This annotated week in baseball history: Feb. 17-Feb. 23, 1963by Richard Barbieri
February 22, 2008
On Feb. 20, 1963 the Chicago Cubs hired Bob Kennedy to be the head man on their team in 1963. This effectively put an end to a unique—and ill-conceived—plan.
No matter where you fell on the political spectrum, this primary season offered a variety of choices in the race for President, a variety unseen in many years. On the Democratic side, the race is still in the air, and three candidates finished either first or second in primaries and caucuses. On the Republican side, the race is seemingly wrapped up, but was even more tightly contested, with four candidates netting a first or second place finish.
But imagine for a moment that instead of having a process to narrow down the candidates and eventually nominate just one, each party decided that, well, most of these people seem qualified, so let’s put them all on the ballot as one big group.
And when one group was finally elected, they would switch off as President, theoretically based on the success or failure of the administration. But instead of switching based on success, suppose these multiple Presidents simply switched in and out with no particular rhyme or reason. McCain for a fortnight, then six weeks of Romney. Fred Thompson for four days. A month of Rudy.
Sounds like a terrible system, right? Then it shouldn’t surprise you to learn the only franchise that ever tried to apply this same theory to running a ball club is the same one that is now going on 100 years without winning a World Series. Let’s look back on the Chicago Cubs and the “College of Coaches.”
Like a lot of really bad ideas, the College of Coaches had its origins in what was actually a pretty good one. In 1960, the Cubs were coming off their third 90-loss season in five years, and also on their fourth manager in five years. Clearly the organization needed a new direction, ideally one it could stick with for more than a season or two.
Elvin Tappe, who had been a Cubs coach for many years, devised a plan to give the franchise a new direction. According to Tappe, his plan would consist of the Cubs employing whomever they liked as manager, but keeping the same coaching staff to maintain a sense of consistency from year to year.
Moreover, Tappe’s plan included a number of coaches who would coach in the minor leagues, all with their loyalty to the organization instead of a manager. At its core, this is what many teams do today, Tappe was hoping to have the coaches preach what we might now call an “organizational philosophy.”
Unfortunately, this being the Cubs, their only real organization philosophy was failure. When owner Phil Wrigley heard about Tappe’s idea he inquired—either because he was cheap or more likely because he didn’t really have a clue—if one of the coaches could be the manager.
Actually, instead of a manager, the Cubs would have a “head coach” who would lead the team. (Incidentally, I’m assuming the “College of Coaches” name is inspired by the College of Cardinals. That’s kind of silly because, of course, the College of Cardinals elects a Pope; the cardinals don’t all rotate in and out of the Papacy, but what can you do?)
The first head coach was Vedie Himsl. Himsl had been a Cubs coach the previous year, but never had managed in the major leagues. Taking over a Cubs team that had lost 94 games, he led them to five wins in 11 games.
At this point someone (probably Wrigley) decided it was time to shake things up and Himsl was replaced as head coach by Harry Craft. Craft had actual managerial experience, having led the Kansas City A’s for a few years in the late '50s. But experience is sometimes as much a curse as a blessing, and Craft won just four of 12 games during his stint.
Himsl was reinstated as manager and again won five games. Unfortunately, he did it in 17 tries, so El Tappe—the father of this nightmare—got his shot and went undefeated in two games.
So naturally he was promptly replaced by Craft. After Craft’s seven games in charge (three wins), Himsl came back for another run, this time winning none of the three games he managed. So Tappe was brought back in.
If this all sounds laughable to outsiders and frustratingly baffling to those involved with the Cubs, you’ve hit the nail on the head. Ron Santo called it representative of the “laugher and disrespect” connected to the early-'60s Cubs. Don Zimmer, the team’s captain that year, called the system “a joke,” and wrote that it was “doomed to failure.”
Despite this, Wrigley pressed on. Tappe actually got to run the team for 78 games consecutive games—more than half the season—but was inexplicably replaced by Lou Klein for 11 games thereafter. Of course, after Klein’s 11 games, Tappe was brought back to finish up the season.
In toto, the Cubs went 64-90 in 1961, an insignificant improvement on their performance the year before. No head coach had a record above .500; Klein, at 5-6, came the closest.
Inconceivably, Wrigley was still not convinced of what a truly awful idea he had on his hands, and brought back the College of Coaches for 1962. The Cubs lost 103 games. Although the practice continued at least in theory for a few more years, from 1963 through 1965, the Cubs would have just two managers: Bob Kennedy and Klein.
Finally, in 1966, Leo Durocher was hired to run the team. At his press conference, Durocher announced he was the manager, and the man with the final say on team decisions, mercifully putting the College of Coaches out to pasture.
In the two years the system was primarily in place, the Cubs went 123-193 (.389). So when you go vote this November, remember that while your party may not have nominated the candidate you preferred, at least it managed to pick just one person.
Questions, comments and thinly veiled threats can be mailed to Richard on the back of a twenty dollar bill or e-mailed to him at RichardBarbieri@yahoo.com
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