What Are You Mad About Today?
In 1956, my dad took me to a Dodgers exhibition game at old LaGrave Field in Fort Worth. These were still the Brooklyn Dodgers – Reese, Furillo, Snider, Podres, Newcombe, Campanella, the names that came out of our radio almost every October. I was pumped.
The player I noticed right away – because he was having so much fun during warmups, catching throws between his legs, taking cuts holding the barrel of the bat and such harmless foolishness – was Don Zimmer. Little did I know then that he would play a major part in one of the weirdest sports stories I would ever cover.
Zimmer was a baseball lifer. He was involved in pro ball from 1949 through his death last year – 65 years. He said he never drew a paycheck outside of baseball except for some Social Security payments.
After 12 seasons as a player, mostly with the Dodgers and Cubs, he went into coaching. He got his first job as a major-league manager in 1972, replacing Preston Gomez with the Padres. The Pads fired him the next year and he latched on as a coach with the Red Sox, who named him manager in 1977. He was let go after the 1979 season, but again wasn’t out of a job for long – the new owner of the Texas Rangers came a-calling.
Oilman Eddie Chiles was born in Itasca (great high-school mascot, by the way, my canonical list of the seven best Texas high-school mascots is below), had a hard-scrabble upbringing but clawed his way to the top of the oil business. He started his oilfield services outfit, the Western Company, in 1939 with two trucks and three employees. It grew to make him one of the wealthiest men in Texas.
He was briefly famous for his anti-government radio commercials. They began with patriotic music and a deep-voiced announcer saying, “What are you mad about today, Eddie Chiles?” Then Chiles’ rough Texas twang burst from the speaker, with his trademark, ““I’m Eddie Chiles, chief executive officer of the Western Company, and I am mad,” followed by a harangue about the liberals in Congress and other things he was “mad” about.
It wasn’t clear why Chiles decided in 1980 to buy the sad-sack Texas Rangers, one of the worst collections of baseball players ever assembled. But Chiles was determined to “run it like a business,” he said, and indeed, he tried to inject business school management principles into the clubhouse. He wrote goals for each player on index cards that he gave to his new manager – that old-school baseball lifer, Zimmer – expecting frequent, formal evaluations.
Zimmer told us he was to sit with each player for conversations that would go something like this: “Over the past week, you’ve gone 4-for-30. How many hits do you think you can get in the coming weeks? Do you think you can get that up to 8-for-30?” Zimmer shook his head at the concept. He had thrown Chiles’ index cards in the trash.
In 1981, a season interrupted by a players’ strike, Zim’s Rangers finished 57-48, five games back of the Hated A’s. The next year did not go quite as well. In fact, it was terrible. When the team came home from a four-city July road trip that featured ten losses, Chiles told Zimmer he was fired. But though he gave Zimmer the word on a Monday, Chiles asked him not to tell anyone and please, as a favor, stay on until Wednesday!
Chiles had asked for the three days because he hadn’t decided on who Zimmer’s replacement should be. When he finally landed on third-base coach Darrell Johnson, he went into the clubhouse and stopped in front of a locker to ask a coach, “Which one is Darrel Johnson?” The coach replied, “I am.”
Of course, rumors flew and reporters from across the country scrambled to confirm the bizarre circumstances. Finally, Chiles held a news conference on Wednesday night to “announce” the change. He put Zimmer in a chair beside him, as they faced the media together.
Asked if he understood why he was being fired, an obviously uncomfortable, frustrated Zimmer said, “No. Hell, no,” adding, “People all over baseball are laughing about this right now.”
Chiles bristled at the tone of the questions he got from the media. He said, “I have heard on the radio and TV tonight that (the firing) was badly handled. It wouldn’t have been if the press hadn’t gotten involved in a way they weren’t entitled to. We’re not a public business … you’re not entitled to know everything we do!”
As a side note, before the firing, Zimmer had told reporters he resented the fact that his performance was being evaluated “statistically” by SABR society member Craig Wright, who Chiles’ front office had hired in 1981 as a consultant. This resulted in the first open conflict between “old-school” and “stats-geek” in Rangers’ history. (A story for another day.)
So, Zimmer moved on and, eventually, so did Chiles. But as oil prices dropped, his Western Company suffered and stumbled into bankruptcy in 1988. In 1989, Chiles sold his Rangers stake to a group led by soon-to-be-governor George W. Bush. He turned over an organization that was not successful on the field but was finally profitable. Both can perhaps be explained by one of the lowest payrolls in baseball.
This is just another of the strange tales from the earlier days of the Rangers, who usually managed to be more interesting off the field than they were on. If you’d like a fuller recounting of the baseball life of Don Zimmer, from a reporter who really knew him well, here’s a link to Tim Kurkjian’s recollections, posted at ESPN shortly after Zim died.
CANONICAL LIST OF THE SEVEN BEST HIGH SCHOOL MASCOTS IN TEXAS
(Ranked in order of ability to make me laugh out loud)
7: Coleman Bluecats
6: Progreso Red Ants
5: Cuero Gobblers
4: Knippa Purple Rock Crushers
3: Winters Blizzards
2: Hutto Hippos
1: Itasca Wampus Cats (h/t Eddie Chiles)