Word came to me on Monday afternoon that Roland Hemond, a friend and former executive with the White Sox, had passed away at the age of 92. I knew Roland had been ill for the past few years, but still to actually find out that he had passed was jarring and sad.
Roland and I had spoken a lot over the years, and as I explain later in this tribute to him, he was always a man of his word.
The role of a general manager cannot be understated. He is the person directly responsible for acquiring and evaluating talent needed to win games at the big-league level. He also has to balance in his head the roles of economics, baseball rules, the players’ union, dealing with the media and thousands of other things on a daily basis. It is not a job for the faint of heart, or for those who don’t have the experience of upper management.
Roland was the best GM in the history of the organization, and I mean no disrespect to others who also deserve consideration for that title: Frank “Trader” Lane, Ed Short, Ron Schueler or Ken Williams.
When Hemond took over the organization, the franchise was literally in shambles. He faced challenges no other individual who held the position of White Sox player personnel director/GM ever faced.
The Sox were on their way to a franchise-record 106-loss season in 1970. Comiskey Park was falling apart from disrepair. Fans were staying away in droves because the area was supposedly in a bad neighborhood. In 1969 for example the team drew, for the season, only 589,000 — and even that would fall to a paltry 495,000 in 1970. In 1968 and 1969, owner Art Allyn was playing a portion of his home games in Milwaukee, testing the market to see if it would accept a move of the franchise from the South Side. The Sox would even lose their radio station and have to broadcast games starting in 1971 on two small outlets in LaGrange and Evanston. Anything and everything that could go wrong for the White Sox did.
And into this cesspool stepped Hemond, along with new manager Chuck Tanner, when they were hired in September 1970.
I asked Roland about how the hiring process all came together.
“Glenn Miller, who was the farm director of the White Sox in the 1960s, is the person who recommended me to new owner John Allyn and then executive vice president Stu Holcomb. He said that I and Chuck Tanner should get the jobs. Glenn knew that if I were to get the position I’d want Chuck as my field manager. Chuck had managed in the Angels farm system. I knew him since I also worked for the Angels. Angels GM Fred Haney and I had hired Chuck to manage the Quad Cities Angels in Davenport, Iowa. From there Chuck managed in El Paso, Seattle and Hawaii, which was then the Angels Triple-A affiliate.
“So, Stu Holcomb interviewed the two of us and we were hired simultaneously in early September 1970. The press conference then took place on September 14 in Chicago. Chuck’s team was playing Spokane in the PCL playoffs, so we waited until that was finished.”
Overnight Hemond, who spent years in both the Milwaukee Braves and California Angels farm system, began to deal. Other general managers trusted and liked him because of his integrity and honesty. He was usually one of the first to be called when trade discussions took place. He always tried to get the best of a deal, but never at the expense of humiliating or embarrassing his counterpart. Hemond realized if he did this, the odds of him being called back for future discussions or trades were small.
In that first offseason, Hemond netted the Sox such players as Mike Andrews, Luis Alvarado, Rick Reichardt, Ed Stroud, Pat Kelly, Tom Egan, Tom Bradley and Jay Johnstone. Superstars? No. But they were solid ballplayers who improved the talent and depth of the club. Overnight the Sox went from 56 wins to 79, one of the biggest turnarounds in the history of baseball.
In 1972, Hemond rolled the dice to bring in talented but oft-troubled Dick Allen. Allen was on his third team in three seasons and was considered a clubhouse cancer. Hemond also made a deal for starting pitcher Stan Bahnsen. Those two, along with holdovers like Carlos May, Wilbur Wood, Goose Gossage, Terry Forster and Ed Herrmann almost brought a division title to the South Side. Allen nearly won the Triple Crown; Hemond was named Executive of the Year and Tanner Manager of the Year. Roland proved that rebuilding didn’t have to take five years.
“Acquiring Dick was a daring move,” Hemond said. “I felt though that Chuck Tanner would be the right manager for him. Chuck is from New Castle, Pa. and Allen was from Wampum, Pa. Chuck had known Dick and Dick’s mom for years. Allen was one of the most talented players to have ever played the game. We felt he could help us. Then we acquired Stan Bahnsen within a half-hour of completing the Allen trade. Those two transactions made a big difference in strengthening the Sox for 1972. If Bill Melton hadn’t suffered a herniated disk operation in mid-season, we would have won the pennant in 1972.”
Hemond, though, almost left the White Sox because of the dictates of Holcomb. Stu ordered any player who would not accept the team’s contract offer to be released. The Sox literally gave away, without getting anything in return, Johnstone, Reichardt, Mike Andrews and Ed Spiezio. When Holcomb ordered Hemond to release 20-game winner Bahnsen, Roland and Tanner had enough.
“Stu wanted the responsibility of negotiating the player’s contracts,” he said. “This led to the controversies that evolved, because he ordered me to release players like Jay Johnstone, Ed Spiezio and Mike Andrews when they wouldn’t sign the contracts he offered them in spring training.
“When he wanted to do the same thing with Bahnsen, I contested it. Our ranks were being depleted, getting nothing in return. I went to the owner, John Allyn, and said there was no use my continuing to work under such circumstances. Stu decided to retire, and I remained with the organization.”
Financial issues still plagued the franchise through the 70’s, even with new owner Bill Veeck. Hemond was never able to operate with a full deck of cash, but he kept the team competitive and in 1977 he along with Veeck put together the South Side Hit Men, who tore apart the American League in bashing 192 home runs. Such “throw-in’s” and “has-beens” like Eric Soderholm, Steve Stone, Alan Bannister, Jim Essian, Don Kessinger and Steve Renko performed exceptionally well, and mated with established players like Richie Zisk, Oscar Gamble, Chet Lemon, Lerrin LaGrow, Jorge Orta and Ralph Garr to produce excitement not seen since 1972.
