Gene Michael, whose Yankee teams won 4 World Series, dies at 79

Cause cited as heart attack
Gene Michael, then-manager of the New York Yankees, during a news conference at Yankee Stadium in New York on April 27, 1982.
Gene Michael, then-manager of the New York Yankees, during a news conference at Yankee Stadium in New York on April 27, 1982.

Gene Michael, a New York Yankee for nearly a half-century, rising from sure-handed shortstop to general manager and building teams that won four World Series championships, died on Thursday at his home in Oldsmar, Florida. He was 79.

The Yankees reported his death on their website, saying the cause was a heart attack.

For much of Michael’s time with the Yankees, George Steinbrenner ran a revolving door that sent players, coaches, managers and front-office personnel spinning in and out of Yankee Stadium. Michael was fired a couple of times, then hired back.

As a player he anchored the infield for seven seasons for the Yankees in the late 1960s and early ′70s, when baseball’s most storied franchise went into decline. Nicknamed Stick for his slender frame — 6 feet 2 inches tall and 180 pounds or so — he was a light hitter but quick, smooth and deft defensively.

After Michael’s playing career ended, in 1976, Steinbrenner, whose syndicate had taken over ownership from CBS three years earlier, earmarked him for a future in the Yankee organization, having viewed him as a smart and hard-nosed player.

Michael had two stints as the Yankee manager and another as general manager in the early 1980s, then managed the Chicago Cubs later in the decade.

He served as the Yankee general manager again from late in the 1990 season through 1995. In that second go-round, he assembled the core of the teams that won a World Series championship in 1996 and consecutive titles from 1998 to 2000. Joe Torre, who managed those teams, was hired in large part on Michael’s recommendation.

Michael also was a Yankee coach, oversaw scouting, and in his later years was a senior adviser in the front office.

As general manager, Michael looked for young players who showed promise, a departure from Steinbrenner’s penchant for spending heavily on free agents and at times trading away budding talent.

He gained unusual autonomy for a top Yankee official after Steinbrenner was ordered by Commissioner Fay Vincent to resign as the team’s general partner and relinquish control of on-field baseball decisions on July 30, 1990 — his penalties for paying a confessed gambler for damaging information about the Yankee outfielder Dave Winfield, with whom Steinbrenner had been feuding.

Through the draft, trades, free-agent signings and retention of the most promising Yankee minor leaguers, Michael created the path putting Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, Paul O’Neill, Bernie Williams, Tino Martinez, David Cone and Joe Girardi in pinstripes for many or all of those four Yankee championship teams.

Michael’s first stint as a Yankee manager came in 1981, when he reluctantly stepped down as general manager at Steinbrenner’s behest after one season in that post.

He succeeded Dick Howser, whom Steinbrenner fired after the 1980 Yankees, winners of 103 games in the regular season, were swept by the Kansas City Royals in the American League Championship Series.

Michael reflected on his playing days when he replaced Howser.

“I realized I couldn’t hit very well — I was never very strong in my upper body; today’s players work out more — and I started to learn the game,” he told The New York Times. “Toward the end, I guess I would say I came to love baseball, or at least to know it better. I started to think about managing.”

Eugene Richard Michael was born on June 2, 1938, in Kent, Ohio. He played baseball and was also an outstanding basketball player at Kent State University, then signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates’ organization in 1957.

His survivors include his wife, Joette, two sons, two daughters and several grandchildren.

Michael made his major league debut with the Pirates in 1966 before being traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers sold him to the Yankees after the 1967 season.

Michael’s best season came in 1969, when he batted .272.

His baseball savvy included mastery of the hidden ball trick, which, he said, resulted in his tagging out at least four or five unsuspecting runners leading off second who assumed the pitcher had the baseball.

Michael was also a battler.

“If there was ever a team fight, the players always told me that they wanted Stick on their side,” Steinbrenner once said.

In one memorable brawl, in August 1973, Michael took on Carlton Fisk, the Boston Red Sox catcher, who outweighed him by at least 20 pounds and had the added advantage of a chest protector. The fight was touched off when Michael, at the plate, missed a squeeze bunt as Thurman Munson was barreling home from third base. Munson crashed into Fisk and the benches emptied. Michael held his own in the skirmish, in which nobody was hurt.

Michael ended his playing days with the 1975 Detroit Tigers under Ralph Houk, his former manager with the Yankees. He signed with the Red Sox after that season, but they never put him in the lineup and released him in May 1976.

He retired as a player with a career batting average of .229 and only 15 home runs.

Michael was a special assistant to Steinbrenner and a coach after that and managed the Yankees’ Columbus Clippers to an International League pennant in 1979.

“I’m not looking for somebody to say yes to me,” Steinbrenner said when he named Michael to succeed Howser. “Gene is loyal — that’s his greatest asset — but he’ll tell me if he thinks I’m wrong.”

But Michael soon fell out of favor.

His Yankees were assured of a 1981 playoff berth for topping their division in the first half of what became a split season as a result of a players’ strike. But when they had only moderate success in the second half, Michael publicly voiced disgust over Steinbrenner’s complaining.

“It’s not just now or earlier in the season,” Michael told reporters in late August. “It started in spring training. Every ballgame you lose, you could’ve done something differently.

“It’s not fair that he criticizes me and threatens to fire me all the time. I’d rather he do it than talk about it. I told him exactly that today — don’t wait.”

Steinbrenner took up the challenge, firing Michael and naming Bob Lemon to replace him on Sept. 6.

The Yankees lost to the Dodgers in the 1981 World Series. Steinbrenner fired Lemon in April 1982, then rehired Michael, who had been scouting, as his manager.

But Steinbrenner fired Michael for a second time, in August, and replaced him with Clyde King, one of his advisers.

Michael managed the Chicago Cubs from midseason 1986 through early September 1987, when he resigned, having gone 114-124.

Steinbrenner’s banishment ended in March 1993. Michael’s second term as the Yankee general manager ended after the 1995 season amid a contract dispute with Steinbrenner.

“I always had a great regard for his baseball knowledge, and secondly, how he handled the stress working for George that many years,” Torre said in a statement on the Yankees’ website. “He kept the thing afloat when George was away; he did more than that because he built a heck of an organization.”

Buck Showalter, the manager of the Baltimore Orioles, who faced the Yankees on Thursday, was hired by Michael as the Yankee manager in 1992 and became Torre’s predecessor.

In a statement, Showalter called Michael “the best baseball evaluator I ever saw.”

“Never missed on an infielder,” he added. Referring to Jeter’s time in the minors, Showalter said Michael “knew Jeter made 40-something errors, and he’s telling me, ‘This guy is going to be an All-Star shortstop.’ I’m like, ‘Really?’ He said, ‘Yeah, he’s got a little footwork issue.’ How do you project those things and then stand by them? The right kind of stubborn.”

Michael was a vice president of major league scouting for the Yankees from 1996 to 2002, then remained a vice president until he was promoted to senior adviser. He worked with the current general manager, Brian Cashman, and visited Yankee farm teams to evaluate prospects.

“Obviously statistics are used more than ever,” Michael told the publication Commerce, the Business of New Jersey, in December 2014. But turning to his reputation as an exceptional judge of talent, he added, “Numbers are important only to the degree you can blend them with what a scout has seen with his own eyes.”

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