The phone rang insistently in the office of Dodger vice president Al Campanis. The caller was polite, concerned. How was the family, the diet, the ballclub? Al waited patiently to see what trumps were going to be in this hand. He soon found out.
"Al, I've been thinking about that infield of yours. You need an experienced hand with all those kids."
"What did you have in mind?" Companis sparred.
"How about Wayne Garrett for Steve Garvey?" the caller wondered.
Al Campanis hung up gently.
Baseball is a general manager's medium. It is his function to be able to recognize talent from the back of a moving train. And sign it. The team is his. If he's hot, it is.
From the time Alexander Sebastian Campanis replaced Buzzie Bavasi as the real head man of the Dodgers, general managers around the league made it their business to test him. Everyone knew the Dodgers had a cornucopia of young talent, but had to decide which of them were blue chip and which were expendable. Campanis picked his way carefully. He kept Steve Garvey, Ron Cey, Davey Lopes and Bill Russell, and discarded Billy Grabarkewitz, Bobby Valentine, Tom Paciorek, John Hale, and Paul Popovich.
"Everyone wanted Garvey," Campanis was recalling the other day. "They would call up and say 'What do you wanta keep him for? He can't throw? I was only tempted once. That's when the Yankees offered Stan Bahnsen, a pretty good right-handed pitcher who became a 20-game winner."
It is the duty of a general manager to get Sandy Koufax for an old cigar box, if he can, or a Triple Crown winner for three benchwarmers and a player to be named later. Some deals have been downright catastrophic. Babe Ruth was sold for $125,000, if you can believe it. Joe Morgan was traded to Cincinnati by Houston for a whole bunch of people who are no longer with Houston - and some are not with anybody.
They used to say of George Weiss, the alligator-tempered, unsmiling ivory dealer of the old New York Yankees, that "He'd trade his mother if it would help the club." Campanis went him one better. He sold his son. It was his first official front-office act. Al couldn't resist the price - $100,000 - for a guy with a lifetime big league batting average of .147 (47 points higher than his old man, at that).
He was a good enough halfback at NYU to be offered a contract by the New York Giants, but he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers, where he got to bat 20 times in the big leagues (he made two hits), but was a pretty good Tripe-AAA infielder, one of whose jobs was to break in Jackie Robinson as a second baseman at Montreal.
"He learned all you had to know in two days," recalled Campanis. "Anything that could be done with a ball, bat, gloves and feet, he was born to do."
He caught the eye of Branch Rickey, who launched Al on a 30-year career of beating the bushes for baseball ivory, where Al's average was considerably better than the .100 he had with the bat. He signed Sandy Koufax, Roberto Clemente, Tommy Davis, Bob Aspromonte, Al Ferrara and Sandy Amoros. Campanis knew the batting weaknesses of as many as 450 major and minor league players at a time.
The general manager's art is not in recognizing Steve Garvey as a winner after he had won four Golden Gloves, two All-Star games, an MVP and a few World Series games, but in recognising it in the days when Garvey was filling the first base dug-out with throws from third.
The art of a general manager is getting an All-Star outfield for a bunch of guys who will be playing in Japan or Seattle within two years.
But the main art is to sift through the sweet talk and cigar smoke, such as when Texas offered him a deal a few years ago. The Rangers wanted Don Sutton for a 10-12 pitcher named Jim Umbarger. When a local newspaperman phoned Campanis to check the deal for Sutton, he was puzzled.
"Did you say they offered a 'hamburger'?" he wondered.
"Well," said Al, "to tell the truth, it was a little of both."