NOTE: This interview between Stump Merrill and Bill Traughber is exclusive to "Looking Back" and nashvillesounds.com.
If you are talking baseball and the name Carl Merrill is mentioned, the response would probably be--who? But, say "Stump" Merrill then everybody knows his name. Merrill grew up in Brunswick, Maine and attended Brunswick High School. The 5-foot-8 catcher went to the University of Maine to play football and baseball.
"In my freshman year, we were walking out of the field house," Merrill said recently from his Maine home. "I was with a tall pitcher who was about 6-foot-5. Just as we were outside, Jack Butterfield [Maine's baseball coach] was trying to get my attention. He hollered at me three or four times and I didn't hear him. Finally he said, 'hey Stump you little devil, turn around.' The pitcher heard it, and I guess it stuck. The only one's that call me by my first name are people I went to high school with, and my mom who is deceased."
Merrill, 67, played sports at Maine when the university did not offer financial aid. The baseball team did make it to the 1964 College World Series in Omaha, Neb. The team won three games and fell one game short of making it to the finals.
"It was a great thing because no school from Maine had been there before," said Merrill. "We were a little school with less than 10,000 students at that time without scholarships. We sent Arizona State and Southern Cal home, which we thought, was a pretty good feather in our cap.
"We had nine sophomores on that team including myself. We thought we had an opportunity to make it back before we graduated, but unfortunately we couldn't get through the regionals after that. It was a real thrill for all of us on that team. It was probably the highest thing we could accomplish in the game of baseball."
Though Merrill never made it back to Omaha as a player, his skills behind the plate gained the attention of the Major Leagues. While in college, Merrill was selected by the Minnesota Twins in the 1965 amateur draft (23rd round), by the Baltimore Orioles in the 2nd Round (26th overall) of the January 1966 amateur draft and finally by Philadelphia in the 2nd Round of the June 1966 draft.
"Actually, when we came back from Omaha, at that point the draft had not commenced so you were fair game for anybody," said Merrill. "I had a dozen clubs making me offers. None were substantial enough to give up two years of an education. I decided to stay in school. Eventually, three different teams drafted me in a short period. Again the same situation held true. They were not willing to part with enough money that I thought was enough value for an education. I stayed and signed after I graduated."
Merrill did graduate from Maine in 1966 with a degree in physical education. He signed with the Phillies and was immediately sent to the Batavia Clippers of the Class-A New York-Penn League. Merrill finished that year in Class-A Tidewater.
The following year Merrill was with Single-A teams in Eugene and Bakersfield. In 1968-69, Merrill was with Reading (Double-A), but played four games in Triple-A San Diego. Merrill was sent back to Eugene in 1970-71, which became Triple-A.
"It was a great thrill," Merrill said about his experience in the minor leagues. "At that time, I might have sold my own ability a little bit short. Seeing that I was competing against everybody in the country, I quickly learned that wasn't the case. I was very fortunate to get the opportunity then I blew my knee out, which is why I retired after the 1971 season. That last year-and-a-half that I caught was difficult for me getting up and down in a catcher's crouch.
"I knew then that I was destined to be a back-up and I wasn't a very good hitter at the time. Because of the injury, I decided it was time to put the education to work and see if I could get a job, which I was able to do. I returned to my alma mater and coached there for five years before I joined the Yankees in 1977."
In his six-year minor league career, Merrill batted .232 (219-for-934) in 385 games with two home runs. After his retirement from professional baseball as a player, Merrill returned to his home state and became an assistant coach. Maine would return to the 1976 College World Series with Merrill coaching, but the team was eliminated after winning two games.
"I was an assistant coach in football and baseball at the university for five years," Merrill said. "Then the head baseball coach that I played for [Butterfield] left Maine while I was coaching to take the head job at the University of South Florida. He had a connection there with Mr. [George] Steinbrenner and landed a job with the Yankees' organization. In 1977, Jack offered me a job with the Yankees.
"With professional baseball in my background, and interest, I was fortunate to get back into it as a coach. I decided to leave Maine and sign with the Yankees in 1977 and have been there ever since. In my first year with the Yankees organization, I was the pitching coach in West Haven. Jack said he would fit me in as a manager after that. I started managing in 1978 in Double-A West Haven. I was there for two years before I came to Nashville."
Merrill led West Haven (Eastern League) to the best overall record in his first season and to a first-place finish in 1979. The Yankees would move that affiliation to Double-AA Nashville Sounds and Merrill also made the move. He would lead the Sounds to a 97-46 record, one of the Southern League's most successful teams all-time.
