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April 19, 2004
You Could Look It Up
There isn't much about in the way of statistical reports on managers here at Baseball Prospectus. The official BP POV is that you need proof to prognosticate or pontificate, and there is little about managers that can be explained without resorting to subjective, anecdotal evidence. The most we can do is point out aspects of a manager's personality or performance that are well-documented and likely played some role in influencing the performances of those around him. Fortunately, the most successful and longest lived managers--not always the same thing--have left a fossil record of accumulated incidents that goes a long way towards defining them.
Though it is impossible to prove a manager's precise effect on his team's record of wins and losses, the historical record contains ample evidence of managers' ability to both hinder and, in more select circumstances, help their teams. Here, in order, are the 20 managers who have compiled the most victories in the history of the game, with an emphasis on their human side--from which much about their teams can be inferred, but conclusions cannot be drawn.
CONNIE MACK: FALSE PRIEST (1894-1896, 1901-1950)
To evaluate Connie Mack in a way that yields results consistent with his reputation as one of the great figures in the history of the game, it is necessary to divorce Connie Mack the manager from his role as owner/general manager of the Philadelphia Athletics. As the latter, he is the great fraud of baseball history, a rusting statue with a heart of tobacco-stained horsehide. The problem is that this divorce is entirely arbitrary. During the first half of Mack's long career the role of the manager required the integration of both halves of his splintered personality. To say that he excelled at one half and failed at the other and was therefore a success is both disingenuous and inaccurate.
Most of the good things said about Mack are true. He built two great baseball teams, the 1910-1914 A's and the 1929-1931 A's (actually strong from 1925-1932). Because he was willing to give almost anyone a chance to audition and kept his ears open when one of his many contacts in the game recommended a prospect, he turned up many promising youngsters. As a thinking coach during the game's formative years, he helped establish several aspects of the modern game, and taught baseball that players could respect a manager who was not a ranting disciplinarian, that they could learn through instruction rather than browbeating.
The rest was built, or more accurately, torn down, with lies. Mack dispersed the 1910-1914 dynasty because--well, we don't really know. Take your pick: (a) the players had quit on him, (b) the players were distracted by offers from the Federal League, (c) because they had been tainted by gamblers (Mack never said this, but it was rumored), (d), Mack recognized that World War I would disrupt baseball, (e) player salaries were too high, causing the team to operate at a loss, (f) Philadelphia fans would not come out to see a team that was too good. Mack offered all of these except the gambling explanation; as a founder of the American League, Mack was too loyal to ever reveal something as damaging as corruption.
Explanation E is suspect; in the days of the reserve clause, salaries were whatever Mack wanted them to be, and he was never generous. To put it another way, owners lie about how much money they make. So has it ever been, so shall it ever be. Choice F, the persnickety Philadelphians, was Mack's favorite explanation, but it bears little weight. When the A's jumped from sixth place in 1908 to a close second in 1909, they led the American League in home attendance, drawing 674,915. The 1910-1911 teams, both champions that blew the doors off the race, also led the league in attendance with numbers that stayed strong despite a mild national recession.
The Athletics dropped to third in attendance in 1912, but the team had a sluggish start, was never a big factor in the pennant race, and finished a disappointing third. Attendance bounced back for the 1913 champions, but plummeted in 1914 when the A's won their fourth pennant in five years, dropping from 571,896 (second) to 346,641 (fifth). It was from this that Mack concluded that the fans had grown bored with good baseball.
Mack was myopic. The kickoff of the great war played havoc with the world economy and killed the United States' recovery from the two-year slowdown of 1910-1912. Unemployment nearly doubled from 4.3% in 1913 to 8.5% in 1915. A's fans weren't bored, they were broke. Attendance was down not just in Philadelphia, but across the country.
The production demands of World War I brought the country within a hair of full employment, and major league attendance surged. No one will ever know how fans would have supported the A's in the prosperous post-war period, though, because in an act of extreme petulance, not only had Mack dealt away all of his stars, he had replaced them with players that were so far below replacement level that you couldn't find them if you had Murky the Talking Sperm Whale guiding you through the depths. Anyone who showed up at Shibe Park got a chance to play for the A's in a major league ballgame. One of baseball's oldest chestnuts is the story of the kid who makes a great catch of a foul ball in the stands, inspiring a coach to shout, "Sign that kid up!" Connie Mack signed that kid up. The A's finished last every year from 1915 to 1921 with .250 teams that literally had no one worth seeing. They couldn't draw with a pencil.
The second breakup of the mid-1930s was blamed on the great depression. Other teams were forced to retrench at this time, but Mack not only razed the house but bombed the foundation and salted the backyard, permanently anchoring the A's to the bottom of the league. With the exception of a strange, twilight run at .500 during Mack's senescent last years, the A's were perpetual 90- or 100-game losers for the rest of his life. The players of the second fall were of a much better quality than those of the first, but Mack's ability to recruit even mediocre pitching was largely gone. He was also a confirmed racist and never did quite grasp the idea of the farm system, a combination that was fatal to the A's after 1932.
