Gene Mauch: The Lion in Summer

The story of a rough on the diamond

JOHN ROBERTSON June 1 1974

Gene Mauch: The Lion in Summer

The story of a rough on the diamond

JOHN ROBERTSON June 1 1974

Gene Mauch: The Lion in Summer

The story of a rough on the diamond

JOHN ROBERTSON

Not yet!” whispered the frantic doorman as he raised a finger to his lips in front of the Expos’ clubhouse and peered back over his shoulder into manager Gene Mauch’s office. “He’s going crazy in there!” An ear-splitting crash followed by a series of echoing clunks told everyone that another impudent trash can had just crossed Mauch’s path.

“Go ahead . . . ask him,” said a reporter, prodding the doorman in the back. The doorman inched toward Mauch’s office, nudged the door open a few inches, and pleaded with the Little General.

“I don’t give a goddam,’-’ howled Mauch. “Let the bastards in . . .”

The reporters eyed each other mischieviously, wiped the insincerity off their faces, and dutifully trooped into Mauch’s cubicle, where the manager sat tilted back in his swivel chair, his legs apart, scratching his crotch. His molten blue eyes swept the room with a mixture of impatience and contempt. Then he suddenly reared back and drove a furious fist into the top of his desk:

“Goddammit! That one hurt . . .”

The Expos had led the Phillies 6-1 after six innings. When the lead shrank to 6-3 in the seventh, Mauch had called in ace relief pitcher Mike Marshall. And the thought of Marshall being unable to hold a three-run lead was as outrageous to Mauch as having Moses part the Red Sea, invite the believers to follow and then, when they are half way across, say “Sorry folks. I just can’t hold it any longer.” Marshall lost it 9-6.

“Ligured out how you’re going to handle [Philadelphia pitcher] Steve Carlton tomorrow?” a reporter asked.

“I got all night to think about that,” brayed Mauch, “after I get through thinking about this.” Then he bolted out of his chair and advanced on the intruders, clad only in his sweaty longjohns. “Now get the hell out of here,” he scowled, “all of you.”

We closed our notebooks and filed out. Another day. Another loss. This was Gene Mauch’s life, as seen through the eyes of a reporter who followed him through the National League pressure cooker every day for two seasons, one eye on the lunar tides, the other on the scoreboard.

Gene Mauch has the most fertile, inventive mind of any manager in the game today. He will resort to any tactic to beat you. Like the time New York Met catcher Jerry Grote chased a pop fly into the Philly dugout. In such cases, it’s considered good sportsmanship for people in the dugout to give the catcher the right-of-way. Not Mauch. He planted himself in Grote’s path, met him head-on, and made it impossible for the

New York catcher to hang onto the ball.

The dugout steps are Mauch’s private domain. He traditionally paces up and down them, inching his five-foot-10, 173-pound bantam rooster frame as close to the action as possible. Prom this post he can torment opposing players with scathing verbal darts, upsetting their concentration; he can needle offending umpires into giving him that infinitesimal edge on close calls; he can deploy his defense like so many chess pawns, a new alignment for every hitter; and he can be alone, totally absorbing every nuance of the game.

Gene Mauch is indeed all the things a manager should be to his players: pugnaciously loyal, fanatically dedicated, a leader by example who commands and gets their unquestioning respect.

So accustomed is he to orchestrating the games his people play, he cannot abide dealing with anyone he can’t manipulate. Therefore those newspapermen who refuse to allow themselves to be brainwashed into endorsing his every move end up being fed alternate servings of cold shoulder and hot tongue. But even those who baste his ego with steady streams of superlatives never do gain full acceptance because he knows they cannot help him win — and if you cannot help Gene Mauch win you cannot help him, period.

He treats the press like a truck driver does a string of red lights when he’s in a hurry to get somewhere. He knows he’s, obliged to stop, look and listen, but he doesn’t have time to dawdle. Neither does he need to be reassured by camp followers about his ability to drive the machine. “Given two teams of equal ability,” Mauch says, “I’ll be the difference.”

Lew people in baseball quarrel with that statement. Last year when I was in the Cincinnati dugout, manager Sparky Anderson — who himself boasts three division championships and two National League pennants in his last four seasons — sensed that I was less than enthusiastic about Mauch. “Look,” he said, “there’s no such thing as the perfect manager, but Mauch comes closer than anyone I’ve ever seen.”

