October Pain for General Managers

October is the month. October is the month you have to survive if you are a general manager of a losing team. Survive that month and your chances of making it through another season skyrocket. In fact, looking through the prism of past firings, the distance between October (Andy MacPhail) and November (Bill Smith) is greater than a mere sum of the days.

Comb through the Baseball America executive database and add in the missing information, and you’ve got something like 59 general manager firings since 1950. That might not seem like a large sample, but a firing is a rare occurrence. Many general managers come to the end of a contract on a flagging team and are allowed to leave. Most others resign if the writing is on the wall. A firing suggests a difference in opinion about the team. It’s a jarring, rare moment, born of conflict.

20 of those 59 firings came in October. It’s a natural moment to make a change. The season has just ended and the business of free agency is about to begin. Most teams want a general manager in place for the December winter meetings, and a full month-plus is a boon in that search. Over a third of all general manager firings happen in October, and that’s not an accident.

There’s another natural month for a general manager firing — September. The team has probably not made it to the playoffs if they are considering firing their GM. A day without a postseason game, sometime in September, is as good as any other. Unsurprisingly, September has hosted the second-most firings in the history of the game, with 11 firings. The GM firings September and October have accounted for more than half of the firings since 1950.

Number of General Manager Firings by Month, Since 1950

June and July are the only other months that have seen more than three firings. 12 GMs have met their fate in those two months combined. That might mean that those teams saw the writing on the wall and wanted to get a head start on the postseason. Steve Phillips, Cam Bonifay, Jim Bowden, Josh Byrnes, and Bill Bavasi are all recent victims of mid-season overhauls. They happen enough that they don’t deserve much of a raised eyebrow.

These four months account for almost three-quarters of all GM firings.

Most of the firings in other months come with asterisks. Dan Duquette was fired in February of 2002, but it was part of the sale of the team to John Henry. Ditto Dan Evans in February 2004 — Frank McCourt as the owner in charge of that housecleaning. New Reds owner Bob Castellini fired GM Dan O’Brien Jr as his first order of business in January of 2006. Washington Generals owner Bob Short replaced December 1968 victim George Selkirk with himself. Guess he was a hands-on type of owner. Randy Smith was fired in April of 2002 by the Tigers, but he was replaced by his newly hired boss, Dave Dombrowski. Perhaps he saw that coming.

That isn’t to say that there weren’t other head-scratcher firings. For example, Larry Doughty was fired by the Pirates in January of 1992 after leading the Pirates to two straight NL East Championships. He called his firing a “total shock.” Maybe it had something to do with the newly hired Pirate President Mark Sauer trying to make his mark, but Sauer said it was because Doughty had some shortcomings in negotiations.

The fact remains that Bill Smith was the first GM to be fired in November since 1950.

There’s no team sale to blame it on. Nor was there a new team president looming over Smiths’ head. The firing came a little late to be an end-of-season decision, and it was too early to a mid-season overhaul. So far all we’ve had are cryptic comments that suggest that a difference in philosophies was at play — and yet no description of those philosophies.

Perhaps we won’t get more insight into why the Twins fired Smith when they did. But, given the ground-breaking timing of the firing, it’s already interesting that it did happen when it did.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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Sam A.
12 years ago

I see Smith as an end-of-season firing that took awhile to fall into place because of the type of organization Minnesota is. Unlike the O’s who give the GM his walking papers and then go looking for a replacement, the Twins are going to fill Smith’s role from within and so they had everything in place first.