NEW YORK >> Gene Michael, the slick-fielding shortstop nicknamed Stick who went on to manage the New York Yankees and then as an executive built a power that won four World Series in five years, died today. He was 79.
Michael had a heart attack and died at his home in Oldsmar, Florida, his wife, Joette, said.
At 6-foot-2 and about 180 pounds in his playing days, Michael hit just .229 with 15 home runs in 10 big league seasons, seven with the Yankees from 1968-74 in one of the worst eras in team history. He was known for pulling off the hidden ball trick, which he was said to have done five times.
He made a far bigger impact during two terms as manager, two as general manager and then as a special adviser relied on by Brian Cashman, the team’s GM since 1998. He also managed the Chicago Cubs for two seasons.
A Yankees lifer, Michael maintained durability during George Steinbrenner’s decades of tumult. During his second term as general manager, Michael put together the core of a roster that won World Series titles in 1996 and from 1998-2000.
“He was able to project so well what players would become, and he did it through sitting and watching with his eyes.” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “He just had a great feel for the game.”
After watching the Yankees fall short in the 1980s with high-priced free agents, Michael preached patience with youth and nurtured Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams and other prospects. He installed an organization philosophy of patience at the plate to run up pitch counts.
“Gene Michael was not only largely responsible for the success of the Yankees organization, but also for my development as a player,” Jeter said in a statement.
Michael gave Buck Showalter his first major league managing job. Showalter, now Baltimore’s manager, called Michael “blatantly honest” and the “best baseball guy that I ever saw.”
Showalter also said Michael “never missed on an infielder.”
“Jeter had made like 40-some errors, but he tells me this guy is going to be an All-Star shortstop. He said he’s got a little footwork issue,” Showalter recalled. “How do you project those things and stand by them?”
Michael also acquired key veterans who contributed to the 1996 title, including Paul O’Neill, Jimmy Key, Wade Boggs and David Cone. He promoted a young staffer to assistant general manager. Brian Cashman went on to become general manager for two decades.
“He was both a friend and mentor to me,” Cashman said in a statement. “And I relied upon his advice and guidance throughout my career.”
Michael quit as general manager after the 1995 season and became a key adviser.
“Stick was a pillar of this organization for decades,” Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner said in a statement. “He knew the game of baseball like few others did, and was always willing and excited to talk about it with anyone in earshot. His contributions to the Yankees over the years have been immeasurable.”
Michael signed with Pittsburgh before the 1959 season out of Kent State, made his big league debut in July 1966, then was traded after the season with third baseman Bob Bailey to the Dodgers for Maury Wills, a five-time All-Star shortstop. After one season in Los Angeles, he was purchased by the Yankees. He arrived for Mickey Mantle’s final season and got to pitch three shutout innings against the California Angels in a lopsided loss that ended an August doubleheader. He was released in 1975, the year before the Yankees made it back to the World Series led by Thurman Munson.
Michael played a final season with Detroit, signed with Boston ahead of the 1976 season, was released by the Red Sox in May without playing in a big league game and joined the Yankees as a coach for the rest of the season. He became an administrative assistant during the next two years, when owner George Steinbrenner was at his bombastic height, then managed the Yankees’ Triple-A Columbus Clippers to the 1979 regular and postseason International League titles.
Michael replaced Cedric Tallis as general manager after the 1979 season. When Dick Howser led the Yankees to the AL East title and a 103 wins in his first season as a manager but was forced out by Steinbrenner when the team was swept by Kansas City in the playoffs, Michael replaced Howser.
He led the team to a 34-22 record before players struck, but the Yankees started just 14-12 when they returned and Steinbrenner fired Michael and replaced him with Bob Lemon.
Lemon managed the team to an AL pennant but lost to the Dodgers in the World Series, then returned to the dugout when Lemon was fired the following April 26. He led the Yankees to a 44-42 mark when he was replaced by Clyde King on Aug. 3.
Michael was the Yankees’ third-base coach from 1984-86, leaving in June 1986 to replace Jim Frey as the Chicago Cubs manager. They went 46-56 and were 68-68 in 1987 when he quit on Sept. 8.
He was back with the Yankees as third-base coach in 1988 and was a scout when Steinbrenner reinstalled him as general manager on Aug. 20, 1990, the last day before Steinbrenner started serving a suspension from baseball that stretched until May 1993.
Holding the job until October 1995, Michael promoted Williams to the major league roster, nurtured the rise of Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte through the farm system.
After Steinbrenner returned, Michael quit as general manager after the 1995 season and was replaced by Bob Watson, who quit after the 1997 and was followed by Cashman.
Spending much of the year in Florida, where he often played golf, Michael served as vice president of major league scouting from 1996-2002. He then became vice president and adviser until 2006, when his title was changed to vice president and senior adviser.
The Yankees will wear black armbands on their jerseys for the rest of this season.
In addition to his wife, Michael is survived by sons Mark and Matthew and daughters Sandra and Haley.