Card Corner Plus: Gene Michael and High Intelligence on 1972 Topps

Gene Michael was the rare person who was a major league player, field manager and general manager.

The recent death of highly accomplished New York Yankees executive Gene Michael spurred me to find my favorite baseball card from his playing days as a shortstop. “Stick” Michael’s 1969 Topps card is an interesting one, in that it shows him wearing the colors of the Pittsburgh Pirates, a team that he last played for in 1966, while designated him as a member of the Yankees. Michael’s 1973 card is also eye-catching; it’s a landscape action shot that shows him batting in a game at the original Yankee Stadium.

For me, the most intriguing card of Michael is the only one that shows him doing what he did best as a player: fielding his position. It’s his 1972 “In Action” card, also done in a landscape format. While it’s a bit on the blurry side, it gives us a glimpse of a 1971 game, with Michael covering second base and applying a tag to a baserunner for the Minnesota Twins.

A check of the Twins’ roster for the 1971 season tells us that No. 36 is actually veteran pitcher Jim Kaat, one of the better all-around athletes among pitchers in his day. (The photo may have been taken during a game on July 21, when Kaat reached first with a bunt single and then stole second base.) Off to the side we see Yankee second baseman Horace Clarke, Michael’s longtime double play partner in New York, scurrying to put himself in position to back up his shortstop.

In looking at this card, and recognizing the names of the participants, I’m struck by the level of intelligence on display. All thoughtful guys, Clarke, Michael and Kaat played the game with smarts, making the most of their talents. Even after their retirements, all three stayed connected to baseball, in an instructional capacity, through front office work and managing, or through broadcasting.

After his playing days, Clarke returned to his native Virgin Islands and became a government-paid baseball instructor, teaching kids fundamentals. At one point, Clarke returned to Organized Baseball as a scout with the Kansas City Royals, a job that he held in the 1980s. Now completely retired from the major leagues, Clarke lives year round in the Virgin Islands.

While Clarke has been the subject of previous Card Corners, I have written less about Kaat and Michael. That doesn’t seem quite right, given Kaat’s status as one of the best color analysts on television over the past 30 years and Michael’s reputation as one of the game’s brighter front office minds. Their post-playing accomplishments have been considerable, testament to how important critical thinking is to success within the game.

As a pitcher, Kaat did not rely on an overpowering fastball or dominant stuff.  He brought a thinking man’s approach to the mound, mixing sinkers and sliders to deceive opposing hitters. He was also smart enough to use an unusually quick-paced style of pitching. Rarely waiting as long as even 10 seconds between pitches, Kaat took the signs from his catcher and moved immediately into his motion. At times he pitched so quickly that he didn’t appear to come to a complete stop before delivering his next pitch. Wisely realizing that hitters liked to settle into the batter’s box and take a few extra moments between pitches, Kaat toyed and tinkered with their timing and rhythm, giving himself an advantage that required no special skill or talent.

Kaat’s approach to pitching, along with his detailed attention to conditioning, allowed him to pitch through his 44th birthday. His playing career spanned the administrations of seven  presidents, from Eisenhower to Reagan.

Not long after retiring from mound work, Kaat took his vast awareness of pitching and conditioning to his next job.  The Cincinnati Reds, managed by Pete Rose, his former teammate in Philadelphia, hired Kaat as pitching coach.  In 1985, Kaat oversaw a Reds pitching staff that included Tom Browning, Mario Soto, Ted Powe, and John Franco. Under Kaat’s watchful eye, Browning put together his best season, winning 20 games, while Power delivered a career year as the Reds’ closer. Soto put together his last effective season for the Reds, and Franco began to emerge as a bullpen force, moving one step closer to becoming the Reds’ fulltime closer in 1986.

The Reds’ pitching ranked a bit below National League average that year,  But given the relative youth of the staff and the lack of pitching depth in the rotation—when your third and fourth starters are Jay Tibbs and Andy McGaffigan, what can you expect?—Kaat seemed to have extracted about as much as he could from the Reds’ pitchers. But he had very defined pitching philosophies, including a belief in the four-man rotation, which clashed with Reds management. Ultimately, those disagreements motivated him to leave the job after one season.

Kaat transitioned to broadcasting, where his intelligence and clear speaking made him a natural. At first, he worked in the Minnesota Twins’ booth, from 1988 to 1993. There he started to establish a reputation as one of the game’s best up-and-coming analysts.

