Hart Learned the First Step in Building the Indians of 1990s from Peters
Vince Guerrieri | On 05, Jan 2015
The post previously ran on Dec. 22, but it seemed appropriate and timely to re-post with the death of Hank Peters on Sunday. Indians Team President Mark Shapiro released a statement on Sunday. “The Cleveland Indians organization lost a cherished member of the family (Sunday) as former President/General Manager Hank Peters, 90, passed away due to complications of a recent stroke in Boca Raton, FL. We are saddened by Hank’s passing and express our deepest sympathy to his daughter, Sharon, son, Steve and grandchildren.”
While it appears John Hart is disassembling the Atlanta Braves during the twilight of his career in baseball, he may have seen this playbook almost 25 years ago from a different perspective.
Hart is the new general manager of the Atlanta Braves, left to cut payroll and rid the organization of bad contracts before a new stadium open north of town in 2017. It’s no guarantee the baseball veteran will be around to see the fruits of his labor. He may understand his role better than most, since he was the recipient of veteran front office work in the infancy of his career. Hart now assumes the role Hank Peters once had while Hart learned the front office craft for the Indians.
In the four seasons Peters was general manager for the Indians (1988-1991), the Tribe never finished higher than fourth. In fact, the 1991 Indians lost 105 games, a record unmatched in team history.
But Peters laid the groundwork for the Indians teams that dominated the 1990s, combining good draft picks with shrewd trades to form a nucleus of talent that helped the Tribe to six American League Central titles – including two World Series appearances – in seven years.
Peters’ baseball career started in his hometown of St. Louis, where he worked for the Browns as a scout. He was left out in the cold when the Browns moved to Baltimore, and became the farm director for the Kansas City Athletics, where he watched players he drafted – like Roger Maris – move on as the Athletics were used as a de facto farm team for the Yankees. In 1960, Charles O. Finley, who had become a millionaire in insurance, bought the Athletics.
Finley, once described as a self-made man who worships his creator, didn’t mesh well with Peters. One of Finley’s first hires was Frank “Trader” Lane, who had done untold damage to the Indians’ farm system, once the pride of the major leagues. Lane and Peters clashed, to the point where Finley fired Peters. Finley later apologized and brought Peters back to be the titular assistant general manager, but in actuality, he made personnel decisions. The Athletics drafted players like John Odom, Jim “Catfish” Hunter, Joe Rudi, Dave Duncan (father of former Indian Shelley) and Sal Bando.
Peters became director of the Indians’ farm system in 1965. The cupboard was bare, and Peters would have to restock it after Lane’s almost pathological need to have a deal going. Under Peters’ watch, the Indians signed Alan Ashby, Buddy Bell and Chris Chambliss – three players who had enough major league talent to have lengthy careers, but not necessarily with the Tribe. And Peters got the Indians into the Tom Seaver sweepstakes as well – even if Tom Terrific ended up with the Mets.
But in 1970, team owner Vernon Stouffer, facing financial setbacks, gutted the scouting department and gave manager Alvin Dark more personnel decisions to make. Peters read the writing on the wall and left, becoming president of the National Association of Professional Baseball Clubs. Meanwhile, the best team in the majors was the Oakland Athletics – put together in no small part by Peters – winning three consecutive World Series.
In 1975, Peters was named Orioles general manager. He was given authority to spend money scouting and signing players. The Os had made World Series appearances in 1966, 1969, 1970 and 1971, with wins in ’66 and ’70, and won the American League East in 1973 and 1974. But many of the players that made that success possible – like Frank and Brooks Robinson and Boog Powell – were moving on or getting old.
Peters faced the additional challenge of free agency. The Orioles were a small-market team and couldn’t afford to throw around money like Cleveland native George Steinbrenner was doing with the Yankees. Peters traded for Reggie Jackson while at the Orioles, only to see him chase the big bucks and sign as a free agent with the Yankees. “If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have traded for him,” Peters said. “Then again, if I knew what I know now, I wouldn’t have voted for Richard Nixon.”
But Peters’ skill at evaluating talent led the Orioles to replenish their farm system with future hall of famers Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken Jr., along with other talented players like Mike Flanagan and Denny Martinez. The Orioles went to the World Series in 1979, and won it in 1983. By then, famed trial lawyer Edward Bennet. Williams had bought the Orioles, and he and Peters had creative differences. In 1987, Peters was unceremoniously fired as the Orioles’ general manager. He was instantly snapped up by new Indians owner Dick Jacobs, and once again set about rebuilding a miserable farm system.
In 1989, contract talks stalled between the Tribe and the team’s best player, Joe Carter. Peters planned to trade Carter if a deal couldn’t be worked out, but Carter would only go to his home state of Missouri or the West Coast. So Peters made a deal with the Padres, getting Sandy Alomar Jr., Carlos Baerga and Chris James.
The 1991 Indians were dreadful. John McNamara was fired as manager in July, and Mike Hargrove was installed. The Tribe wasn’t bereft of talent. Sandy Alomar was the reigning American League Rookie of the Year, Albert Belle was already being known for his power hitting (and his anger management issues), Jim Thome made his major league debut in 1991 and Manny Ramirez was drafted by the Indians that year.
But the team was the youngest in the major leagues.
“They basically threw nine rookies out there at the start of the year and said, ‘Go get ’em,’ ” pitcher Tom Candiotti told Sports Illustrated that year. “Most of the guys are just happy to be in the big leagues. It’s hard to win like that.”
That year, Peters announced his retirement from baseball after a career of more than 40 years. John Hart, who served briefly as interim Tribe manager and was a manager in the minor leagues for the Orioles while Peters was club president, became the Indians general manager. Designs were being made for a new stadium on Ontario Street, farther away from the lake and closer to the highways. Within four years, the Indians would be on the way to a record-setting sellout streak and a period of success unparalleled in team history – and Hank Peters was due a lot of the credit.