Bob Kennedy (Part 2)by Steve Treder
July 22, 2008
When we left Bob Kennedy, he had just retired as an active player. He'd been in professional baseball for more than 20 years, but he was just 37 years old, and his career hadn’t even reached its halfway point.
For 1958, his first season as a former player, Kennedy returned to the Indians, with whom he’d played from 1948 to 1954. Cleveland’s general manager was Frank Lane, who’d acquired Kennedy as a player when he was GM of the White Sox in 1955. Now Lane’s organization hired Kennedy to work as a scout.
Kennedy impressed in that assignment, and in 1959 he was promoted to the position of assistant farm director, working under farm director Hoot Evers. Kennedy remained in that role for three years, a period in which the Indians organization signed Sam McDowell, Tommy John, Tommie Agee, Duke Sims and Steve Hargan, an unusually talent-rich cohort.
For the 1962 season, Kennedy left Cleveland, taking a role as a coach with the Chicago Cubs. This was no standard coaching job; this was the period in which Cubs owner Phil Wrigley had devised a novel “college of coaches” arrangement, in which there was no manager, and the lineup-setting and other in-game decision-making tasks were rotated among the coaches on a more-or-less random basis. Kennedy was one of 10 coaches employed by the Cubs in this way in 1962, the second “college of coaches” season.
The experiment’s results weren’t positive: the Cubs in 1961 had gone 64-90, and with Kennedy on board in ’62 they were a dreadful 59-103, the worst performance in franchise history, dating all the way to 1876. So for 1963 Wrigley added a few new wrinkles:
- Instead of 10 coaches, the staff was now composed of 12.
- The coaches were now working under an athletic director, Colonel Robert Whitlow.
- One coach would be designated as head coach, and remain in that capacity all season, and that coach would be Bob Kennedy.
Bill Wise described it like this:
Whitlow started slowly, charting every pitch from a box seat behind home plate. Then, like any athletic director, he tried to set up a schedule for future years. (One wit suggested the Cubs play Notre Dame and Yale but the National League sort of likes the clubs to continue playing each other.) Whitlow also had a fence installed above the brick wall in center field, so the ivy could grow up there and give the hitters a green background.
Kennedy made it clear early in the season that he was the Cubs’ leader. “I’m the team’s boss,” he barked. He let it be known that he didn’t want anybody passing out free advice in the clubhouse, even athletic directors. The players knew he was running the team and they played hard for him. The result was mediocrity, refreshing in Chicago, and a contract renewal for Kennedy for 1964.
Indeed, the Cubs in 1963 jumped to 82-80, a 23-win improvement. It was their first winning record since 1946. Whitlow's role rapidly withered to irrelevance.
Bob Buhl, a 34-year-old veteran starting pitcher for those Cubs, who’d played for four managers in the major leagues before encountering Kennedy, said:
Bob Kennedy was a good man. He was a fair but strict manager. He made us run out everything and hustle, and play the game the way it was supposed to be played. He was a major reason our team improved so much.
Two 23-year-old Cubs in particular improved spectacularly in 1963: Third baseman Ron Santo's batting average soared from a .227 1962 rut to .297, his OPS+ exploding from 74 to 128; and southpaw pitcher Dick Ellsworth, 9-20 with a miserable ERA+ of 81 in ’62, was a brilliant 22-10 in ’63, leading the league in ERA+ at 167 (better even than major league Cy Young Award-winner Sandy Koufax) in 291 innings.
But there was another highly talented young Cub who didn’t blossom under Kennedy in 1963: right fielder Lou Brock. And when Brock started slowly again in 1964, the Cubs traded him to St. Louis in exchange for pitcher Ernie Broglio, a sensible deal that would turn out disastrously, as Brock instantly became a star for the Cardinals while Broglio’s career imploded due to elbow trouble.
The Cubs couldn’t hold their gain of 1963, as the 1964 edition slipped back to 76-86, and in June of 1965, with the club at 24-32, Kennedy was relieved of his head coach responsibilities, and reassigned to the front office as administrative assistant to GM John Holland.
In 1966, Kennedy accepted an offer from the Los Angeles Dodgers organization, managing the Albuquerque farm club in the Double-A Texas League (the circuit in which Kennedy had been a teenaged third baseman nearly 30 years before). Kennedy’s '66 team, which included numerous future major leaguers including Willie Crawford, Tom Hutton, Alan Foster and Mike Kekich, finished third at 74-66, qualifying for the league’s playoffs.
