Great Players, Great Managers?
March 22, 2012 by Jeff Kallman • Print Story •
Most baseball analysts blurt out observations that beg for further examination here and there. Ken Rosenthal, the FOX Sports writer and commentator, and one of the best analysts of the breed, is one of them. Here he is, musing about Don Mattingly's growth as a manager in light of having had "three strikes" against him when he took the command post for the Los Angeles Dodgers last year: "He had never managed in the majors or minors. He had to exert greater authority over players who knew him only as a coach. And he had been a great player — a drawback, seeing as how great players rarely make great managers."
Rosenthal isn't necessarily wrong, of course. And he could have more coming evidence to join his observation that Mattingly could yet become a great manager. Robin Ventura, too, was a great player whose career was compromised by injuries, and he, too, could become a great manager. (He, too, has never managed in the minor leagues, incidentally.) So how right is Rosenthal that great players rarely make great managers?
Casey Stengel was an okay player, not a great one, who became a great manager, at least when he had the kind of players who could execute (one of his own favorite words) his kind of baseball. Connie Mack was likewise, if you throw in that he also owned the team he managed two dynasties' worth. Like Stengel as a player, a kid named Mel Ott learned the game direct from a master, John McGraw, when McGraw — fearing some know-it-all minor league coach or manager would wreck Ott's outside-the-box but unstoppable swing — kept him on the bench next to him, showing him action in spurts for two seasons, before turning him loose to become the National League's home run king. Unlike Stengel, alas, Master Melvin tanked as a major league manager.
Christy Mathewson was the greatest pitcher in the dead-ball National League; he might have become a great manager, had he lived — his Cincinnati teams improved incrementally during his brief period managing them. Clark Griffith was an excellent pitcher in the dead-ball era but — other than one pennant in his first try as a player/manager (he won the 1901 American League flag with the Chicago White Sox) — an up-and-down manager at best. He'd eventually win two more pennants and an unlikely World Series ... as the owner of the Washington ("First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League") Senators.
Did someone say Rogers Hornsby? The Hall of Fame second baseman won a World Series as the player/manager of the 1926 St. Louis Cardinals, but that's the high spot of his managing career. Hornsby, in fact, was dealt away to the New York Giants (in the deal that made Frankie Frisch a Cardinal) when the streets of St. Louis were barely swept clean from the Series celebration. From the written record it's fair to conclude that Hornsby was a so-so manager (charitably speaking) at best, who managed to alienate his bosses, his players, or both, and without apology, even when it might cost him a shot at another pennant. (Which happened once: he was managing the 1932 Chicago Cubs to a pennant until he got dumped in favor of Charlie Grimm that August.)
Speaking of Frankie Frisch, the Fordham Flash was named the Cardinals' manager during the 1933 season, when the Redbirds decided to dump Gabby Street. Frisch had a better turn of it that Street but he couldn't keep the Cardinals from finishing fifth. The following year, Frisch led the Gas House Gang to the World Series rings following an unforgettable pennant race. It was the only pennant and/or World Series win of Frisch's career as a manager. He would have only three second place finishes the rest of his managing career, he'd finish fourth five times and seventh or eighth four times, with a sixth-place finish in there somewhere. A popular and Hall of Fame player, Frisch's wounding flaw — even more gaping when you consider the Cardinals were turning out a boatload of Hall of Famers in that time — was that, once he quit playing to become a manager alone, he'd make the past the paragon of baseball romance and superiority, treat his own incumbents like interlopers at best, and harangue anyone who'd listen that nobody was quite like the guys he used to play with.
Mickey Cochrane might have secured himself as a great manager after winning two straight pennants and a World Series with the Detroit Tigers, not to mention being the American League's Most Valuable Player in the first of those two seasons. The Hall of Fame catcher, however, was so high strung that he had to be replaced in the interim in 1936 when he suffered a nervous breakdown; the playing side of his career ended in 1937 when he was coned by a fastball from Yankee pitcher Bump Hadley. He ultimately returned to the dugout as manager and finished in second place, but he seems to have lost his thirst for field competition and was replaced for keeps during 1938. His 1934 and 1935 seasons were his only uninterrupted seasons as player/manager; as would prove true of ill-fated pitcher Herb Score two decades later, Cochrane as a manager wasn't great because he might have been great.
