Former GM Cashen dies at age 88
Was chief architect of 1986 Mets, Orioles powerhouses of late '60s and '70s
A longtime baseball executive whose greatest successes and most unsettling disappointments involved the Mets and Orioles has died. Frank Cashen -- who fancied bow ties, a beer at the bar, a book and The Bard -- is gone. A learned gentleman who oversaw the assembly of the powerful Orioles teams of the 1960s and '70s and the talented Mets teams of the '80s died after a brief illness Monday in Easton, Md., with a legacy of success firmly in place. The Mets said he was 88.
With the Mets, Cashen was one of the last genuine general managers in the game, an executive involved in all phases of franchise operation. He made decisions about marketing, player personnel, ballpark parking, announcers, the food served in the corporate dining room, television and radio contracts, public relations and the length of the infield grass.
Cashen had eclectic interests and knowledge. He was regarded by some as miscast as a sports executive, as if he were overqualified or too cultured for the industry. Others found Cashen to be enjoyable and intriguing company because he was diverse.
"Frank is very bright man, a man for all seasons," the late Bob Mandt, a Mets vice president and himself a member of Mensa, said in the '90s when Cashen was nearing the end of his daily involvement with the club. "You hear about people who know a little bit about everything. Frank knows a lot about many things. I don't know many topics he can't discuss."
Cashen, proud of his Irish-Catholic heritage and devoted to his large family -- seven children -- had a degree in law and experience in journalism and advertising before he moved to baseball. He served Commissioner Bowie Kuhn as administrator for Major League Baseball in 1979 after his successful run with the Orioles and before he was brought aboard to right the Mets in 1980.
"Frank Cashen was one of the greatest executives in our game," Commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement. "A true gentleman who had many interests, Frank had a multifaceted career in baseball and beyond. He helped construct some of the best clubs that two of our franchises -- his hometown Baltimore Orioles and the New York Mets -- have ever had. When I was trying to obtain the Brewers franchise, Frank was very supportive, and after we were successful, he remained a friend whose judgment -- on both people and our game -- I always trusted. With great integrity, Frank became a leader in our industry."
Although the Orioles teams Cashen oversaw enjoyed greater overall success than his Mets teams, the public spotlight shone more brightly on him during his time in New York, and not only because of the nature of the larger market. He carried a cumbersome title with the Mets -- general manager, senior vice president and chief operating officer -- and was, in every way, the boss.
The high point of Cashen's tenure in Queens, the runaway success of the 1986 championship team, was a most compelling spectacle that regularly filled Shea Stadium. The Mets came replete with charismatic personalities of differing textures that fascinated the city. They had Ivy Leaguers, family men, comedians, Hawaiians, nocturnal animals, dirt bags, players who had been dirt poor, many of them would-be authors. Moreover, the '86 edition participated in league and World Series championships that remain among the most memorable ever.
"On behalf of all of us at the Mets, we extend our deepest condolences to Jean Cashen and her entire family," Mets chairman and CEO Fred Wilpon said. "Frank Cashen revitalized our franchise when he took over in 1980 as general manager and helped engineer us to a world championship in 1986. I dealt with Frank on a daily basis and he was a man of integrity and great passion. No one had a more diverse career than Frank. He was also a lawyer, sportswriter and marketing executive. His accomplishments will always be an integral part of our team history."
The Mets teams of 1984-90 often made Cashen proud, but occasionally they made him quite uncomfortable, because of the players' general off-field deportment. It flew in the face of the GM's upbringing and values and sometimes was self-destructive. Some of Cashen's Mets footnoted their autographs with the chapter and verse numbers of Biblical scripture. Others wrote the dates of their favorite Playboy or Penthouse editions after their signatures.
Cashen frequently used the phrase, "Just another in paradise." Usually it was said with a sarcastic tone. But he enjoyed much of his time with the Mets and, on occasion, said, "Really ... a day in paradise."
