June 17 – Happy Birthday Bill Bergesch

Bill-Bergesch.jpgxAfter winning a Purple Heart in WWII during the invasion of Italy, Bill Bergesch returned home, used the GI Bill to to get his business degree and began a long career as a baseball executive by accepting a job in the St. Louis Cardinals’ minor league organization. Ten years later he made his indelible contribution to that franchise when he became the guy who signed the great pitcher, Bob Gibson.

He was promoted to Cardinal’s scouting coordinator in 1959 and then was hired by the Kansas City A’s as an assistant GM, where he worked for the franchise’s new, slightly off-kilter owner, Charley Finley. He was hired by the Mets the following year to help that brand new franchise create its minor league organization from scratch and in 1964, was hired by the Yankees to serve as the team’s traveling secretary and manager of Yankee Stadium. He then changed sports, accepting front office positions with two Big Apple soccer teams. It was as GM of the New York Cosmos that Bergesch signed Brazilian superstar Pele out of retirement.

He then changed professions and industries, leaving sports and going to work for the next decade as a venture capitalist. By then, George Steinbrenner had taken over the Yankees and hired Bergesch as the team’s scouting director in 1978 and then promoted him to vice president of baseball operations a couple of years later. This was right during the time that “the Boss” was in his most tyrannical state as owner of the Yankees. In fact, Steinbrenner decided that he could be his own general manager, so he pointedly refused to give Bergesch that title. As it turned out, perhaps “hatchet man” would have been an even better one.

Regardless if it was devastating young Yankee prospects like Dave Righetti by unexpectedly demoting them back to the minors, firing Bob Lemon or Yogi Berra as skippers even though they each had been promised full years in the job or reminding established veterans like Tommy John that they were being paid too much money to have a bad outing, it was Bergesch who would be sent to deliver the ill-timed news from George. In fact, I remember thinking that Bergesch had as tough and thankless a job as Richard Nixon’s chief-of-staff did after the Watergate break in was discovered.

Before too long, Bergesch had carried out so many unpleasant Steinbrenner-directed edicts that he became a very unpopular guy in the Yankee clubhouse. The problem was that even though he was doing what George told him to do, the Boss would blame the poor guy whenever any of the things he did back fired or caused negative press, which happened about three times a week back then. It was the ultimate no-win situation.

The irony was that Bergesch genuinely liked Steinbrenner and enjoyed their friendship. He cited this as the reason why he had decided to leave the Yankees in 1984. He told the press he needed to go in a different direction. Unfortunately for Bergesch, that direction turned out to be working for the one owner in baseball who was capable of acting even more irrationally than Steinbrenner did at the time. Bergesch became the GM of Marge Schott’s Cincinnati Reds.

Not only did Bergesch value his friendship with the Boss, the feeling was mutual and when Steinbrenner entered a much more rational period of his tenure as Yankee owner in the early nineties, he brought Bergesch back to serve as Gene Michael’s assistant in 1990. The grateful executive would remain part of the Yankee family and good friends with George for the rest of their days. Bergesch passed away in 2011 at the age of 89.

Bergesch shares his June 17th birthday with this former Yankee outfielder.

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