Eric Wedge’s firing in historic perspective

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Eric Wedge. Random fact: Cleveland hasn’t hired someone with previous MLB managerial experience since John McNamara in 1990. (Photo from Icon Sports Media)

Another week, another fired manager.

Last time it was Cecil Cooper of the Houston Astros. This time it’s Cleveland’s Eric Wedge. At least Wedge can ride out the season, as the team allowed him to stay on for the final games.

The subject of baseball managers fascinates me. Well, it damn well better given that I spent a few years researching and writing a book on them: “Evaluating Baseball’s Managers, 1876-2008,” which will be published by McFarland later this year. That said, I frankly know very little about Wedge. I don’t follow the Indians and can’t give any sort of detailed analysis of him. He isn’t one of the 89 managers I covered in depth in my book.

All I can say about him is some exceedingly general comments. I noted in my column last week that I believe skippers are fundamentally managers of men and only secondarily of the game. As a result, I’m less interested in how often they bunt and more concerned with if they get the most from their players.

My main belief is that the highest compliment you can pay a manager is that you can’t imagine his teams doing better than they did year after year. Conversely, the top insult one can hurl at a skipper is that given the talent on hand, they should’ve won more games than they did. By that approach, Wedge wasn’t much of a skipper, as his Indians always seemed to do worse than anyone would have guessed.

While I don’t have much to say about Wedge himself, I can talk at length on his firing.

His firing

Wedge, as many have already noted in and out of Indian Nation, sure seemed like he lasted a long time given how meager his achievements were. Not only did he post just two winning seasons during the seven he was in charge, but the Indians went to the postseason only once in that time, and they failed to take the pennant then, falling in seven games to the Red Sox in the 2007 ALCS.

At the time of his firing, only four men had longer tenures with their teams: Mike Scioscia, Tony LaRussa, Bobby Cox, and Ron Gardenhire. All these men have made numerous postseason trips and are far better regarded than Wedge. Gardenhire is the only one without a World Series ring, but his team is constantly fighting for a division title.

What are the odds someone lasts that long on the job without winning a pennant? Let’s look into this.

First, Wedge is only the fifth manager to complete exactly seven seasons with one franchise. The others are Jim Mutrie with the New York Giants, Ned Hanlon with the Baltimore Orioles, Gene Mauch with the Montreal Expos, and Art Howe with the Oakland A’s.

That’s too small a sample size to tell us anything. (It’s even worse than it looks given that the tenures of Mutrie and Hanlon were shaped by some very bizarre ownership arrangements that have no modern analogy. The Giants owner also owned a team in a rival league and kept Mutrie there for a while and in 1899 Hanlon left for Brooklyn and took half the Orioles with him due to syndicate ownership). It’s worth noting, however, that none of the post-1900 managers ever brought a pennant to their teams.

Increasing the sample size to guys who served between six and eight years provides us 42 managers. Of that batch, 25 were fired without winning a pennant. (Note: both categories include Ron Gardenhire, who will start his ninth season in 2010. As I write this, Minnesota just tied Detroit for first place in the AL Central and will be playing a one-game playoff Tuesday. I have no idea what’ll happen from there, but at this moment he hasn’t claimed a pennant. It looks like six to eight years is a common time for pennant-less managers, such as Wedge, to lose their jobs.

What about guys who lasted longer than eight years? In baseball history, 43 have lasted that long. There are actually two different guys to track, however. First, you need to note those who never won a pennant. That’s obvious. Second, you have to account for anyone who didn’t win a pennant until their ninth year or longer. After all, the point is to see if it’s normal for someone to last a long time without winning a pennant, and no one knows in advance if a manager will win it in season nine.

Of the 43 managers who made it at least eight years and one game, eight never won a pennant with the club, and three more didn’t win it until year nine or later. In all, 11 of 43 or approximately one-fourth, failed to win a pennant. From this angle, it looks like Wedge was fired at the normal time.

Getting more in-depth

Let’s look at the longest tenures by men without pennants and see why they were able to last so long. In all, 26 men didn’t win a pennant in their first seven years on the job. Here they are, their teams, how long they lasted (until their departure or pennant), and if they made it to the World Series:

Manager	        Team	Tenure	   Pennant?
Jimmy Dykes	CWS	12+ years	No
Joe Cronin	BOX	12 years	Yes
Harry Wright	PHI	12 years	No
Lou Piniella	SEA	10 years	No
Dusty Baker	SFG	10 years	Yes
Felipe Alou	MON	9+ years	No
Clark Griffith	WAS	9 years	        No
Billy Barnie	BAL	9 years	        No
Tony LaRussa	STL	9 years         Yes
Gene Mauch	PHI	8+ years	No
Bill Rigney	CAL	8+ years	No
Ron Gardenhire	MIN	8 years	        No
Ralph Houk	NYY	8 years	        No
Bucky Harris	WAS	8 years	        No
Jimmy McAleer	STB	9 years	        No
Bill McKechnie	BOB	8 years	        No
Phil Garner	MIL	7+ years	No
Patsy Tebeau	CLV	7+ years	No
Bobby Valentine	TEX	7+ years	No
Bill Virdon	HOU	7+ years	No
Eric Wedge	CLE	7 years	        No
Art Howe	OAK	7 years	        No
Ned Hanlon	BAL	7 years	        No
Gene Mauch	MON	7 years	        No
Jim Mutrie	NYG	7 years	        No
Lou Boudreau	CLE	7 years	        Yes

