Blinded by his impatience, insecurity and inability to quell internal politics, Cardinals owner August “Gussie” Busch ousted the general manager who built the team that two months later would win the franchise’s first World Series championship in 18 years.
“It was a travesty,” longtime St. Louis journalist Bob Broeg wrote in recalling the firing 40 years later. “And a lot of the players on the team felt the same way.”
Trades engineered by Devine had brought to the Cardinals core players on the championship club. They included outfielders Lou Brock and Curt Flood, infielders Bill White, Julian Javier and Dick Groat and pitchers Curt Simmons, Roger Craig, Ron Taylor and Barney Schultz.
Under Devine’s leadership, the minor-league system also had developed essential Cardinals such as pitchers Bob Gibson, Ray Sadecki and Ray Washburn as well as outfielder Mike Shannon and catcher Tim McCarver. In the pipeline were prospects such as pitchers Steve Carlton and Nelson Briles.
Still, Busch became convinced in August 1964 that the Cardinals needed to dump Devine (and replace manager Johnny Keane with Leo Durocher after the regular season) in order to produce a champion.
The Cardinals were 62-55, nine behind the first-place Phillies, in the National League when Busch fired Devine. From there, the Cardinals went 31-14, finishing in first place at 93-69, one game ahead of both the Reds and Phillies.
In his book “October 1964” (1994, Villard), author David Halberstam wrote, “Devine went quietly. It was something he had always expected. He had been dealing for the last seven years from a position of limited strength and the pressure to produce a winner had grown every year. Life under as volatile a man as Gussie Busch was like living on a precipice, he thought.”
(Departing along with Devine were business manager Art Routzong and player personnel director Eddie Stanky.)
The three key reasons why Busch fired Devine:
The Cardinals hadn’t won a pennant since Busch took control of the club in February 1953. Devine had been general manager for much of that time, replacing Frank Lane in November 1957.
After the Cardinals placed second in 1963, Busch had high expectations for the following year. His frustration reached a boiling point in August 1964.
“I have been worried about the Cardinals for a long time,” Busch said to The Sporting News after firing Devine. “The club has not been making any progress.”
In his book “The Memoirs of Bing Devine” (2004, Sports Publishing), Devine wrote, “There’s no question in my mind that I got fired because Mr. Busch was frustrated. He’d always had success with Anheuser-Busch. He’d owned the Cardinals for 10 years and he was tired of not succeeding in this other business.”
A mid-season incident involving Groat hurt Devine’s relationship with Busch.
Keane had given Groat approval to call for the hit-and-run play when he saw an opportunity to execute it. Groat handled the bat well. But, in Keane’s view, Groat abused the privilege.
When Keane banned Groat from calling the hit-and-run, Groat groused openly and often. Devine learned of Groat’s unhappiness. The general manager told Keane to address the issue by conducting a team meeting and confronting Groat. Keane did and the matter was resolved when Groat apologized to Keane and the team and stopped his complaining.
Devine didn’t inform Busch of the incident because he viewed such squabbles as commonplace in clubhouses. Besides, the problem wasn’t lingering.
Braves third baseman Eddie Mathews, though, was friendly with Groat and heard of Groat’s initial unhappiness. Mathews was dating Busch’s daughter, Elizabeth. Mathews told her of the conflict and she, in turn, told her father.
Busch was angry that Devine hadn’t informed him. He became suspicious, wondering what else Devine wasn’t telling him.
“Busch was upset,” Devine wrote. “And that may have affected his thinking about me.”
Halberstam wrote of Busch, “He was more than a little paranoid anyway; it seemed to go with the territory with a man who had so much power in, but knew so little about, the high-profile business of baseball.”
Busch had hired Branch Rickey, the former longtime Cardinals general manager, as a special consultant. Rickey, 82, and Devine clashed. Rickey meddled. He criticized Devine in talks with Busch.
Rickey had built the Cardinals minor-league system in the 1920s. His influence was evident in remarks Busch made after Devine was fired.
“I am concerned that we cannot trade our way to a pennant,” Busch said to The Sporting News in August 1964. “We must depend on production out of our own system and I have been disappointed with the operation of our farm department. There just seems to be a gap someplace between the signing of players, their development and their progress to the Cardinals as men ready to do a major-league job.”
Busch insisted Rickey didn’t trigger his decision to fire Devine. “Rickey had nothing to do with it,” he said. “I did not consult him until I’d made up my mind.”
Few bought that explanation. “He (Rickey) was undercutting Bing,” wrote Broeg. “We all knew that.”
Wrote Halberstam, “Rickey gradually increased the tempo of his drive against Devine … The veteran players, who liked Devine, and who did not think the team needed two general managers, were not amused. They knew that the more senior they were, the more likely Rickey was to get rid of them at the end of the season.”
In his book “Stranger to the Game” (1994, Viking), Gibson wrote, “The players were hurt by Devine’s firing, but we decided that instead of packing it in for the year, we would dedicate ourselves to redeeming Devine with a strong finish.”
According to the book “The Spirit of St. Louis” (2000, Avon), Busch asked broadcaster Harry Caray to become general manager. Caray declined and suggested Busch hire former St. Louis Browns owner Bill Veeck. But Veeck demanded a controlling interest of the stock in the Cardinals.
On Rickey’s suggestion, Bob Howsam, who had joined Rickey in a failed attempt to start a third major league, the Continental League, was named general manager.
“Howsam did nothing to win the pennant after he became GM,” Broeg wrote. “He led the league in cheers.”
After the Cardinals won the World Series title against the Yankees, Keane resigned, rather than accept a contract extension, in protest of Devine’s dismissal. Keane then accepted an offer to manage the Yankees.
Humiliated, Busch ordered Howsam to fire Rickey. He did so.
Devine joined the Mets front office.
Howsam lasted with the Cardinals for two years, then went to the Reds. Stan Musial replaced him.
When Musial resigned in triumph after the Cardinals won the 1967 World Series title, Devine was rehired by Busch to be the Cardinals general manager.