I’m a bit late in getting to Canada and delving into the whole Shea Hillenbrand/Ted Lilly/John Gibbons Toronto dysfunction thing, but I hope that the readers will indulge me a look back at one of the classic manager-player relationships gone wrong. The fact is, whatever the transgressions of the player, the manager is always going to be the loser when it comes down to a fight.
Miller Huggins is little remembered today. When he does come up, the diminutive Yankees manager is often recalled as the helpless foil to Babe Ruth and a carousing cadre of drunken pinstripers. In truth, Huggins was as hard-nosed as anyone in the game, certainly more so than Ruth, who tended to fold up when confronted by authority. It’s how Huggins was able to survive years of dealing with both his players and an ownership tandem that was divided against him. Huggins had been hired by one-half owner Jacob Ruppert when his partner Til Huston was out of the country doing the crazy dance that was then sweeping the globe, World War I. Huston took his revenge on Ruppert by undermining Huggins whenever possible, often by overturning Huggins’ attempts at enforcing discipline.
This situation persisted through 1923, after which Huston finally sold out. Ruppert strongly backed his manager, and Huggins was finally free to professionalize the Yankees. “I wouldn’t go through the years from 1919 to 1923 again for all the money in the world,” Huggins confessed to Yankees GM Ed Barrow.
Huggins couldn’t dispose of the Babe, but everyone else on the roster was fair game. One of Huggins’ first moves was against submariner Carl Mays. This was no small thing; Mays had been the Yankees’ ace. From 1919 to 1921, Mays had gone 62-23 with a 2.83 ERA in a league where the average ERA was close to 4.00.
The long and short of it was that Mays was not a pleasant man to be around, and was “one of the most fervently hated men in diamond annals,” as a contemporary publication put it. While with the Red Sox in 1919, he had walked off the mound in the middle of a ballgame, dressed, left the building, and refused to return. The Red Sox responded by trading him to the Yankees. American League president Ban Johnson objected, insisting that Mays should be disciplined, not traded. The resultant lawsuits and inter-club alienation nearly destroyed the league and had consequences as far-reaching as the league’s slow response to the Black Sox scandal (Charles Comiskey had sided with the Yankees against Johnson) and the trade of Babe Ruth to the Yankees-after the Black Sox scandal removed the White Sox as potential trading partners, there was nowhere else for him to go. In this light, the 1920 incident in which Mays threw a pitch which hit Indians shortstop Ray Chapman in the head, ultimately killing him, was a minor affair.
Mays had also been one of the players given to openly showing his disrespect for Huggins, and the manager suspected that Mays threw a game in the 1921 World Series. With Huston gone, Huggins buried Mays, keeping him on the club but never calling on him. Exasperated by inaction, Mays approached his manager in the presence of sportswriters and teammates and asked, “What’s the matter with me? Why won’t you let me pitch?” Huggins stared for a moment, and then, dripping with politeness, asked, “Why, Carl… Are you still with the club?”
Eventually, Huggins did put Mays in a game. On July 17, Mays started against the Indians, who were still understandably bitter about the whole dead shortstop thing. They pummeled Mays for 13 runs, 20 hits, four walks, and one hit batsman. No reliever was forthcoming. Said Huggins, “He told me he needed lots of work, so I gave it to him.”
That winter, the Yankees sold Mays to the Cincinnati Reds. Finally freed, Mays rebounded in 1924, posting a 3.15 ERA in a 3.86 league, and winning 20 games for the fifth time in his career. As for the Yankees, they spent two years out of the postseason after winning the American League pennant for three consecutive seasons, failing to win in both 1924 and 1925. They were short of pitching, and with Ruth ill for a good portion of the latter season they were short some other things too, but more pitching would have helped.
“Any ballplayers that played for me on either the Cardinals or the Yankees could come to me if he were in need and I would give him a helping hand. I made only two exceptions, Carl Mays and Joe Bush. If they were in the gutter, I’d kick them,” Huggins said not long before his death. What Huggins failed to realize was that he had already kicked Mays, but it would have been better to wait until he hadn’t needed him.
With that history lesson in mind, consider the subsequent Bronx conflict between Ruben Sierra and Joe Torre in 1996. Sierra had been a star at one point, in retrospect a marginal one, but by the tender age of 30, that was no longer the case. Sierra wasn’t hitting, and he had frustrated Yankees coaches by taking up permanent residence on the outer edge of the batter’s box, so far from the plate that he could no longer reach outside pitches. When Sierra refused to change, Torre decided to reduce his playing time.
Torre prides himself on communicating with his players, so he didn’t just drop Sierra from the lineup. He invited Sierra into his office and told him he was going to sit down. The following exchange, loosely paraphrased, took place:
“Why are you benching me?” Sierra asked, distraught.
Torre gave a long explanation, possibly involving charts, graphs, platoon statistics, pictograms, and hand puppets, all of which said, in one way or another, “Rube, you’re not hitting.” Torre finished up by asking, “So, do you see what I’m talking about?”
“Yes,” said Sierra, “but why are you benching me?” He was traded not long after.
When it’s a star, even if the star is shot, the manager can choose to go along to get along. When Leo Durocher took over the Cubs in the late 1960s, he automatically decided (rightly or wrongly) that Ernie Banks was no longer worth playing. “He couldn’t run, he couldn’t field; toward the end, he couldn’t even hit,” Durocher wrote in his autobiography. “There are some players who instinctively do the right thing on the base paths. Ernie had an unfailing instinct for doing the wrong thing… He knew I wanted to get rid of him and it didn’t affect our personal relationship a bit. But, then, why should it?”
As Emerson said, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small managers. (Huggins, at 5’6″, was a very small manager.) When Joe McCarthy became Re Sox skipper in 1948, there was a great deal of speculation about how the authoritarian manager would relate to Ted Williams. After all, Williams didn’t wear ties. The trappings of professionalism, including dress codes, had been a key part of McCarthy’s approach with the Yankees. McCarthy shrugged. “A manager who cannot get along with a .400 hitter,” he said, “ought to have his head examined.”
Now, Shea Hillenbrand isn’t a .400 hitter, and Ted Lilly isn’t as good as Carl Mays was. Yet, when a manager squabbles with his players, he makes a short-term decision when the long-term advantages are really all his. Players are transient. Managers can be less so. Casey Stengel used to say that if a player couldn’t play by the rules, “You just disappear him.” There are no fireworks inherent in making that disappearance come to pass. It’s a seemingly unmotivated act, the invisible hand taking care of business. Even if the conflict is personal, the manager can only lose by making it personal. John Gibbons will no doubt get the point at season’s end.