How Jerry Krause, before he built a dynasty with Michael Jordan, was shaped by his time in baseball


Jerry Krause had the right name when he called Jim Thompson to invite him to lunch, he just had the wrong individual. Krause had left a voicemail with the belief it would be heard by the former Governor of Illinois. He was wrong. Instead, the message would be played by a different Jim Thompson, one who had scouted alongside Krause with the New York Mets.

“I was at the gym, and I came out and there’s a voicemail. ‘Governor, Jerry Krause here. [His wife] Thelma and I are back in Chicago from Arizona and wondering if you wanted to get together and have lunch,'” said Thompson, the call’s recipient, impersonating Krause’s deep voice. “It just stuck with me because my voicemail clearly says, ‘Hi, you’ve reached Jim Thompson of the New York Mets.'”

Thompson, who now works for a nonprofit aimed at ending homelessness, spoke with CBS Sports last week about his relationship and experiences with Krause. His memories serve as a reminder that Michael Jordan wasn’t the only member of the Chicago Bulls dynasty to work in baseball. Indeed, based on service time, Krause was the more prolific of the two on the diamond.

Whereas Jordan played one season in the minors, Krause spent years surveying players in nondescript minor-league towns. Long before he became one of the most successful executives in NBA history (a tenure that is currently being relived with “The Last Dance” documentary), he was an unheralded baseball scout who worked for a handful of organizations during the ’70s and ’80s. And, even after he established his basketball legacy, he returned to the diamond, working for four MLB teams in various scouting positions before he died in 2017.

Krause may have made his name in basketball, but he was shaped by baseball.

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Jerry Krause was an accomplished baseball scout as well as a championship-winning NBA GM.
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The First Dance

Thompson had the right name when he met Krause for the first time, he just had the wrong education. Growing up, he had taken interest in baseball, music, and football, but not basketball. So, Thompson was ignorant of Krause’s triumphant past when he was summoned into a Shea Stadium office more than a decade ago as an intern to meet Krause, then a pro scout.

“He gets up and leaves, and [former assistant general manager] Adam Fisher goes, ‘You know who that is?’ I was like, ‘Uh … it’s Jerry Krause, he’s one of our pro scouts.’ He’s like, ‘Dude, he was the GM of the Bulls.’ I was like, ‘What Bulls?'”

In Thompson’s defense, the vastness of Krause’s career is a mystery to any number of people.

Those familiar with Krause’s name know him as the architect of the ’90s Bulls. (Although those who know him through ESPN’s “The Last Dance” may identify him only as a key figure in the team’s unraveling.) Few know that one of his first jobs in sports saw him serve as the general manager of the Portland Beavers — the Triple-A affiliate of the Cleveland organization — in 1966, and fewer that he entered the scouting ranks because he couldn’t cut it as a sportswriter.

“All I talked about when I was younger was sports. If I couldn’t play professionally, I figured I’d write,” Krause once told the Chicago Tribune. “By the time I was 21, I knew I wasn’t going to be a good writer, just a hack. I didn’t have the creative ability to put words together. I wanted to excel at something. I got into scouting and knew I could be a success at that.”

Krause, who had caught as a youngster, was always said to be more passionate about hoops. That didn’t prevent him from splitting his attention between the sports. By the time he was named the Bulls’ director of personnel, in June 1976, he had already scouted for multiple baseball and basketball teams, including both the Bulls and the Chicago Cubs.

Unfortunately for Krause, his first time at the summit didn’t last long. He clashed with Bulls owner Arthur Wirtz about coaches and draft picks, and was out of a job within three months. He was back in baseball by the end of the year, scouting amateurs for the Seattle Mariners.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Miami Marlins

Krause was responsible for helping the White Sox land Ozzie Guillen.
Jasen Vinlove / USA TODAY Sports

The Second Chance

Although Krause continued to scout on a part-time basis for the Los Angeles Lakers, he spent most of the next decade working in baseball.

During his time with the Mariners, Krause encouraged his bosses to draft Kirk Gibson, whom he envisioned as the next Mickey Mantle. Seattle’s ownership was weary of paying Gibson to play college football, however, and the Mariners instead picked Tito Nanni. Nanni never reached the majors; Gibson played in parts of 17 big-league seasons. He won the 1988 National League Most Valuable Player Award, and finished his career with 255 home runs.

Before Gibson had a chance to prove he was a better player than Nanni, Krause jetted off to join the White Sox at the behest of owner Bill Veeck. Krause would be credited with helping the White Sox secure a number of important players over the ensuing years, including, among others, Tom Seaver, Greg Luzinski, Ozzie Guillen, Ed Farmer and Ken Williams. Yet the most important development of Krause’s time with the White Sox had nothing to do with baseball.