Walter Alston had only one major league at bat as a player but won seven pennants and four World Series rings with the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers. Whitey Herzog was a modestly-endowed (though tenacious) player who became a great manager, with seven division winners, three pennant winners, and a World Series champion on his resume. Billy Martin was a slightly more talented Herzog precursor as a player; he became a great manager for the game you had to win like an hour ago … but a terrible manager for a long-haul winning project. Gene Mauch was a serviceable player who would have been a genuinely great manager — if he didn't know how to outsmart himself too often. Hank Bauer was a valuable Yankee platoon player who won one pennant and World Series managing the Baltimore Orioles, but nothing much otherwise. Harry (The Hat) Walker was a solid if not great player who was probably better suited to coaching, since he was a better teacher than he was a manager.
Pete Rose was a great player (you know the story about why he isn't in the Hall of Fame as well as I do, folks) but a moderate manager at best. He may have managed the Reds to five straight second-place finishes, but he was often out-maneuvered by his opposing number and was somewhat renowned around the league for being unable to handle his bullpen.
("Some managers think if a guy's not actually in a game, he's not pitching. But if he's tossing on the sidelines, man, he's getting hot … [Rose]'d get [Rob] Murphy up in the third; he'd warm him up in the fourth. Then he'd sit him down. He'd get [Norm] Charlton up in the fifth. Sometimes I'd look down there and he'd have both left-handers going at the same time. Why would you warm 'em both up at once? You're only going to use one lefty or the other! Then, after he'd worked 'em out three or four times, Pete would put one in the game and be surprised he had no zip. "He can't be tired," he'd say. "He ain't pitched in three days!" Somebody counted how many times he warmed Murphy up one year, and it was over 200. I like Pete, boy — but I loved managing against him." — Whitey Herzog)
And the freshly-retired Tony La Russa, of course, was a horror as a player but one of the no-questions-asked great managers. Ever.
It may be rare, but great players, or at least well-above-average players, have made great managers now and then. Here are the men I judge to be the best great-players-turned-great-managers:
John McGraw — His image as the emperor of the New York Giants is so profound even now that it's easy to forget what he was as a player. In fact, he was the kind of player the Moneyballers would love: he has the third-highest on-base percentage ever, behind Babe Ruth (.474) and Ted Williams (.482). He was considered an above-average defensive third baseman, was usually good for scoring 100+ runs a year (his average per 162 games: 151) and walking 100+ times a year. (His average per 162 games: 123. And you thought Eddie Yost was the Walking Man?) Did I mention he was impossible to strike out? (His 162 game average: 23.) McGraw's peak playing career was a mere 12 seasons, and his total playing numbers wouldn't have put him into the Hall of Fame as a player, but the Little Napoleon was a terrific player.
Miller Huggins — The field commander of the first Yankee dynasty was actually ranked by Bill James in 2001 (in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract) as No. 37 among the all-time second basemen. He played in the dead-ball era and pulled up sixth in the voting for what was then the Most Valuable Player award. (The Chalmers Award: Chalmers was an automobile manufacturer who decided to present a car every year, from 1910-1914, to the player with the highest batting average. When the company decided it wasn't boosting sales the way it thought at first, they discontinued it. Huggins finished sixth in 1911. The award's greatest fame: Chalmers ended up giving cars to both Ty Cobb and Nap Lajoie in 1910, when their tie was compromised after the St. Louis Browns were determined to have fed Lajoie extra hits in a bid to beat the hated Cobb, but Cobb finished ahead by a fraction, anyway.) The diminutive Huggins was known particularly for his ability to reach base and steal bases; in fact, he may have invented the delayed steal tactic.
The Mighty Mite took over the also-ran Yankees in 1918 and improved the team each season until he began winning pennants like they were going out of style: six pennants and three World Series titles, and his fourth-place 1918 was the lowest finish the Yankees experienced under his leadership. It didn't always come easily; his Yankee players too often undermined him in the early going. (Babe Ruth once blasted into his office threatening to beat him senseless and, infamously enough, eventually hung Huggins over the rear of a moving train in a bid to get Huggins to rescind a disciplinary fine.) Tragically, he died in September 1929 (Art Fletcher finished out the season; the Yankees finished second behind the launch of the second great Philadelphia Athletics run); the American League cancelled its schedule the following day out of respect for him, and the Yankees erected the first in what became known as Monument Park in his honor in 1932.