Nothing was inevitable about this. Mack chose not to rebuild. "Mister Mack just does not believe in the kind of salaries paid by the rich owners of the Yankees, Red Sox, Indians, and Tigers," Robert Considine wrote in 1948. "Nor does he believe in paying a lot of money and trying to buy a ready-made winner." This was precisely what Mack had done in the 1920s, paying cash for players from unaffiliated minor league teams, but with the rise of the farm system, that method had become archaic.
At his best, Mack was a manager who tried to teach his players to think for themselves. One of the best stories about Mack goes something like this: Lefty Grove, the notoriously hotheaded pitcher, came into the dugout after a bad inning, raging. "Temper, temper, Robert," Mack said gently. Grove wasn't in the mood. "Aw, honk you," (or something like that) he snapped back. The dugout was hushed. No one spoke to the dignified, Victorian Mr. Mack this way. Mack stood up, walked to where Grove was sitting on the bench, and said, "No, honk you, Robert," and walked away again as the entire team burst out laughing. Rather than confront Grove, Mack diffused the situation. Another great thing said about Mack is that he tried to buy Joe Jackson reading lessons. Both these stories show the best part of Mack. Rather than fight, Mack chose to facilitate.
But in general, Mack was a genial liar. "As for the financial structure which had forced Mack to his team yet later left a handsome trust fund for his five daughters--that was Mr. Mack's business," Wilfred Sheed wrote in The Ultimate Baseball Book. "You don't examine a saint's books. He was free to give whatever reasons he chose...until Mack's excuses became official history. ...No reporter of the period seriously probed him, because he was famous for his integrity. And why was he famous for it? Because they said so."
JOHN MCGRAW: AD ASTRA PER ASPERA (1899, 1901-1932)
The lives of John McGraw and Charlie Chaplin had several parallels. McGraw was born into a large family in upstate New York, but diphtheria took his mother and four siblings when he was just 11. Fleeing from his abusive father, McGraw worked to support himself in a variety of small jobs before becoming a professional baseball player at age 17. Convinced he knew his line of work better than anyone else, he stepped easily into managing at the young age of 26. American League president Ban Johnson made McGraw the manager of his new Baltimore franchise. The two clashed, and in 1902 McGraw absconded to New York to run the Giants, where he would have more independence. His players quickly learned that things had to be done his way--exactly his way. Hyper-competitive, bilious, bibulous, addicted to playing the ponies, McGraw became the most feared and respected manager in baseball before burning out early and retiring at age 59.
Chaplin, 16 years younger than McGraw, was the son of British music-hall performers. His parents went their separate ways when he was a year old. His father died shortly thereafter from the effects of alcoholism, while his mother succumbed to mental illness. At the age of 10, Chaplin was out on his own. After scraping by as a Vaudeville comedian, at age 17 Chaplin joined the Fred Karno Repertoire Company as a featured player. Mack Sennett, one of the first pioneers of movie comedy, saw Chaplin perform on one of Karno's American tours and signed him up with his Keystone Film Company. Chaplin was 25. Thirteen films into his Hollywood career, Chaplin had decided he was his own best director. At age 26 he moved to the Essanay Company so he could make more money and have complete creative control. He rapidly became the most popular performer in the world, and his tramp character became a universal, enduring icon. Chaplin did things his way--exactly his way. He wrote, directed, starred in, and scored his films. When directing other actors, he would act out their parts for them down to the slightest gesture. His films gradually became more ambitious, growing from one-reelers to two-reelers, and finally to full-length features. The first of these was "The Kid," released in 1921, the same year that McGraw beat the Yankees in baseball's first Subway Series. Chaplin made increasingly fewer films due to increasing perfectionism, discomfort with sound filmmaking, and the distracting entanglements caused by his attraction to women who were a bit too young for comfort. His skills peaked in 1931 with the release of "City Lights." After that there was a long, slow, retreat from relevance.
These stories have several morals in common, including one about the illusory nature of control, how the tighter your grasp is the more that slips through your fingers, and maybe that those who have lived with uncertainty strain to impose order on life's chaos only create more uncertainty. Then there's arrogance. Excessive belief in one's own judgment may be of great use in propelling one to the top, but it saps people of flexibility once they get there. In Chaplin's case, not liking the idea of sound, he chose to simply ignore it. His comedies metastasized into increasingly bombastic message pictures. McGraw made the transition from the dead ball "inside baseball" period to the home run era better than most of his fellow managers, but was increasingly unable to have human relationships with his players.
In the early days of the game, McGraw needed to teach his players basic methods. Heywood Broun wrote that McGraw "could take kids out of coal mines and wheat fields and make them walk and talk and chatter and play ball with the look of eagles." McGraw really did understand the game better than anybody else, and through strict rehearsal he was able to transmit that knowledge to his players. This was obviously a great advantage. As time went on, the game was increasingly standardized, and his younger players were sufficiently trained that they felt comfortable questioning the master's methods. McGraw reacted by becoming ever more of a martinet. The team still won, at least initially, but the manager's surliness cost him the services of Frankie Frisch and alienated key players such as Freddy Lindstrom and Bill Terry.
There will never be another manager like McGraw. In helping to invent the modern game, he made himself an anachronism.
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