In the first round, the Albuquerque Dodgers defeated the Amarillo Sonics (a Houston Astros affiliate) two games to one. But in the finals the Dodgers lost to the Austin Braves in a playoff that was limited by rainouts to a single game.
For the 1967 season, Kennedy was hired as a major league coach by Atlanta Braves manager Billy Hitchcock. Kennedy and Hitchcock had never been teammates, but had met one another as American League opponents throughout the 1940s and early ‘50s. The ’67 Braves, under new GM Paul Richards, were widely expected to be a contender, but suffered a disappointing second-division performance. Richards fired Hitchcock in the season’s waning days, and that offseason Kennedy was looking for work again.
What he found was his second chance at managing a big league team. This time it was maverick owner Charlie Finley’s Athletics that hired Kennedy. As with the Cubs in 1963, Kennedy was taking on a ball club in dire straits: The 1967 A’s had not only finished last at 62-99, but the organization hadn’t known a winning season since 1949, and down the stretch in ’67 the team’s mood had disintegrated into a status of open mutiny against manager Alvin Dark and micromanaging owner Finley. Amid this disarray, Finley had pulled up stakes in Kansas City and relocated the franchise to Oakland for 1968.
Jack Zanger’s take on it was as follows:
Into a situation you wouldn’t exactly call harmonious stepped Bob Kennedy to take over as the new manager of the A’s. Charles O. Finley couldn’t have picked a better man if he had tried to get Marshal Dillon. What with a player revolt, team morale sinking to a new low and Alvin Dark’s hasty departure, Finley needed an enforcer. Kennedy has the kind of strength that players will respect … The atmosphere has been considerably lightened by the club’s transfer to Oakland, as well as by Kennedy’s avowal to look ahead, not backward. “I expect a real good attitude,” he said with more than naïve hope in his voice.
As he had in Chicago, Kennedy calmly yet firmly established order from chaos. As he had in Chicago, Kennedy fostered a no-nonsense, focus-on-the-fundamentals environment in which several young players blossomed, including Reggie Jackson, Sal Bando and Blue Moon Odom. The 1968 Athletics were suddenly no longer the league’s doormat, startling the baseball world with a respectable record of 82-80 (exactly equal to that of the ’63 Cubs), a 19.5-game improvement.
And for his trouble, Kennedy was fired by Finley, who characteristically provided no coherent explanation for his decision.
For 1969, Kennedy found a job as a scout in the St. Louis Cardinals organization. By 1970, he’d been promoted to director of minor league clubs, working for GM Bing Devine. Kennedy held that role through 1972. In 1973, he was promoted again, this time to director of player personnel under Devine, effectively Devine’s right-hand man.
The Cardinals in this period underwent a rebuilding phase, following the decline of their 1967-68 championship ball club. The St. Louis editions through the early ‘70s weren’t great, but they were competitive in a division which usually lacked a dominant team. Though winning just 81 games in 1973 and 86 in ’74, the Cards finished second to the Pirates both times, by frustratingly narrow margins of 1.5 games.
But the 1975 Cardinals finished 10.5 games out, and for 1976 Kennedy wasn’t back as director of player personnel, instead simply working for the organization as a scout. I don’t know the background behind this, whether it represented an organization-directed demotion (Devine remained in place as GM in ’76), or whether it was something requested by Kennedy for personal reasons.
Back to Chicago
In any case the step backward didn’t last long: In November of 1976 Phil Wrigley (in one of his final executive decisions prior to his death in the spring of 1977) hired Kennedy to become the GM of the Chicago Cubs. At age 56, Kennedy, who’d been a player, a coach and a minor and major league manager, and who’d held several front office positions in various organizations, was finally taking on the top-dog baseball executive role.
The Cubs at this juncture were enduring yet another of their down cycles. After a contending run in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s (which gained them no more than the heartbreaking second-place finish of 1969), the Cubs by 1976 had presented a fourth straight no-hope losing season.
Kennedy got right to work making bold moves. He dismissed incumbent field manager Jim Marshall, and in his place hired 63-year-old Herman Franks, who hadn’t managed since 1968. And Kennedy swung two huge trades, surrendering the team’s two biggest stars, center fielder Rick Monday and third baseman Bill Madlock. Kennedy’s motive in the parlay was to add depth: he replaced both Monday and Madlock (with Bobby Murcer and Steve Ontiveros, respectively) while also adding new regulars at first base (Bill Buckner) and shortstop (Ivan DeJesus).
