Jim Campbell’s career with Tigers started with a ballpark fire

Jim Campbell served as GM and president of the Detroit Tigers for nearly three decades.

On his first day as business manager of the Thomasville Tigers, 25-year old Jimmy Campbell was nervous and excited. He personally sold tickets at the gate and greeted customers as they took their seats in the venerable wooden ballpark in rural southern Georgia, only 15 miles from the Florida border. The stands were nearly full and fans seemed to have a great time for the home opener of the Georgia/Florida League.

The Tigers lost that day but that wasn’t the worst news of the day. That evening the ballpark and everything in it burned to the ground.

Welcome to professional baseball, Mr. Campbell.

In the ensuing days, weeks, and months, young Jimmy proved himself savvy as he juggled the responsibilities of running a baseball team without uniforms, equipment, an office, or a field to play on. Campbell scrounged borrowed uniforms, bats, and worked out of a makeshift office in a school. He moved home games to road games. He brought the fortunes of the team back from the brink.

After a disastrous start to his pro baseball career, Jim Campbell never looked back. There was too much to do. And he got it done for more than four decades as part of the Detroit Tigers organization.

James Arthur Campbell was born in Huron, Ohio, in 1924 on the shores of Lake Erie about half way between Cleveland and Toledo. When he was 18 he enrolled at Ohio State University and earned a spot on the football team but his playing career was halted by service in U.S. Navy during World War II. When he came back to campus after the war, Campbell made the baseball team and played the outfield for the Buckeyes. But his skills were less athletic and more academic: Jim had a knack for business and finance. He snatched a job with the Tigers and ended up in Georgia for that fire.

After Campbell oversaw the construction of a new ballpark in Thomasville, he spent a few more years with that club before he was offered the role of business manager of the Tigers’ farm system in 1952. He rapidly ascended the ladder in the organization: business manager for the major league club in 1957; vice-president of the team two years later; and in 1962, shortly after new ownership assumed control, Campbell was appointed general manager. He was only 38 years old, just one year older than his first baseman Vic Wertz.

Though he’d never played professional baseball nor been a scout, Campbell proved his ability to assess talent. He claimed pitcher Denny McLain off waivers for practically nothing in 1963, and fostered players through the Tiger farm system to key roles with the parent club.

Not every deal Campbell made was a gem. At the winter meetings in 1963 Campbell traded ace pitcher Jim Bunning to the Phillies for outfielder Don Demeter and pitcher Jack Hamilton. Bunning went on to continue his fine career and ended up in the Hall of Fame. Neither Demeter nor Hamilton helped the Tigers much. The deal was one of the first of many that Campbell orchestrated for off-the-field reasons. Bunning had been an outspoken proponent of the players’ union. If there was one thing Campbell did not like, it was a ballplayer who had strong opinions in his clubhouse. He felt they were agitators who worked against team chemistry.

In 1968 after the Tigers won the World Series, Campbell Campbell was selected by The Sporting News as the Major League Baseball Executive of the Year. But the euphoria over that success quickly turned sour when he was faced with the biggest challenge of his career the next two years. McLain’s increasing selfish and erratic behavior became a headache, and despite his talents (the right-handed won the Cy Young in both ’68 and ’69), Campbell traded his star pitcher shortly after the 1970 season to the Senators. The Tigers received a bounty of talent in return, including third baseman Aurelio Rodriguez, shortstop Eddie Brinkman, and pitcher Joe Coleman. All three proved important a few years later when the club returned to the postseason.

While the notoriously conservative Campbell never liked controversy, he hired the brash Billy Martin to manage the Tigers in 1971. That bold decision led to a division crown the following season, a sort of last hurrah for the core of the ’68 title team. Ultimately however, Martin was forced to fire the unstable Martin after his manager ordered a pitcher to throw at opposing batters.

The hallmark of Campbell’s baseball career was his frugal nature. One of his players once said of Campbell that he “threw money around sparingly as if nickels were manhole covers.” In 1976 when Mark “The Bird” Fidrych packed Tiger Stadium with fans while making the major league minimum salary, Campbell flinched at giving his star rookie a raise, only relenting after public pressure. Even then, the skinflint was more than happy to accept money sent in by fans to help pay The Bird a bonus.

The rest of the 1970s was a rebuilding period for the Tigers, and thanks to several excellent draft selections, the team was quickly restocked with young stars like Jack Morris, Lance Parrish, Alan Trammell, and Lou Whitaker. Credit for those astute draft picks goes to Bill Lajoie, the gifted talent master who headed up the scouting department at the time. Campbell later forced many of his stars to leave when he refused to pay them market value, with the exception of Trammell and Whitaker, the keystone duo.

