10 greatest managerial finales ever

This is going to be one of the greatest seasons in baseball history for managerial departures. I talked about waves of managerial retirement in my book “Evaluating Baseball’s Managers, 1876-2008” – (purchase it and find out why Howard Megdal said: “You can’t open this book without learning new information about a group that has, to an extent far beyond that of pitchers and hitters, been subject to mere speculation in the realm of evaluation. A must-read)” – and figured the greatest moments for skipper departures came in 1920, 1950-51 and 1976. Depending on how things work out, 2010 could be the greatest retirement year for baseball managers ever.

Let’s start with what we already know. Lou Piniella is already out. Bobby Cox announced this would be his last year before the season even began. Oh yeah – there’s also Cito Gaston. He’s a two-time World Series champion and it’s been completely lost in the shuffle that the Toronto skipper is on the verge of retirement as well.

The overlooked Cito Gaston looks on.

Now let’s take it to a grayer area. Joe Torre is leaving the Dodgers. He hasn’t closed the door on managing in general, but it’s uncertain if he’ll ever land another job. Heck, there are even rumors that Tony LaRussa might leave St. Louis. It’s just guessing at this point, and even if it’s true it doesn’t mean that LaRussa, like Torre, would be automatically finished as a manger. That said, there is a definite changing of the guard, and all the above men could pilot their last game this week.

Torre and Piniella: one going (?), and the other already gone

With all these departures (both real and potential) occurring, I found myself wondering: What are the greatest games that ever ended a manager’s career? Which managers in baseball history went out in the most exciting contests of them all? Once I had that thought, I researched it as best I could which (obviously) resulted in this column.

A few things to note before diving in. First, according to Baseball-Reference.com, there have been more than 600 managers in baseball history. If you really think I researched all of them, you’re giving me way too much credit. I checked everyone with at least 1,000 games whose career is clearly over. (In other words, I left out current managers, and guys like Bobby Valentine who might still comeback.) I checked the gamelogs for the departed managers. Well, assuming we have gamelogs for them. For guys who left before 1920 there really isn’t much I could do.

Also, by “greatest game” I don’t necessarily mean the greatest game from the perspective of the out-going skipper. From their point of view, a boring win beats an exciting loss. I’m looking at it from the point of view of the fan.

Finally, I should note that it’s mighty tough limiting this to 10 games. In part I dealt with it the way I normally do in my “10 best list columns” – I create ties to toss in extra games. (No, it’s not scientific, but so what?)

Enough of that – now on with the list.

10. The comeback that wasn’t: Red Schoendienst: Aug. 1, 1990. Phillies 11, Cardinals 10.

Trivia question: What is the only team to have three managers in one season who all won over 1,000 games in their career as MLB skipper?

Answer: the 1990 St. Louis Cardinals. Whitey Herzog began the year, but retired in midseason. The team eventually hired future-Yankees skipper Joe Torre. In between, they survived with longtime institutional stalwart Red Schoendienst at their helm.

Early on, this didn’t look like much of a game at all. Philly scored five in the first inning and cruised from there. After six innings, they maintained a comfortable 9-2 lead. But that’s where things started to get interesting.

St. Louis scored three in the top of the seventh and then did it again in the top of the eighth. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, their pitchers continued to struggle, allowing a run in the bottom half of each inning.

Heading into the ninth, Philly clung to a 11-8 lead, but the Cards hitters stayed in their groove. After a one-out walk, Rex Hudler made Philly pay with a homer that made game 11-10. Another walk put the tying run on base – still with only out one. As impressive as St. Louis’ comeback was, they couldn’t clear the last hurdle, and the tying run died on base. Schoendienst could at least say he departed with a strong effort by his team.

Retired as a manager, Schoendienst remains a Redbird franchise icon.

9. Big bash in the final bash. Charlie Comiskey: Sept. 30, 1894. Reds 16, Spiders 16.

This is the only listed game I lack a boxscore for. Thus I can’t really tell you what happened in the course of the game. That said, 32 runs were scored and it ended in a tie. If nothing else, that makes it pretty dang distinctive.

There is an irony in this game. In his wildly successful managerial career, Comiskey prided himself on winning with pitching and defense. He was the first great manager to really emphasis that approach to baseball. Yet his career ended with the greatest slugfest of any finale here. Screwy world.

