2024 Contemporary Baseball Era Committee Candidate: Cito Gaston

Cito Gaston
Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

This post is part of a series covering the 2024 Contemporary Baseball Era Committee Managers/Executives/Umpires ballot, covering candidates in those categories who made their greatest impact from 1980 to the present. For an introduction to the ballot, see here. The eight candidates will be voted upon at the Winter Meetings in Nashville on December 3, and anyone receiving at least 75% of the vote from the 16 committee members will be inducted in Cooperstown on July 21, 2024 along with any candidates elected by the BBWAA.

2024 Contemporary Baseball Candidate: Manager Cito Gaston
Manager G W-L W-L% G>.500 Playoffs Pennants WS
Cito Gaston 1731 894-837 .516 57 4 2 2
AVG HOF Mgr 3662 1968-1674 .540 294 7 6 2.6

Cito Gaston

After Jackie Robinson integrated the National League in 1947, it took 28 years — not to mention pointed public comments from Robinson himself just before his death — for a team to hire a Black manager, namely Frank Robinson, who piloted Cleveland starting in 1975. Such was the slow pace of change that it took another 14 years for two teams with Black managers to square off in the same game, when Robinson’s Orioles and Cito Gaston’s Blue Jays met on June 26, 1989. Three years later, Gaston carved out an even bigger spot in baseball history when he became the first Black manager to lead a team to a World Series victory, a feat he and the Blue Jays repeated in 1993.

During his time in the dugout, Gaston earned a reputation for putting trust in his players (sometimes to a fault) and being approachable, creating a calm and stable working environment. Even so, he spent only eight full seasons and parts of four others as a major league manager and was never hired by a team besides the Blue Jays. After falling short in multiple interviews, he was outspoken regarding the process, expressing a belief that he was sometimes just the token minority included in a team’s search for a new manager. That said, he also expressed a take-it-or-leave-it attitude to the job and often seemed happier as a hitting coach, a role he held for nine seasons and change in Toronto. Gaston is the only one of the four managers on this Era Committee ballot to win multiple World Series. The question is whether that should push him to the front of the line in this context despite his career length.

Clarence Edwin Gaston was born in San Antonio, Texas, in 1944, and split his time growing up between San Antonio and Corpus Christi. He acquired his nickname “Cito” as a teenager due to his resemblance to a Mexican-American wrestler who used that as his stage name. He starred in baseball, football, and basketball in high school, then spent his post-high school time parking cars, working at the San Antonio sanitation department, and playing for the Cardona Welders, a local amateur team. He signed with the Milwaukee Braves in 1964, shortly after his 20th birthday.

Gaston reached the majors for a brief cameo in 1967, debuting on September 14 as a pinch-runner for Tito Francona, father of the just-retired Terry Francona. He played nine games and started six in center field for the Braves but went just 3-for-25. Four of his starts were alongside right fielder Henry Aaron, who also served as his roommate and mentor. Aaron taught him how to tie a tie, as well as “how to be a very independent person,” Gaston recalled in 2011. “He taught me about not carrying one day to the next day. He got me back in the game,” he added, referring to 1981, when as the farm director for the Braves, Aaron hired Gaston as a minor league hitting instructor.

Thirteen months after his major league debut, Gaston was selected by the Padres in the 1968 expansion draft. He spent three seasons (1969–71) as their center fielder and three more as their right fielder (’72–74), making his lone All-Star team with a 29-homer season in 1970 but battling injuries and high strikeout rates and generally struggling to live up to his early promise. A November 1974 trade sent him back to the Braves, where he spent most of the next four seasons as a reserve, sometimes playing in the same outfield as Dusty Baker in ’75, before he was traded to the Dodgers. After a two-game stop in Pittsburgh late in 1978, he split his ’79 season between the Santo Domingo Azucareros of the short-lived Inter-American League (the same one where Davey Johnson served as a player-manager), which folded in midseason, and the Bravos de Leon of the Mexican League, with whom he wrapped up his playing career in 1980. For his major league career, he hit .256/.298/.397 (96 OPS+) with 91 homers but a net of -0.8 WAR.