"Obviously when you win 97 games you have a pretty good ball team," said Merrill. "We had great players and many of them I'm still in touch today. It was an outstanding feeling to go from West Haven to Nashville myself being a huge country and western music fan. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven.
"The facility at West Haven was not very good. [Hershel] Greer Stadium at that time was a very good ballpark. Nashville is a great town and we drew very well. Obviously when you win you are going to draw the fans, but they promoted the hell out of the ball club. Many of our young players went on to play in the major leagues."
Living and working in Nashville for two seasons, Merrill would have an opportunity to meet several country music entertainers in which a few were part owners of the Sounds. Conway Twitty, Jerry Reed, Richard Sterban and Cal Smith were involved with the Nashville franchise.
"Conway came to spring training and took a bunch of photos with him," said Merrill. "It was fantastic. He was asking, 'what do you want to do Stump?' Conway acted as if I was the boss of him for a couple of days, which was hard to believe. He was around the ballpark all the time. He would sit behind home plate night after night and have a couple of beers.
"Conway would talk with the players' wives and friends of the ball club that were there. He was real supporter for us. We had a couple of opportunities to go to some concerts when my family was in town. I didn't go because we were playing ball games, but my mom and brother went. It was a fantastic two years. Unfortunately the only thing we weren't able to do in any year was to win the whole thing in the playoffs, which in a short series anything can happen."
In Merrill's first season as the Sounds skipper, Steve Balboni slammed 34 home runs, which broke a Sounds record. The first baseman would lead the league in RBIs (122) and runs scored (101) while earning MVP honors. Teammate Brian Dayette would tie that home run mark in 1982. Another great performance on the mound that season was by right-handed pitcher Andy McGaffigan who led the league in ERA (2.38). He was 15-5 for the season.
"We knew we had a good ball club," said Merrill. "Pat Tabler was at second base, Andre Robertson at shortstop, Brian Dayette was at third base and Brad Gulden was one of our catchers. Of course, we had Willie McGee and all these guys would play in the big leagues. Buck Showalter led the team in batting [.324] that year.
"This is a great trivia question. Willie McGee and Don Mattingly both won the batting title the same year . Willie was with St. Louis and Donnie was with us [Yankees]. Who is the only guy to coach these two players that won batting titles in the same year? I coached them both in 1981 in Nashville.
"Pitching for us were [Tom] Filer, McGaffigan, Brian Ryder, [Paul] Boris and on and on. We had a kid named Jamie Werly who in 1981 led the league in ERA [2.59] and then got an arm injury in a ski accident, which probably cost him a big league career. He was one of the elite pitchers in the league that year. From A to Z we were pretty darn good."
Mattingly arrived in Nashville for one season in 1981 and he left an impression while wearing a Sounds uniform. Mattingly, along with Skeeter Barnes (1979, 1988-90), are the only two Sounds to have retired jersey numbers. Wearing No. 18, Mattingly batted .316 (173-for-547) with seven home runs and 98 RBIs in 141 games. He led the team in games played, hits, doubles and RBIs. Mattingly's 35 doubles was best in the Southern League.
At the end of the season, Mattingly was named the Yankees' Minor League Player-of-the-Year as well as the Southern League MVP. Playing as the regular first baseman for the Yankees in 1984, he won the American League batting title (.343) on the last day of the season. Mattingly enjoyed a 14-year major league career and is presently the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
"The strike [major league] was going on in 1981." Merrill said. "It lasted about 50 days. Mr. Steinbrenner sent all of the Yankees' coaches to a minor league affiliate and I was fortunate enough to have Yogi Berra join us. Yogi came in and said to me everyday, 'what do you want me to do today, Stump?' I'd say, 'hey, you're Yogi Berra, you do whatever you want to do.' Then he'd tell me to give him something to do. I'd say something like, 'hit some ground balls to that kid [Mattingly] at first base.' Yogi would come back to be and say, 'that kid is going to be a great player.'
"And at that time Donnie had trouble pulling the ball. Everything he hit was to right field. As the year wore on, you could see that he was starting to learn how to turn on the ball and he started to hit the breaking ball. And he started to hit some home runs. You knew that with his work ethic, and his ability to play defense, he was destined to be a big leaguer. In fact, at that particular time they weren't sure he was going to be a first baseman or an outfielder. We had to play him back and forth at both positions. We'd play him one week in the outfield, and then a week at first base. Mattingly was a much better first baseman, but could play in the outfield if he could. He was a good athlete."
