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May 5, 2004
You Could Look It Up
Managers Reconsidered, Part II
As noted in the long ago last installment of YOU, there's not a great deal of data about managers here at Baseball Prospectus. Heck, while our site was being overhauled, sometimes there was hardly any data at all. I don't think any of us realized when we set out to shave the Web site that underneath its fur it was as naked and pink as a newborn babe. For most of BP.com that's a transient thing, but when the site is back to its hirsute self, fuzzy with data, the managers will still be waiting for their day with Woolner, Davenport, and the rest of the numbers guys, because leadership is not easily translated into the cold, hard world of statistics.
Consider this page from a very different kind of baseball encyclopedia:
ULYSSES SIMPSON GRANT
(Hiram Ulysses Grant, Ulysses Hiram Grant)
Season Battles W-L-T AVG Casualties 1861 2 1-0-1 .750 129 1862 16 12-2-2 .813 41,277 1863 11 9-2-0 .818 74,901 1864 28 20-6-2 .750 211,921 1865 17 15-0-2 .941 189,632 TOTAL 73 46-10-6 .790 517,860
The raw numbers don't tell you very much. They don't tell you the nature of the battles, the quality of the opposition or of Grant's own men and subordinate commanders. You can see he won a lot of battles, which is a big hint that his side won the war, but there's not a lot of why here. Similarly, Bucky Dent's sterling page from the Hall of Busted Managers, which lists two quarter-seasons and a won-lost record of 36-53, tells us his teams had five gears in reverse but doesn't indicate his degree of culpability (a little; the team was truly terrible).
Statistics can expand on these records by offering "expected" won-lost records, but these are inadequate to describing, even in a macrocosmic way, the myriad events beyond a manager's control that change the outcome of seasons. Mickey Mantle introduces his foot to a Baltimore chain link fence, as he did in 1963, and there go your projections without any help at all from the manager, unless you want to fault Ralph Houk for failing to say, "Hey, Mantle! Look out!" Statistics can also delineate a manager's tendencies, but with the exception of the occasional Gene Mauch, few skippers are so extreme in their overall statistical fetishes as to bunt their way out of a pennant race.
That leaves the managers to the realm of the historians, who get to put these guys on the couch in the same way that Ambassador Bill Bullitt and Sigmund Freud did with Woodrow Wilson. Managers bring certain quirks of personality to their jobs, prejudices and preferences that influence the way they dispose of talent, something that influences their teams' progress more than any infantile obsession with the squeeze play or the LOOGY (to invoke the unfashionable Freud once again, LOOGYs are the result of premature toilet training).
A manager can't survive on his grasp of the fundamentals alone. As often as not, the fundamentals are a noose by which the inferior skipper hangs himself. It's adaptability that wins the day every time. The last YOU set out to look for these qualities in the 10 winningest (which sometimes means most successful and sometimes means longest-lived) managers of all-time. The first time around, Connie Mack and John McGraw stopped us cold at #2 on the greatest hits list. This week we continue with managers #3 through #5.
SPARKY ANDERSON: FRONT-RUNNER
Americans have many rights, but as many recessions and depressions have revealed, the right to work is not one of them. Conversely, there is no compulsion to stay at a job a moment longer than you want to. If you're not happy, if you can't put the same spirit into the job that you used to, or the job is taking more than it gives back, just move on.
Easier said than done, of course. Every day, many of us trade a little misery for the security of a paycheck. Even when more rewarding fruits are obviously ready to be plucked from the tree, the cubicle we know sometimes feels safer than the office that we don't. Sparky Anderson chose security for the last half-dozen years of his career. Long after it was clear that Detroit ownership had quit on the team, even past the point that the strain of losing sent him home with nervous exhaustion, he stayed on as captain of a sinking ship.
The Detroit farm system's status as an arid wasteland is not new. In 1977 it coughed up Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Lance Parrish, and Jack Morris. As if producing that many star players at once was too great a labor for any mother to survive, it quietly expired. The off-the-shelf farm system that replaced it has been almost completely inert.
