April 15, 2008
You Could Look It Up
Hit Second and Like It
It is probably obvious by now-after years of watching managers who are light on X's and O's expertise like Joe Torre and Dusty Baker get employed and re-employed-that running a baseball team is at least as much about managing personalities as it is about calling for bunts and deciding who gets to pinch-hit when. Asked the secret of his success, Casey Stengel famously remarked that managing was about keeping the five guys who hate you away from the five guys who are undecided. Sparky Anderson once said that managing is not, "running, hitting, stealing. Managing is getting your players to put out 100 percent year after year." Even Billy Martin, who was not exactly Mr. Accommodating, once said, "I could manage Adolph Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Hirohito. That doesn't mean I'd like them, but I'd manage them." Why would you want to? Because it's a manager's job to get the most of his talent, even if they are megalomaniacs who wake up each morning thinking about how it would be such fun to crush Poland. Maybe they can platoon against lefties.
Lou Piniella understands that too, hence his decision to restore Alfonso Soriano to the Cubs' leadoff spot after just two regular season games despite devoting half of spring training to penciling in Ryan Theriot first and Soriano second. While Soriano didn't exactly stage a rebellion over the move or declare Operation Shutdown, his unhappiness was clear to observers. Piniella was noncommittal when asked by beat writers if he had capitulated to Soriano's sense of comfort. "I don't know," the normally outspoken Piniella answered, "but we'll just do it that way."
Given the minor differences in plate appearance distribution between the first and second spots in the batting order-about 30 plate appearances over the course of the season-Piniella had to know that this was a battle not worth fighting if it was going to upset Soriano, and the left fielder had gone 0-for-9 in the first two games.
Not all managers have been equally capable of seeing the forest for the trees. One of the most famous, most controversial benchings in baseball history took place with the Pirates in 1927. It seems unlikely that the move cost them a championship given the nature of the opposition, but at the very least it cost them a chance at playing the Murderer's Row Yankees even.
The Pirates had a very good team throughout most of the 1920s, and had won the 1925 World Series under skipper Bill McKechnie. McKechnie had moved on after the team had a disappointing pennant defense in 1926, and skippering the team had fallen to Owen "Donie" Bush. A shortstop with the Ty Cobb-era Tigers, Bush was a tiny man, just 5'6", and he might have tipped the scales at 150 with a dictionary in his pocket. He had come to the majors in 1908, lasted 13 seasons, and immediately found himself much in demand as a manager, ultimately taking major league jobs with the Senators, Pirates, White Sox, and Reds. He was thought of highly enough that the Yankees gave him first crack at replacing the late Miller Huggins in 1930 (he had agreed to sign with the White Sox earlier the same day, and so felt honor-bound to refuse), and the Braves offered him a second chance to succeed McKechnie in 1938. He turned them down, just as he did other offers, because he had become very comfortable managing in the American Association, seemingly set for life with a sporting goods store and a beer distributorship.
Despite the interest in his services, Bush was not a great manager. This was perhaps because the intensity that allowed him to compensate for his small size as a player hindered him as a skipper. In an incident that occasioned no protest in the days before Roberto Alomar, Bush once had his finger cut by a baserunner's spikes while tagging him as he slid into second. The umpire called the runner safe, saying Bush had missed the tag. Bush waived the finger in his face saying, if I missed the tag, how did I get this? "Do you suppose I bit myself?" He then wiped the bloody finger on the umpire's face. That kind of personality was probably not cut out to deal gently with a delicate mix of player egos.
Two-thirds of McKechnie's 1925 outfield would go to the Hall of Fame. Veteran Max Carey, one of the game's great basestealers, played center, while a dynamic second-year player with the curious name of Kiki Cuyler played right. Actually, Cuyler was an all-around curious player, a strange story with an odd name and an unusual blend of skills, then or now. Born in 1898, Hazen Shirley Cuyler got a late start on his pro career, having sat out the First World War at West Point. After the hostilities were over, Cuyler somehow had the option to leave the Military Academy and took it, instead returning to his home state of Michigan to take factory work. When the postwar recession set in, Cuyler found he couldn't get enough work, so he figured he might as well give this baseball thing a try.