It took Hall of Fame voters a lot longer to honor him; he wasn't elected until 1964. Some still thought Huggins may have been the most under-appreciated manager the game had ever known.
Bill Terry — Terry, of course, is a Hall of Fame first baseman; James ranked him at number 26 all-time. He became the player/manager of the Giants after John McGraw's retirement and, after finishing in sixth place in his first such season, led the Giants to the 1933 World Series title over the Washington Senators. He went from there to finish second, third, and then two straight pennants, before his teams dropped to third, fifth, sixth, and fifth again and he'd be succeeded by another player/manager, Mel Ott, for 1942. For awhile, however, Terry did look like a great manager; he had a reputation, in fact, for being a stand-up man when his teams lost.
What probably kept him from managing a little bit longer, however, was his reputation as a cold and sarcastic fellow who had little patience and less trust with anyone he didn't know very well. What's probably helped to obscure his actual worth as a manager, and maybe a player as well, is that, in a much later generation, he would join Frankie Frisch in running a Hall of Fame Veterans Committee that seemed far more interested in getting as many of their Giants and Cardinals buds into Cooperstown as they could get away with, regardless of just how Cooperstown-worthy those buds actually were.
Charlie Grimm — He may have been the best defensive first baseman ever, or at least this side of Keith Hernandez, though he was a below-average hitter for his time and place. If we accept that defense is still terribly underrated in measuring a great player, if not a Hall of Fame player, then it's safe to say Jolly Cholly (he was a classic cutup as a player and, later, a manager) was a great player. He was an even better manager: he took over as player/manager for Rogers Hornsby in 1932, after Hornsby's harshness alienated his players, and won the first of three pennants with a surge that included a fourteen-game winning streak. Grimm also managed the Cubs to pennants in 1935 and 1945, though he resigned in 1938 saying he'd lost control of the team and returned only after a little broadcasting and managing the then-minor league Milwaukee Brewers, where he became yet again a fan favorite.
After he won the 1945 pennant, Grimm had a couple of more lame seasons with the Cubs and the Boston Braves (it probably isn't fair to hang him with the wartime-pennant tag), during which time you could make a case that Grimm, like Stengel, simply lacked the players who could execute his kind of baseball. Jolly Cholly turned things around when the Braves moved to Milwaukee, though, with a new nucleus that included Hank Aaron, Joe Adcock, Del Crandall, and Eddie Mathews, not to mention a pitching staff helmed by Warren Spahn, Lew Burdette, and Bob Buhl. He managed them to four second-place finishes and a third-place finish and basically laid the field groundwork for the Braves' back-to-back pennants in 1957 and 1958; his move to the broadcast booth allowed Fred Haney to step in and finish what he started. After a brief return to the Cubs, as one of the early faculty on Phil Wrigley's infamous "College of Coaches" experiment, Grimm held assorted front office gigs with the Cubs until his death in 1983; his widow was allowed to scatter his ashes around Wrigley Field.
Joe Cronin — Cronin, of course, is a Hall of Fame shortstop; James ranked him as the eighth-greatest shortstop who ever played the game. But he was also a two-time pennant-winning manager, with the 1933 Washington Senators and the 1946 Boston Red Sox. In 13 seasons managing the Red Sox—eleven of which he did while playing shortstop — he finished with only three losing records and six first-division finishes other than the 1946 pennant. He managed the Red Sox to a .539 winning percentage until he moved out of the dugout in favor of former Yankee manager Joe McCarthy after 1947.
Cronin proved far less successful as a Red Sox general manager, however, after a fast enough start. (His aggressive dealmaking helped the Red Sox fight in a couple of memorable pennant races in 1948-49.) He passed on a chance to sign Willie Mays (the Red Sox would be the last major league team to admit an African-American to its major league roster) and ended up as the president of the American League, the first former player to achieve that position. (Bill White would match it in the National League a couple of decades later. But Cronin was the most successful Red Sox manager until the advent of Terry Francona.