The primary responsibility for a minor league manager is to develop players so hopefully they can help the parent club in the future. The Yankees gained a reputation for decades leading the major leagues in locating and developing talent. When New York Yankees' owner Steinbrenner purchased the club in 1973, the attitude and direction of the franchise changed.
"We had great success because we had great talent," said Merrill. "There is no question that a great team will make you a great manager. But our philosophy was to develop the player and win at the same time. We proved that we could do it. We had done it for years. We are still trying to do it. A lot of organizations are content, and I'm not throwing rocks at anybody, but they are content to develop players that don't have the emphasis on winning like we do.
"Mr. Steinbrenner wanted to win every game at every level, and that was the mindset. In the minor leagues you do some things differently than in the big leagues. For instance, you have a left-handed pitcher coming out of the bullpen, and he's not always going to be a specialist to just face left-handed hitters. You have to find out if the left-hander can get right-handed hitters out. In the minors you have to give him that opportunity. You may take something away from a player here and there in the course of development or go with a guy a little bit longer than you might at the major league level.
"All in all, the emphasis is to develop the player, and to win at the same time. The thing you had to do find out can Don Mattingly advance the base runner? Can he bunt or hit and run. If you don't give him that opportunity in the minor leagues you will never know. You have to experiment in the minors. The manager knows exactly what his role is. He has to do the things the organization wants him to do. We have continued to do that in the 35 years I've been up and down the organization. Our track record shows that we have had very much success."
Merrill would win 178 (105 losses) games in his two-year stint in Nashville. Entering the 2011 season, he ranks fifth all-time in wins for a Sounds manager. When Merrill was managing in Nashville in 1980-81, the technology was much different than in recent years. Merrill was required to write a daily report on his players and team. The Yankees wanted to know how the Sounds were progressing each day.
"At the conclusion of the game, I would pick up the phone and call in to a tape recording to give a thumbnail sketch on what happened in that game," said Merrill. "Who pitched, what he did and what his line was. Then I would give the batting order and what each player did and where we stood with our record in the league. Then you would write a detailed report and mail it to New York, which they would receive a few days later.
"As time has gone on, all that has been done with a computer. They do the same thing just type it into a computer. They make multiple copies of the report and send it around. Believe it or not, the first place they sent my final report was on Mr. Steinbrenner's desk. He was very proud when we won, but he was hands on. He knew what was going on at every level, everyday."
One of the more difficult tasks for a manager at any level is to tell a player that he is being released, which can be an emotional situation for both men. Merrill would be one of several in the Yankees' organization to be involved with that sad duty.
"At that point and time it is an organizational decision," said Merrill. "Everybody that handled that player would be involved by use of the telephone. If it were in spring training, it would be a face-to-face meeting. It's still pretty much the same way. The front office and the farm director makes the decision and I have the opportunity to say if I agree or disagree. During the season the manager is the one that has to release the player. The two toughest things are their release and a player to be hurt. Because when he is hurt, he can't show his skills.
"Anybody who is released is disappointed. At times you may have a situation where the player thinks the organization is being a little bit unfair to them. I always tell them it's not that you can't play baseball, we are telling you that you can't play for the New York Yankees and there are 29 other teams out there right now.
"If we can help you land a job with one of those 29 teams, feel free to use me as someone to recommend you. The deeper into the season, the better you know them and the more attached you are to them. For me it was almost like losing a son."
It has been said that the toughest duty of a manager is knowing when to take out or leave in a pitcher. You can make a mistake by taking him out too early or leaving him in too late. A mistake in that situation can lose a game for you.
"This is where it differs a bit in the minor leagues compared to the big leagues," said Merrill. "In the big leagues, you've got to win. In the minor leagues you are there to develop. If I don't ever let my left-handed pitcher face a right-handed batter in a crucial situation, I will never know if he can get a right-handed hitter out. The thing that you try to instill in your starting pitcher is if I send you out there in the seventh inning, its not with the idea that you are going to face two batters and then a left-hander will come in and face the tough three-hole left-handed hitter.
"It's the idea that you are going to finish that inning. If I send you out in the eighth inning, you are going to finish that inning. That is the mindset you try to instill in these kids. You give them that opportunity and you find out that they are capable or not. Then you give them help. The two most difficult parts of game management, never mind the bunting and hitting and running anybody can do that, is handling my pitching staff and the extra men sitting on the bench."
When there is a discussion on the mound between the manager and the pitcher, what is the conversation?
"If we're talking to the starting pitcher, I'd go to the mound and the No. 1 thing I want to find out his breathing tempo," Merrill said. "Is he tired or do I think he is tired? Do I think this is the time to pull him? Never mind that the radar gun shows he has lost a mile an hour or two off his fastball. You are never going out there to ask a competitor how he feels. There aren't very many of them that will say they are tired--take me out. They are going to tell me they are fine. You are going to make the decision and judge when it is time to take them out.
