When Murray Cook left the New York Yankees to become the general manager of the Montreal Expos on September 5, 1984, no one could’ve blamed him if he thought his new job would be less stressful.
After all, the Sackville, N.B., native would no longer have George Steinbrenner breathing down his neck. But things didn’t get much easier for Cook when he started in Montreal.
“The first day I reported to the Expos, [owner] Mr. Bronfman said the first thing I want you to do is trade Gary Carter,” recalled Cook. “And boy that was a bombshell, but it was a matter of his contract being rather onerous in the opinion of the ownership.”
Cook made this revelation on Monday afternoon in a Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame conference call that introduced the ball shrine’s class of 2014. Cook will be inducted into the Canuck ball hall along with long-time Expos third baseman Tim Wallach, legendary Expos broadcaster Dave Van Horne and late Toronto Blue Jays scout Jim Ridley in a ceremony in St. Marys, Ont., on June 21.
Cook says it was difficult to deal Carter, who had been signed to a lucrative seven-year, $15-million contract in February 1982. In fact, the New York Mets were the only team with interest that could afford the all-star catcher.
“It turned out that I made that deal with [Mets GM] Frank Cashen and [Mets assistant GM] Joel McIlvaine in the stairwell at the winter meetings [in Nashville at the Opryland Hotel] because that was the only place we could get together without the media being aware of it,” said Cook.
At the time, the Expos were in cost-cutting mode and Cook recalls that fans and media were very understanding of the deal, which ultimately meant shipping Carter to the Mets for Hubie Brooks, Herm Winningham, Floyd Youmans and Mike Fitzgerald.
And though the deal was a daunting first task for Cook as Expos GM, having the authority to make a trade for a professional baseball team in his home country must have been an experience that he could’ve only dreamed about as a child.
Born in Sackville, N.B. in 1940, Cook lived on Canada’s East Coast until he was a teenager when he moved with his family to Florida. After graduating from Ohio University with a master’s degree in history in 1962, he was signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates. He played shortstop and third base in the lower levels of their system for parts of four years, before hanging up his spikes to become the general manager of their Class-A affiliate in Gastonia in 1966.
“At the time, I wasn’t a prospect, I was a player-coach and maybe on the road to perhaps managing some day,” said Cook of his decision to stop playing and join the executive ranks. “But it just seemed like it was a good opportunity for me and I just made a spur of the moment decision that it was time to get off the field and into the front office. And things worked out very well from there.”
Cook impressed in his new role and the Pirates promoted him to their big league front office in 1967. He was named the team’s assistant farm director the following year and soon rose through the ranks to become the club’s assistant director of minor league operations in 1972 and director of scouting in 1977.
After 21 years in the Pirates organization, Cook was hired to be the New York Yankees scouting director in January 1983. Just over six months later, Steinbrenner named him the club’s general manager, and in the process, he became just the second Canadian to be a big league GM (Huntsville, Ont., native George Selkirk was the Washington Senators’ GM from 1964 to 1969).
“George [Steinbrenner] gave me my first opportunity to be a general manager – whether I was ready or not – and I like to say that he heightened one’s sense of awareness,” said Cook. “He was omnipresent, whether it be at three in the morning or three in the afternoon and he was often asking questions that had very little relevance to baseball or what we were trying to accomplish on the field, but you had to be prepared to answer whatever questions he might ask. He was a very volatile guy and he did a lot of good things for the game and he did a lot of good things outside of the game.”
In 1984, Cook was reassigned to the position of vice-president and director of scouting with the Yankees, before he replaced John McHale as general manager of the Expos that September.
“The three years I spent in Montreal were probably the best three years I’ve spent in baseball in my 52 years in the game,” said Cook. “We had terrific ownership – Charles Bronfman was a super owner, and John McHale became one of my mentors. It was just a wonderful time there.”
One of the highlights of his close to three years as Expos GM was drafting and following the development of giant left-hander Randy Johnson.
“As the general manager, you’re minimally involved in the scouting, Jim Fanning was the [scouting director] at the time and I have to give him credit for Randy Johnson,” said Cook. “But I do have to say this, when he [Johnson] first reported, he was awful. He couldn’t throw hard. He was in Jamestown [Low-A] and he was not doing well and I called the scout that signed him and I said, ‘Bobby (Fontaine), what’s with this guy?’ And he said, ‘It’s there. You just have to be patient and it will be there at some point in time.’ And it took him a year or two before he finally figured out what it [pitching] was all about and what he had to do to be in shape and all that kind of thing.”
Trading for Dennis Martinez, who had battled injuries and alcoholism with the Baltimore Orioles, was another highlight of Cook’s tenure with the Expos.
“I’ve always had a penchant for giving players second chances . . . I believe that’s very important,” said Cook. “I have to give Hank Peters, who was the GM of the Orioles at the time, a great deal of credit. He convinced me that while Dennis Martinez was not going to be able to come back to Baltimore because of what had happened there, that he was clean, that he was going to meetings and that he was doing what needed to be done [for his alcoholism] . . . I’ve always been so pleased about signing Dennis Martinez. It was so good to see him do well and I’m proud of him. His success was as exciting for me as it was for him.”
Following his tenure with the Expos, Cook served as the general manager of the Cincinnati Reds in 1988 and 1989. Since 1990, he has worked in scouting capacities for the Minnesota Twins, Miami Marlins, Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers. In 2010, he was named East Scout of the Year for his contributions to the scouting field. He is currently the Tigers’ East Coast regional cross checker.
Now 73 and with more than five decades in professional baseball on his resume, Cook is thrilled to be elected to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, but he has no plans to retire.
“It’s hard to call going and watching a ball game work,” said Cook, who lives in Orlando and was heading to a junior college game on Monday night. “I’ve always felt that as long as I can throw my luggage on the overhead rack on the airplane that I will keep working.”