I first became aware of Kaat as a broadcaster in 1995, when he joined the Madison Square Garden Network, the flagship television station of the Yankees. (By coincidence, Michael was the Yankees’ general manager at the time.) Tony Kubek had retired from the broadcast booth after the strike-shortened season of 1994, leaving a huge hole in Yankee coverage.

I loved Kubek’s commentary—he was my favorite broadcaster ever—but I soon came to appreciate Kaat’s talents in the broadcast booth. He delivered cogent, even-keeled commentary with a subtle sense of humor. In particular, he produced keen insight on the intricacies of pitching. He also had an appreciation of baseball history, just like Kubek. In summary, Kaat made broadcasts on the MSG Network, and later on the YES Network, mandatory watching throughout the late 1990s and into the 2000s.

Pretty much every night, I came away from Yankee broadcasts learning something new about the fine art of pitching. One night, Kaat would reveal mechanical flaws in the delivery of Ted Lilly; Kaat revealed how Lilly sometimes failed to point his landing foot directly toward home plate, affecting his control. On another night, Kaat would offer some thoughtful analysis on the Frisbee slider thrown by sidearming Jeff Nelson.  Every game, Kaat offered a free lesson in Baseball 101.

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Although Kaat has long since left the Yankee broadcast booth, he continues to do occasional games for the MLB Network, where he is often teamed with Bob Costas. As with any broadcaster, Kaat has his critics. Some who are strong believers in the notion that pitchers must be protected believe that Kaat is too “old school” in his approach, mostly because he has never completely adopted the rigid adherence to pitch counts and pitch limits. But I’ve always felt that Kaat has espoused a reasonable approach to pitch counts. Not once can I recall him calling pitch counts useless; he simply feels that they need to be examined within context. As Kaat might say, and I’m paraphrasing here, Don’t just tell me what the pitch count it, but tell me whether the pitcher is laboring or cruising. Are his mechanics good or bad? Has he thrown too many sliders or splitters?”

In that context, Kaat felt that pitch counts could be a useful guide, but should not be the sole factor in determining whether it was time to pull a starter. That has always sounded perfectly reasonable to me.

It is Kaat’ willingness to buck conventional and contemporary wisdom, doing so with rational and logical thinking rather than histrionics, that has made him one of the game’s most intelligent broadcasters. Listening to Kaat on those Yankee broadcasts, game after game, season after season, I learned about the finer side of baseball, one that can be difficult to grasp for someone who never played the game at an organized level. Other than Kubek, no broadcaster taught me more about our great game.

While Kaat’s intelligence has flowed mostly from the broadcast booth, the late Gene Michael found his niche working in the front office. Such success should have come as no surprise, given Michael’s reputation as a studious player in the 1960s and ’70s. Perhaps there’s no better evidence than to be found in Michael’s mastery of the hidden ball trick. Despite using a typically smallish infielder’s glove, one that made it difficult to hide the ball, Michael pulled off the trick better than anyone in history.

Always on the lookout for an unsuspecting victim, Michael eyed the runner taking his lead from second base. With the runner assuming that the pitcher was holding the ball, Michael would casually sidle over toward the second base bag, the ball resting in his glove. He would then place a decisive tag on the unsuspecting victim and then show the umpire that he had the ball in his glove, finishing off the latest bit of trickery.

It’s a play that major leaguers rarely use in today’s game; perhaps it occurs once a season. But Michael did it with stunning frequency. According to the official records, he executed the hidden ball trick at least five times. Considering that the hidden ball play relies on surprise and deception, and considering how heavily scouted each major league game is, it’s remarkable that Michael was able to execute it more than once or twice.

Other than the hidden ball trick, and playing a steady shortstop for the Yankees, Michael put together a playing career that was relatively unremarkable.  The consummate good-field, no-hit shortstop, Michael seemed likely to be forgotten once his playing days ended. But it was after his playing career that Michael truly established his level of genius within the game.

Michael’s intelligence had always impressed Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who hired Stick as a coach and scout, later made him part of the front office, eventually promoting him to the general manager’s chair, and then tabbing him as manager in 1981. Michael eventually left the Yankees to work for the Chicago Cubs, where he served as manager under Dallas Green in 1986 and ‘87. Michael’s managerial style didn’t mesh with that of Green, who believed that his managers needed to be tough and commanding. Green eventually fired Michael, leading to his return to the Bronx.