The result was a delightfully revitalized Cubs’ team, producing one of the liveliest seasons in the club's century-long history. Predicted by no one to contend, the 1977 Cubs got red hot in May, and led the NL East division all though the months of June and July by a margin ballooning at one point to 8.5 games. Alas, the team’s inadequacies were finally and harshly exposed. Most dramatically, with sensational young relief ace Bruce Sutter limited to just 26 innings in the second half, the team ERA jumped from 3.67 through the All-Star break to 4.42 thereafter. The Cubs were 60-39 on July 28 and 21-42 the rest of the way, finishing at an even .500—to be sure, one of the least-placid .500 finishes on record.
Kennedy’s response was yet another bold move. He signed free agent bad-boy all-or-nothing slugger Dave Kingman to a multi-year contract, betting that within the Friendly Confines Kong would at last realize his exceptional potential.
Kennedy’s wager, roundly hooted at the time, would pay off. Though Kingman’s left field defense was, well, Kingmanesque, in his seasons as a Cub the 6-foot-6 tower of power did indeed emerge in mid-career as something close to a superstar hitter. For once his batting average was respectable, and in 1979, healthy nearly all year (nagging hurts being one of the banes of Kingman’s frustrating career), Kong put together that long-awaited monster season, leading the majors in home runs, leading the league in slugging percentage, and placing sixth in OPS+.
But Kingman’s long-ball delivery wasn’t enough. In both 1978 and ’79 the Cubs were a middle-of-the-pack also-ran; the ’79 team teased somewhat, rising to as close as a half-game from the top in late July, but another late-season fade awaited the Cubs. And then in 1980, with Kingman missing half the season with injuries, in all-too familiar fashion the Cubs fell apart, thudding to 64-98, last place.
Whatever else he’d been able to do, Kennedy hadn’t been able to put a sustainably successful team on the field, or build a productive minor league system to rejuvenate it. The Cubs got off to a calamitously bad start in 1981, and in May of that year William Wrigley, Phil's heir, showed Kennedy the door.
Kennedy had been given his opportunity at the biggest baseball exec job, and not flourished. Yet his inherent skills—his intelligence, his work ethic, his hard-core integrity, his capacity to make and sustain good relationships, and his enormous store of baseball knowledge—remained in abundance.
Al Rosen had been a teammate of Kennedy’s with the Indians, and the two had come to know each other well as the veteran journeyman Kennedy was the young star Rosen’s backup at third base. Rosen was the Houston Astros GM in 1982, and he hired Kennedy as vice president for baseball operations. Kennedy was Rosen’s working partner, just as he had been with Devine in St. Louis.
Kennedy would work for Rosen in this capacity through 1985. The Astros in those years were good, but nothing more than that. The solid all-around ball club would finally yield a championship in 1986—a year after Rosen moved along to become the GM for Houston's NL West competitor in San Francisco.
Rosen had taken Kennedy with him to the Giants, employing him in the same VP role Kennedy had filled in Houston.
Rosen’s performance as GM in revitalizing the Giants in 1986-87 is one for the ages, one of the most impressive turns by any GM in history. Rosen inherited a 100-game loser that hadn't finished as high as second place in a decade and a half, and through a flurry of trades and promotions (and the hiring of manager Roger Craig, who'd been a teammate of Kennedy's in 1957) the team was transformed into a genuine contender overnight. Kennedy was Rosen’s right-hand man through the process, including the Giants’ division title in 1987, and their pennant of 1989.
That 1989 pennant was just the second that Kennedy had experienced in his very long career, majors or minors; the only other was the Cleveland flag of 1948, to which Kennedy contributed as a utility outfielder.
In the seasons following 1989, the Giants fell back. In the fall of 1992, the Giants franchise was being sold, and both Rosen (aged 68) and Kennedy (72) retired. Except for the periods when he was away fulfilling his military service, Kennedy had been employed in professional baseball continuously for 56 years.
A baseball family
Kennedy's eldest son, Bob Jr., was a right-handed pitcher drafted and signed by the Cardinals in 1971 when Bob Sr. was running their minor league operation. Bob Jr. never made the majors. Following his five seasons of minor league ballplaying, he continued to work for his dad, as a scout for the Cubs from 1977 through 1981, and for the Astros from 1982 through 1985.