Early in Krause’s tenure, Veeck sold the White Sox to a group that included Jerry Reinsdorf. When Reinsdorf then purchased the Bulls a few years later, he knew who he wanted in charge.

“I was down in spring training to scout the free agents when Jerry called one day,” Krause once explained. ‘He said, “I need you in the office at eight in the morning.’ I said, ‘You got something going with the Sox?’ He said, ‘No, I want you to run the Bulls.'”

Krause laid out a plan of attack that prioritized good character and building through the draft rather than with declining veterans on well-paying contracts. (“We had a whole bunch of Fords making Cadillac pay.”) The rest is history. The Bulls already employed Michael Jordan, but benefitted from Krause’s keen scouting eye time and again, such as when he nabbed Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant in a single draft, giving Jordan a pair of young and highly capable teammates. Krause even showcased a strong poker face on that occasion, executing a trade to move ahead of the Sacramento Kings, who were high on Pippen. Krause’s feel for what worked extended to the sidelines. He installed Phil Jackson as his head coach in 1989, launching Jackson’s legendary career and forging a partnership that would deliver six trophies to Chicago.

Krause would outlast them all: Jordan, Pippen, Jackson, enduring well-documented feuds over the usual suspects — money, credit, power. He resigned in April 2003, having failed to win more than 30 games in five post-Jordan seasons. That Krause had drafted several All-Star-caliber players in those years (such as Tyson Chandler, Ron Artest, and Elton Brand) suggests that he hadn’t lost his scouting eye, even if he couldn’t put together a competent roster.

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Jerry Krause could tell Jon Niese was a big-leaguer based on his nose.
USATSI

The Lasting Impression

Krause was long removed from his Bulls days when he took Thompson under his wing in 2008. Thompson, then a first-year scout, spent a week attending Texas League games with Krause as the two developed a personal and professional relationship that would continue on, even as Krause moved on to positions with the White Sox (international scouting director) and the Arizona Diamondbacks (special assistant to the general manager).

Thompson learned numerous lessons from Krause, beginning with the need for honest self-evaluation. Listen to your gut, Krause would tell him, but only once your gut is informed. 

Case in point: Kyle Blanks. Thompson recalls writing off the 6-foot-6 Blanks as someone who would be landlocked to first base and who would have to slug his way to the majors. Krause’s seasoned eyes, conversely, detected more athleticism in Blanks than Thompson was giving him credit for based on his nimbleness around the first-base bag. Blanks finished his career with more outfield appearances, a credit to the hidden grace that Thompson missed at first.

Krause was big on makeup, to the point where it might’ve been the attribute he discussed the most. In order for a player to produce and to be a positive in the clubhouse, he reasoned, they needed to have a strong inner desire to be great and to win games. Fair enough, except the methods he used to conclude a player had that strong makeup were sometimes nebulous. 

Thompson remembers Krause declaring that left-handed pitcher Jonathon Niese would make it to the majors. Not because of his feel for throwing strikes or the quality of his pitches, but because he was from Ohio and had … well, the not-good face. “You know Jon Niese, he had that crooked nose,” Thompson said. “Jerry goes, ‘He had a fighter’s nose. I could just tell, kid from Ohio, that nose, he was a tough kid.’ Nothing about how he would pitch.”

Krause would prove to be right, albeit for reasons he didn’t articulate: Niese pitched in part of nine big-league seasons, accumulating a 92 ERA+ over nearly 1,200 innings.

It was standard Krause. When Reinsdorf put him in charge of the Bulls, then-White Sox general manager Rolan Hemond said that Krause had “an ability to analyze people well” and that he wanted “to see what makes [athletes] tick.” One of Krause’s tricks during games was to converse with whichever pitcher was charting the action. That pitcher had usually started the night prior, and Krause would be able to gain insight into their intelligence and competitiveness

Of course, Thompson remembers Krause as more than a crafty scout or a decorated, if polarizing basketball executive. He remembers him as a friend and confidant; as a real human being who would get excited over an outlet sale for Antigua shirts, and who would mess up and call him when he meant to call the old Governor of Illinois. He remembers him as someone who would excuse himself to take a call from “Phil,” then explain that he was talking to Phil Jackson in a casual tone, as if the Zen Master were a mutual acquaintance.

Thompson also remembers Krause as someone who had perspective about his job and the role of sports in society. It can be debated whether that was always the case, but it was true late in his life, when he would remind Thompson again and again of a responsibility he had to fans.

“Jerry said, ‘You always gotta remember, people need a reason to come. They want to be entertained. That’s what we’re doing,” Thompson recalled. “We’re out here to entertain people. Whenever you’re talking to someone at a game, or you’re on the road at a hotel and you tell them what you do and they say they’re a baseball fan … always remember to thank them for being a fan.

 “‘They’re the ones who keep the game going, and they’re the ones who keep us going.'”





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