"My players make me shake my head almost every day," Cashen said in 1987 when the team was winning despite the absence of its Nos. 1, 3 and 4 starting pitchers, and despite experiencing serious internal strife. "They seem to enjoy making it difficult for themselves." But the '86 group rose above all of it and produced more on-field brilliance than off-field distraction. It won 108 games in the regular season, equaling the most victories by a National League team -- the 1975 Reds also won 108 -- in 101 years.
That edition of Mets -- the team of Keith Hernandez, Gary Carter, Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, Ron Darling and Lenny Dykstra -- attained the level of regular-season consistency Cashen had sought when he assumed control of the club. Beginning with 1984, the first year of manager Davey Johnson, and through 1990, when Cashen dismissed Johnson, the Mets averaged 95 victories per season. But other than the '86 run of the table, all the regular-season success led to merely one division championship.
"Frank was our leader," Strawberry said. "I always admired the way he put together our team. He mixed young guys, like me and Doc, with guys like Carter and Hernandez. He was able to find the perfect blend to build a championship."
"Frank was willing to take a chance and jump me from A-ball to the Majors," Gooden said. "That always meant a lot to me. Also, he helped get me my No. 16. Lee Mazzilli had it before, and Frank went to bat for me and said, 'If that's the number Doc wants, let him have it.'"
Cashen, his staff and many of the involved players subsequently have acknowledged that those teams should have achieved more in postseason play. When the 1991 team produced a losing record, Cashen stepped aside to afford his first lieutenant, Al Harazin, an opportunity to run the club. Cashen took the role of consultant and gradually moved to full retirement.
A perception developed that Harazin was not equipped to handle player personnel responsibilities, and it tainted Cashen's image to a degree. But Cashen remained loyal to his protégé as the Mets headed into a period of dreadful performance and more off-field controversy.
The unceremonious breakup of the World Series team and the breakdown of three of its most prominent players -- Hernandez, Carter and Gooden -- also tarnished Cashen's Mets resume, somehow, as did the trading of Dykstra (a move Johnson favored), Wally Backman and Mookie Wilson, and to a lesser degree, the departure of Strawberry via free agency and the club's reliance on skilled but ostracized Gregg Jefferies.
Cashen regarded the free-agent market as "an auction of mediocrity" and never shopped there, a practice the public came to question when the team's fortunes slipped. But the trades that imported Hernandez, Carter, Darling, David Cone, Howard Johnson, Bobby Ojeda, Kevin McReynolds, Sid Fernandez and Frank Viola, the development of Strawberry, Gooden, Dykstra, Jefferies, Kevin Mitchell, Dave Magadan, Rick Aguilera, Roger McDowell and Kevin Tapani, along with all the winning, turned the Mets into a model operation.
After his team had come so close to winning the National East in 1985, Cashen properly assessed the Mets' needs -- a right-handed-hitting second baseman and a left-handed starter. Without damaging the farm system, he traded for Tim Teufel to platoon with Backman at second and Ojeda, who won 18 games in '86 and added to the Mets grit.
"He was by far the smartest baseball man I've ever been in contact with," Ojeda said. "What the players loved about him was he cared more about you as a person than what you did on the baseball field."
Until the Mets' fall in 1991, Cashen's only unforgiven failing was his decision not to protect Tom Seaver from the free-agent compensation pool following the 1983 return of "The Franchise." And Cashen called his deal to import outfielder Ellis Valentine from Montreal for pitcher Jeff Reardon "short-sighted and unsuccessful."
Even with the warts that developed in that seven-season sequence, Cashen's administration was the most successful era in Mets history, and he unquestionably was the primarily architect. "No one else," owner Nelson Doubleday said in 1986. "No ifs, ands or buts."
Doubleday purchased 88 1/2 percent of the club in early 1980 and almost immediately hired Cashen. He interviewed no one else after receiving an unsolicited endorsement from Orioles owner Jerry Hoffberger, who had brought Cashen into baseball in 1966. The O's played in four World Series, winning two, in Cashen's first six years. They won two more American League East championships, in 1973 and '74, before Cashen returned to work as senior vice president of marketing and sales at Hoffberger's brewery.
