Richard Henry O'Connell (September 19, 1914 – August 18, 2002) was an American front office executive in Major League Baseball. He was executive vice president of the Boston Red Sox from 1961 through 1977 and served as general manager of the team from September 16, 1965, through October 24, 1977, a period during which he played a pivotal role in restoring the Red Sox to contending status, won two American League pennants, and helped make the team a flagship MLB franchise.
A native of Winthrop, Massachusetts, O'Connell attended Boston College, earning a bachelor's degree in 1937 and a master's degree the following year. He worked in private business and taught and coached athletics at Sanborn Academy, Kingston, New Hampshire, until the outbreak of World War II. While serving in the U.S. Navy, he befriended a fellow officer, Jim Britt, the radio play-by-play announcer for the Red Sox and Boston's National League team, the Braves. After the war, Britt put O'Connell in touch with the Red Sox front office, and he entered baseball in 1947 as business manager of the Lynn Red Sox, Boston's Class B New England League farm club.
Rising through the Red Sox' ranks
Two years later, O'Connell joined Boston's front office in an administrative capacity. He rose through the ranks, serving as "home secretary" and director of stadium operations, then became the Red Sox' business manager during the late 1950s. It appeared that he would rise no further. Tom Yawkey, the team's owner since 1933, wanted famous former players to head his organization, and through 1960 his three general managers—Eddie Collins, Joe Cronin and Bucky Harris—were all current or future members of the Baseball Hall of Fame; Collins and Cronin were standout players, while Harris had won three American League pennants and two World Series as a field manager. With the Red Sox' great left fielder, Ted Williams, about to retire, and with the team's fortunes at a low ebb, Yawkey fired Harris in September 1960 and informally offered the GM post to Williams. But the future Hall-of-Fame hitter was not interested in an office job; he preferred to fish and teach hitting in spring training.
As the GM seat lay vacant—but perhaps being kept warm for Williams, who was named an "executive assistant" to Yawkey—O'Connell was promoted to executive vice president; meanwhile, field manager Pinky Higgins, who had become a friend of Yawkey's, staked out a position as the top "baseball man" in the Red Sox organization. The New York Times reported on October 1, 1960, that Higgins would assume responsibility for all player personnel decisions, Major and minor league, in the Boston organization. Indeed, the club spent the 1961 and 1962 seasons without a full-time general manager. Although O'Connell is listed by the Red Sox media guide as de facto GM, he retained the title of business manager and likely focused only on the administrative aspect of the job; it is unclear (and doubtful) that he had any baseball operations role. Higgins shed his on-field responsibilities and formally became executive vice president/GM at the close of the 1962 season.
During the early 1960s, Boston overhauled its farm system and scouting operation and was beginning to produce outstanding talent, but the big league Red Sox continued to struggle and attendance dwindled. Finally, during the closing days of a dispiriting 100-loss 1965 season, Yawkey fired Higgins and offered the general manager title to O'Connell on September 16.
Architect of 'The Impossible Dream' and 1975 AL champs
Still seen as inexperienced in baseball operations and talent evaluation, O'Connell initially shared power with vice president, player personnel Haywood Sullivan, a former Major League catcher and manager recruited from the Kansas City Athletics in November 1965. They worked together to replace fading veterans with young players during another losing campaign in 1966.
But by 1967 O'Connell was in full command as general manager of the Red Sox. He promoted Dick Williams to manager and traded for players such as pitcher Gary Bell, infielder Jerry Adair and catcher Elston Howard. The Red Sox, led by Most Valuable Player Carl Yastrzemski and AL Cy Young Award winning pitcher Jim Lonborg, stunned the sporting world by winning the AL pennant and pushing the powerful St. Louis Cardinals to seven games in the 1967 World Series. The team's home attendance rose by 113 percent, from 811,172 in 1966 to 1,727,832. In recognition of the dramatic turnaround, O'Connell was named Executive of the Year by The Sporting News.
