- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 28, 2008

One of baseball’s oldest traditions holds that it’s easier to fire the manager of a bad ballclub than to fire 25 players, which is why most veteran skippers move around like politicians seeking votes.

But how about trading a manager instead? It happened only once in the 20th century, when Joe Gordon of the Cleveland Indians swapped dugouts with Jimmy Dykes of the Detroit Tigers in August 1960.

Gordon’s recent posthumous election to the Baseball Hall of Fame as a player by the Veterans Committee was justifiably hailed in most horsehide circles. He starred for the New York Yankees and Indians from 1938 to 1950, playing on five pennant-winners and being named American League MVP in 1942. The slick second baseman also had seven seasons of 20 or more home runs and batted .268 in an 11-year career shortened by two years of military service in World War II.

Yet relatively few of the news stories dwelled on his managerial career, which brought only limited success and resulted in the trade for Dykes. Jimmy was nearly 20 years older than Gordon, had a respectable playing career and achieved his principal fame when he succeeded Connie Mack as manager of the Philadelphia Athletics in 1951 after the so-called Grand Old Man of Baseball had held the job for 50 years.

Nine years later, however, neither Gordon nor Dykes was having much success in an American League thoroughly dominated by the lordly Yankees. Gordon’s Indians were 49-46 and fourth in the standings when the trade was made Aug. 3. Dykes’ Tigers were 44-57 and sixth. Fans in both cities were grumbling.

The deal was orchestrated by Indians general manager Frank “Trader” Lane, who was noted for wheeling and dealing players hither, thither and yon. Lane was no admirer of Gordon, having second-guessed his manager repeatedly, even while Cleveland was finishing second in 1959 with an 89-65 record.

After that season, Gordon resigned as Lane pursued Leo Durocher, then a TV analyst after a long and contentious career as manager of first the Brooklyn Dodgers and then the New York Giants. But the Indians’ reported deal with Durocher fell through, and Gordon returned to endure more backbiting by his boss in 1960.

The Gordon-Dykes deal nearly collapse when Dykes threatened to quit unless the Indians gave him a contract through the 1961 season, saying, “I can’t take a seven-week situation in which the players know the manager will be fired at the end of that time.”

Fortunately from a historical standpoint, Lane agreed and added, “As a matter of fact, I will pay him at Gordon’s salary terms, which are $20,000 more [than Dykes was making with the Tigers].”

Asked about the swap in Washington, where the Indians were playing, Gordon replied, “It’s nice to know that when something happens in one place, you’re wanted in another.”

The trade wasn’t the first between Lane and Tigers president Bill DeWitt, who had fleeced Lane twice already. Just before the start of the 1960 season, he grabbed first baseman Norm Cash from the Indians for a journeyman named Steve Demeter; Cash won the batting title a year later and manned first base in Detroit for more than a decade.

Less than a week later, Lane was outsmarted again when he swapped popular slugging outfielder Rocky Colavito to Detroit for reigning batting champion Harvey Kuenn, whose batting average slipped 45 points in 1960. At this point, you wonder why Indians fans didn’t hang Lane, in effigy or otherwise, from the highest girder at Cleveland Stadium.

Undeterred by the pounding he had taken in the trade winds, Lane talked DeWitt into the managerial maneuver a few months later. Except for its originality, the trade was a wash. Under Gordon, the Tigers were 26-31 for the rest of the season, and Joe found himself job-hunting again. He briefly managed two Kansas City teams, the A’s in 1961 and the expansion Royals in 1969, before departing the dugout.

Meanwhile, the Tigers went 26-32 under Dykes in 1960. DeWitt brought him back the following year, but a 77-83 season resulted in Jimmy retiring to pipe and slippers.

Dykes died at 79 in 1976, and Gordon at 63 in 1978. But whenever they met earlier at baseball functions, it can be assumed they shared a chuckle over a trade that remains one of the strangest in baseball history.

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