"The Orioles were saddened to learn today of the passing of Frank Cashen," the Orioles said in a statement. "Frank served the Orioles as executive vice president from 1965 to 1975 during the team's most successful on-field era, winning two World Series championships, four American League pennants, and five AL East titles. ... The Orioles organization extends its sympathies to his wife, Jean, their seven children, and many grandchildren."
Many regarded the Orioles of 1969-73 to be the game's elite team. A third World Series championship during that five-year sequence would have eliminated all thought to the contrary. The Series the O's were supposed to have won -- and didn't -- was in 1969, when the upstart Mets, fueled by dominant young pitchers, as the Orioles had been in 1966, denied Cashen's team in five games.
The stunning result left Cashen with scabs that he would playfully pick during his 11 years with the Mets. Sometimes his lamenting 1969 was not so playful. "I thought we [the Orioles] were the better team," Cashen said in the summer of 2010 when he was inducted into the Mets' Hall of Fame. "I guess that's why they were the Miracle Mets."
Cashen had some isolated detractors or at least people who were unwilling to attribute the Orioles' and Mets' successes to him exclusively. Their claim was that other executives -- Harry Dalton and Lou Gorman, respectively -- were more responsible for the heralded trades that brought Hall of Famer Frank Robinson to the O's in 1966 and Darling to the Mets in 1983. Moreover, Joe McIlvaine, another of Cashen's primary lieutenants, was the evaluator who pushed for and helped engineer the deals that imported Howard Johnson, Cone, Ojeda and McReynolds to the Mets.
Dalton was responsible for the Robinson trade, but the deals that built the Mets were made by men Cashen hired -- and trusted -- and Cashen was responsible for the deals for Hernandez and Carter.
Cashen hired well. Gorman had been the Mariners general manager; and after he left the Mets, he served in that capacity for the Red Sox. Harazin (Mets) and McIlvaine (Padres and Mets) became general managers. Gerry Hunsicker, later the Astros GM, worked for Cashen. Cashen also tutored John Schuerholz when both were with the Orioles. Schuerholz, of course, went on to great success as the general manager of the Royals and Braves.
"I had dinner with Frank every spring ever since I came back with the Mets," said Wally Backman, manager of the Mets' Triple-A team in Las Vegas. "He was a great baseball man. I liked to bounce ideas off of him. He was one of a kind."
Cashen was born in Baltimore in 1922. He developed an affection for baseball, but after playing second base at Loyola College of Maryland, he had no sense that his life would move toward the game. Cashen worked for 17 years writing sports for the Baltimore News-American before he was hired by Hoffberger to be the publicity director for two racetracks in Baltimore. While Cashen was with the newspaper, he found it wise to wear bow ties while he was working in the shop rather than wear long ties that might drag through ink on "hot type."
Cashen wrote until the end, recently completing a book that is due to be published in September.
"I'd found out early in my career what had led to the phrase 'ink-stained wretches,'" he explained in 1980.
He was characterized by reporters covering his teams as "a great guy to have a beer with." But as a baseball executive, he kept most media members at arm's length, often qualifying the most benign statement with, "Off the record, by way of background."
Cashen was a cultured man who listed Shakespeare, Ernest Hemingway, Winston Churchill and St. John the Baptist as the people he'd choose for a dinner table of five. He routinely greeted groups of men with "Gentlemen, gentlemen, gentlemen," or, borrowing from Stan Musial, "Whaddyasay, whaddyasay, whaddyasay."
Cashen was not a big man. After the Mets had re-signed country-singing second baseman Doug Flynn in 1980, Flynn performed at a bar in lower Manhattan. Cashen attended and tried on a western hat. The description "pint-sized man in a 10-gallon hat" published the following day didn't delight him then or 25 years later.
Cashen had no Napoleonic complex, but wasn't fond of being called "Little Frank" when 6-foot-8 Frank Howard worked for the Mets as a coach and manager.
What Cashen lacked in size he readily compensated for with knowledge, wisdom, temperance and a sense of what was proper. Few men of any size cast a larger and more positive shadow on the Mets' fortunes.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.