Aaron hired Gaston, but only after some persuasion. “He called me a couple times and asked me to come back as a coach. I said no. The third time he called, I said yes,” Gaston told The New York Times in 1989.

The Braves fired manager Bobby Cox after the 1981 season; when Cox was hired to manage the Blue Jays, he brought Gaston aboard as his hitting coach. In seven-plus years in that role under Cox (1982–85) and Jimy Williams (’86–89), Gaston helped youngsters such as Jesse Barfield, Lloyd Moseby, Willie Upshaw, and eventually George Bell become productive major league hitters; the last of those won the 1987 AL MVP award. The Blue Jays, who entered the AL as an expansion team in 1977, won the AL East for the first time in ’85 but squandered a 3.5-game lead by losing their final seven games in ’87.

In 1987, Dodgers general manager Al Campanis caused a national uproar on ABC’s Nightline when he said that Black people “may not have some of the necessities” to be field manager or general manager. The comments led to his firing and to some soul-searching within the baseball industry. In the aftermath, Blue Jays general manager Pat Gillick asked Gaston if he would be interested in managing, not yet for the Blue Jays but in winter ball, an apprenticeship geared toward making him a viable candidate someday. Citing family and health concerns, Gaston declined.

“I think he wanted to manage,” Gillick told the Los Angeles Times in 1989, “but he just didn’t know when the opportune time was for him to do it. From some of the discussions we had, I think Cito was worried about the life expectancy of managers. He knew the mortality rate could be pretty high.”

Added Gaston, “It wasn’t something I wanted to try at the time. I didn’t need it. I don’t have that kind of ego.”

After the Blue Jays started the 1989 season 12–24, Gillick fired Williams, and Gaston accepted the job of interim manager, becoming just the fourth Black manager in AL/NL history after Frank Robinson, Larry Doby (who served an interim stint with the White Sox in 1978), and Maury Wills (who lasted less than a full season with the Mariners in 1980–81). The Blue Jays’ play improved, and when Gillick was rebuffed when trying to get permission to interview candidates from outside the organization (including Lou Piniella, who had been fired as Yankees manager the previous fall but was serving out his contract as a broadcaster), Gaston had the interim tag removed, albeit in backhanded fashion.

“Piniella is the guy we really wanted,” Gillick said. “But we saw that whole deal fall apart. So we’ve got this hot seat and nobody seems to really want it. So we felt we needed somebody who knows the players. Cito does. He can’t worry about whether he’s our second or third choice or whatever. He’s our manager.”

While Gaston may not have been the team’s first choice, the Blue Jays played well under him. Fred McGriff led the AL with 36 homers and a 165 OPS+, Kelly Gruber earned the first of two back-to-back All-Star appearances, and John Cerutti picked up the slack for a struggling Jimmy Key alongside ace Dave Stieb. After clawing their way back to .500 by mid-August, the Jays went on a 22–5 run that pushed them into first place in an underwhelming division. They finished 89–73 (77–49 under Gaston) and won the AL East but fell to the A’s in the ALCS.

Gaston got to keep his job, albeit only with another one-year contract, though to that point the Blue Jays had never gone more than year-to-year with their managers. Despite fine seasons from McGriff, Gruber, and Stieb (his last full and healthy one, alas), the team won just 86 games in 1990 but owned a share of first place entering the final week. Despite losing three of five, the Jays entered the final day of the season one game behind the division-leading Red Sox, but Boston won and Toronto lost, with star closer Tom Henke serving up a walk-off homer to Baltimore’s Mickey Tettleton. Ouch.