8. (TIE). Death by 1,000 cuts: George Stallings: Oct. 3, 1920: Robins (AKA Dodgers) 5, Braves 4 (10). Bill Virdon: Aug. 29, 1984: Giants 4, Expos 3 (11).

Both of these were very similar games. In both cases, the outgoing manager’s team seemed to hold a comfortable lead in the late going, only to lose it drip-by-drip, and then finally lose the game altogether in extra innings.

George Stallings is most famous as manager of the world champion 1914 Miracle Braves. This game wasn’t so successful for him. Heading into the bottom of eighth, Boston seemed comfortably ahead 3-0, only to have Brooklyn plate a pair of runs. An insurance run in the top of the ninth for Stallings’s boys seemed to ice the game.

However, Stallings kept starting pitcher Al Pierotti in the game. Stallings firmly believed in the complete game. (His 1918 Braves were the only team since 1906 to go a full year without lodging a single save.) In this game, it blew out on him as Brooklyn scored another pair in the bottom half of the frame to tie it. When Pierotti came back out in the 10th, the Dodgers scored another run, ending the game and Stallings’ MLB managerial career.

Bill Virdon isn’t nearly as prominent a manager as Stallings. Virdon’s main claim to fame is tying the 20th century record for most mid-season firings, with four. Naturally then his last game came in the middle of the year. His Expos led 3-0 after seven, but allowed two in the eighth and one in the ninth (all off starting pitcher Steve Rogers). In extra-innings, Bob Brenly hit a homer off Montreal reliever Rick Grapenthin to finish the comeback.

7. (TIE). Pitchers duels: Mayo Smith: Oct. 1, 1970: Tigers 1, Indians 0. Walter Alston: Sept. 28, 1976 Astros 1, Dodgers 0.

These are two of the best pitchers duels to end a managerial career.

Detroit scored a run in the bottom of the first for starting pitcher John Hiller, and that’s all he needed that day. Normally a relief pitcher (he’s most famous for his epic 1973 season out of the bullpen), this was Hiller’s fifth start and only complete game on the year.

Though Hiller looked a bit off in the first inning, allowing a hit and a walk, he quickly settled down. In fact, he only allowed two more base runners all game. At one point, he fanned seven straight batters. Cleveland’s pitchers surrendered only five hitters and walked none, but couldn’t compete with Hiller’s gem.

The finale for Walter Alston, the only Hall of Famer on this list, was similarly pitching-heavy. Houston scored in the top of the first and that was it for the day as J.R. Richard shut down L.A. The teams combined for eight hits – all singles. Neither squad ever connected for two singles in the same half-inning.

There’s one quirk coming out of this game. Alston, for reasons unclear to me, retired with a half-week to go in the season. Thus Astros hurler Richard had another start to go, in which he threw another dominating complete game win (his 20th of the year), over the Giants, in a 10-1 romp. Why do I mention this? Because San Francisco skipper Bill Rigney managed the last contest of his 2,500-plus game career that day. Richard was the Angel of Death for longtime NL skippers in the final week of 1976 season.

Random comment based on that: Houston’s manager in 1976 was Bill Virdon, whose last game we already saw.

6. The double departure: Ty Cobb and Lee Fohl: Sept. 26: Tigers 5, Red Sox 4.

This isn’t a tie – both managers filled out their last lineup card in the same game. As such, this is the greatest game to see both of the day’s skippers never work again in the dugout.

The game itself was fairly reminiscent of the Stallings-Virdon games already noted. Boston appeared set for an easy win, but botched it up by allowed three (unearned) runs in the eighth and a game-losing final run in the bottom of the ninth. This ranks higher because I’m giving it some extra points for having both managers end their careers in it.

5. Rallying to win: Jack McKeon: Oct. 2, 2005: Marlins 7, Braves 6 (10).

This, the most recent game listed, featured a series of late-inning comebacks traded off between Florida and Atlanta.

Atlanta led 3-1 at the seventh inning stretch, only to see the Marlins put up three in the bottom frame for the 4-3 lead. That lead was short-lived, as Atlanta answered with their own trio of run in the top of the eighth. The 6-4 lead held until the bottom of the ninth, where a two-out Jeremy Hermida homer tied it. The Marlins completed the rally in the extra frame.