Lou Boudreau — Boudreau was ranked the number twelve shortstop of all time by James; he also won the 1948 World Series as the player/manager of the Cleveland Indians. He was a good manager, maybe a great one, and you might care to note James remarking that, in his (James's) opinion Boudreau's Indians may have had the greatest coaching staff in the history of the major leagues: Bill McKechnie, Muddy Ruel, Mel Harder, and (for a short while) Burt Shotton.
Yogi Berra — The greatest catcher who ever played major league baseball (Johnny Bench is his absolute closest rival, and an extreme close at that, but the edge actually goes to Berra) was a better manager than he gets credit for having been. He put in seven years as a manager, won two pennants, and managed both those pennant winners to seventh games in the World Series. Yogi got his first crack at it the year after he retired as a player, handed the Yankee job in 1964. It may have been done in large part out of Yankee desperation to draw back fans who were flocking to the crosstown, tragicomic Mets — thanks in large part to Berra's former skipper Stengel — and, thanks to some of his players getting a little too far out of line with good ol' Yogi, Berra wasn't having a fine time of it until August.
In fact, the Yankees were planning rather deviously to dump Berra at season's end no matter what. They even had St. Louis manager Johnny Keane — himself preparing to leave the Cardinals, thanks to some front-office shenanigans that may have included lining up one-time Dodger and Giant pilot Leo Durocher (who wasn't a great player and was an overrated manager) as his successor — lined up to take the Yankee job if Berra was to become a sacrificial lamb. Leave it to those two star-crossed managers to really screw the pooch. Both the Yankees and the Cardinals surged to win their pennants at practically the last minute; the Cardinals managed to elbow their way in (they almost lost a season-ending set to Stengel's Mets, of all people, before winning the finale for the flag) in the immediate wake of the infamous Philadelphia Phillies collapse. Then the Cardinals won a thriller of a World Series in the bargain.
The following day, Keane jolted a St. Louis press conference at which Cardinal owner Gussie Busch planned to announce his rehiring; instead, Keane handed Busch his letter of resignation. Meanwhile, back in the jungle, Berra walked into the Yankee offices thinking they wanted to talk about 1965, but he walked out with his head on the proverbial plate.
Yogi moved to the Mets as a coach, ultimately getting the manager's job when Gil Hodges died of his second heart attack in spring 1972. He led the Mets (It ain't over until it's over!) to the unlikely "You Gotta Believe!" 1973 pennant (they started that September dead last in the NL East) and damn near won the World Series against the Oakland A's. (The 1973 Mets were the only opponent of that remarkable Oakland run to take the Mustache Gang to a seventh Series game.) Prodigally, he returned to the Yankees after his firing by the Mets in 1975, first as a coach, then as a manager. He managed the 1984 Yankees to third place, then — when the 1985 edition got off to a sluggish (6-10) start, owner George Steinbrenner pushed his customary panic button, dumped Berra after having promised he'd be given the entire season, and announced infamously, "I didn't fire Yogi — the players did." Adding insult to injury, Steinbrenner dispatched reluctant former manager/incumbent advisor Clyde King to perform the execution, causing a rupture between Berra and the Yankees that lasted almost two decades.
Red Schoendienst — Ranked by James as the 28th best second baseman of all time, Schoendienst was signed as a shortstop, but moved to the outfield when he couldn't buck Marty Marion in St. Louis; he led the National League in stolen bases as a rookie. He was moved back to the infield when Lou Klein was injured, then jumped to the Mexican league, and (in James's words) "screwed up his career beyond repair." Schoendiest shone at second base and at the plate; he was a switch hitter who looked the same from either side of the plate. He played on the Cardinals' 1946 World Series champions and, a decade later, helped the 1957-58 Braves to back-to-back pennants while playing maybe his best baseball at age 35. He was knocked out by tuberculosis and sat out 1959; after a kind of off 1960 with the Braves, he returned to the Cardinals and put up a pair of solid seasons as a backup player before becoming a coach.
Schoendienst took the managerial job after Johnny Keane's double switch to the Yankees and won pennants in 1967-68 and a World Series in 1967, managing Cardinal teams whose anchors were Hall of Famers Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton, Orlando Cepeda (who nicknamed the '67 edition "El Birdos") and Lou Brock, supported by such above-average talent as Curt Flood, Tim McCarver, Mike Shannon, Dal Maxvill, Julian Javier, Joe Hoerner, and Nelson Briles. Schoendienst's lifetime record as a manager: 1041-955 in 14 seasons. He was elected to the Hall of Fame himself in 1989, and it may have been a tandem recognition of both his standing as one of the two best second basemen in baseball in the 1950s (with Nellie Fox) and as an excellent manager.