Curiously, for all his acknowledged managerial genius, Mauch’s record is that of a loser. In 14 seasons managing in the National League, his teams have lost 150 more games than they’ve won, with a composite record of 992 wins and 1,142 losses in nine seasons at Philadelphia and five at Montreal. He’s never won a championship, and the only one he ever came close to winning — in Philadelphia in 1964 — he was accused of blowing. By mid-September, he had the Phillies seven games in front of the league. Mauch could do no wrong. He juggled his lineup incessantly and

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MAUCH from page 40

every move paid dividends. Baseball’s wise men were heralding his strategy as the finest job of managing the game had ever seen.

Then the wheels fell off. In a desperate attempt to cling to a shrinking lead in the last 10 days, he abandoned his starting four-man rotation and finished the season with just two pitchers, Jim Bunning and Chris Short. They pitched themselves to exhaustion while fresh arms sat unused on the bench. The Phillies lost 10 straight and finished in a tie for second. There was only one man to blame: the Little General.

Mauch absorbed the tidal wave of abuse with savage restraint. “To hell with ’em,” he spat. “I’m not going to defend myself to anybody. Inside I know I did everything I could to win it.” But then he added ruefully: “I only wish I’d done as good a job as my players.”

Never mind the 50 push-ups he does before breakfast; the rock-hard ropy frame; the ramrod-straight carriage which stops just short of being a strut when he walks; the eyes which can zap you with frostbite at 50 paces; the steeledged rasp which ejects hot rivets of invective with each syllable. Deep down, Gene Mauch is a softie. Hidden beneath the iconoclastic, tough-guy exterior is a lot of mother hen. It shows when his eyes glisten with pride over a particular play, or glower at you reproachfully when you write something critical of one of his people. The common denominator is that, win or lose, good or bad, his players are his people, a relationship not unlike that of a father surrounded by his many sons. And if he refuses to let them wear long hair or moustaches — while the Oakland As win successive world championships in swashbuckling hirsute fashion — the point is that the players admire him so much they accept these restrictions without a whimper.

Why? Because they know that just about every one of them came here with some real or imagined flaw which caused them to be set adrift by other organizations. And he instilled in them an unwavering belief that not only can they play in the National League they can win in the National League. And on those days when they are beset by doubts, the Little General is always there, stoking their competitive fires and reminding them in blunt terms that he’s not going to give up on them until they give up on themselves. Slowly but surely, he molded them into a raunchy, gung-ho outfit which took sadistic delight in grinding the National League contenders underfoot in 1973. They battled down to the final week' of the 1973 schedule before being eliminated from the pennant race in the National League East — still finishing fourth, a mere three and a half games back of the division champions, the New York Mets.

Mauch’s reputation as a builder stems from the 8V2 seasons managing Philadelphia, when he created a contender from a team that was so bad that former manager Eddie Sawyer walked out just after opening day in 1960 saying, “I’m 49 years old. And I want to live to be 50.” But after two frustrating rebuilding years, Gene coaxed six straight winning seasons out of them. His reward? Fired, 55 games into the 1968 season, with player after player turning against him.

His tantrums in Philadelphia were legend; he ripped a pay telephone from its moorings in the clubhouse in Pittsburgh. One Sunday night in September, 1962, he stormed into the clubhouse in Houston after the Phillies had blown a 2-1 game to the Astros in the bottom of the ninth, jerked the tablecloth from underneath a lavishly prepared buffet, flinging its contents the length of the

room. Then he waded through a swamp of potato salad to tongue-lash the team for several minutes.

“We had a chance to finish fourth and it looked like they’d rolled over and quit,” he recalls. “Well, I wasn’t going to let them fold. It got the job done, because we won five of our last six, and the players picked up $750 apiece. It gave them some pride to live with.”

The nightmare of that 1964 stretch collapse remains. He can now bring himself to joke about the rabid Philadelphia fans, though. “I’ll tell you how tough they were. One day we had an Easter egg hunt in the park for kids before the game. The fans booed the kids who didn’t find any eggs.”

“Just knowing him for a few years,” said one member of the Phillies’ organization, “he seemed like the kind of guy who had a tough boyhood, who got knocked around all his life and is now determined to get even with everybody who knocked him down. But he didn’t have that kind of life. He came from a good family; he loved his mother and father. He’s crazy about his own family. There’s nothing in his background to explain it. Maybe it was the frustration of being a bench warmer in the majors.” Mauch’s father ran a chain of bakeries in Salina, Kansas, and Gene calls him “the greatest man I ever knew. There wasn’t nothing he couldn’t do.