The few good players that were filtering up to the Motor City during the Anderson era were quickly dealt. Dan Petry, Mike Henneman, Travis Fryman, and Milt Cuyler managed to stick, but Howard Johnson was dealt away for Walt Terrell, Chris Hoiles for Fred Lynn, Eric King for Kenny Williams, John Smoltz for Doyle Alexander (a defensible move, but still a part of the overall pattern). Rule 5 pick John Wetteland was returned to Los Angeles. The club replaced these players with tired vets like Lynn, Ray Knight, Gary Pettis, Dwayne Murphy, Gary Ward, and Keith Moreland.
By virtue of Anderson's ability to construct high-OBP/low-average lineups around players like Rob Deer, Mickey Tettleton, Tony Phillips, and Cecil Fielder, Anderson's post-1987 teams generally had a few redeeming features (1989's 100-game loser being the obvious exception) and occasionally made feints at competitiveness. Unfortunately, from Petry in 1979 through Justin Thompson in 1997, the organization proved incapable of drafting and maturing a starting pitcher. Steve Searcy, Greg Gohr, Scott Aldred--those were scary times. Acquiescing, Anderson kept giving pitchers like Mike Moore start after start.
Anderson could have moved on; when the Tigers turned in a 59-103 season in 1989, the first losing campaign of his career, he was just 55, a year younger than Joe Torre was when he won his first pennant in 1996. He didn't look it--Anderson looked older at 50 than Casey Stengel did at 70. His exhaustion and his appearance supply a clue as to why he didn't take on another team. Anderson may simply have lacked the strength to start over.
He had already been dismissed once on charges of passivity. After the Cincinnati Reds finished 2.5 games behind the first-place Los Angeles Dodgers in 1978, Anderson, who had won four pennants and two championships with the team, was let go. That September, he had been asked how he felt about his team's chances of winning the National League West. "I'm unconfident," he answered. Reds president/GM Dick Wagner picked up on Anderson's mood at the end of the season:
"We seemed to be on our heels too much offensively and defensively," he said. "You have to take the game to the other club. That's what we've done in the past seasons, but not this one." (Sporting News, 9/30/1978). Never mind that the 1978 Reds were only a tattered remnant of the Big Red Machine or that Wagner's observation is utterly non-substantive. Confronted with a team in decline, Anderson gave the impression that he was drifting.
"There are some guys on this club who deserve second-place money," Anderson said at the end of the season. "Of course, there are also some who could care less." So what about those? "It could be the old story of familiarity breeding contempt," he said, tacitly supporting his own firing. "They start to take you for granted and won't do it for you as they did before. That's why I say that if I can't get this thing better next year, they probably should try someone else."
The Reds chose to take his advice, and ultimately the Tigers did too. Anderson was a front-runner, a manager who could make a good team better, but given a poor team was incapable of being an agent of change.
BUCKY HARRIS: PROXIMATE TO RUDE BEASTS
The 27-year-old starting second baseman for the Washington Senators when he was named team manager, Bucky Harris was called the "boy wonder." He disagreed with the description. "I was a boy, I suppose, but no wonder," he said. "You can't win if you don't have the players. I was no genius." His subsequent record proved this assessment true.
Like Anderson, Harris could do interesting things with a team on the way up, but was not much for tinkering with a weak product. With a good team he was capable of innovation. In 1924, he made Firpo Marberry the closest thing baseball had to a closer--Goose Gossage version rather than Jose Mesa--helping give the Senators just enough of an edge to pass an imperfect Yankees team by two games. In the World Series, he foxed the unfoxable John McGraw into pulling the so-hot-he-had-sunspots Bill Terry from the seventh game by using starter Curly Ogden for one batter and then switching to lefty George Mogridge. With the Yankees in 1947, Harris took Joe Page, a hard-throwing lefty whose lack of concentration had literally driven Joe McCarthy past the point of breakdown, and shifted him to the bullpen, creating baseball's next great reliever. Page was the decisive factor in three straight pennant races, working for the Yankees in 1947 and 1949, against them in 1948. Page loved the nightlife that year.