Cuyler started off as a pitcher for Bay City, Michigan in the Mint League, but after an injury he shifted to the outfield. He hit .319 there in 1921 and was signed by the Pirates. Playing in the Southern League in 1923, he hit .340 with a league-leading 68 stolen bases, winning the league MVP award. Somewhere along the line he acquired his nickname, which resulted, he said, from his teammates shortening his last name. When a ball was hit his way, his teammates would shout, "Cuy! Cuy!" The local writers picked up on it, and another unique nom de baseball was born.
Cuyler proved to have the speed of a center fielder with the arm of a right fielder. Try to imagine a Johnny Damon doppelganger with more power and the ability to throw. A pleasant man who did not smoke or drink, Cuyler was graceful both on and off the field. "In the days when the Cubs held their spring training sessions at Catalina island off the California coast, Cuyler often entered dance contests" the Sporting News noted at the time of his Hall of Fame induction, "and frequently won cups in the waltz category." Red Smith of the New York Herald-Tribune remembered Cuyler as a "dark, vivid face with a big nose [and] square shoulders that gave the effect of stockiness to a middle-sized figure that moved in a blur of speed across the National League outfields and around the bases."
Cuyler was an immediate sensation when he finally reached the majors in 1924, batting .354/.402/.539 and finishing eighth in the Most Valuable Player voting. The next year, batting third, he hit .357/.423/.598, smashing 43 doubles, 26 triples, and 18 home runs. He set a modern National League record for runs scored with 144, and tied another mark with a 10-for-10 stretch, the last two hits home runs. He finished a close second in the MVP voting, trailing winner Rogers Hornsby (who hit .403) 73-61, and in October he had the World Series-winning hit off of Walter Johnson.
Though the Pirates only finished third in 1926, their outfield added a third Hall of Famer-to-be when rookie Paul Waner joined Cuyler and Carey. That August, an off remark by old-time Pirates manager Fred Clarke resulted in a player rebellion and a major housecleaning that swept away a number of veteran players (including Carey) and McKechnie as well. It was here that Cuyler's problems began.
When Bush replaced McKechnie, he naturally had his own way of thinking about things. McKechnie placed a premium on defense, and he would often sacrifice offense for leather. For example, in the 1924-1925 offseason, the Pirates had swung a major trade to acquire second baseman George Grantham from the Cubs. "Boots" Grantham was a terrific hitter (.302/.392/.461 career), especially for a middle infielder, but his nickname gives away his shortcoming: he was the Jose Offerman of his time. In 1923 he had made 55 errors in 150 games at second; in 1924, he made 44 errors in only 118 games. With Grantham in the fold, McKechnie moved him to first base. Of course, this obliged him to play a more typical middle infield bat at second base. In 1926 that was Hal Rhyne, whose .251/.327/.322 was good for only a .225 EqA in the offense-happy 1920s. Bush had a better idea: he snagged 35-year-old first baseman Joe Harris, a career .318/.406/.475 hitter to that point, off of waivers, and moved Grantham back to second.
Another thing Bush wanted to do was change around the Pirates batting order. He had decided that, as good a hitter as Cuyler was, the team might be better served having Paul Waner bat third. He also had yet another Waner rookie, Paul's little brother Lloyd, who he wanted to give a more prominent role to. Bush had begun the season with a typical batting order like this:
...but he wanted to shift to something more like this:
Lloyd Waner, CF
Bush's preferred lineup took two of the team's best hitters, Grantham (.294 EqA) and Harris (.299 EqA), and buried them, while giving a central role in the offense to Wright, who had a bit of pop for a shortstop of the day, but who was an extremely impatient singles hitter who was having the worst season of his career (.250 EqA). Still, however ugly, it was Bush's batting order, and he loved it.
Cuyler did not love it. In fact, he took it as a personal affront. Years later, he said, "During that season, Bush seemed to dislike me for no reason in the world. He ordered me to bat second instead of third... I said to Bush, 'You're the manager and I'll hit any place you say, but I'm not adapted to second place. I am a free swinger and take a long cut at the ball and, therefore, miss a lot of swings. [Nor] can I place a hit as a man in that position should be able to do.' Well, that didn't do any good. Bush told me to bat second just the same.
