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July 21, 2009
You Could Look It Up
A Nationals Disgrace?
With their sixth consecutive loss on Monday night, the Washington Nationals dropped their season winning percentage to .283. This is a very special record to have. In the modern history of baseball (1901 to present), only 14 teams have had a winning percentage of .283 or lower. The most recent of these was the 2003 Detroit Tigers. The worst winning percentage of the 20th or 21st centuries belongs to the 1916 Athletics, a team of rookies and sandlot players thrown together by Connie Mack after a thoroughgoing purge of the roster. That team went 36-117, a winning percentage of .235. The Nationals won't fall that far, of course-although it's mathematically possible as long as they maintain their current streak. This is probably not what Nationals ownership had in mind when they had Manny Acta canned going into the All-Star break.
Acta is well-regarded in baseball circles, and it is traditional at times like these to suggest that he has a comeback in him, that with the proper organization, one with more than the puddle-thin depth of the Nationals, his skills might find greater expression. Typically, one might cite Casey Stengel, who in his own words had to go "up and down the ladder a few times" with the Dodgers and Braves (not to mention the minor league Mud Hens, Brewers, Blues, and Oaks) before finding success with the Yankees. To bolster the way circumstances affect managers as much or more as managers affect circumstances, you might even quote Stengel, winner of the Sporting News 1949 Manager of the Year Award, to Billy Meyer, the 1948 winner. "Isn't it funny, Bill," he asked, "how all of a sudden I got so smart and you got so dumb?" Meyers' Pirates had just completed the journey from a pleasantly surprising 83-71 to a disappointing 71-83.
That's one way of pursuing that issue, but there are others. One more applicable to Acta would be to discuss the Phillies of the 1920s, '30s, and '40s. After all, none of Stengel's teams, even those Dodgers and Braves clubs, was that bad. He had no 100-game losers, no .300 teams. They weren't horrible teams, they just weren't contenders. In contrast, the Phillies had horrible teams. Between 1917, when they went 87-65, and 1949, when they went 81-73, they had one winning season. That's 30 losing teams in 31 seasons. Six of those clubs won 30 percent of their games or less, making the short list of worst units of all time. These included 1928 (43-109), 1938 (45-105), 1939 (45-106), 1941 (43-111), 1942 (42-109), and 1945 (46-108). Despite this, the pace of managerial change was rather slow. There was a flurry of firings at the beginning of the period when it became clear that the Phillies were in a long-term fugue state, with Pat Moran, manager of the pennant-winning 1915 club, yielding to Jack Coombs for the 1919 season. (More on Moran in a moment.) Coombs lasted just 62 games, going 18-44, and passed the baton to slugger Gavvy Cravath; he got about a year and a half, only to be replaced in 1921 by Wild Bill Donovan. The team went 25-62 under Donovan, and he was replaced by Kaiser Wilhelm. Wilhelm didn't do any better with the Phillies than he did with the Triple Entente, and Art Fletcher took over in 1923.
The position was stable for awhile after that. The combative Fletcher got four seasons before being let go. (More on him in a moment as well.) Stuffy McInnis got one year, 1927, before being replaced by Burt Shotton. The Phillies went 58-93 in Fletcher's last season, 51-103 in McInnis's year at the helm, and then 43-109 in Shotton's inaugural season. Shotton lasted six years, and twice lost 100 games, but he also brought in the 1932 team that, at 78-76, was the only time the Phillies would post a winning record in over 30 years. (More on Shotton in a moment.) Shotton was replaced by Jimmie Wilson. Wilson stayed five years, making a lasting contribution by converting third baseman Bucky Walters into a pitcher. (We'll get back to Wilson.) Offseason dentist Doc Prothro got three years starting in 1939.
At that point, things became unstable again as the Phillies went through three owners in a one-year period. Hans Lobert was hired for the 1942 season by owner Gerald P. Nugent, who was only running the team because William Baker, the owner from 1913 to 1930, left a controlling interest in the club to his secretary, Nugent's wife. He was forced out by the National League in 1943, and the club was sold to lumber magnate William Cox. He replaced Lobert with one of the few experienced, veteran managerial imports they've had in their entire history, Bucky Harris. Unfortunately, Harris and Cox couldn't get along, so Harris was terminated after 90 games, a move which precipitated an abortive Phillies strike in his support. Harris also had the pleasure of calling the owner an "All-American jerk" in the press. (More on Harris in a moment.) Fat Freddie Fitzsimmons took over.
Fitzsimmons outlasted Cox-in discussing the reasons for his firing with reporters, Harris let it slip that Cox liked to bet on Phillies games. Cox was thrown out of baseball, which led to the Carpenter family buying the team; they would hold on to the club into the 1970s. Fitzsimmons couldn't last that long. He resigned in disgust 69 games into the 1945 season. )More on Fitzsimmons in a moment.) Enter Ben Chapman. He finished out 1945, managed for the entirety of 1946 and 1947, and then was finally terminated in 1948 for, among other things, being a racist jerk. After a couple of weeks under interim skipper Dusty Cooke, Eddie Sawyer was hired and the Phillies finally began to win again.
Now, to turn back to all of those guys I promised to revisit. Moran, the first manager in the skein, was the only one to leave town with a successful record, having twice won 90 games and taken the club to the 1915 World Series. He immediately landed with the 1919 Reds, who went directly to the World Series. Moran might have added more pennants to his collection, but we'll never know, because the 91-63 Reds of 1923 were his last team-he took ill and died at 48 years old during spring training in 1924. Still, Moran did demonstrate that there was a future after Philadelphia.