In 1990, the downtrodden Yankees, having hit one of the worst stretches in their history, turned the task of rebuilding the franchise over to Michael. With Steinbrenner officially suspended for his involvement with gambler Howie Spira, the Yankees hoped that Michael could restore the reputation of a franchise that had become a laughingstock. At the time, I was working as a sports talks show host in upstate New York, and recall being very critical of Michael in his early days as general manager. He seemed too timid, unwilling to pull the trigger on the kind of deal that might get the franchise moving in the right direction. As it turned out, I knew nothing.

Michael knew what he was doing. Resisting the temptation to continue trading prospects for established veterans, as Steinbrenner had done all too often during the 1980s, Michael concentrated on rebuilding the Yankees’ farm system. He emphasized better drafting and improved player development, knowing that those avenues would eventually produce tangible results.

He also possessed the ability to stand up to Steinbrenner, something that most other Yankee employees lacked. Steinbrenner so respected Michael’s knowledge and intelligence that he tolerated a few verbal tirades from Stick in response to his own harassment. Most Yankee officials would not have survived by telling off The Boss, but Michael’s reputation and gravitas made him someone that Steinbrenner simply would not touch.

Under Michael’s direction, the Yankees drafted and signed Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera, all future cornerstones of the franchise. The Yankees already had young Bernie Williams in their system, but Michael made sure to foster his continued development. At one point, Michael confronted veteran outfielder Mel Hall, who had been teasing the shy, introverted Williams, almost to the point of bullying. Regarding this as something more than the usual razzing a veteran might give to a young player, Michael essentially told Hall to cut out the nonsense. Later on, Michael made sure to completely eliminate Hall’s bad influence by allowing him to leave the team as a free agent.

In his first two years on the job, Michael made few substantial trades. In January of 1992, he sent veteran second baseman Steve Sax to the Chicago White Sox for three right-handed pitchers: Melido Perez, Bob Wickman, and Domingo Jean. The deal added some much-needed pitching depth, at least in the short term.

But in the winter of 1992 that Michael made an impact on the trade market. On Election Night, Michael dealt Roberto Kelly to the Cincinnati Reds for Paul O’Neill. Contrary to revisionist belief, the trade was not universally popular at the time. Not only was Kelly considered one of the Yankees’ best young players, but he was two years younger than O’Neill. Some scouts regarded the lefty-swinging O’Neill as no more than a glorified platoon player, effective only against right-handed pitching. He also had the kind of temper that frustrated the Reds, who felt that his displays of anger indicated a lack of maturity.

Michael didn’t see the deal in such terms. First off, he believed that Kelly, who showed little understanding of the strike zone, had already peaked as a player. Michael also felt that Bernie Williams, not Kelly, gave the Yankees their best long-term potential in center field. As for O’Neill, Michael loved his passion, fire, and work ethic, considering those attributes more important than his temper. He felt that O’Neill’s left-handed swing would play well at Yankee Stadium.

He also believed that O’Neill might benefit from a change of scenery, leaving the impatient stewardship of Lou Piniella, his manager in Cincinnati, for the steadying hand of Buck Showalter. Michael turned out to be right; O’Neill blossomed under Showalter, becoming a capable everyday player who hit home runs, drew walks, and played a capable right field.

The trade brought a level of intensity to the Yankees, a trait that had been nissing from the clubhouse. It also changed the look of the lineup, while solidifying the Yankees’ outfield in two spots. O’Neill started his Yankees career in left field before eventually finding a permanent home in right. Bolstered by a show of confidence, Williams took charge in center field while giving the Yankees a booming bat from both sides of the plate. That left one other spot, left field, to be filled by a rotating committee of players, beginning with Dion James and Luis Polonia and Gerald Williams, who would hold the fort until Michael’s successors acquired more capable veterans like Tim Raines and Darryl Strawberry.

In putting together the Yankees lineups of 1993 to 1995, Michael placed a heavy emphasis on the ability of his players to reach base. Long before Moneyball and similar philosophies became fashionable, Michael bemoaned the poor on-base percentages of players like Hall, Oscar Azocar, Bob Geren and Matt Nokes. He became determined to move those players out, replacing them with hitters who understood the importance of drawing walks, working the count, and wearing out opposing pitchers. That’s why Michael signed veteran free agents like Mike Stanley, Wade Boggs and Mike Gallego, all flawed in other ways, but all of whom appreciated the value of a base on balls.

