The snow blanketing the field for the Toronto Blue Jays’ inaugural game on April 7, 1977, must have been a shock for Roy Hartsfield, the team’s first skipper who had managed the Padres’ Triple-A club in Hawaii for the previous four seasons.
But a little snow wasn’t about to cool Hartsfield’s excitement. After 15 seasons in the minors, the Chattahoochee, Ga., native was finally managing in The Show, and the Jays’ 9-5 win that day would turn out to be one of the highlights of his tenure as the club’s bench boss.
“Looking back from a coach’s point of view, I now realize how difficult his job was,” said Vancouver native Dave McKay, who played for Hartsfield in Toronto from 1977 to 1979. “Managing an expansion team with no chance of winning, dealing with many players who were just happy to be wearing a major league uniform and others like me who belonged in Triple-A, I thought Roy showed a lot of patience and understanding.”
Considered one of the game’s greatest teachers, Hartsfield, who passed away on Saturday at age 85, spent 43 years in baseball. Those who knew him remember him as a spirited storyteller who spoke with a charming Southern drawl.
Born on October 25, 1925, Hartsfield played second base for the Boston Braves for three seasons from 1950 to 1952. On January 17, 1953, he was dealt to the Brooklyn Dodgers for Andy Pafko. And though he never appeared in a game for the Dodgers, Hartsfield suited up for parts of two seasons with their Triple-A affiliate Montreal Royals. In 1953, he hit .232 with three home runs and 46 RBIs in 135 games for the Canadian club. He played 34 more contests with Montreal in 1954.
In 1956, Hartsfield began his managerial career with the Dodgers’ Triple-A club in St. Paul. He would coach and manage in the Dodgers organization for close to two decades, eventually serving on Walter Alston’s big league staff from 1969 to 1972. While coaching for Albuquerque in the Dodgers chain, Hartsfield wowed Peter Bavasi, the team’s young business manager and son of Los Angeles GM Buzzie Bavasi, with his knowledge. According to Stephen Brunt’s excellent book, Diamond Dreams: 20 Years of Blue Jays Baseball, Bavasi grew so enamoured with Hartsfield that he promised the coach that if he ever had the opportunity to run a big league club that Hartsfield would be his manager.
When Bavasi became the general manager of the Padres in 1973, Hartsfield was named bench boss of the Padres’ Triple-A affiliate in Hawaii. Hartsfield would manage in Hawaii for four seasons, before Bavasi, who accepted the Blue Jays GM job in 1976, would honour his promise and hire him as Toronto’s first manager. Naming Hartsfield, a relative unknown, as manager, surprised baseball pundits at the time, mostly because legends like Yogi Berra, Warren Spahn, Elston Howard and Dick Williams had been mentioned as possible candidates.
Unfortunately after that Opening Day victory, there were few highlights for Hartsfield in his three-season tenure in Toronto. With little talent to work with, the Georgia native endured three consecutive, 100-loss seasons. Always good with the young players, Hartsfield helped hone the skills of future cornerstones Dave Stieb, Jim Clancy and Ernie Whitt while in Toronto.
“I believe with Roy’s old school approach to managing that he would have managed for many more years had he been fortunate enough to be given an established major league team in his first opportunity,” said McKay.
Hartsfield was reportedly fired prior to the last game of the 1979 campaign, and according to Brunt’s book, the veteran baseball man didn’t take the news well. This, perhaps, explains why Hartsfield never returned to Toronto after he was let go by the club.
Hartsfield would manage in the Cubs and Reds organizations in 1981 and 1983 respectively, before serving in his final baseball role as a scout with the Astros in 1986. According to a 1997 Toronto Star article, Hartsfield lived in a three-storey house on a golf course in East Ellijay, Ga., in retirement. Fittingly he passed away in a town called Ball Ground in his home state on January 15.