It’s fitting McKeon won on a late rally. He was a late bloomer as a manager, and became the oldest man to claim a World Series championship.

McKeon, during his final managerial gig as Marlins pilot.

4. Close and late: Danny Murtaugh: Oct. 3, 1976: Pirates 1, Cardinals 0.

This one arguably belongs in the Alston-Smith tie. After all, they’re all 1-0 games. This contest featured an added bonus making it a bit more impressive: this game’s only run came in the bottom of the ninth – with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, to be precise.

On a personal note, I think there’s something intrinsically cool about a game that remains scoreless deep into the contest. A walk-off 1-0 game beats a normal 1-0 game. This one ended on an RBI single by September call-up Tony Armas. It was the first career RBI for Armas, who went on to twice lead the league in homers. Earlier in the game he got his first career hit.

Random note: This game marks the de facto end of Red Schoendienst’s managerial career as well. The Cardinal manager came back in the dugout two other times as interim manager (including his official finale, listed above), but this was the last time Schoendienst managed with any serious expectations of keeping the job. The later stretches were more about being a loyal organizational soldier.

3. Backing away from the comeback: Darrell Johnson: Oct. 3, 1982. Angels 7, Rangers 6.

Johnson isn’t a particularly well-known manager. He isn’t even the most famous D. Johnson to manage in the 1980s. His claims to fame were piloting the 1975 pennant-winning Red Sox and serving as the first Mariners skipper. He finished out his string in Texas, in a game that had its moments.

Early on, it looked like an easy romp for Gene Mauch‘s Angels as they led 6-0 after four innings. Then Johnson’s Rangers stormed back, tying it in the eighth. It looked like it the Rangers might even take the lead, as they had run No. 7 in scoring position in the top of the ninth, but stranded him there. Instead, the Angels won it in the bottom of the ninth on a walk-off HR from Gary Pettis.

This proved to be the only walk-off homer Pettis ever hit. For those old enough to remember him, that isn’t particularly surprising. In 11 years, Pettis only connected for 21 homers. However, this homer wasn’t merely his sole walk-off, it was also his first career hit. NICE!

It’s similar to the Schoendienst game in that the comeback never quite got there, but at least this one tied it up, and also made it a lot closer a little earlier. Besides, this had a walk-off homer run.

2. Going out with style: Roger Craig: Oct. 4, 1992: Giants 6, Reds 2 (13).

There’s nothing quite like a long, hard, extra-inning game decided by a grand slam. Well, that’s what happened in this game. Too bad the slam came in the top of the 13th inning. It would have been perfectly awesome and awesomely perfect to end a managerial career with a walk-off grand slam victory.

1. Oh look – an actually historically important game. Fred Haney: Sept. 29, 1959: Dodgers 6, Braves 5 (12).

It turns out that no prominent manager ever ended his career in the postseason. (And I’m only throwing in the adjective “prominent” to cover myself – I don’t know of any unimportant ones who did either.)

The closest any skipper came was Fred Haney in 1959. When the regular season ended, the Dodgers and Braves stood tied atop the NL standings. In response, they played a best-of-three series that officially counted toward regular season stats (just as the Bobby Thomson game before it and the Bucky Dent game later, among other similar contests.) The Dodgers won the first game, making this a must-win affair for Haney’s boys.

All day long, it looked like Milwaukee’s game to lose. The Braves scored two in the top of the first, and gradually built their lead from there. Heading into the bottom of the ninth, they possessed a commanding 5-2 lead. They only needed to record three outs before allowing three runs to force the winner-take-all Game No. 157.

It didn’t happen. The Dodgers began the inning with four consecutive singles to make it a one-run ballgame with the tying run on third. A sacrifice fly brought that run home and extra innings awaited. Both teams loaded the bases in the 11th inning, but neither scored. However, in the bottom of the 12th, despite two quick outs to begin the inning, the Dodgers put together the game-winning rally on a walk and two hits.

For Haney, it was the end of his career. For Milwaukee, it was much worse. This marked the close of the window for them. They had a great stretch in the 1950s, but wouldn’t seriously factor in another pennant race again until the coming of divisional play.

Random note: Fred Haney played third base for Lee Fohl’s Red Sox in the Fohl-Cobb finale.

Will Bobby Cox become the first noteworthy skipper to leave the game in the postseason?

