to the Bronx. In 1990, the Yankees, by now a struggling team and a near laughingstock, made one of the most important moves in franchise history. They hired Michael as general manager. I was working as a sports talk show host at the time; I remember being very critical of Michael, who seemed unwilling to pull the trigger on big trades. Well, Michael knew a lot more about constructing a ballclub than I did. He set out to rebuild the Yankees’ farm system, while resisting the temptation to trade what few prospects the organization had for quick-fix veterans.
Under Michael’s stewardship, the Yankees drafted or signed the following players: Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, and a fellow named Mariano Rivera. That’s probably enough of a testament to Michael, but let’s consider that he also signed Wade Boggs and Jimmy Key as free agents.
When Michael did decide to make a trade, he made a splash. In November of 1992, Michael executed one of the most pivotal moves for the franchise’s future. He sent Roberto Kelly, one of the team’s two young center fielders, to the Reds for Paul O’Neill. It was a controversial deal, to say the least. Kelly was two years younger than O’Neill, a good player certainly, but one who was already 30 and had appeared to reach his ceiling. Michael knew what he was doing. He realized that Kelly, who lacked patience at the plate and passion in the field, was not as good a player as Bernie Williams, the team’s other center fielder. He also sensed that the fiery O’Neill could blossom as a left-handed hitter at Yankee Stadium playing for Buck Showalter. Stick was right on both counts.
With those vital pieces in place—including a catcher, a shortstop, a right fielder, a starting pitcher, and a closer—Michael left a championship nucleus for Bob Watson and Brian Cashman when he stepped down as Yankee GM in 1995.
Dazed and rejected no more, Stick Michael proved himself to be a pretty smart guy.
Bruce Markusen can be reached at email@example.com.