Today is the 35th anniversary of the Baltimore Orioles’ last World Series championship. I was born and raised in Baltimore and was a huge fan of the Orioles and the Colts. Ironically and even though no one knew it at the time, the Baltimore Colts would soon play their last game as the team moved to Indianapolis, under cover of darkness, just a few months later.
The Orioles’ fortunes declined enough after that championship so that the Baseball Operations department would, not long after, hire someone with no formal baseball background and no membership in one of baseball’s royal families, first as a consultant and then in a full-time job. Of course, that person was me. The real story of how I was hired to a full-time job not much more than four years after the World Series title is for another day.
When I lament my current situation it is due, in no small way, to the fact that I have achieved much in my life. I like to describe my journey into major league baseball as the “infinite leap” because I went from nowhere, as far as baseball is concerned, to full-time employment and, eventually, to being a pioneer in the application of analytics to sports. I am still capable of “infinite leaps,” but I can’t leap without a place to land.
The top photo, from c1toc3vettes.blogspot.com (it still pains me to use anything from the Evil Empire, aka Google), is of a 1955 Chevrolet Corvette. The bottom photo, from silodrome.com, is of a 1955 Ford Thunderbird.
1955 was the first year of the Thunderbird and it was a success, with production of 16,155 units outperforming Ford’s initial tool-up estimate of 15,000.
1955 was almost the last year for the Corvette as only 700 were produced for that model year. However, 1955 was a great year for Chevrolet as the launch of the newly-styled 150, 210 and Bel Air as well as the introduction of the legendary small-block V-8 engine led to nearly a 50% increase in production compared to 1954.
Of course that production increase could not have happened in a vacuum. The industry as a whole enjoyed a 43 percent increase in car production compared to 1954. That leads me to my point. (Yeah, get to your point already.) According to Fins, William Knoedelseder’s book about Harley Earl and General Motors, US GDP grew by 7.1% from 1954 to 1955. (I did “confirm” that number with some research.) Today, we are happy with a quarterly GDP read that shows an annualized growth rate of 4%.
The auto industry was a much bigger portion of the US economy in the mid-1950s than it is today. Did a booming economy lead to higher auto sales or did excitement about new cars lead to a booming economy? I don’t know the answer, but I think it is an interesting question. Of course the answer could be that it’s both.
Not long after the introduction of the two-seat “baby bird” Thunderbird, Ford was already planning the four-seat version of the car. Chevrolet, its hackles raised by the first-generation T-Bird, committed even more to the Corvette and the rest, as they say, is history. According to Fins, someone at GM tipped off Frank Hershey, formerly with GM under Harley Earl but by now with Ford, about Chevrolet’s development of the Corvette early in the process. It is ironic that Ford wanted to beat Chevrolet by bringing out the Thunderbird, but in the end the Thunderbird led Chevrolet to improve the Corvette so much that it’s still here in 2018 and the Thunderbird, in any version, is long gone. Once again, history is replete with examples of the folly of human beings trying to predict the future.
Not surprisingly Frank Hershey was upset when he heard of Ford’s plans to turn the Thunderbird into a four-seater. Frank Hershey as quoted in Fins, “The company was in such a mess at the time. It was amazing they could build a car at all.” Hershey especially disliked Robert McNamara, future US Secretary of Defense but then the Ford division comptroller. He later became general manager of the division and eventually the first President of Ford Motor Company who was not a member of the Ford family. Hershey said about McNamara, “They were grooming Mac, who didn’t know anything about automobiles, and didn’t like automobiles, and had no right to be in the automobile business. But he thought he did.”
I have to be careful about criticizing the hiring of “outsiders” because I would not have had a 20+ year career in baseball if this “outsider” had not been hired in the first place. However, similar to Hershey’s criticism of McNamara is the criticism of General Motors turning operational control of the company in the late 1950s to “bean counters” instead of leaving it in the hands of “car guys.” Much of what went wrong with GM is often laid at the feet of the “bean counters.”
I mentioned in a previous post that Bill James (it’s been awhile since I “dropped” his name) hired me to write an article for one of his books. What was the title of the article? “Baseball From The Inside And Outside”