With their roster replenished by the blockbuster trade that sent McGriff and Tony Fernandez to the Padres in exchange for Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter — a move that carved out space for first baseman John Olerud — the Blue Jays spent most of 1991 atop the AL East, becoming the first team to draw four million fans in a season. Gaston, however, had to leave the team for five weeks late in the season due to a herniated disc and an inflamed sciatic nerve. Hitting coach Gene Tenace took the reins, and the Jays went 19–14 in Gaston’s absence. Curiously, that stretch is officially credited to Tenace’s own managerial record and not Gaston’s while, for example, Don Zimmer’s 21–15 record managing the Yankees when Joe Torre was battling prostate cancer in 1999 was credited to Torre.

In any event, Gaston returned in late September, and the Blue Jays rolled to another division title. But the team was steamrolled by the Twins in a five-game ALCS, with the manager receiving significant criticism for an over-reliance on sacrifice bunting (something the Blue Jays rarely did during the regular season) and the way he lined up his rotation, though the health of key players was also a factor.

With future Hall of Famers Dave Winfield and Jack Morris — the latter fresh off his 10-inning World Series Game 7 masterpiece — joining the fold, the Blue Jays rebounded from that disappointment by winning 96 games in 1992. Behind the bats of Alomar and Pat Borders, and the arms of Key, Juan Guzman, and late-season acquisition David Cone, they proceeded to beat the A’s in the ALCS and the Braves in the World Series, giving Toronto its first championship. Gaston was rewarded with a three-year deal, the first multi-year pact for a manager in franchise history.

The Blue Jays repeated their success in 1993, winning 95 games, then defeating the White Sox in the ALCS and the Phillies in a wild six-Game World Series, capped by Carter’s walk-off homer off Mitch Williams. “Touch ’em all Joe! You’ll never hit a bigger home run in your life!” exclaimed Blue Jays radio announcer Tom Cheek. The championship made Gaston just the fourth manager of the post-1960 expansion era to guide teams to back-to-back championships, after the Yankees’ Ralph Houk (1961 and ’62), the A’s Dick Williams (1972 and ’73), and the Reds’ Sparky Anderson (1975 and ’76); only Torre (1998–2000) has joined their ranks since.

Alas, Gaston would never manage a bigger game again; the Blue Jays’ competitive fortunes took a nosedive on his watch because owners Interbrew failed to raise the budget and retain their stars. Toronto went 55–60 in the strike-shortened 1994 season, a dismal 56–88 in ’95, and then 74–88 in ’96. Gaston remained on the job via extensions signed in the middle of the 1994 and ’96 seasons, but his fortune finally ran out in ’97. With the Blue Jays at 72–85 and en route to their second last-place season in three years despite Roger Clemens pitching his way to a Cy Young award, Gaston was fired in late September.

While declining invitations to pursue jobs as a hitting coach, Gaston interviewed for other managerial openings, but his lack of success in landing one gave him the impression he was only being called in was because of his race. “I think some of them were calling just to say they interviewed a minority,” he told MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian. He was a finalist for the Tigers’ post after the 1999 season, though Phil Garner got the job, and likewise for both Cleveland after 2000, when Charlie Manuel was instead promoted from hitting coach, and the White Sox after ’03, when Ozzie Guillen was hired. By the time the Dodgers called Gaston to interview in 2006, he decided he would accept a managerial job only if it was offered outright. No go.

Amid all that, Gaston retuned to the Blue Jays as a hitting coach for the 2000 and ’01 seasons and as a spring training special instructor from ’05 to ’08, also serving as a team ambassador and special assistant to team president/CEO Paul Godfrey. He built a rapport with general manager J.P. Ricciardi, and when the Blue Jays started the 2007 season 35–39 under manager John Gibbons, Ricciardi called to offer him the managerial job.

With Gaston preaching an aggressive approach at the plate, the Blue Jays went 51–37 the rest of the way, though they still finished fourth. Gaston signed a two-year extension, but things didn’t go well. The Blue Jays went just 75–87 in 2009, and he reportedly lost the clubhouse, with players complaining about his negativity and his failure to communicate. Coaches loyal to Gaston, meanwhile, clashed with holdovers from Gibbons’ staff. One source told Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal: “It’s nearly a mutiny right now. He has lost the entire team.”