Gil Hodges — Hodges was arguably the best first baseman in an era which didn't produce genuinely great first basemen. (James ranked him number 30 all-time.) As a manager, the longtime Brooklyn Dodgers favorite ("A genuinely beloved player. How many players in each generation are genuinely beloved, all around the country?" — James) trained for his turnaround of the Miracle Mets by managing the Washington Senators to steady improvement in each season he ran the club, even though they still posted losing records. After finishing his playing career with the Original Mets (he was plagued by injuries in 1962 and 1963), Hodges was traded to the Senators in a swap for outfielder/clown Jimmy Piersall so he could take the reins from Mickey Vernon as manager. Poetic justice: He returned to the Mets (to succeed Salty Parker) in a swap for left-handed pitcher Bill Denehy.
After managing them to a ninth-place finish with their best record to date in 1968, Hodges took the Mets all the way to that stupefying World Series conquest. (Asked to explain it all at the end, the usually undemonstrative Hodges grinned, spread his hands, and purred, "Can't be done.") Except for 1968, Hodges never had a losing record managing the Mets, though in 1970 and 1971 they finished with precisely the same record: 83 wins, 79 losses, and a third-place finish in each of those seasons. He collapsed of his second heart attack (he'd suffered one during the 1968 season, too) in spring training 1972 and died at 47. It was said that Hodges, a gentle and decent man renowned for his quiet way, was a terrible stress manager. (As a Dodger player, Hodges was known for strength, once picking two fighting teammates up in each arm and dumping them each in a trash bin … but he was also seen struggling just to light a cigarette because his hands shook so violently.)
He was known for emphasizing fundamental baseball, shepherding (with his coach Rube Walker) solid pitching, using his bullpen as judiciously as his bench, allowing his excellent Met defense to flourish (the World Series wasn't the only time the 1969 Mets looked like the Flying Wallendas in the field), using every last man on his roster (you half expected him to send coach Yogi Berra up as a pinch-hitter in the right situation), playing almost guerrilla-like hit-and-run, and enforcing almost unobtrusive discipline. Which made Hodges's most famous moment outside the Series triumph (and the shoe-polish incident, especially) so memorable: he was once so dismayed by Cleon Jones's apparent lack of field hustle that he pulled Jones from a July 1969 game ... by walking all the way to left field and, without saying a word, escorting Jones to the dugout. The move sent Jones and the Mets a profound message (Jones himself ended up finishing third in the National League batting race with a .340 average and finished seventh in the MVP voting), and they never looked back from there.
Bob Lemon — A Hall of Fame pitcher (Bill James ranked him as number 48 all-time; he was on a Series-winning pitching staff in Cleveland with Lou Boudreau as his manager), Lemon as a manager deserved way better. He was the kind of manager who settled a team down and let them play their game after they'd been through too much turmoil, most notably the 1978 Yankees: Lemon stepped in when Billy Martin yapped his way out of his job ("One's a born liar and the other's convicted," Martin said infamously about Reggie Jackson and George Steinbrenner), ended up winning the pennant and the World Series, then stepped aside to let Martin return during 1979.
Lemon got the call again in 1981, after Gene Michael — fed up with Steinbrenner's threats, veiled or otherwise, challenged The Boss to fire him or knock off the threats — got fired. Again, Lemon got the Yankees to the postseason; he won the second-half title in the strike-interrupted season, but the Dodgers beat the Yankees in the Series. Lemon made his missteps, most notoriously pulling Tommy John with Game 6 tied at one then watching helplessly as the Yankees were murdered, 9-2. His biggest misstep, though, may have been letting sportswriter Bill Madden talk him out of resigning in 1982, when he'd become fed up with Steinbrenner's harassment; he ended up canned again. Lemon had actually had a solid managing career before he walked into the Yankee orbit for the first time, winning two Manager of the Year awards: he'd led the Kansas City Royals to their first winning record in 1971; and, he led the White Sox to a third-place finish in 1977 and a 26-game improvement over the previous season.
