Joe Cronin is a big part of baseball history, having spent half a century in the game as a Hall of Fame shortstop, manager, general manager, and American League president. Cronin’s playing career spanned from 1926-1945, with the bulk of that time spent in the dual role of player-manager with the Senators and Red Sox. Mark Armour, the author of Joe Cronin: A Life in Baseball, sat down with Baseball Prospectus to address the player-manager aspect of Cronin’s long career.
David Laurila: How common were player-managers in Cronin’s era?
Mark Armour: Cronin was hired as player-manager at a time when the concept was making a bit of a comeback. Most managers were players in the early 20th century, but at the time of the stock market crash in October 1929, there were zero player-managers. With money tight, suddenly it seemed like a better idea. By the mid-1930s, you had Cronin, Frankie Frisch, Bill Terry, Jimmy Dykes, Mickey Cochrane, Pie Traynor–generally star players, and many of them won pennants in their dual role.
After the 1932 season Clark Griffith fired manager Walter Johnson, making about $25,000 per year, and gave the job to Cronin, along with a $5,000 raise. Although Griffith loved Cronin and likely thought of him as managerial timber, saving $20,000 was a big deal in 1932.
DL: How did serving in that dual role impact Cronin’s career, and the teams he was with?
MA: I believe that it affected Cronin a lot, especially in his early years in Boston. At the time he became manager, Cronin was a great player, one of the best players in the game–a good defensive shortstop with extra-base power (playing in a terrible hitters park) who drew walks. He was also known as an incredibly hard-working player, a guy who really had no interests other than baseball. Once he became manager, he began to put on weight, which especially affected his defensive play.
In his early years in Boston, the team had a number of veteran players who made his job a living hell. Lefty Grove would turn his back when Cronin went to the mound, Wes Ferrell once walked off the field when an error was made behind him, Bill Werber would publicly question Cronin’s defensive play, Jimmie Foxx would stay out all night. Cronin’s bosses let this stuff go on, and the writers of the time thought Cronin was way over his head with this team. Cronin’s play suffered, and by 1936 some wrote that he might be washed up. By the late 1930s, as some of the malcontents were dealt away and were replaced by younger players who liked him, Cronin began to be seen as a good manager and his play improved substantially, offensively and defensively. After the 1941 season he became a bench player, but this was a decision made largely because he wanted to concentrate on managing–he was still a great hitter.
One can not know for certain, but I believe that if Cronin had never managed he would have been a better player in the mid-1930s and he would have played a few more years as a regular. His teams would have been helped by his better play. As most of the Red Sox malcontents in the 1930s were the team’s best players, it’s hard to say that the issues impacted anyone other than Cronin.
DL: Who was a better player, Cronin or Pee Wee Reese?
MA: Cronin at his best and also probably for his career, although their years of great play did not overlap. What I suspect you are referring to is that the Red Sox controlled the rights to Reese briefly, but let him go to Brooklyn in 1939. A lot of people have blamed Cronin for this, reasoning that Cronin was the team’s shortstop and did not want to lose his job. Cronin later acknowledged that he did not think Reese was big enough to play, and that he was too erratic defensively, judgments that proved to be quite incorrect.
Three things. First, this is inevitable when you have a player-manager, right? One of the attributes that makes great athletes great is their confidence in their own abilities, their belief that they are great and always will be great. Asking a man to judge for himself when his skills have eroded is asking for trouble. Second, at the time of the Reese deal (mid-1939), Cronin was 32 years old and the best shortstop in baseball. He was voted the best shortstop in baseball by the writers in 1938, and would be again in 1939. In 1941, two years after the deal and Reese’s first full season, Reese hit .229 with a league-leading 47 errors while Cronin played in another All-Star game. Reese subsequently passed Cronin and had his own fine career, but one can certainly understand the notion that the Red Sox did not need a shortstop in 1939. Third, Cronin was still a good player when he stepped aside in 1942 for Johnny Pesky. In fact, with Pesky and then Vern Stephens, the Red Sox had great shortstops for most of Reese’s career.
DL: How intertwined are the careers of Cronin and Ted Williams?
MA: Cronin managed Williams for the first six years of his career, the first four of those as his teammate, and then was his general manager for the next 11 seasons. As your readers likely know, Williams had a career filled with off-field difficulties with the press and the fans, and Cronin had to deal with almost all of it, generally not to the satisfaction of the media. (As an aside, when Cronin hired Joe McCarthy to succeed himself for 1948, the press was ecstatic–”Finally, someone that can reign in Ted Williams,” they wrote. But McCarthy liked Williams, too. Williams hated the writers, but he never gave his managers any trouble.) If you review Williams’ most controversial off-field issues (problems with the writers, issues surrounding his military call-ups in 1942 and 1952, his spitting, his bat throwing), Cronin was there for all of it, either defending Williams or bawling him out.
Though they could not have been more different as people, Cronin and Williams got along well and grew to love each other in their later years. The Red Sox had a ceremony to retire their two numbers in 1984, the first two numbers the team retired. Williams always resisted having a ceremony like this, but agreed only because they were honoring Cronin, too. Williams spent most of his speech on Cronin, who was not healthy enough to go out on to the field. Cronin only lived a few more months, but Williams talked to him many times on the phone that summer.
DL: When and why did the player-manager disappear from baseball?
MA: By the late 1930s the role was just about extinct again. Lou Boudreau did both roles for many years with a few teams, but since Boudreau it has been a novelty–generally a bench player. Pete Rose did it for a few years, and played himself more than many people thought he should have. Rose might have killed it off forever.
Although it sounds romantic to think about having a player-manager again, I think teams just gradually realized that the job of managing a team is a full-time high-stress job, one that does not afford a lot of time to things like “batting practice” and “fielding practice.” Cronin’s career was affected, and in Boudreau’s last full-time season he was 31. Other than an interim end-of-season gig, I think we are through with player-managers.