The Braves play opposite Late Night this week, embroiled in their annual Southern California swing through the NL West.
Sadly, one familiar face won’t be there to greet them. Long time baseball executive and SoCal mainstay Buzzie Bavasi passed away on May 1. He was 93.
In 1951, Bavasi succeeded the legendary Branch Rickey as head of baseball operations for the Brooklyn Dodgers. They even created a new title for him: general manager.
Bavasi guided the Dodgers through 1968, becoming a SoCal transplant with the team after the 1957 season. Under his direction, the Dodgers won their only World Series title in Brooklyn. That was 1955, the year that finally was “next year.” His L.A. teams won the Series in 1959, 1963 and 1965.
When Dodger owner Walter O’Malley got the National League to agree to expand into San Diego for the 1969 season, one of the conditions attached was that Bavasi run the baseball operation. He was president, and a part owner, from 1968-1977.
In 1978, Bavasi completed his SoCal hat trick by joining the California Angels as executive vice president/general manager. He immediately put together a solid team that won division titles in 1979, 1982 and 1986.
Though he left the Angels in 1984, he didn’t retire. He served on the Veterans Committee of the Baseball Hall of Fame until 1999.
Bavasi even has some baseball ties to Georgia. In 1940, he was business manager of the Americus Pioneers in the old Class D Georgia-Florida league. For the next two years, he held the same position for Valdosta in the same league.
After three years of service in World War II, where he earned a Bronze Star as an infantry machine gunner, Bavasi found himself working for the Dodgers Class B team in Nashua, N.H.
This was 1946, and Rickey was already working on his plan to integrate baseball. He had Jackie Robinson scheduled to play in Montreal, but he needed a place for Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella to play.
All but one Dodger farm team had turned Rickey down. Finally he had his assistant, a fellow named Finch, call Bavasi in Nashua.
As Campanella related the story Milton Shapiro’s book, The Roy Campanella Story, Finch hung up the phone and said, “It’s all set. I told you that Bavasi was a swell fellow. Real progressive guy. When I explained to him that you were one of the Negro players Mr. Rickey wanted, he almost got sore at me. ‘I don’t care if he’s green with orange spots or got two heads.’ he hollered at me. ‘If he can catch and hit, send him up.’”
Bavasi wasn’t done making a name for himself in Nashua. One night that summer, a team from Lynn, Mass was giving Newk and Campy a particularly hard time.
“If it weren’t for Buzzie Bavasi, I’d have nothing in baseball.” Newcombe told Michael Madden of the Boston Globe in 1997. “Those guys were calling us [racial slurs], and we had promised Mr. Rickey that we would keep our heads. We couldn’t do anything, Roy and me. But Mr. Bavasi did.”
What he did was invite the Lynn team to pick up their share of the gate receipts after the game. Bavasi gathered his manager, Walter Alston, a good-sized fellow, and a few of his bigger players behind him. They were waiting when Lynn manager Pip Kennedy strolled up to get the check.
“What I remember was the whole team was there behind Kennedy,” Bavasi told Madden. “The bus was right there with all of them. And I said to him, ‘Why don’t you say to me right now what you said to them, and I’ll kick your ass. Go ahead and say that to me.’
“You know, the first time in my life I had ever challenged anybody, and here I was challenging an entire baseball team.”
Word of Bavasi’s stand spread quickly, earning him a promotion to Brooklyn. At the ripe old age of 35, he succeeded Rickey. “The best day of my life,” he told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2007.
While Bavasi was GM, Don Zimmer made a “play me or trade me” demand. This prompted Bavasi’s famous line, “We played him, and now we can’t trade him.”
During the dark ages in San Diego, he remarked, “I get tired of hearing ballplayers bellyache all the time. They should sit in the press box sometime and watch themselves play.”
Money was tight during those early days in San Diego. As Bavasi told Richard Goldstein of the New York Times, “Every time we got a player with any value we would sell him. In one short span in the early ‘70s, I sold Al Santorini to St. Louis, Al Ferrara to Cincinnati and Ed Spiezio to the Chicago White Sox. Then my phone rang. ‘Am I next?’ the voice on the other end asked before hanging up.
“It was my mother calling from Florida. She was 81 at the time. Immediately I phoned her back. ‘What’s the matter?’ I said. ‘Well, you sold three Italians in a row. I figured I was next.’”
Just a year ago, Bavasi told the Union-Tribune, “As long as I’ve been watching, the game has always fascinated me.”
And in a letter to Dave Anderson of the New York Times, Bavasi wrote, “I am now on my third game. The Red Sox beat the Yankees, the White Sox beat the Orioles, and now the Braves are playing the Mets ... Tell me a better way to retire.”
When not practicing his avocation, Denton Ashway practices his vocation with the law firm of Ashway and Haldi in Cumming.