With Michael’s philosophy becoming the new Yankee way, the team’s offensive approach became centered on drawing walks and hitting home runs, a combination of patience and power that would carry through to the Yankees dynasty of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Michael also overhauled the pitching staff. It was Michael who signed Jimmy Key as a free agent; the underrated left-hander became a vital part of the 1995 and ’96 teams. He also made the critical decision to finalize the 1995 trade for David Cone. Somewhat reluctantly, Michael gave up top pitching prospect Marty Janzen in the deal, but he felt that the Yankees needed Cone to have any chance of winning the American League Wild Card. Cone went 9-2 down the stretch, helping the Yankees reach the postseason for the first time since 1981. Over the next four seasons, Cone would continue to help the Yankees, before finally falling off his game in 2000.

So why is it that Michael never seems to receive full credit for his work, especially from those who live outside of New York? There are several reasons. As a general manager, Michael didn’t bring much flash or showmanship. With his deep, raspy voice and chopped manner of speaking, which sometimes strayed  into scattered streams of consciousness, he wasn’t particularly engaging in interview settings. In some ways, he was the anti-Billy Beane, devoid of Hollywood slick and smoothness.

Michael had little interest in self-promotion. But he did enjoy putting together good teams, based on the basic Sabermetric philosophies of on-base percentage, slugging percentage, defensive range in the field, and power pitching.

The 1994 strike did not help Michael’s level of recognition either. The ’94 Yankees seemed to be heading for an American League East title, only to have the strike end the season in August, and essentially render all that had been accomplished moot. Perhaps the Yankees would have reached the postseason and maybe even the World Series; those accomplishments would have given Michael more credit for his work.

After the Yankees’ disastrous loss to Seattle in the 1995 Division Series, Michael paid for the defeat with his job. It’s both unfortunate and unfair that Michael was fired as GM before he could see the benefits of his labors. General managers with World Series appearances tend to get noticed. GMs who win the Wild Card and nothing else tend to get the back of the hand.

But those who know the game realize the vital role that Michael played in laying the foundation for the success of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Having placed so many critical pieces in place, Michael left a championship nucleus for his successors, Bob Watson and Brian Cashman.

Even in his later years, Michael remained a key advisor for the Yankees, a voice of reason in a front office that still has tinges of turmoil. When the Yankees came close to making a trade, they usually consulted Michael for his opinion. Let’s consider the words of longtime writer Bill Madden, who has called Michael the smartest front office man he has  known in his 40 years of covering baseball.

Sadly, Michael has left us now, taking with him a breadth of knowledge that will be difficult to replace. Thankfully, we still have the services of Jim Kaat, who continues to make his contributions, albeit on a limited schedule, for the MLB Network. Their careers not only intersected with the Yankees in the 1990s and 2000s, where they delivered huge returns for the franchise and its fans, but also on Michael’s memorable 1972 action card. In a happy coincidence, Topps managed to find a whole lot of intelligence on that one baseball card.

References & Resources

  • Horace Clarke’s player file, National Baseball Hall of Fame Library
  • Jim Kaat’s player file, National Baseball Hall of Fame Library
  • Gene Michael’s player file, National Baseball Hall of Fame Library
  • Bill Madden, New York Daily News


Bruce Markusen has authored seven baseball books, including biographies of Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and Ted Williams, and A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, which was awarded SABR's Seymour Medal.
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Jim Kaat was a big influence of mine as young pitcher. I was playing youth and high school ball from 1976 to 1985 when Kaat was in his Phillies/Yankees/Cardinals phase. Kitty was the fastest-working pitcher in MLB in my memory and I adopted his get-the-sign-and-wind-up and don’t-walk -anybody ethic much to the elation of my teammates growing up the heat of El Paso, TX. My high school catcher has told me that he thinks of me sometimes as he squats down on healthy knees to work with his physical-therapy patients. Our team norm was get three outs quickly so we… Read more »
Dennis Bedard
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Dennis Bedard

funny you mention Dallas Green, another player/manager/GM. There may have been others but cannot think of any.

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Whitey Herzog…Connie Mack…Charles Commiskey….John McGraw…..Bobby Cox

Dennis Bedard
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Dennis Bedard

And let’s not forget what was probably Kaat’s greatest accomplishment not likely to be repeated: He won the gold glove for pitchers 15 straight years, 12 in the AL and 3 in the NL.

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

Fine article. I love pictures of the original Yankee Stadium, although this one is from the doldrum years.

Andrew Reid
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Andrew Reid

Great article, Bruce. One reason I like this card so much is the clear view of the auxiliary scoreboard from Yankee Stadium 1. Not many other parks had that type of ground-level board. All I can come up with is original Yankee Stadium, Fulton County Stadium, Tiger Stadium at the end, Comiskey Park before the exploding board, and Fenway Park. Any others?

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riyamisra

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