"There are times when they reach the 100-pitch limit you know that they are pretty much cooked. There are other guys that are very strong. The game has changed now where nobody exceeds 115-120 pitches anymore. There are guys that are big and strong that can do that night after night and you can develop them to give you a complete game if you are very fortunate. There aren't many complete games in baseball anymore. Particularly in the minor leagues because the pitch count level is set by the front office.
"Sometimes I will ask the catcher for his opinion. What is his movement? Is the movement on his fastball the same? You can see it with the breaking ball, but sometimes it is difficult to see from the dugout area on the fastball. The more you see him, the better you know him. It is paying attention to detail and finding out these things like all of a sudden he loses his tempo and his rhythm is messed up. He might be taking a lot more time between pitches because he is taking longer to prepare for a hitter. You say now it's time to go get them."
Merrill managed the Fort Lauderdale Yankees in 1982-83 winning the league flag the first year. In 1984, Merrill was assigned to the Yankees Triple-A club in Columbus and another first-place finish. Merrill made it to New York in 1985 as a first base coach for Yogi Berra, but was recalled to Columbus during the year to serve as manager. He rejoined the Yankees in 1986 as a coach this time for Lou Piniella. Merrill was pleased to be in the big leagues. He would become the Yankees' manager four years later.
"In 1977, I interviewed for a high school job in the state of Maine," said Merrill. "The first question from the school board was, 'what is your ultimate goal in life?' That was very easy for me. If I had said I wanted to settle in a small rural community, and do this and that, I probably would have gotten the job. My answer to them was my ultimate goal in athletics is to manage a major league team. That was in 1977, and 13 years later I was given that opportunity."
In 1990, Merrill began the season in Columbus. The previous three years he was managing in the Eastern and Carolina Leagues. Bucky Dent had been the Yankees skipper beginning the 1990 season, but was fired early in the year. Merrill was suddenly summoned to New York to replace Dent. Now Merrill was wearing the Yankee pinstripes as manager.
Merrill would manage the Yankees for the rest of that season and all of 1991. Just before the 1992 season, Showalter replaced Merrill who then served as a minor league roving instructor for the Yankees. Merrill would be part of the Yankees managing carousel, which Steinbrenner was known.
"There have been a small number of people that can say they managed the New York Yankees," said Merrill. "I was fortunate for the opportunity though it wasn't a very long boat ride. To be quite honest, we weren't very good at that time. Obviously, changes were made and usually it is the manager that is the one to go. So you are basically hired to be fired. The only thing I can say about that, and I am not bitter to the fact that the man who hired me did not fire me. Mr. Steinbrenner was suspended from the game at the time that I got fired.
"I got a phone call from one of the New York writers a few years ago asking me if I could change one thing when I managed the Yankees, what would it be? I think I surprised him because I didn't say I wish I had better talent or an answer along those lines. My answer was, "I would have liked to have been fired by the guy who hired me. He was suspended at the time so Mr. Steinbrenner didn't fire me. When I was removed, fortunately, I was kept in the organization. They thought enough of me to keep me. The good lord willing, I hope to be here a little while longer."
(Writer's note: Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent suspended Steinbrenner from the day-by-day operations of the Yankees on July 30, 1990. Steinbrenner was permanently suspended for hiring a man to find damaging information on Dave Winfield who had sued Steinbrenner for failing to make a contribution to Winfield's foundation, which was stipulated in his contract. Winfield signed a 10-year contract with the Yankees in 1980. Steinbrenner gave control of the Yankees to his son and general manager during the suspension. Steinbrenner was reinstated in 1993.)
During this time the mighty Yankees were no more. The previous World Series appearances were in 1976-78 and 1981 winning it all in 1977 and 1979. The next world title would arrive in 1996. Players like Winfield, Reggie Jackson, Willie Randolph, Ricky Henderson, Greg Nettles, Bobby Murcer, Goose Gossage and Ron Guidry were gone. In 1990, the Yankees were 67-95 (Dent-18-31, Merrill-49-64) and a seventh-place finish in the Eastern Division. In Merrill's full season in 1992, the Yankees were in fifth place at 71-91.
"The biggest name was Mattingly," said Merrill. "At that time his back was bothering him and it affected his swing. He was still a good player, but didn't have the same power. His skills started to erode a little bit, but the major reason was because of his back injury. The good thing was we brought Bernie Williams and Jim Leyritz to the big leagues. Those guys went on to have outstanding careers. There was good to come from it, though at the time we were not a good ball club.
