The Angels’ curious firing of Gene Mauch 35 years ago still haunts the manager’s legacy today

By Andrew J. Pridgen

Baseball wonks love to point to how empires rise and fall. In a room together they’ll go back to a source play or move and trudge through the lugubrious losing seasons that ensued, a sort of watching dominoes fall in reverse. The person who “wins” is usually the one who can trace trends back the farthest. “You think _____ happened because of the ____ trade in 1987, but really it’s due to the ____ signing in 1973 followed by ____s dismissal one season later.”

For decades, this type of dissection, usually combined with the sprinkling in of the metaphysical, explained the whole of the reasons why things happen in the game as a metaphor for why things happen in real life. Sometimes you leg out a double only to pull a hamstring. Sometimes it caroms off the wall when you’re sure it’s gone. And sometimes you simply get a bad bounce. More recently—since 2003 or so when Michael Lewis released Moneyball—fans, pundits and critics have found that all (save for a black cat or two) baseball’s peculiarities can be easily explained using numbers.

It is interesting then, to check on a few decisions that were made on purely emotional levels, ones that can’t be re-framed in the context of straight numbers, and how they affected not only franchises but individual’s lives and legacies.

I was wading into the deep waters of Google’s newspaper archive this week looking for some unusual items about the Angels’ original owner, Gene Autry, for a longer piece about how much he influenced West Coast baseball… when I ran into an interesting aside from the 1982 season. It was around that time, after 20 years in Anaheim, that reporters, who for nearly three decades refused to write about Autry without putting The Singing Cowboy in front of his name, started to refer to him simply as the owner.

…But that was far from the most interesting tidbit.

In October of 1982, the Angels fired manager Gene Mauch. He was ostracized at the time for his decision to go with aces Tommy John and Bruce Kison on short rest in games four and five in the LCS, an invention that has been so oft-emulated during the playoffs, with success, it is now a given. Mauch is also known as the creator of “small ball” (manufacturing hits and runs and overuse of a bullpen), the double-switch, the use of a relief pitcher as a designated closer along with situational installation of pinch runners, defensive replacements and the pen. Mauch came to be about 30 years too early and players’ physicality and front office analytics hadn’t yet caught up with his baseball-as-chessboard philosophy. The lone exception, perhaps, being his Angels squad from that season.

That team had a raft of daily grinders, up-and-comers and veterans just slightly past their prime, including the recently departed Don Baylor at DH. The ‘82 halos lineup reads like a lesson in reverse engineering, a squad built and arranged around on skill set, not stereotype. Catcher Bob Boone (.256/.310/.337) often led off followed by first baseman Rod Carew, who hit .319 that season. Veteran second baseman Bobby Grich, a year removed from an All Star season, batted third, while Baylor, Reggie Jackson and Fred Lynn rotated through the fourth through sixth spots in the lineup. The slick-fielding, always-on-base Doug DeCinces, left fielder Brian Downing and shortstop Tim Foli rounded out the lineup. Only DeCinces (.301) and Carew hit over .300 in that season for the Angels, but run production was rampant as only Foli had an OBP under .310.

The ‘82 Angels rolled through the AL West at 93-69 and were hot throughout the playoffs. But their drive to the World Series to face the eventual champion Cardinals was derailed by heavy underdog Milwaukee Brewers, who came back from an 0-2 deficit to take three straight off the Angels and advance to the big show (it should be noted LCS games were not yet best-of-seven and the Brewers coming back in the short series was a big part of the reason why it was switched.)

Mauch brought the Angels only their second division title in the team’s 21-year history, but Autry and the team’s EVP Buzzie Bavasi were unhappy with Milwaukee’s historic comeback, especially after the team cracked open the coffers to put Jackson, Carew, DeCinces and Grich in halos.

Bavasi had Mauch fired on Oct. 22, just two days after the Cardinals recorded the final out of the World Series. As Milwaukee and St. Louis squared off, Bavasi met with Mauch to voice his displeasure, and that sealed the manager’s fate.

“If we made a decision today it wouldn’t be a good one,” Bavasi said in the wake of the meeting. “By that I mean the atmosphere isn’t right. Every time we pick up the papers and see it’s the Brewers in the World Series and every time we think about money we’re losing by not being there, we become disappointed.”

Holy shit. Can you imagine Theo Epstein saying, as he watches the Dodgers in the World Series this season, he can’t bear to watch the Cubs not being there and is worried about something as trivial in today’s MLB as payroll?

Mauch’s firing after losing a LCS is nearly unprecedented. Yankees manager Casey Stengel was fired in 1960 after losing the World Series as was Yogi Berra in 1964. But that’s Stengel and Berra and those are the Yankees. In 1997, Orioles manager Davey Johnson was named manager of the year and quit that same day, but that was due mostly to personality conflicts with owner Peter Angelos.

Mauch’s successor John McNamara lasted only two seasons and posted a losing record with no playoff appearances. Mauch was then brought back from the golf courses of his Rancho Mirage home from 1985-1987 to take the Angels back to the ALCS in ‘86, this time losing to the Red Sox in seven.

Those ‘86 Angels still had the services of DeCinces, Jackson and Boone along with sure-fire rookie first baseman Wally Joyner who hit .290 and 22 home runs his first full campaign out of BYU. Jackson would be gone in 1987 to spend his final year where his career started two decades earlier, in Oakland, tutoring tomorrow’s PED posterboys Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire.

On Oct. 27, 2002, twenty years and four days after Mauch’s firing, the Angels won their first world championship, coming back from being seven outs from elimination in game six to beat San Francisco 4-1 in game seven in the least-watched World Series of all time.

Mauch’s ending isn’t so happy. In 1987, the Angels finished in 7th place at 75-87 (10 games back of the Minnesota Twins). Mauch retired for health reasons during spring training in 1988 at age 62. He died of lung cancer in 2005 leaving behind a 1,902-2,037 record and no World Series appearances.

Mauch made his managerial career as the savior of teams in the cellar (Phillies, Twins, Angels) and the only guy who’d take the call on an expansion gig. As a result he is owner of two of baseball’s longest losing streaks: His 1961 Phillies lost 23 in a row, one short of the Major League record, and his 1969 Expos lost 20 in a row. Had he not been taken out of the Angels franchise during those prime seasons following the disappointment in ‘82, Mauch would likely have made it to the World Series and, if not hoisted a trophy, padded his win total to well above 2,000.

As it stands, the fiery innovator is the only manager with more than 1,900 victories not in the Hall of Fame.

Andrew J. Pridgen helps run sister site Goner Party and is the author of the novella “Burgundy Upholstery Sky”. His first full-length novel will be released in November.