Clearly, ample precedent exists for someone to last as long or longer than Wedge without a pennant. However, looking solely at pennants claimed isn’t especially precise. Most notably, almost all the names above have certain things going in their favor that didn’t exist for Wedge.

Either they had reputations before coming to the franchise in question, or they kept their teams constantly in contention, or no one really expected the team to compete. None of those factors can be said for Wedge.

Looking at the groups above, some can be explained by ownership oddities, as was the case for Hanlon and Mutrie. It also explains Tebeau, who was another whose tenure ended in the syndicate ownership of 1899.

Two men were in the happy position of not only being managers, but also owners: Billy Barnie of the 1880s Orioles and Griffith with the Senators.

Joe Cronin was in the next best position. The owner loved him. Also, he won a pennant with the Senators in 1933, before becoming Red Sox manager the next year. Besides, the Red Sox were a traditionally terrible franchise and Cronin kept them in contention year-in, year-out. Also, teams were less likely to fire managers during WWII, when both Cronin and Dykes ran their respective Sox.

That last point also applies to Lou Piniella. The Mariners had zero winning seasons before he arrived, but normally contended under him. Several others ran teams no one thought had a chance regardless of their manager, including Jimmy Dykes’ White Sox, and Felipe Alou‘s Expos.

A few of the above had tremendous reputations before they began this particular managerial reign. Tony LaRussa had already won a World Series and was considered a genius, Harry Wright was the grand old man of managing, and both Bill McKechnie and Bucky Harris had begun assembling their Cooperstown credentials.

Also, though he’s not considered a great now, Ralph Houk had the best start any skipper ever had to his career. He won 109 games and a world title in his first year, took another World Series trophy in his second season, and claimed the pennant in year three. He then went into the front office, but had enough reputation when he returned to the dugout to survive much of New York’s pennant-less drought.

Mauch, the only man to appear on the list twice, quickly earned a reputation as a genius in his career, and maintained it until he retired. Similarly, Bobby Valentine quickly made a name for himself with the once hapless Rangers. Mauch’s Montreal stint and Rigney’s Angels experience both benefited from another lurking variable: Both teams were expansion clubs and as such no one thought they would win too much too quickly.

Several others survived by constantly keeping their teams in contention, as was the case with Dusty Baker‘s Giants, Ron Gardenhire’s Twins, and even Art Howe’s A’s.

Only a handful make any sort of comparison for Wedge: Jimmy McAleer of the 1900s Browns, Phil Garner with the Brewers, Bill Virdon with the Astros, and Lou Boudreau with the 1940s Indians.

Even some of them had advantages over Wedge. Boudreau, for instance, was a popular player at the time. Garner might belong with Dykes and Alou as managers of teams not expected to compete. Certainly Milwaukee wasn’t picked to come in first as often as the 21st Century Indians have been. (Then again, Wedge actually took his team to an ALCS and almost made another playoff appearance, which evens things out some.)

The above demonstrates two things. First, it isn’t entirely unprecedented for someone in Wedge’s position with his accomplishments to last so long on the job. Second, it’s pretty damn rare. Ultimately, if Wedge wasn’t quite an extreme outlier at lasting as long as he did despite lacking tangible results, he would have become such an oddity had he lasted much longer.

Wedge’s future

One other feature worth looking into is what the crystal ball holds for Wedge’s future. On the one hand, a manager fired after several years of disappointing performances and no postseason trophies is never guaranteed a future managerial gig.

On the other hand, he’s still a very young manager. When the Indians hired him, he was only 35 years old. That gives him an edge.

What are precedents for a manager like Wedge not getting hired again? Should someone who lasts seven years with his first team expect future employment in the profession?

What I want to look up are the longest debut tenures by skippers who never had a second go-around. Here are the longest ones:

Manager	       Team	Tenure
Walter Alston	LAD	23 years
Tommy Lasorda	LAD	19+ years
Tom Kelly	MIN	15+ years
Hughie Jennings	DET	14 years
RedSchoendienst	STL	12 years
Mike Scioscia	LAA	10 years
Ron Gardenhire	MIN	8 years
Tris Speaker	CLE	7+ years
Eric Wedge	CLE	7 years

(nitpick: Alston technically came four games short of 23 years, but close enough).