Page's sour turn in 1948, one emblematic of the whole Yankees team, cost Harris his job in the Bronx. Harris had what Tommy Henrich called a "leave them alone" style of managing. Waite Hoyt told Jack Lang in 1975: "Bucky was no tough guy. He was very considerate. He tried to manage by a player's own disposition and personality. He had basic rules, of course, but he tried to work things out with logic with each player." Charlie Gehringer said: "He was the nicest manager I ever played for--the nicest and the most intelligent." Joe DiMaggio added: "If you can't play for Bucky, you don't belong in the major leagues."
They felt that way because Harris was the antithesis of strict managers like Joe McCarthy and Ty Cobb. In his first spring with the Yankees, Harris's only rule was "Don't get sunburned." The rest was up to the players. "I really don't care what a player does off the field," he said. "If he's able to do his job and gives me 100%, that's all I ask." On one occasion, Harris was sitting in his team's dining car when one of his pitchers sat down opposite him.
"Mind if I have a drink?" the player asked.
"I don't care if you do or how many you drink," Harris answered, "as long as you can pitch. If you can't pitch, you'll be back in the minors before the ice in your next drink melts." Extending his laissez-faire attitude to himself, he kept an unlisted phone number and refused to talk with his bosses after hours. Imagine trying this with George Steinbrenner. Harris' owners didn't react any better.
In Harris' two stints with Detroit and two return engagements with the Senators (Clark Griffith was a sentimental man and loved to bring back old faces), the man who helped invent the relief pitcher and fooled the Little Napoleon was subsumed in the general mediocrity of his clubs. He didn't look to create closers in other cities. Acquiring Marberry for the Tigers in 1933, Harris used him as a starter. He thought about shifting Gehringer to shortstop but abandoned the idea when the Mechanical Man expressed trepidation. Harris finally quit, just as the Tigers were about to turn into a good team. "I'm tired of looking at them, or they're tired of looking at me, because neither of us is doing as well as we could. Get a new manager and they'll win." Harris was dead on, though it helped that Detroit's new skipper was Mickey Cochrane, the best catcher in the American League.
Harris was not quite so perspicacious on other occasions. His endorsement of shortstop Bobby Reeves over Buddy Myer in 1927 taught the Senators to doubt his judgment. His notable bit of strategy in the 1947 World Series, ordering Bill Bevens to intentionally walk the winning run in the ninth inning of Game Four, was a famous disaster. His handling of young catcher Yogi Berra in that series nearly aborted a Hall of Fame career before it began.
Harris' later teams were handicapped by their absolute refusal to integrate. At the end of his career, Harris acted as a shill for the segregationist policies of the Boston Red Sox. While this in and of itself is not proof of Harris' beliefs, it should be noted that his principle employers, Clark Griffith, Walter Briggs, Larry MacPhail, and Tom Yawkey, were baseball's most ardent segregationists. Again, mere association does not prove guilt, but for our purposes it is sufficient evidence of his complacency.
JOE MCCARTHY: DO AS I SAY
A career minor league second baseman, McCarthy gained prominence as manager of the Louisville Colonels of the American Association. He took over the Cubs in 1926 and guided them to the 1929 World Series. The next year he was fired after losing a power struggle with his second baseman, Rogers Hornsby. He was immediately snapped up by the Yankees and never looked back. The Cubs, on the other hand, looked back frequently and are still looking back.
McCarthy was the polar opposite of Anderson and Harris. He was a builder and a rebuilder. When he took over the Chicago Cubs in 1926, the team had not been a serious pennant threat since 1918. They won 91 games in their third year under McCarthy, and were in the World Series in year four. The New York Yankees team he inherited in 1931 was by no means poor but nonetheless required a guiding hand to lead it through a transition period; Miller Huggins was dead, Murderer's Row had aged, and the team needed to find a new identity. McCarthy won a World Series in his second year, waited out the decline of Babe Ruth, then reemerged with Joe DiMaggio and four straight championships. A rare misjudgment cost him a fifth consecutive pennant in 1940, but McCarthy recognized his error, adjusted, and again won consecutive pennants in 1941-1943.
McCarthy had his 10 commandments of baseball, but the first, unwritten rule was his continual insistence on professionalism. His first move with the Cubs was to move Pete Alexander, the fantastic but personally erratic pitcher. With the Yankees he tolerated the raucous Ruth for as long as he had to, then remade the club into a well-groomed unit. "You're a Yankee," he would lecture. "Act like one." In 1937, McCarthy raged through the Yankees clubhouse after a sloppy loss, telling his players that they ought to have been embarrassed by their performance.
