Jim Crane has begun his tenure as Houston Astros’ owner, and the franchise’s 50th year, by firing Tal Smith, a long-time baseball executive who had been with the team off and on since its inception. Although the more significant move was the dismissal of general manager Ed Wade, whose four years in Houston were punctuated by losing, Smith’s pink slip symbolically represents a new era in Houston baseball.
Older Yankees’ fans might recall that Tal Smith served as the team’s executive vice president and right hand man to de facto GM Gabe Paul from 1973 to 1975. However, the relationship between Paul and Smith went back long before the two joined forces in the Bronx. The two men first met in 1960, when a then 27 year-old Smith was trying to land his first job in baseball. Paul, who was GM of the Cincinnati Reds at the time, rebuffed the solicitation, suggesting Smith first learn shorthand if he wanted a job. At the second meeting, however, Paul was forced to relent when the young would-be executive triumphantly returned three months later having acquired the skill.
Smith followed Paul to the expansion Houston Colt 45s (as the Astros were then called) in 1962. Although Paul quickly moved on a few months later to become GM of the Cleveland Indians, Smith made Houston his home. For the next 13 years, the young executive gradually climbed the ladder with the Astros until his former boss, who had been instrumental in brokering George M. Steinbrenner’s recent purchase of the Yankees, came calling.
In November 1973, Paul hired his former protégé to be his top assistant. Paul had just spent his first season in the Bronx, and was still trying to get a handle on how the organization structure would work, particularly in light of Steinbrenner’s growing involvement. Considering the franchise’s rapidly expanding front office, Paul was probably as much in need of an ally as an assistant, but regardless, the two men proved to be a very effective team as they gradually rebuilt the Yankees over the next two seasons.
In August 1975, the Houston Astros beckoned Smith home with a chance to run the team as general manager. Although he left just before the Yankees returned to the post season, Smith’s fingerprints were all over the Bronx Bomber teams that would win three consecutive AL pennants. Meanwhile, in Houston, Smith also helped foster a winner. Along with manager Bill Virdon, who had been fired as Yankees’ manager in 1975, Smith transformed a team that had lost 97 games into a division champion by 1980.
During that same period, Smith was also instrumental in facilitating the sale of the Astros. In much the same way that his mentor Gabe Paul had helped bring about the transfer of the Yankees from CBS to Steinbrenner, Smith also played the role of matchmaker between the Ford Motor Co. and Dr. John McMullen, a former limited partner with the Yankees. Unfortunately for Smith, like Paul, he would also come to regret that decision.
No sooner did the champagne dry on the Astros division title in 1980, conflict arose between McMullen and Smith over what the owner deemed philosophical differences. So, Smith was ousted, and in his place former Yankees GM Al Rosen was hired. Less than one decade earlier, Rosen had been instrumental in bringing Gabe Paul and George Steinbrenner together, a partnership that eventually grew to encompass Tal Smith and John McMullen. Now, with both pairs parting company, only Rosen continued to hold down a job as General Manager.
That’s hard to say, but there is a time limit on a man’s effectiveness. If a man has not done it in five years, he won’t do it in 10 years.” – Astros’ General Partner John McMullen, quoted by AP when asked why Smith was being replaced with Rosen, October 29, 1980
Rosen’s tenure with the Astros lasted until 1985, but because of a backlash over the firing of the popular Smith, it almost didn’t survive two weeks. In December 1980, there were rampant rumors suggesting Smith would be rehired following a legal battle over control of the team precipitated by McMullen’s unpopular decision. However, the furor soon died down, after which Smith and the Astros went their separate ways. Ironically, Smith proved to be one of the few executives to escape from the Bronx before it became a “Zoo”, only to find just as much controversy in Houston.
After a 15-year hiatus, during which he formed a successful consulting company that specialized in handling arbitration cases, Smith returned to the Astros, where he served in various roles up until his dismissal today. Unlike in 1980, Smith’s firing probably won’t cause a furor, but his over 50 years of service to the game of baseball, including more than 30 in Houston, are worthy of appreciation. As long as Tal’s Hill remains in center field at Minute Maid Park, there will always be a monument to the long-time executive, but the real tribute is the many years of success the Astros enjoyed under his stewardship. Jim Crane should have his hands full turning to the next page in Astros history, but if his efforts are to be successful, the first priority should be finding another Tal Smith.