Kennedy's younger son Terry was born in 1956 when dad was playing for the Detroit Tigers. Terry was drafted (in the first round) and signed by the Cardinals organization when Bob Sr. was the Cubs GM, and proved to be an outstanding major league player, better than his dad. Terry was a four-time All-Star, a Silver Slugger winner in 1983, and one of the better-hitting catchers of his era. Following his playing career, Terry became a minor league manager, and was named Minor League Manager of the Year in 1998.
Bob Kennedy's final years were spent in pleasant retirement in Mesa, Arizona—a long, long way in every regard from the South Side of Chicago of the 1920s—where he passed away in 2005, at the age of 84.
Hall of Famers who were teammates of Bob Kennedy
Luis Aparicio, Luke Appling, Lou Boudreau, Jim Bunning, Roy Campanella, Larry Doby, Don Drysdale, Bob Feller, Nellie Fox, Al Kaline, George Kell, Sandy Koufax, Bob Lemon, Ted Lyons, Hal Newhouser, Satchel Paige, Pee Wee Reese, Red Ruffing, Duke Snider and Early Wynn.
Additional All-Stars who were teammates of Bob Kennedy
Bobby Avila, Earl Battey, Al Benton, Vern Bickford, Frank Bolling, Ray Boone, Lou Brissie, Jim Busby, Chico Carrasquel, Ben Chapman, Sam Chapman, Russ Christopher, Gino Cimoli, Sandy Consuegra, Dick Donovan, Walt Dropo, Ryne Duren, Jimmie Dykes, Don Elston, Carl Erskine, Hoot Evers, Mike Fornieles, Carl Furillo, Mike Garcia, Ned Garver, Jim Gentile, Junior Gilliam, Joe Gordon, Steve Gromek, Orval Grove, Randy Gumpert, Mickey Harris, Frankie Hayes, Joe Haynes, Jim Hegan, Myril Hoag, Gil Hodges, Billy Hoeft, Art Houtteman, Randy Jackson, Sam Jones, Bob Keegan, Ken Keltner, Mike Kreevich, Harvey Kuenn, Clem Labine, Frank Lary, Thornton Lee, Jim Lemon, Sherm Lollar, Eddie Lopat, Sal Maglie, Willard Marshall, Walt Masterson, Charlie Maxwell, Cass Michaels, Minnie Miñoso, Dale Mitchell, Wally Moses, Don Mossi, Bob Muncrief, Ray Narleski, Charley Neal, Don Newcombe, Billy O’Dell, Billy Pierce, Johnny Podres, Howie Pollet, Rip Radcliff, Aaron Robinson, Eddie Robinson, John Roseboro, Al Rosen, Harry Simpson, Al Smith, Eddie Smith, Jerry Staley, Vern Stephens, George Stirnweiss, Birdie Tebbetts, Mike Tresh, Gus Triandos, Virgil Trucks, Thurman Tucker, Bob Turley, Johnny Vander Meer, Mickey Vernon, Eddie Waitkus, Gee Walker, Jim Wilson, Hal Woodeshick, Gene Woodling, Rudy York and Don Zimmer.
Hall of Famers who managed Bob Kennedy
Walt Alston, Lou Boudreau, Bucky Harris, Al Lopez and Ted Lyons.
Hall of Famers who were managed by Bob Kennedy
Ernie Banks, Lou Brock, Rollie Fingers, Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, and Billy Williams.
Additional All-Stars who were managed by Bob Kennedy
George Altman, Ed Bailey, Sal Bando, Glenn Beckert, Jim Brewer, Bob Buhl, Lew Burdette, Campy Campaneris, Dave Duncan, Dick Ellsworth, Don Elston, Billy Hoeft, Larry Jackson, Don Kessinger, Harvey Kuenn, Lindy McDaniel, Rick Monday, Blue Moon Odom, Joe Rudi, Ron Santo and Bobby Shantz.
References and Resources
Bill Wise, editor, 1964 Official Baseball Almanac (Greenwich, Connecticut: Fawcett, 1964), pp. 91-92.
The Bob Buhl quote is from Danny Peary, editor, We Played the Game (New York: Black Dog & Leventhal, 1994), p. 568.
Jack Zanger, Major League Baseball 1968 (New York: Pocket Books, 1968) p. 193.
Steve Treder can often be found spending way too much time talking baseball at Baseball Primer. He welcomes your questions and comments via e-mail.