"Does he expect us to win them all?" asked reserve outfielder Roy Johnson. McCarthy overheard. The next day, Johnson was gone, his spot on the roster taken by rookie Tommy Henrich.
The promotion of Henrich, rather than the release of Johnson, is emblematic of what was best about McCarthy. He recognized that the only way to keep a winner on top was to continually refresh the roster with young players. "You have to improve your club if it means letting your own brother go," he said, and backed the words with action. He pushed aside the talented Ben Chapman to make room for DiMaggio (and because he found Chapman to be annoying). Needing a third baseman, he took rookie shortstop Red Rolfe, and convinced him he could play the hot corner. Tony Lazzeri gave way to Joe Gordon--at 33, not 40. George Selkirk stepped aside for Charlie Keller.
The error of 1940, alluded to above, represented the one time McCarthy got away from his own program. In 1932, McCarthy had pushed starting shortstop Lyn Lary into a utility role to make room for rookie Frank Crosetti. Lary was the superior hitter--he was the only Yankees shortstop to drive in 100 runs in a season prior to Derek Jeter--but Crosetti was thought to be much better with the glove. By 1940, Crosetti's bat had slid across the barrier from irrelevant to detrimental. Though he batted .194 on the season, McCarthy led him off every day as the Yankees lost to the Tigers by just two games. McCarthy knew he had other options: Phil Rizzuto, then tearing up the American Association with a .347 average, was considered a can't miss prospect. In 1941, when the Yankees ran away with the league with Rizzuto at short, McCarthy could be heard second-guessing his decision to stick with Crosetti.
McCarthy was equally adventurous with pitchers. As Bill James has observed, it is likely that more than 30% of McCarthy's games "were started by rookie pitchers or pitchers who had less than five wins heading into the season." He almost saved the 1940 season in spite of his stubbornness with Crosetti by throwing rookie Tiny Bonham into the rotation starting Aug. 5. In 12 starts, Bonham put up a 1.91 ERA, walking just 13 batters in 99 innings. The Yankees, and Bonham, went 9-3 in his starts.
To this day, Joe McCarthy remains the ideal manager, and if there is a coach out there with his qualities, the first team that snaps him up is going to be a winner. McCarthy had his faults, including weird prejudices against southerners and pipe smokers, and tactically he was no big deal--you find your nine best guys, put them on the field, and let them hit home runs--and if you were a starting pitcher not named Lefty Gomez or Red Ruffing you were kept on an awfully short leash. For all of that, McCarthy was a great leader. His players respected him to the point that everything that the Yankees like to pretend they are, all that "pride and pinstripes" stuff, comes from him. He was adaptable, willing to try new solutions to old problems. He was loyal to his players, but not to the point that he would bench Ben Chapman to play a friend like Earle Combs or keep Lary at short instead of Crosetti or Crosetti at short in place of Rizzuto. McCarthy was always thinking, always trying to be a step ahead. He was always his team's most objective advance scout, which meant he could tell his general manager when he should start planning to replace a player.
The only problem with this level of attention to detail was that the stress of it drove McCarthy nuts. Wrote Sporting News columnist Dan Daniel in 1946, "He hasn't a child. He hasn't the true capacity for having fun. As pilot of the Yankees he was one of the loneliest men in baseball. He had no confidants--not real ones. If he started to become confidential, he soon checked himself. He trusted no baseball writer completely. That was his tremendous handicap and loss." A closet drinker, he went on many a bender in his private railway compartment or his hotel room. We can only imagine him shivering in the darkness, slowly letting go of his self-control, a sight he would never let the daylight see.
At the risk of boring you with an egregiously self-serving plug, many of the managers mentioned in this survey, including John McGraw (in part one), Bucky Harris and Joe McCarthy get a good deal of screen time in Forging Genius, my new biography of Casey Stengel's early managerial career, in bookstores this fall from Brassey's. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, if you like the kind of thing we do here, then you will like the kind of thing we do there. Stay tuned.