"You knew the Mattinglys of the world careers were coming to a close and we were trying to replace them with younger players. And again with Mr. Steinbrenner being suspended, there were not a lot of moves being made. Whereas today when something happens, if they can't find a replacement in the minor leagues they make a trade and get somebody from another organization. They are a lot more active today than they were then because the "Boss" was not there."
Merrill said that the best part of being the Yankees' manager was winning games. And the toughest part was losing games. He thought managing in New York was tougher since winning was expected.
One interesting part of baseball is the relationships with the on-field umpires and managers. Merrill said he was usually tossed out of games about twice a year and a few were by design.
"The thing that I tried to do was develop a reputation because umpires are like women, they love to talk." laughed Merrill. "If one crew has trouble with this guy, the next crew knows about it. It spreads like wildfire. If I thought the umpire was right, I would never go out other than to protect my players. For the most part when I went out, they knew in my mind I felt they made a mistake.
"The bigger the incident, the madder I got. That would often lead to an early shower. And occasionally if your club is struggling at the time you try to excite them a little bit. They think, hey the manager is standing up for us and fighting like hell for this and that. You don't see that much today. For whatever reason, the argument from the manager to the umpire basically doesn't exist in the game anymore."
Sometimes in baseball there is the "necessity" for a pitcher to throw a pitch at a batter. This will be done to protect a teammate that might have been given an overly aggressive play resulting in injury or in retaliation of one of your batters getting beamed. Did Merrill ever order a pitcher to throw at a batter?
"Directly to hit a guy--no," said Merrill. "I might say it in a way not directly to hit him. I might say to the pitcher, 'you have a job to do, right?' We had a big kid from Australia Mark Hutton, who threw in the middle 90s and pitched in the big leagues. We were playing in Toledo, and we had a kid named Russ Davis who was like Balboni in that he was hitting all kinds of home runs. They threw at him and broke his wrist.
"It was in the eighth inning. In those days you know you are going to retaliate at some point. Today they [umpires] don't give you that opportunity to retaliate; they throw you out of the game. In the old days it was tit for tat. Let's play baseball and take care of it ourselves.
"Because that game was near the end, Hutton was going to pitch the next day and was keeping the chart. I went down past him and said, 'you've got a job to do, haven't you mate?' He said, 'I certainly do.' I went down to get a drink and came back and said, 'got him picked out?' He answered, 'certainly do.' So he is the starting pitcher the next night and was going after a pull hitter who was their stud. Well he ends up with the bases loaded and nobody out between an error, a walk and a base hit.
"Now their best hitter is due up. I will never forget it because our pitching coach came up to me and said, 'Stump, he's not going to do it is he?' I said, 'he's going to do it on the first pitch.' Hutton threw in right in the middle of his back. They get a run and he perceives to strike out the side.
"Hutton came off the mound into the dugout, looked at me and said, 'don't believe one run will beat us do you skipper?' That's probably the greatest story in terms of having a job to do and getting it done in my career. One thing I would never do is tell a pitcher directly to hit 'em because if he hits him in the head, and it cost him his career, I've got to live with that decision."
Merrill would be in the Yankees' minor leagues as a manager throughout the 1990s until 2004, mostly in Columbus. In 21 seasons as a minor league manager, Merrill was 1,763-1505 in 3,269 games for a .539 percentage. In 2009, he was enshrined into the International League Hall of Fame. Merrill won several league championships.
Since 2005, Merrill has been a Special Assistant to the General Manager evaluating talent in the Yankees organization. Merrill was asked about the traits that gave him so much success.
"I was fortunate enough to have good talent, there isn't any question about that," said Merrill. "I can pride myself in that I was an honest man. I told it like it was. I might not tell you what you want to hear, but I told you how I felt. I thought I was fair with the players, which is very important. I'm a very competitive person, and I think your ball club takes on the personality of the manager.
"I was a no nonsense type of guy that paid attention to detail. That is one of the things I prided myself and I can say that without patting myself on the back. One of the highest compliments you can receive as a minor league manager is have the farm director from another team say to you, 'nice to see you Stump. The reason I am here is to see our club play and they have to be the best if they are going to beat your club.'
"That happened to me on three of four different occasions. I can pride myself that I went about it the right way with the idea the player comes first in development, and to win comes second. It can be done. We did it."
If you have any old home movies or personal photographs of Sulphur Dell and early Nashville baseball or have comments or suggestions, click here to send an email to Bill Traughber.