Unusual midseason managerial departuresby Chris Jaffe
June 27, 2011
It was unexpected news: Nationals manager Jim Riggleman resigned. Managers resign. That’s fairly normal. It happened earlier this month to the Marlins. But the circumstances in Washington, D.C. are decidedly abnormal. The team, picked as a doormat when the year started, was one game over .500 thanks to a recent hot streak.
In the story that has come out, Riggleman apparently felt like upper management wasn’t respecting him and wanted the team’s option to renew his contract for next year taken care of right now. They didn’t, so he left.
Riggleman: going, going, gone.
Riggleman: going, going, gone.
The pro-Riggleman side is that they disrespected him—the team GM wouldn’t even talk to him during their recent homestand. Riggleman felt the club treated him in an unprofessional manner.
The pro-management side is that Riggleman's demands were overdone. Guys go an entire year without knowing if their option will be picked up all the time. And Riggleman had problems with some players on the team, too.
Besides, when you're Jim Riggleman, you don't have the stature to make many demands, so the club didn't feel the need to meet Riggleman's demand to pick up his option by the end of last Thursday.
This sudden departure in the middle of a season brings up a question: What are some of the other stranger mid-season managerial departures in baseball history? Trying to create a list, I focused on the following items:
- Manager who left in the middle of the season. I already did a column on those who left in the final weeks of a season.
- Guys who left a team with a winning record. This won’t be a complete list of such individuals. That list would be too long, so just the ones who seem the most interesting or unusual.
- Prioritize those who resigned, but don’t limit to them exclusively. The original goal was to focus only on guys that resigned from the job. But I don’t always know who resigned and who got fired. Besides, there are some good stories from the ranks of the fired.
Without further delay, here are some of the most unusual and unexpected mid-season managerial departures.
1905 Frank Selee, Chicago Cubs, 37-28
Selee is a Hall of Fame skipper. He created a dynasty with the Boston Beaneaters in the 1890s and assembled the famous Tinker-Evers-Chance Cubs that won four pennants and two World Series from 1906-10.
But he wasn’t there for the pennants. He resigned in mid-1905 because he was dying of tuberculosis. He lived to the summer of 1909, but he never managed again.
He wouldn’t be the first successful manager to leave due to health concerns.
In 1964, Reds manager Fred Hutchinson had to leave the team late in the season because he was dying of cancer.
In 1986, Dick Howser stepped away from the Royals at mid-season because of the brain tumor that eventually killed him. The Royals had a losing record at the time, but they were also defending world champs.
In 1995, Tommy Lasorda stepped down while the Dodgers were in second place because of health problems.
1919 Lee Fohl, Cleveland Indians, 44-34
The Indians' firing of Fohl in mid-1919 is one of my favorite stories.
On July 18, 1919, the Indians entered the ninth inning up 7-3 over the Boston Red Sox. Boston rallied, scoring a run and loading the bases, putting the prospective winning run at the plate. That batter? Some guy named Babe Ruth. Yeah, that ain’t good. Time for a reliever.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Fohl had largely ceded in-game management of the pitching staff to star center fielder Tris Speaker. In the 19th century, it was common for a team captain to call the shots in the game, and Fohl was one of the last men to manage in that tradition. July 18, 1919, would help kill off the concept altogether.
When Ruth went to the plate, Speaker signaled to Fohl to bring in a particular reliever. Fohl misread the signal and brought in someone else. Speaker wasn’t sure if Fohl overruled him or misinterpreted and so did nothing. The man did have the right to overrule him, after all.
The upshot? A grand slam for Ruth off the wrong reliever. An ugly scene occurred in the Cleveland clubhouse after the game, and Fohl was out as manager. Tris Speaker became the player-manager and led the team to the world championship in 1920.
1929 Donie Bush, Pittsburgh Pirates, 67-51
The Pirates were in second place, albeit 14.5 games behind the Cubs, when Bush resigned on Aug. 27. Short-term cause: They’d just cratered. Pittsburgh was in first place five weeks earlier, but had gone 11-21 while the Cubs went 29-7.
Longer term, Bush dug his own grave. Late in 1927, he benched star outfielder Kiki Cuyler for a perceived attitude problem. The team won the pennant without Cuyler, seemingly justifying Bush’s hard-line approach. The team dumped Cuyler a little later, where he would up on the Cubs. This was one giant overreaction. He’d used the nuclear option on one of his best players when he didn’t have to. The Pirates declined in 1928 and that left Bush vulnerable.
When the Pirates tanked in 1929, Bush was through. It didn’t help that the team roaring past them in the standings was Cuyler’s Cubs. During the five-week stretch the Cubs blew past Pittsburgh, Cuyler hit .411 with seven stolen bases. Bush resigned on the eve of a series with the Cubs, too.
1938 Charlie Grimm, Chicago Cubs, 45-36
This is the weirdest one of all. I don’t know quite what happened, but if someone could look it up, it would make a great book.
The facts: Grimm resigned. It came right after a seven-game winning streak. (Well, he lost his last game, but won the seven before it). He’d been a respected manager before. When he replaced Rogers Hornsby at the helm in mid-1929, the Cubs caught fire and won the pennant. They won another flag under Grimm in 1935.
That said, the Cubs had a death spiral earlier that year. They went 29-16, but then dropped 19 out of 28. The knives came out for Grimm during that period, including apparently some from inside Cub upper management. I guess that was enough for Grimm.
In a reverse of 1932, the Cubs got hot after Grimm left, eventually winning the pennant. I’ve also once heard Grimm helped advise the club down the stretch, so go figure. Grimm later came back to manage the Cubs, guiding them to the 1945 pennant.
1946 Joe McCarthy, New York Yankees, 22-13
This is a simple one: McCarthy resigned largely because he had a serious drinking problem. There were a few times earlier in the decade when he left the team for short spells, officially to go back home to Buffalo for gall bladder issues, but really because he was on a bender.
In May, 1946, the Yankees were off to a good start, but the Red Sox were running away with it, beginning the year 27-8. McCarthy had a possible nervous breakdown, publicly berating one player on an airplane, ranting to coaches, insulting the team to the press and screaming at a taxi driver.
He’d never be that bad again, but a drinking problem helped force him out of his last managerial job with the Red Sox, too.
1972 Harry Walker, Houston Astros, 67-54
On paper this one looks weird. After three straight years right around .500, the Astros fired manager Walker during a campaign well over .500. In reality, the surprise was that the team kept Walker as long as they did.
In 1969, they started out hot and stayed in the division race until cooling off late in the year. After that, Houston expected to compete, but never really did. Many expected Walker to get fired in the 1971-72 offseason and were surprised when he returned.
In the summer of 1972, Houston dropped four of six just as the front-runner Reds got hot, dropping them from 5.5 to nine games out. That cost Walker his job.
Oh yeah, some background: Walker had trouble dealing with, and relating to, black players. His former second baseman Joe Morgan was the most vocal critic of Walker’s race relations. In the 1971-72 offseason, the team traded Morgan to the Reds, where he enjoyed a breakout All-Star season, helping lead Cincinnati over Houston.
1975 Yogi Berra, New York Mets, 56-53
Yogi led the Mets to a surprise pennant in 1973 (albeit after an 82-79 season), and came just one game from the world championship that year. They fell back in 1974, but were doing better in 1975.
Ex-Yankee Berra had some success as a Mets manager.