By Marty Appel
Before Pat Gillick, the last pure executive inducted into the Hall of Fame was George Weiss, best known as Casey Stengel’s general manager on the Yankees and the Mets. Weiss was selected in 1971, five years after his retirement from the game and a year before his death.
Weiss, a native of New Haven, Connecticut and a product of Yale University, got into baseball in 1914 with a semipro team in his hometown that used to play exhibitions against Major League teams, luring the likes of Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth to his small ballpark.
In 1919 he entered Organized Baseball by acquiring the Eastern League’s New Haven franchise. Four years later, fate intervened. He was in the upper berth of a Pullman car en route to the Winter Meetings, with his manager, Wild Bill Donovan, in the lower berth. It was against protocol; the “boss” should have had the lower. But Donovan was already asleep when Weiss arrived, so he climbed into the upper.
A horrific train wreck near Forsyth, New York claimed Donovan’s life and eight others, but not Weiss’s. He would forever live knowing that somehow, it could have been him.
After running the Baltimore Orioles (International League), Weiss was hired by the Yankees in 1932 to develop a farm system, in the style of Branch Rickey’s Cardinals operation. He served under Col. Jacob Ruppert and Ed Barrow in that capacity for 15 years, helping to feed the roster with thoughtful signings and minor league development throughout the Joe McCarthy era.
In 1945, the team was sold to Dan Topping, Del Webb and Larry MacPhail, and in the celebratory party following the 1947 World Series, known forever after as the “Battle of the Biltmore”, MacPhail overindulged and wound up clobbering Weiss and firing him.
The next day, Topping and Webb bought out MacPhail’s interest and “rehired” Weiss as general manager. A year later, Weiss brought Casey Stengel to New York to manage the Yankees. The two of them went back to Eastern League days, when Stengel had embarked on his managing career at Worcester, Massachusetts.
Together, the Weiss-Stengel team was close to unbeatable for a dozen years, winning ten pennants and seven world championships in the post-war, pre-expansion era of baseball. While the teams were laden with great stars, (Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra among them), Weiss was a distant presence, preferring to run the club without much personal contact with the players.
“I don’t think I ever met him,” said Bobby Richardson, who joined the team in 1955. Weiss usually negotiated with just the top three or four players on the roster, and left the balance to Roy Hamey, his assistant. And those negotiations were often contentious.
When Stengel was dismissed after the 1960 World Series, Weiss was offered a consultant’s role, but he soon left to join Stengel and build the expansion New York Mets. Here, the pairing was still friendly, but on different tracks. While Stengel won over the press by diverting attention from his under-performing teams, Weiss didn’t appreciate the odd romance going on with the fans and the lowly Mets. He worried, he dealt, and he continued to do what he did best – work hard to build a winner. Three years after his retirement, the Mets won the World Series, with a number of players signed on his watch taking the team to unimaginable heights.
If memories of the early Mets bring a smile to fans’ faces, Weiss was not in on the joke. Enjoying the Marv Thronberry days would have gone against everything he’d ever practiced. And when all was said and done, his 19 Yankee pennant winners were a far better indicator of who George Weiss was.