Nothing! The depression ruined his business so he said, ‘If I’m going to work like a dog to make a living here, I might as well go to California where Gene can concentrate on being an athlete all-year round.’ Now I never had great natural ability, but I was a good all-round athlete. I was best at ball and I was a red-ass, a helluva lot like Tom Foli [Expos’ shortstop], Same temperament . . . always agitating. One time in the old Pacific Coast League I had the Seattle fans so mad at me they gave me a standing ovation for getting hurt.”

In 17 seasons as a player, he played only 304 games in the majors — with six different clubs. The end came one day at old Nicolet Park in Minneapolis in 1958 — a park so old that every time a foul ball hit a certain spot on the grandstand roof, all the toilets flushed in unison. Furious at his inability to make his 32year-old body respond to the outrageous demands he made on it day after day, Mauch stomped into the clubhouse, pulled off his cleats and shouted for the clubhouse boy.

“Get me a hammer and nails!” “What on earth for?” asked the kid. “Never mind, goddamit. Get ’em.” The boy dutifully returned with one large hammer and a mouthful of twoinch nails. Mauch took them, stood up, and nailed his shoes to the wall. He never played another game.

That same year he managed Minneapolis Millers to the Junior World Series championship, sweeping the old Montreal Royals in straight games. Then the Phillies hired him, and he spent eight stormy years there, where his battles with writers became legend.

He let everyone know that carving him in print would be a two-way street.

Thus, word soon got out among the Montreal baseball writers in 1969, the year Mauch and the Expos arrived, to walk softly into Mauch’s office after a defeat. And since the team lost 110 games in its first season — including 20 in a row at one point — there was a big run on Hush Puppies at the local shoe stores. One night, Jacques Doucet, then baseball writer for La Presse, entered Gene’s office treading on eggs, groping for just one small quote to prove to his sports editor that he’d had enough courage to stick his nose in. Doucet had carefully rehearsed his opening question, but as he entered Mauch’s office all he was able to blurt out was . . .

“If. . .”

“If my ass!” shouted Mauch. “Don’t come in here throwing hypothetical questions at me. Get out!”

Every loss ate a hole in his gut, and in those early years his Expos seemed determined to drive him to new thresholds of torment by inventing new ways to beat themselves. Once, the Expos managed to turn a double and a single into a

double play. Rookie Don Hahn had singled against the Dodgers, then Rusty Staub hit a ball off the wall in left centre. Veteran Dodger shortstop Maury Wills, seeing Hahn racing for second with his head down, pounded his mitt and looked straight up in the air, pretending it was just an infield pop-up. Hahn, seeing Wills ready to make a catch, turned and scampered back to first — passing a surprised Staub on his way to second. Both runners were out.

I spent much of my spare time in 1971 writing a book on Rusty Staub. Staub, Le Grand Orange, was a folk hero in Quebec of Jean Béliveau proportions. But a week before opening day in 1972, the Expos traded him to the Mets for Ken Singleton, Tim Foli and Mike Jorgenson. 1 thought it was a bad trade, not only because the cancellation of the book cost me an anticipated $15,000, but because the Expos were giving up their only star for three players, who had yet to prove they were major leaguers. I tore into the management, writing, among other things: “Foli is Mauch’s kind of ball player. A utility infielder who can’t hit.” Mauch loved him: “He reminds me of a young fella 1 used to be real close to.”

Later that 1972 season I walked into the Expo clubhouse 20 minutes after a loss and made the mistake of smiling at something third baseman Bob Bailey said to me. Mauch charged over and drummed a finger off my chest: “Listen, you bastard, you wipe that smile off your face or get your ass out of here. There’s nothing funny about losing.”

Rather than allow Mauch to control my facial expressions, I stayed out of the clubhouse for the rest of the season. I got even early in 1973 when Expos general manager Jim Fanning ventured into the press box in Pittsburgh and caught me snickering into my typewriter over a private joke. The Expos had just lost and Fanning snorted, “1 don’t see anything funny in losing a game like that.” So 1 summoned Expos public relations man, Larry Chiasson, and had Fanning thrown out of the press box. 1 continued to taunt Mauch from afar. When he managed his 2,000th game in the majors, and blew it by not pulling his starting pitcher soon enough, 1 wrote that he’d forgotten everything he learned in the previous 1,999.

Not surprisingly, Mauch called me aside at spring training in March 1973. “Robertson,” he said, “you’re an ornery sonovabitch. You have the makings of a great writer, but you’re a failure as a human being.” It was the nicest thing he said to me all season.