Not surprisingly the Dodger duo of Alston and Lasorda top the list. They aren’t good comps for Wedge, though. Both lasted long enough with their first team to earn a plaque in Cooperstown and both retired voluntarily, never seeking work in another dugout. That was essentially the case for Tom Kelly, as well. He walked away on his own terms, not because he couldn’t get hired.

Jennings and Schoendienst both technically worked a second time, but I don’t consider them real managerial efforts. Jennings lasted 14 years as Tiger skipper, but afterward was contents to serve as John McGraw‘s bench coach with the Giants. He twice took over when McGraw had to miss time, but that wasn’t a real effort to rejoin the profession. No one was going to force McGraw out of the Giants job. Like Kelly and the Dodger boys, Jennings wanted to stop managing.

Schoendienst served for 12 years as Cardinals manager before taking another role with the franchise. Always the good organizational soldier, he twice served as interim manager for them, but he too wasn’t really trying to rejoin the ranks. Like the others, he never seriously sought managerial work again.

Scioscia and Gardenhire don’t really count because they’re still active. Who knows what will happen with them? The key note is that with Gardenhire we’re down to someone who has lasted just one year more than Wedge did in Cleveland – and we still can’t find a man who couldn’t get a second job if he wanted one.

That leaves us with only one other name left above Wedge: Tris Speaker.

This is fascinating, if you know the rumors around his dismissal. Both Speaker and Ty Cobb were player-managers for generally successful AL teams in the 1920s, but both abruptly resigned their posts after the 1926 season.

That same off-season, a former player accused them of dumping games for money late in one season. Commissioner Kenesaw Landis investigated and found them innocent. The rumors claimed they were ordered to step down as managers and never work again in exchange for the favorable verdict. Supposedly, Landis was afraid for the game’s image if two big stars were implicated in scandals so soon after the Black Sox affair.

There’s no evidence that’s the case and some historians, including Bill James, dismissed the rumors, but this is fascinating to see Speaker so high up this list. If there was nothing to the story, then he had the longest debut tenure in baseball history by a manager who clearly walked away from the profession.

If Wedge never works again, he’d have the next longest rookie tenure. The above evidence all indicates he should work again, though. You can point to something unusual with every single man above: either they walked away, or they’re still around, or there’s some weird and murky scandal. Wedge has none of that, and so will either get picked up or become an outlier.

That said, one fact makes me wonder if Wedge will in fact become the outlier. You see, the next longest tenure by someone who never managed again belongs to Mel Ott, who might just be the best comp for Wedge among all those listed.

Wedge was never a great player like Ott, but both were organization men. Ott first became a Giant as a teenager, and managed them at the end of his playing career and beyond. Wedge played for other clubs, but since hanging up his spikes he’s worked only for the Indians. This was the 41-year-old’s 12th straight season in the organization.

Second and most importantly, both had reputations as decent human beings. Wedge is considered to be a class act and a likable person.

Ott was the original nice guy who finished last. That is literally true. One day in the 1940s, Dodgers manager Leo Durocher looked at Ott’s Giants, noted they were nice guys, and then said they’d come in last. “Nice guys finish last” was how the reporters quoted him (though Durocher claimed it was two separate thoughts).

Wedge has a better record than Ott, but I’m not sure he has a better reputation.

References & Resources
I went old school and looked in a baseball reference book. It’s easier to look up eight-year tenures when it’s just a matter of flipping a couple pages than it would be if I had to click on every damn manager who lasted 1,000-some games. Thank you, ESPN Encyclopedia.

The Speaker story came from one of the old Bill James books, probably the Historical Abstract; maybe the Bill James Guide to Managers.

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Comments

  1. Mike Emeigh said...

    Chris:

    FYI, Speaker managed for two seasons in the minors after his major league tenure. I do think that he would have managed again had someone asked.

  2. Scafeets said...

    I’m no Indians fan; but if I was a fan of the team that unloaded Cliff Lee, C.C. Sabathia, Victor Martinez, Carl Pavano, etc. I’d be calling for the head of the GM—not the manager.

  3. Ian said...

    Actually, the Mariners had one winning season before Piniella: 1991. They rewarded their manager (Jim Lefebvre) by firing him.

  4. Kahuna Tuna said...

    Joe Cronin was in the next best position. The owner loved him.

    The owner you’re referring to, Tom Yawkey, certainly did love Joe Cronin.  Cronin was his son-in-law.

  5. Mike Emeigh said...

    The owner you’re referring to, Tom Yawkey, certainly did love Joe Cronin.  Cronin was his son-in-law.

    Cronin was Clark Griffith’s son-in-law, not Yawkey’s.

  6. Gerry said...

    “Also, teams were less likely to fire managers during WWII, when both Cronin and Dykes ran their respective Sox.

    “That last point also applies to Lou Piniella.”

    Say, what?

  7. Thomas Beck said...

    Scioscia and Gardenhire aren’t going anywhere, and even if they were, does anyone doubt that either could get a job somewhere else if he wanted it? I don’t.

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