The Red Sox posted winning seasons from 1968–74 and continued to be among the AL leaders in home attendance, but could not match the success of the league's dominant teams of the era, the Detroit Tigers, Baltimore Orioles and Oakland Athletics. Nonetheless, Boston continued to harvest great talent from its farm system, including Carlton Fisk, Dwight Evans, Cecil Cooper, Bill Lee, John Curtis, Lynn McGlothen, Ben Oglivie, Juan Beníquez, Rogelio Moret, Rick Burleson, Jim Rice and Fred Lynn. The team also somewhat overcame its reputation for racial prejudice by increasing the number of African Americans and Latin Americans on its playing roster. In 1975, led by rookies Lynn and Rice, the Red Sox won the AL East title, swept defending world champion Oakland in the ALCS, and battled another NL powerhouse, the Cincinnati Reds, to the limit in a thrilling World Series. Once again, O'Connell was hailed as Executive of the Year in Major League Baseball.
Abrupt dismissal during ownership change
But O'Connell's tenure with the Red Sox and his baseball career were about to come to an end.
Tom Yawkey had developed a close friendship with Sullivan—then playing a reduced role for the Red Sox as director of amateur scouting—but trusted O'Connell to be his top executive. He died from leukemia on July 9, 1976, nine months after the 1975 pennant. His widow, Jean, was both a strong ally of Sullivan and an adversary of O'Connell. She criticized O'Connell's player transactions, his willingness to negotiate with potential free agents Fisk, Lynn and Burleson, his signing of free agent relief pitcher Bill Campbell, and his attempted big-money purchase of Rollie Fingers and Joe Rudi from the Oakland A's in June 1976 (vetoed within hours by Commissioner of Baseball Bowie Kuhn).
When she put the club up for sale in 1977, she chose—and ultimately joined—Sullivan's ownership group, and then fired O'Connell as GM, in favor of Sullivan, after the Red Sox won 97 games but finished 2½ games behind the New York Yankees in the pennant race.
The firing ended O'Connell's baseball career, although almost six years later, on June 6, 1983, a bizarre postscript was added. A power struggle broke out among the Red Sox ownership group, and one of the general partners, Edward "Buddy" LeRoux, staged a coup d'état. LeRoux announced a takeover of the Red Sox, and fired Sullivan, his fellow general partner, from the GM role. Surprisingly, he unveiled O'Connell, then 68, as his choice to lead the team — the first time O'Connell set foot inside Fenway Park since his 1977 dismissal. But LeRoux' "coup" was halted by court order, and Sullivan remained in power.
Over time, however, O'Connell and the Red Sox mended fences and he was admitted to the Boston Red Sox Hall of Fame in 1997. Pundits hailed him as the architect who most helped to create Red Sox Nation by bringing the team back from near-irrelevance in 1967.
By the time of his death, at age 87 on August 18, 2002, in Lexington, Massachusetts, O'Connell was recognized as one of the most important men in Red Sox annals.
- The Official 1951 Baseball Guide, St. Louis: The Sporting News, 1951
- The 1955 Baseball Dope Book, St. Louis: The Sporting News, 1955
- The 1960 Baseball Dope Book, St. Louis: The Sporting News, 1960
- Spink, J.G. Taylor, Rickart, Paul A., and Kachline, Clifford, eds., The Sporting News Official 1962 Baseball Guide and Record Book. St. Louis: The Sporting News, 1962, page 48
- Biography on Fenway Fanatics website
- The New York Times obituary
- The Associated Press, Higgins Gets Pact: Red Sox Manager, Signed for Three Years, Has 'Free Hand', The New York Times, October 1, 1960.
- Bryant, Howard, Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston. Boston: The Beacon Press, 2002.
- Gammons, Peter, Beyond the Sixth Game. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Co., 1985.
- The Sporting News, 1951 Official Baseball Guide, 1955 Baseball Dope Book, 1960 Baseball Dope Book, 1966 Official Baseball Guide, 1967 Official Baseball Guide.
- Stout, Glenn and Johnson, Richard A., Red Sox Century. Boston and New York: Houghton-Mifflin Co., 2000.