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The San Diego Union-Tribune

 
Long road to Hall of Champions

Ground-breaking exec Buzzie Bavasi literally changed face of baseball

STAFF WRITER

February 13, 2007

The San Diego Hall of Champions is an impressive museum, spellbinding and comprehensive in its range of artifacts, exhibits, pictures and stories of local sports history. Its collection of documentation and memorabilia is rivaled in the county by maybe only one place.

Buzzie's den.

Generally credited as the man who brought major league baseball to San Diego, E.J. “Buzzie” Bavasi is to be inducted into the Breitbard Hall of Fame tonight. Bavasi, a resident of La Jolla since coming south in 1968 as the president and part-owner of the expansion Padres, will be enshrined with former Padres closer Rich “Goose” Gossage and ex-Chargers defensive lineman Gary “Big Hands” Johnson.

Considering the sporting life Bavasi has lived – even before he delivered the Padres to San Diego and saw them through their rough first few years, and even before he helped put “The Show” in Southern California in the form of the Los Angeles Dodgers – the Hall would have to add another wing to facilitate Bavasi's souvenirs and the memories of his own experience over nine decades and change.

Fortunately, at 92 years old, Bavasi's still sharp enough to recall it all in wondrous detail. Just try him. But be ready.

“He's always looking for an edge, still,” said his son Bill, general manager of the Seattle Mariners. “He keeps that mental sharpness. I think it's because he's always got to be challenged. He's always got two or three novels going at once. He does the crossword puzzles every day. He's just generally inquisitive. And he likes to compete.”

Salute to the Champions

What: 61st Annual Hall of Champions Salute to the Champions dinner

When: Tonight, reception begins at 5:30, dinner at 6:15

Where: Grand Ballroom of the Town and Country Resort and Convention Center, 500 Hotel Circle North in Mission Valley

Info: For more information, call (619) 699-2309 or go to www.sdhoc.com

Only recently has Bavasi been slowed by a hip problem – he's stubbornly fought the doctor's suggestion of a replacement because “I sort of like the hip I was born with” – but his mind fairly races back over his time in the game. More than the hits and the no-hitters, the plays and the misplays, he remembers the people.

“I don't think there's a person I've met in baseball, on or off the field, that I didn't like,” Bavasi said. “I joke that Don Larsen was the exception, and that's only because he threw a perfect game against the Dodgers in the World Series.”

Bavasi was there for that historic event, too, and that was more than a half-century ago. When major league baseball decided to tear down the color barrier and put blacks on the playing field, Bavasi was in the room, and he sure wasn't offering a dissenting vote. Jackie Robinson, after all, was with the Dodgers.

Bavasi personally challenged the entire Lynn (Mass.) Red Sox to a fight in the parking lot after members of that minor league team had pelted Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe – both black players with the Nashua, N.H., club run by Bavasi – with racial epithets during a game.

Given the Dodgers' roots in Brooklyn and enormous success after the move west, mention of Bavasi's name nationally evokes more memories of the Dodgers in their most legendary of times, both in New York and Los Angeles. They're a stark contrast to the difficulties he'd encounter as an executive of the fledgling Padres from 1969 through '77.

For a while there, a long while, the Padres came to represent the ills of expansion. The new clubs were treated like the proverbial stepchildren, denied privileges of team ownership, most notably national-television money.

“We had to sell a player a month to make payroll,” Bavasi said. "But we never lost money, even when we only drew 700,000. We only made about $4,000 or $5,000, but we didn't lose money.”

Making matters far worse, the majority owner of the club was financier C. Arnholt Smith, whose banking and commercial empire came crashing down around him, his ballclub and San Diegans left devastated by the 1973 collapse of his U.S. National Bank. Smith pled no contest to federal bank-fraud charges.

“I didn't know what he was doing, but he was a hell of an owner,” said Bavasi, chuckling. “He'd have been a really great owner if the bank hadn't gotten in his way.”

Too much of Bavasi's near-decade tenure atop the Padres, both on the field and off, was best forgotten. But not all of it. Above all, there was a major league club in San Diego, much owing to Bavasi's influence.

“San Diego had its pride, and it was a town looking for its own identity,” said Bill Bavasi, a USD graduate who once was on the Padres ground crew. “You should have been there when the Padres swept the Dodgers for the first time in '69. That was a huge deal in San Diego.”

However bad things got in Mission Valley, Buzzie was Buzzie, easy with the laugh and easier with the ability to make others laugh via his storytelling. Unless you were an agent or player trying to squeeze an extra nickel out of him, he was and remains an endearing character.

“All I demanded of players was that they stand for the national anthem before games,” Bavasi said. “Respect the flag of the United States or it was a $100 fine if you didn't.

“One day one kid comes to me and says, 'Geez, Buzzie, every time I stand for 'The Star-Spangled Banner,' I have a bad night.' I said, 'No problem.' He said, 'You mean I don't have to stand?' I said, 'No, just give me a check for $16,200.' Turns out he wasn't that superstitious.”

Two of Bavasi's sons became second-generation, multiteam GMs – Peter with the Padres (1973-76) and Toronto Blue Jays, Bill with the Anaheim Angels and Mariners – and Buzzie was brought back north for a highly successful run as general manager of the California Angels from 1977 to his retirement in 1984.

In the home with the sensational view of the Pacific Ocean below, the walls of Bavasi's den are covered with pictures of Bavasi and legendary baseball people, entertainers and presidents – of the United States as well as leagues. His book collection is so extensive that he filed it on a computer, noting where the books can be found in the sprawling home.

If it's summertime and it's daytime, it's probably time for a game in Buzzie's den. Baseball's like clockwork to him.

“Cubbies at 10, then games at 1, 4 and 7,” Bavasi said. “Long as I've been around it, baseball's remained a fascinating game to me, no matter what they keep trying to do with it. It touches so many people.

“When I go to the store with the housekeeper, everybody says hello when they hear my name. It's not me that strikes the chord. It's baseball. It's the Padres that are important people to San Diego, not Buzzie Bavasi. People love their team.”

His gift.


Chris Jenkins: (619) 293-1267; chris.jenkins@uniontrib.com

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