When new owners Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn took over in January 1981, Hemond finally had some money to work with. Immediately he and Einhorn took part in the negotiations to bring free agent Carlton Fisk to Chicago. Hemond also convinced Chicago native Greg Luzinski to come back home after the Phillies released him. These two, along with other Hemond trade steals like Billy Almon and Tony Bernazard, led to a revitalization of the franchise. Much like 10 years earlier, the Sox produced a winning record in the strike-shortened season. They had another winning year in 1982, as Hemond added role players like Rudy Law and Vance Law.
“Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn supported me in the Fisk signing, as well as the purchasing of Greg Luzinski’s deal,” Hemond said. “That was the strike year, and what I remember is that commissioner Bowie Kuhn decided to have a split season as far as the standings were concerned. No one knew that such a decision was going to take place. If we had only beaten Oakland one more time, we would have won the first half and gone to the playoffs. Looking back, though, we did have many, many productive trades, which led to the successful 1983 season.”
By the time 1983 began, Roland was able to extract such players as Scott Fletcher, Dick Tidrow, Randy Martz and Pat Tabler from the Cubs in part because he considered the possibility of taking future Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins in the free agent compensation draft. Tabler was then shipped to Cleveland for Jerry Dybzinski. The pieces were in place and after a slow start, the Sox tore through the AL, compiling 99 wins on their way to the Western Division title.
But that slow start and the way the Sox slumped in the second half of the 1982 campaign led many to think manager Tony La Russa should be let go. Hemond, though, stuck with him, cementing a lifelong friendship.
“Regarding Tony, my confidence in him never waned while others tried very hard to destroy him,” Hemond said. “I feel very vindicated today, as Tony is in Cooperstown as a member of a very elite group of Hall of Fame managers. I recognized Tony’s intelligence in finding ways to get the most with whatever personnel we could provide. He was a severe critic of himself, admitting to himself and to me when he felt he made mistakes during a game. He eliminated repeat mistakes, and devised ways to improve and not to fall into ruts of buying into old baseball clichés.”
La Russa told me about the ways that Hemond helped and nurtured him as he was starting out as a big-league manager.
“I have never been around a person like Roland in my baseball career,” La Russa said. “He touched my life in so many ways. To be around a guy so positive and so respected, I truly believe that Roland is the most beloved man in this generation of baseball.
“I can give you a few examples of what he did for me. One was at the Winter Meetings of 1979, when he took me around to introduce me to people, and another was in spring training 1980. Roland told me that he had some things he needed to get done, and wouldn’t be down to Sarasota until about 10 days after we started. Now if I really needed him, I could have called my ‘lifeline’ and he would have come down. But later I realized that he was showing confidence in me, he was allowing me to take charge … remember, this was my first spring training as manager.”
Hemond then used the free agent compensation process to threaten to procure a future Hall of Fame pitcher — and this time following through and selecting Tom Seaver, who’d win his 300th game in a White Sox uniform, in New York on Aug. 4, 1985. Hemond also made a daring trade for a person who’d turn out to be the Rookie of the Year and a future Sox manager, Ozzie Guillén.
In the 15 years Hemond was in charge, he pulled off more than 100 trades, had six winning seasons and won a Western Division title. Considering the challenges the team went through economically, talent-wise and perception-wise, no other Sox GM did as much with so little.
Hemond was let go from the Sox in the wake of the Ken “Hawk” Harrelson fiasco, when Reinsdorf opted to replace the longtime GM with the popular White Sox broadcaster. Hemond later worked with the Orioles as GM, turning that franchise around and winning another Executive of the Year award in 1989. He worked with the Arizona Diamondbacks at the franchise’s inception, before returning to the Sox as a special assistant for GM Williams.
Hemond spent practically his entire life in baseball; let’s put it this way, when Roland first started with the Braves organization they were still in Boston!
When the Sox won the World Series in 2005, Hemond was one of the happiest people in the organization, and as was the case with owner Reinsdorf, many wanted to win the title for him.
This next story says something about Roland’s character, and I felt it was appropriate to share it.
I had been wanting to interview Roland for a long time, but had never been able to work out the details in part because he was considering writing a book about his life in baseball and was hesitant to disclose a lot of information that could go into his memoirs for fear that it could take away from the book itself. I had assumed that the two of us were never going to be able to get together.
In the spring of 2005 as I was working on the lawn, my wife came home and said there was a message on the answering machine for me. When I played it back, it was Roland apologizing for taking so long to get back with me, and asking me to call him.
I contacted him at his Arizona home and he thanked me for providing him with the contact information that I had on some former Sox players. Roland and Bill Melton had recently started a White Sox Alumni Association, and I turned over my information on players to Billy Pierce, who gave it to Hemond. Roland also asked for permission to use segments of the interviews that I have done in the past as part of the newsletter for the alumni group. Naturally, I granted permission with the proviso that Roland answer 10 general questions on his career with the Sox. Roland agreed to do this, feeling that by limiting the questions, it wouldn’t take away from a potential book.
Months passed ... and then in late September, I found a letter on my desk from Roland. It was seven pages written by hand, not typed, answering all of my questions. He was absolutely as good as his word.
Roland’s passing won’t just be missed by the White Sox organization but by the sport itself. Very few, if any, individuals were as respected and beloved as he was.
May he rest in peace, after a life well-lived.