To Mauch, all sportswriters are natural enemies but you get a different picture of the man when you talk to people who have worked with him. Dick Wil-

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liams, who managed the Oakland team to two world championships, served as third-base coach for Mauch in 1970. “If you gathered all the major league managers together for a refresher course and told them to choose one of their number to conduct the clinic, their choice would be Mauch,” he told me last year. “I’ve never worked for a man who is so well organized. He taught me everything about manoeuvrability of personnel — using your bench properly. Just coaching at third base for him was an unforgettable experience.

“Most of all, I learned how to eat, sleep and drink baseball 24 hours a day. I learned how to pay the price in effort . . . and now I’m reaping the dividend. Everything I’ve done since 1970 I owe to him. If there’s any justice, he’ll get his chance to manage in the World Series.”

Most players idolize Mauch; he rarely criticizes one of his own. But now and then his frustration gets the best of him. Like the time he became so thoroughly exasperated with southpaw Mickey Scott that he told a reporter; “Scott couldn’t get my daughter out.” To which Scott replied; “I hate Gene Mauch’s guts.” Scott is no longer an Expo.

But had the same Scott said, “I worship the man,” it wouldn’t have made any difference, because once Gene Mauch gives up on a player that player fails to even exist in his mind. Conversely, players who win for Mauch are allowed to march to their own drum, as long as it doesn’t impair their performance on the field. He let Richie Allen dress apart from the rest of the Phillie players, miss batting practice, miss team buses and planes, and occasionally show up at the park stinking of booze. But Richie produced for him.

Similarly, his ace reliever, Mike Marshall. came to the Expos with a reputation as a celebrated nonconformist. At Houston, where players — many of them in their mid-thirties — used to be locked in dormitories at the stroke of midnight during spring training, Marshall took umbrage with Hardhat Harry Walker’s lengthy list of rules regarding personal conduct, and asked him bluntly one day: “How many times a week are we allowed to get laid?” For punishment, Mike was told to run several laps around the outside of the Astrodome in 100-degree heat. He refused. And that’s how the Expos got him for minor league outfielder Don Bosch.

At Montreal, Mike squabbled with the press, refused to sign autographs for the fans, fought with teammates, reported late to spring training every year, and bitched about everything in general all season. But he won for Gene.

And even when Marshall committed the unpardonable sin of carving up his teammates in print and branding the Expos’ defense as “terrible,” Mauch

fought Expos management’s decision to trade him . . . until General Manager Jim Fanning told him he could get Dodger captain Willie Davis in return. Mauch desperately needed a centre fielder of Davis’ calibre, so for that reason alone he parted with Marshall.

Players who fit into Mauch’s plans for a baseball team know he’ll fight anyone for them. They watched him charge the mound at Jarry Park and try to hang a haymaker on six-foot-four Steve Carlton for beaning his shortstop, Tim Foli. The Phillies piled on Mauch and a fullscale brawl ensued. The Little General limped out of the fray, cut and bleeding with a pinched nerve in his neck. “That’s Mauch’s game,” howled Carlton. “That’s the way he likes to play it. But I say it’s bullshit. That’s not the way it works. Not with me, it doesn’t . . .”

“So that’s my game, eh?” spat Mauch. “You tell Carlton that if I’d given him my game shot, he’d be tattooed with spike marks from his Achilles tendon up to the tips of his cute long hair.”

Frank Lucchesi, manager of the Phils, sought out Mauch and tried to pacify him; “Look, Gene, I’ve known you for 10 years and I’ve never lied to you. Carlton wasn’t trying to hit your man — the pitch just slipped on him.”

“You bastard, you’ve just lied to me now,” fumed Mauch. “I’ve only known you for five years.”

Gene Mauch manages only one way — to win. “If you’re managing just to keep your job, you’re dead,” he says. “And you know who recognizes the approach first? The players. And then, friend, you’re double dead.

“Intense is the word to describe me. It’s just that I never made any big money and had any of the real good things. And now that I have them and appreciate the people allowing me to enjoy them. I’ll be damned if I’ll do anything but my best.”

Baseball games may bring out the best in him, but writers who do not eulogize his every move do not. The end came for Gene Mauch and myself one day last year after Expos had ingloriously blown a game in Houston. Mike Marshall had balked in the tying run and Tom Walker had come on to balk in the winning run. Naturally, I had to go down to the Expos clubhouse to find out why.

“You bastard,” he said, “you love coming down here tormenting us when we lose, don’t you?”

“If I only came in here when you won, I’d have to work for a weekly,” I muttered as I left. We haven’t spoken since, even though I traveled with the club every day. But I didn’t forget him in October when he was named National League Manager of the Year. I sent his wife, Nina Lee, a dozen long-stem roses with the inscription: “To the better half of the manager of the year.”^