Art Fletcher, the shortstop on four Giants pennant winners prior to becoming a manager, went 231-378 (.379) with the Phillies. He'd lost 104 games his first season there. He never had another full-time managerial job, but not for want of being asked. He became Miller Huggins' lieutenant with the Yankees, and when the Mighty Mite unexpectedly died in 1929, Fletcher finished out the season for him. The Yankees asked Fletcher to run the club in his own right in 1930, but he demurred-the Phillies had cured him of wanting to manage. He stayed on with the team through 1945, piling up World Series shares from Joe McCarthy's pennant-winners, pennant-winners which in all likelihood would have been his.
The gruff Burt Shotton had a .403 winning percentage with the Phillies, going 370-549. His worst team was his first, in 1928, when they went 43-109 (.283). Let go after the 1933 season, he spent most of the next 14 years as a major league coach, minor league manager, and scout. In 1947, when Dodgers manager Leo Durocher was suspended for a year for reasons that remain obscure, Branch Rickey, who had been Shotton's manager during most of the latter's days as an active player-they were together eight seasons in all-tabbed him as Durocher's replacement. In this capacity, Shotton became the manager of the Dodgers in Jackie Robinson's rookie year. The club won the pennant that year. Shotton once again took over for Durocher in 1948, when the latter jumped to the Giants, then guided the club to the 1949 pennant. In going 326-215 (.603) with the Dodgers, he won almost as many games in four years as he did in six years with the Phils.
Jimmy Wilson got another shot at managing too, with the Cubs in 1941. He lasted three seasons and part of a fourth. Freddie Fitzsimmons never managed again after 1945, but was a pitching coach for three pennant-winners, the 1948 Braves and the Giants of 1951 and 1954.
Bucky Harris came into Philadelphia with two pennants already on his resumé; as a young player-manager he had guided the Washington Senators to consecutive World Series appearances in 1925 and 1926, winning in the former season. The road after that was less smooth-the Senators dropped into decline, and a five-year stint with the Tigers was disappointing. "If a manager cannot deliver in five years he should resign," Harris said. He lasted but a single season with the Red Sox, and a return to the Senators failed to recapture the old magic. His explosive Blue Jays (as the Phillies were then called) stint should have been the final nail in the coffin of his career. Instead, through a series of bizarre circumstances that intersected with Durocher's suspension, in 1947 Harris was hired away from the International League Buffalo Bisons to become general manager of the Yankees, and wound up becoming their field manager instead. Taking over a club that had averaged 84 wins over the previous three seasons, Harris guided the club to the 1947 championship over Shotton's Dodgers. He went on to manage another eight years in the majors, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1975. On the occasion of his elevation, Red Smith wrote, "There just wasn't ever a more sincere and resolute competitor. There have been managers whose teams won more championships than his, but probably none whose teams came closer to realizing their full potential or who commanded a greater loyalty from his players."
Let us review. During their years of misery, the Phillies had 14 managers, not counting a couple of interim guys. Of these, four-Moran, Shotton, Wilson, and Harris-managed again, and a fifth, Fletcher, turned down a chance to manage the Ruth-Gehrig Yankees. Two of this group, Moran and Harris, managed World Series winners, and one went to the Hall of Fame. Fletcher also joins Fitzsimmons as being a coach with a lot of years left in him in his post-Phillies life. That leaves only Coombs, Donovan (who was killed soon afterwards in a train accident while working in the minors), Wilhelm, McInnis, Lobert, Prothro, and Chapman as failing to go on to greater success in baseball, and Chapman had ruled himself out of future jobs due to his conduct.
Yet, not even Chapman got a fair trial as a manager with the Phillies. With the exception of Moran, none of the 14 did. (Chapman did get a fair trial as a human being, and failed it.) Fundamentally, the Phillies were not a serious baseball organization during this time. Until Bob Carpenter came along, the owners were dramatically underfunded. Any good players the team managed to come up with were dealt for cash; the endless sale was initiated by their selling off Pete Alexander to the Cubs in 1917. After that, no one was safe, and the roster was rarely of major league quality, particularly on the pitching side. The 1928 Phillies allowed 6.24 runs per game. The 1929 team allowed 6.73. The 1930 edition allowed 7.69 runs per game. Sure, those Phillies had Lefty O'Doul and Chuck Klein, but that was pretty much all they had-and they too were soon traded. The Nationals, until quite recently the stepchild of Major League Baseball, have much in common with the neglected Phillies of the early 20th century.
Manny Acta may or may not get another chance to manage, but there is a good chance that if he does, what is cited as a flaw now, his supposed passivity in dealing with players, will reveal itself as an asset with a different roster. In the end, he might not have been suited to the job of managing the Nats, but it's hard to say who could have done better given such a completely unformed pitching staff-with a staff that began the year almost completely lacking in established pitchers, the season turned into Nationals Idol, an endless series of auditions. Just as the baseball men of the past recognized the extenuating circumstances surrounding those who guided the Phillies, they should also see that Acta, whose all-time starting rotation currently consists of John Lannan (56 starts), Tim Redding (48), Jay Bergmann (43), Matt Chico (39), and Odalis Perez (30), couldn't possibly have had a fair shot, just as Ray Benge, Phil Collins, Jumbo Elliott, Claude Willoughby, and Leo Sweetland didn't prove that Burt Shotton couldn't manage in the majors.