|Too Good in Minors to Manage in Majors!|
Ben Geraghty, a survivor of the 1946 Spokane bus tragedy, won
six pennants in eighteen seasons, but the Braves' organization felt
his greatest value was in developing young bush league talent.
ON JUNE 24, 1946 at approximately 8 p.m., a chartered bus carrying the Spokane Western International League club was on its way from Spokane to Bremerton. While heading down a narrow road on the side of a mountain at Snoqualmie Pass, the driver swung the bus to the shoulder of the road to avoid hitting a car going in the opposite direction. The shoulder, weakened by rain, gave way and the bus fell more than 300 feet down the side of the mountain.
Nine of the 15 young players were killed in the accident. One of the survivors stated that victims were scattered all over the hill. The ashes of baseball's worst tragedy provided the setting for the beginning of the outstanding managerial career of Ben Geraghty, one of the survivors. In his 18-year managerial career, Geraghty would finish below second only four times, would win six championships and would be credited with developing Hank Aaron into a major league star.
"I guess I'm pretty lucky," Geraghty commented after the accident. "I was thrown right out of a window and I took the window frame with me. I remember flying out the window, but I must have been knocked out because I don't remember landing.
"I came out of that wreck with 28 stitches on a scalp gash and a broken kneecap," he added. "That ended my playing career and got me started in the managing business."
Ben was born in 1914 in Jersey City, N.J., and went from St. Benedict's Prep to Villanova, where he captained the basketball team in his senior year. He also was a talented shortstop for the Wildcats, and Brooklyn manager Casey Stengel took him out of college and right up to the Dodgers.
In 1936, Ben played in 51 games for the Dodgers before being sent to the minors. He played briefly with the Boston Braves during World War II.
Geraghty began his managerial career in Spokane in 1947, the year following the bus accident, and labored in the bush leagues at such places as Meridian, Palatka and Bristol until he earned a promotion to the South Atlantic League's Jacksonville club.
During a six-year stay at Jacksonville, Ben's teams produced three pennants and two second-place finishes. In 1953 he won a championship with a club that included Hank Aaron.
"I guess my biggest achievement would be Aaron, who went right from Class A here in Jacksonville to the majors," Ben commented in an interview many years ago.
"Then we had Wes Covington, who was another great hitter, and Juan Pizarro, who is an outstanding pitcher in the big leagues."
In a Sports Illustrated interview in 1966, Aaron stated that "Ben never said anything after we lost, but if we made mistakes in a game we won, we would hear about them. He was the best manager I ever played for," added Aaron. "He taught me to study the game and never make the same mistake twice."
GERAGHTY credited much of his success to a rigorous spring training schedule and the fact that he had played for Stengel.
"Stengel was very good with young players, and he believed in hard work in spring training," said Ben. "It sort of stuck with me, and the more I thought about it, the more I put it into effect and the better the results were. I made it one of my principles that if we work hard in the spring, we'll have some easy days in July," he added.
Geraghty was known as a strict disciplinarian, a worrier with a passion for detail. He had two theories – that hustle is contagious and that if you can push a club to a position of 20 games over .500, you can play .500 ball the remainder of the way and it would take an incredibly hot club to beat you. Ben also believed that a good curve ball pitcher should never throw a slider.
Geraghty's most satisfying season came in 1957 when he guided a team composed largely of well-traveled journeymen at Wichita to the American Association pennant despite a crippling rash of injuries and frequent recalls by the Milwaukee Braves.
"I just don't understand it," said another manager in the league. "Ben's doing it with a roster that has few changes from their 1956 club that finished seventh. I wouldn't trade one of my players for any of his."
Joey Jay, a pitcher who later won 21 games for the 1961 National League champion Cincinnati Reds, recalled that he lost five of his first seven starts at Wichita, but didn't get dropped from the starting position.
"When the season ended, I was 17-10," Jay said. "When a manager shows that kind of confidence in you, it means a lot and you'll break your back for him."
The summer of 1962 was one of the most enjoyable for Geraghty. Leaving the Braves' organization, he went back to Jacksonville, a farm club of the Cleveland Indians that was in its initial season in the International League. The Suns were in first place the entire season except for two days, finishing with a sparkling 94-60 record.
"Tell Ben," said manager Ralph Houk to a visitor from Jacksonville to the Yankee Stadium clubhouse in 1962, "that I wish I had his lead."
Geraghty's goal in life was to manage in the big leagues and carve a niche for himself in Cooperstown, but he never got the chance. His name came up from time to time for a managerial job in the majors, and at the end of the 1959 season he was one of the final four in contention to succeed Fred Haney as manager in Milwaukee. Chuck Dressen got the job.
Several baseball executives suggested that Ben's failure to gain promotion to the majors was due to his ability to develop young players in the minors.
The Milwaukee upper echelon told Ben that he was more valuable in the minors pumping up nervous youngsters and developing them into big league stars and converting troublemakers into club leaders. They reminded him that he was still a young man and someday would get his chance.
With his dream of managing in the big leagues still intact, Geraghty continued at the helm of the Jacksonville Suns, but time was running out. The dream ended on June 18, 1963 when Ben succumbed after a heart attack in Jacksonville. He was only 48 when he died.