To date, those are the best games a manager ever went out on (as determined by the most scientific method possible: me picking them). If nothing else, these contests provide an idea of what Cox, Gaston et. al. have to contend with if they are to go out with one of the most exciting finales in history.

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  1. gdc said...

    “last time Schoendienst managed with any serious expectations of keeping the joke” was a typo.

    The Cobb game didn’t have the year (1926).  Cobb not only played in that game (PH out) but played two more years with Philadelphia after that.  I suppose it was not known that would be his last day as a Tiger or they probably would have played it up and had him start the game.

  2. Rob McMillin said...

    Fascinating stuff with a lot of Dodger bits included.  Alston’s firing with a week to go remains one of the franchise’s great mysteries. Nobody in a position of power has spoken about it, to my knowledge, and the surviving individual who might best know of it, Peter O’Malley, isn’t speaking.

  3. David P. Stokes said...

    “Alston’s firing with a week to go remains one of the franchise’s great mysteries. Nobody in a position of power has spoken about it, to my knowledge, and the surviving individual who might best know of it, Peter O’Malley, isn’t speaking.”

    I’ve seen nothing that would suggest that Alston was fired, rather than retiring voluntarily.

    Assuming that he did leave voluntarily, he may have chosen to leave before the end of the season because the date of his final game as manager had some sentimental significance to him.  It was the 40th anniversary of his only big-league at-bat.

  4. Chris J. said...

    About Leo the Lip.

    His last game came in Houston, not Chicago.  His last game was good, but not great.  Don Zimmer is the former Chicago Cub manager who almost made the list: a 2-1 victory in 10 innings.  I guess they decided to fire him before the game.  Birdie Tebbetts went out the same way.

    If anyone cares, here’s Leo’s last game:

    On Alston
    – It was the anniversary of his only PA?  That makes sense why he’d leave then.  My first thought was that it was their last home game, but it was in the middle of a series.  (LA beat Houston 1-0 the next day).

  5. Kevin A. said...

    How could Dick Howser’s final game not be on this list? It was the 1986 All-Star Game. He managed the AL team, and before the second half began, he was diagnosed with the brain tumor….and never managed another regular season game.

  6. Chris J. said...

    Sorry about leaving the year out of the Cobb-Fohl game.

    Bob – AWESOME find.  I’d put that #3 behind Haney and the absent Shotton game.

  7. John said...

    How about Brooklyn skipper Burt Shotton in 1950?  In the last game of the season the pennant was on the line.  Richie Ashburn’s throw from centerield cut down the winning run at the plate, then the Whiz Kid Phillies won in extra innings on a Dick Sisler homer to win the pennant.

  8. Chris J. said...

    Several great comments here.

    Burt Shotton—GREAT catch.  Definately belongs on the list.  In fact, he should be #2 easily.  Thanks for catching that oversight.

    Dick Howser – I didn’t know his last game was the All-Star Game.  I’m not a huge ASG fan, but I can see the argument for that one.

    Alston’s end.  I know the Dodgers didn’t want to lose Tommy Lasorda, who was a hot managerial prospect back then.  The O’Malleys may have been nudging Alston out without firing him.  That sort of thing is common in many lines of work.  I still don’t get the weird four-days left departure.  If it was the anniversary of his only game, that would make sense.

  9. Aaron Cohen said...

    Regarding Alston’s departure, Alston announced his retirement near the end of the 1976 season.  A few days later, the team announced that Lasorda (then the 3rd base coach) would be the manager in 1977.  Alston then decided that Lasorda might as well take over immediately, with (if I remember correctly) four games left in the season.  At least that was what was announced and reported.  There was speculation that the Dodgers might have encouraged Alston to retire, but no hard evidence of this.  As for Alston’s early departure, I take him at his word that once Lasorda was named as his successor and the Dodgers were long eliminated from the race, he felt that was the best time to bow out.

  10. Jim Clark said...

    If you want a dominating pitching performance for a manager in his last game, here’s an interesting one. Mike Cubbage replaced Bud Harrelson for the last seven games of the 1991 season. On the last day of the year, October 6th, David Cone pitched a 9 inning 3 hit 19 strikeout shuout. The game was notorious because later a woman who spent the night with Cone accused him of assaulting her. The police investigated and dismissed her accusations.

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