Ricciardi was fired at season’s end, but Gaston survived, announcing he would retire at the end of the 2010 season and his contract. The Blue Jays rebounded to go 85–77, as journeyman José Bautista broke out to hit 54 homers and the team clubbed an AL-high 257. Despite all that power, Toronto finished fourth for the third straight season, and the 66-year-old Gaston retired as planned. He returned to the Blue Jays as a consultant but retired from that position following the 2015 season.

Gaston’s career is a compelling one given his groundbreaking within an industry that even today continues to struggle with a lack of diversity in the dugout. The recent retirement of Baker and the hiring of Ron Washington by the Angels have kept the current number of Black managers at two (Dave Roberts, the second one to win a World Series after Gaston, is the other). It’s fair to wonder if Gaston would have had a longer managerial career if baseball did a better job in hiring minority candidates. At the same time, it’s difficult to untangle the link between his public comments about the hiring process (which may have hindered his pursuit) and his occasional expressions of indifference about managing (which may have been a protective mechanism).

As it is, Gaston’s 894 regular-season wins are the most in Blue Jays history, but that total is lower than any enshrined 20th or 21st century AL/NL manager, 150 behind Billy Southworth, who has the fewest of the 21 in that category. Southworth won four pennants and two championships with the Cardinals and Braves in 13 seasons (1929, ’40–51), though three of those pennants and both championships came with St. Louis during World War II, when many of the game’s stars were serving in the military. But Southworth also won at a .597 clip for his career; only in partial-season stints in the bookend years of his career did his teams post losing records.

Gaston’s teams, by contrast, finished below .500 in five of his 12 seasons. After taking four of his first five teams to the postseason, he had just one full winning season and one partial one out of his last seven. That’s not entirely on him, but it’s not as though all of his post-1993 rosters were threadbare. His 1995 team, the worst of them record-wise, had Olerud, Alomar, Devon White, Shawn Green, Paul Molitor, Cone, Guzman, Pat Hentgen, and Al Leiter, though some of those players weren’t at their most productive. Alomar and White were gone by 1996, but Carlos Delgado became a regular, Hentgen won a Cy Young, Guzman rebounded from a dreadful season, and so on. That said, such was the competitive landscape of the AL East that none of the other six Blue Jays managers who followed Gaston’s two stints took the team to the playoffs until a Gibbons-led team made it in 2015, during his second stint managing.

Gaston is on a ballot with three other managers who had longer careers and took their teams to the playoffs several more times. He’s got a lower winning percentage than both Johnson (.562) and Piniella (.517), though he’s ahead of Jim Leyland (.506), who got stuck in some particularly noncompetitive situations, such as his post-Barry Bonds Pirates teams and the torn-down 1998 Marlins, who went 54–108. Gaston is the only one of the four to win two World Series, but he’s not the only two-time champion outside the Hall; excluding those active and recently retired, Houk, Tom Kelly, Danny Murtaugh, and Bill Carrigan all won twice but haven’t been elected, the last while only managing seven seasons. Of those four, I like Murtaugh’s case, but even his career is sometimes seen as too short for Hall purposes, though it’s two seasons and over 300 games longer than that of Gaston. Murtaugh fell short of election on the 2022 Golden Days ballot, finishing in the three-votes-or-fewer scrum; Gil Hodges, Minnie Miñoso, Jim Kaat, and Tony Oliva were all elected, and Dick Allen fell one vote short.

Even bearing in mind the obstacles that may have impeded Gaston’s career, I don’t see his case as strong enough to merit a vote. I’d probably rank him fourth among the managers on the ballot, and I’m not entirely convinced that either Johnson or Piniella is worthy of election, in part because neither made it back to a second World Series after winning a first. Gaston has got two championships and a cool spot in history, but I’m not sure he belongs in Cooperstown.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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5 months ago

Thanks for these Jay. I knew of Gaston from his first managerial stint but knew nothing of his history or what he did after that. There are a lot of stories worth telling and I appreciate the research and craft you put into telling them.