There are those — Madden among them — who say Lemon was never quite the same after his 26-year-old son was killed in an automobile accident a month after he won the 1978 World Series, which may or may not have helped exacerbate his coming miseries under Steinbrenner's hammer. After 1982, Lemon never managed again.
Joe Torre — How good was Joe Torre as a player? How does a nine-time all-star (five of them when the fans didn't have the all-star vote) and, statistically, a solid case as an average Hall of Famer strike you? (He won one MVP, finished top twenty six other times, and played several positions above average, though James ranked him as the 11th-best catcher of all-time.) How good was he as a manager, really? Okay, I know the main knock on him is that he wasn't a great bullpen operator (Mariano Rivera notwithstanding), and that he didn't look like anything resembling even a good manager until all those great Yankee seasons. Oh, and let's not forget any and everyone who carped that those Yankee teams really didn't need much of a manager. They said the same things about Casey Stengel, too … at first.
But if you consider that managing probably involves about 65 percent keeping egos in line and massaged at once, you would have to say Torre was a better manager than he looked. He wasn't close to Stengel's league as a tactician or a thinker, but he had this much in common with Stengel: when he had the right players to play his game, he won. (He didn't win the 1982 NL West with the Atlanta Braves by accident, even if you could make a case that that year's Braves were playing way over their own heads — which, if true, would make a case for Torre's managerial expertise.) Clearly, the Yankees saw something in him that made them believe he was the man to continue their resurrection to greatness in the 1990s. Clearly, he had something going for him to lead those teams to four World Series rings in five years (three consecutive), not to mention ten AL East titles and six pennants in 12 years.
Then, after his first second-place finish since 1997 and his ignominious casting-off, Torre took the Dodgers helm and led them to back-to-back NL West titles, before resigning after a fourth-place 2010. It's very, very difficult to look at the record objectively and conclude that Joe Torre wasn't a genuinely great manager when all was said and done. Marry that to a playing career that should have earned him a plaque in Cooperstown in its own right, and Torre won't have much longer to have his induction speech prepared.
Mike Scioscia — The first World Series-winning manager in Angels history was also a very solid major league catcher; James ranked Scioscia as the No. 36 catcher all-time, a distinction he probably earned more with his work behind the plate than at the plate. Scioscia wasn't a fast fellow by any means, but he was an impossible strikeout (in fact, he has the best K/BB ratio as a hitter of any catcher since World War II — it's even better than that of Yogi Berra, who was also an impossible strikeout) and difficult to get grounding into a double play because his bat control was among the best of his time. Remembered mostly as an expert at blocking the plate and as an expert handler of pitching, Scioscia wasn't much of a run producer at the plate, but he did hit one that broke hearts in New York, when he connected against Dwight Gooden and hit one out to tie up Game Four of the 1988 National League Championship Series — after having hit a measly three home runs on the regular season.
He managed in the Dodger system for almost a decade, before realizing the Dodgers weren't going to give him a shot at the parent club, leaving him prone to entreaties from the Angels. He took the helm in 2000 and, two years later, having installed a style of play that included solid pitching and a run-gun-and-stun offense ("If we still have an out, we still have a chance" — outfielder/first baseman Darin Erstad), the Angels barreled into the postseason by winning the American League wild card. Then, they ran roughshod over Torre's Yankees in the division series, upended the Minnesota Twins for the pennant, and out-dueled the San Francisco Giants for the World Series rings. In 12 seasons managing to date, Scioscia has led the Angels to five American League West titles and kept them as a divisional power.
Scioscia has also been a kind of managerial trainer — his former coaches Bud Black, Joe Maddon, and Ron Roenicke have since become respected major league managers, with Maddon already a three-time postseason entrant with the Tampa Bay Rays.
Thus do I make twelve men in baseball history who were both genuinely great players, under one or another definition (regardless of whether theirs was Hall of Fame-level greatness), and genuinely great managers. At this writing, Don Mattingly could become a genuinely great manager in time or the next Mel Ott, a genuinely great player who went genuinely into the tank as a manager. Robin Ventura could go either way, too. And if someone wises up and allows Ryne Sandberg the shot at major league managing he's spent several years earning in the minor leagues, Sandberg, too, could manage his way into a rather exclusive club.