Under Campbell the Tigers refused to enter the free agent market when that economic dynamic began to change the game in the mid-1970s. The Tigers did not sign a single top-level free agent in the first seven years of the free agent era. They were the only team to shun the practice, as Campbell continued to insist on building through the farm system and trades. That decision didn’t hurt the Tigers for a while, but the bill came due later and it helped ease Campbell out.

Campbell wasn’t completely inflexible. In 1979 he hired Les Moss as manager, an “organization man” who had paid his dues in the minor leagues. Moss was droll and unexciting, but he knew his baseball. His job was to help usher the young Tigers along as they prepared to mature into winners. But just a few weeks into the season Campbell pivoted quickly after a discussion with George Kell, one of the team’s broadcasters. Kell had learned that former Cincinnati manager Sparky Anderson, whom the Reds had fired after the ’78 season, was ready to take a job with the Cubs. Kell told Campbell that he thought the Tigers could get Sparky to come to Detroit. Campbell approved a meeting between Kell and Anderson and 24 hours later the Tigers had the white-haired skipper. Moss had to be fired, which Campbell did with dignity, offering the veteran baseball man another job in the organization. The daring move to lure Sparky away from the competition proved to be pivotal to team fortunes.

Fueled by homegrown stars (and finally a big name free agent in Darrell Evans, signed in the ’83-84 offseason), the Tigers romped to the pennant in 1984 and pummeled the Padres to win the World Series, the second under Campbell. In the next few years the Tigers shelled out “lifetime” contracts to Trammell and Whitaker and stayed competitive through 1988, winning a division title again in ’87 when they posted the best record in baseball. But things were catching up with the club.

The Detroit Tigers were unable to repeat the draft success they showed in the 1970s when they acquired players like Morris, Parrish, Trammell, Whitaker, Dan Petry, and Kirk Gibson in the amateur draft. All went on to be All-Stars. In ’76 the draft class included two future Hall of Famers in Morris and Trammell, it remains the only time a team has ever drafted two future Hall of Famers in the same amateur draft. Lajoie left the team when Atlanta offered him more money and responsibility. With his absence, the Tiger scouting operations suffered. The farm system dried up.

In the 1980s, Campbell had a series of run-ins, mostly with players, but also one prominent incident with fans. In 1980 after fans at Tiger Stadium made obscene chants at various games, Campbell closed the bleachers. The standoff between Campbell and the fans resulted in bad press for the team, but the Detroit exec didn’t care. He said at the time: “I’m just goddamn fed up with them. I’m sick and tired. It’s dangerous. It gives the city a bad name.”

Campbell also bothered himself with insignificant controversies, such as the time he ordered the halt of rock-and-roll music in the ballpark. His players wanted to hear modern music, but Campbell insisted that the PA play only organ music. Later in the decade, Campbell enforced a clean-shaven policy, ordering players (most notably Gibson) to trim their beards.

In the late 1980s MLB teams colluded to keep player salaries down, agreeing behind the scenes to not bid on each other’s free agents. This action, which the tight-fisted Campbell gleefully participated in, was illegal and eventually several players received cash rewards as compensation. Parrish, Gibson, and finally Morris, all bolted the team in part because of the economic policies the Tigers made under Campbell’s watch.

New owner Tom Monaghan took over operations of the team in 1984 and he later agreed to allow Campbell to hire friend Bo Schembechler as president of the team. By this time Campbell had surrendered direct control of the day-to-day operations of the team and his GM duties. In January of 1990 Campbell stepped down as president of the Detroit Tigers after 28 years in that role. He remained on the payroll but was fired two years later when Monaghan sold the team to Mike Ilitch. It ended Campbell’s 43 years of employment by the club. Some observers claim Campbell cried when he left Tiger Stadium for the final time.

Campbell retired to Lakeland but never adjusted well to not working. He’d spent his life in baseball. Near the end of his tenure with the Tigers, Campbell said “I’ve worked for this club for 40 years, and I’ve had very few days off. I’m talking about weekends and everything.” He died in Lakeland in 1995 at the age of 71 after suffering a heart attack.

What is the legacy of Jim Campbell? Well, hardly anyone remembers the fire that marred his first day on the job. Instead, he’s remembered for the two titles the Tigers won under his leadership, and the great young players that came through the farm system and delighted fans for decades in Detroit. He’s also remembered (especially by those who played for the team) as a cheap businessman who tried to save every penny he could, even if it meant hurting some feelings along the way.