"Soon after, I was on first and the batter grounded to the infield. Instead of sliding into second base, I went in standing up so that I could interfere with the second baseman and prevent a double play. It happened that on this particular play the second baseman dropped the ball and, if I had slid, I would have been safe. Because I failed to slide, Bush fined me $50 and benched me... Bush refused to put me back in the lineup. We won the pennant, but I was left on the bench to watch the Pirates lose four straight games to the Yankees without getting a chance to help stop the massacre." (The Sporting News, 2/22/1950.)
Cuyler sulked and slumped, which naturally annoyed Bush. When the aforementioned baserunning gaffe took place in early August, Bush did sit him down, though he later insisted it was something Cuyler had done earlier that had forced his hand:
Cuyler had played center field and batted third in 1926. He wanted to do the same thing in 1927. I started the season with him in center and had him hitting third. Later I decided he should play left and hit second. My reason for making the change was that Lloyd Waner had joined the club and I regarded him a better center fielder than Cuyler. Lloyd was faster and had a better arm.
From that point on, Cuyler disappeared, ceding his playing time to the journeyman Barnhart. Bush largely chose to skip him when it came time to pinch-hit, pinch-run, or substitute. Fans noticed and began chanting for the popular Cuyler during the games. Beat writers began asking questions, which only reinforced Bush in his decision. Ownership said the matter was between player and manager. It would have been a simple matter for Cuyler to back down, but he refused. "I couldn't [give in]," Cuyler said. "It was a jinx spot for me. I simply couldn't hit there, and so why should I tell him that I would agree to it?"
Oddly enough, the Pirates' record after Cuyler's benching more than justified Bush. Sitting in second place, three games behind the Cubs, with a 61-42 record at the moment Cuyler sat, the Pirates went 33-18 down the stretch to win the pennant by a game and a half. Yet, rather than quieting the controversy, the World Series revived it all over again. While it seems to have been taken for granted that the great Yankees of that season, with Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and pals, would have no trouble wrapping up the championship, there were moments within the individual games where Cuyler might have been useful, and Bush's failure to do so stuck out badly. For example, in Game One at Pittsburgh, the Pirates went to the bottom of the ninth trailing 5-4. The pitcher's spot led off the inning. Bush selected 20-year-old outfielder Fred Brickell who had had just 23 plate appearances, as his pinch-hitter. The fans began chanting, "We want Cuyler," but Brickell tapped back to the pitcher.
After the game, Bush was asked why he was letting a personal matter deflect him from using one of his best players. "There is nothing personal in my attitude toward Cuyler," was his response. "He has not been playing up to the quality of the Waner brothers and his replacements, and therefore I feel it necessary to keep him out of the game." (Sports Illustrated, October 3, 1960.)
Similar opportunities to use Cuyler presented themselves throughout the series, but Bush never relented. The Pirates were swept in four straight games, something that probably would have happened anyway, but given one-run losses in Games One and Four, it's not a sure thing that the Pirates couldn't have squeezed out a win somewhere.
After the loss, the Pirates made a bad situation worse by dumping Cuyler on the Cubs for 33-year-old utility infielder Sparky Adams and 30-year-old fourth outfielder Floyd "Pete" Scott. Whatever Bush thought of him, Cuyler had several good years left in hiim, staying with the Cubs through 1935. A .325/.391/.485 career hitter in 949 career games as a Bruin, Cuyler would return to the World Series in 1929 and 1932. This was well ahead of the Pirates' schedule, as they wouldn't sniff another flag until 1960. Worse, they finished second to the Cubs in both of their Cuyler-ized World Series seasons.
Bush was long gone by then, however, having resigned on August 29, 1929. After the Cuyler incident, he had never gotten the fans back on his side, and when the team followed up their first place, 55-30 (.647) record/one-game lead on the Cubs on July 21, 1929 with a 15-21 stretch that saw the club drop to 11.5 games back, the customers were quick to demand his head, and got it. Meanwhile, Cuyler would hit .360/.438/.532 in Chicago, happily propelled around the bases by Hack Wilson.
You would have to wonder if the whole thing had been worth it. Yet, when asked about it after age and Cuyler's early death (at 51) had long since rendered the argument moot, Bush insisted, "If I had to do it all over, I would handle it the same way."
As for Lou Piniella, he comes off looking smarter than anyone in this story-though his best leadoff man is neither Soriano nor Theriot nor Cuyler, but Kosuke Fukodome… and then there is his recent compulsive usage of the born fourth outfielder Reed Johnson. But these are stories for another day.