Managerial Golden and Dark Ages

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Future Hall of Famer Bobby Cox.

As readers of my work at THT have hopefully noticed, I have considerable interest in managers. Heck, I wrote a book on them—Evaluating Baseball’s Managers—due out later this year.

Due to this interest, some recent news caught my attention. Bobby Cox announced that 2010 will be his last year in the dugout. By any standard, he assembled a Hall of Fame career, which is a noteworthy accomplishment given that fairly few men have become Cooperstown managers.

I found myself wondering: When has the greatest concentration of future Hall of Fame skippers occurred? When were the droughts?

By my count, 19 have been immortalized for their dugout work: Harry Wright, Ned Hanlon, Frank Selee, Connie Mack, John McGraw, Wilbert Robinson, Miller Huggins, Bill McKechnie, Bucky Harris, Joe McCarthy, Billy Southworth, Leo Durocher, Casey Stengel, Al Lopez, Walter Alston, Dick Williams, Earl Weaver, Sparky Anderson, and Tommy Lasorda. Among current managers, only Cox, Torre and Tony LaRussa are shoe-ins. Let’s look at those 22.

Admittedly, other Hall of Famers have been managers, but for purposes of this article I’m only concerned with those whose managing got them into Cooperstown. Sorry to enthusiasts for Dave Bancroft‘s dugout days.

Low point for managers

I’ll start with the ebb tides. Assuming that the current group enters Cooperstown, at least one Hall of Fame manager has been employed at all times in MLB history.

The lowest mark was 1871-1888, when the game had only Harry Wright. This wasn’t so much a dark age as it was a primordial period. In those days the position of manager itself was still being figured out, as much in-game strategy and tactics we now take for granted didn’t come around until around the turn of the century.

Managers often took different jobs than they now do: Tracking receipts, taking inventory and focusing on business aspects. It wasn’t until the early 1890s that the position came into its own. Since 1901, there have been two eras since then with only a pair of Cooperstown-bound leaders.

The first Dark Age

The first Dark Age came from 1908 to 1912 when only Mack and McGraw worked the dugout. Ned Hanlon stepped away after 1907, and Miller Huggins didn’t arrive until 1913.

A quirk distorts things in these years: player-managers. At the top of this article, I noted I’m only looking at managers inducted into Cooperstown for their dugout work. That’s a fine sentiment, but it should be noted that some Hall of Fame players had managerial careers that could’ve put them in Cooperstown. The golden era for these guys was right around 1908.

For example, 1908-12 was at the tail end of a decade when three teams dominated the N.L.: the Pirates, Cubs and Giants. All three managers—Fred Clarke in Pittsburgh, Chicago’s Frank Chance and of course New York’s McGraw—are in Cooperstown, but only McGraw is in as a skipper.

Both Clarke and Chance have managerial cases, though. Clarke probably has the better case as his career was much longer. In fact, he managed more games than several Hall of Fame managers, including Earl Weaver. He also ended his career 421 games above .500, the sixth-best total ever. He also won four pennants and both World Series in which he participated.

Chance had a shorter career, but going by records, the most similar manager was Billy Southworth, himself an immortal. Chance worked for only 11 years, but ended up 17th all-time in games above .500, just ahead of Miller Huggins. Not bad.

From that perspective, there were three or four managerial careers of Hall of Fame caliber, even if they didn’t all get in specifically for their managerial records.

The second Dark Age (AKA the real Dark Age)

In many ways the real low point for Hall of Fame managers came a half-century later, as there were only two Hall of Fame skippers working in both 1961 and 1966. This came after MLB expanded. For that reason alone, the absence of Cooperstown skippers is that much more striking.

In 1961 MLB contained Walter Alston and Al Lopez. In 1966, Lopez was out, but that year marked Durocher’s return to the dugout after a more than decade-long absence.

Both Alston and Durocher worked in the N.L., making the 1966 A.L. the only time from 1892-2007 without a single game helmed by a Hall of Fame skipper. (There are no locks in the post-Torre A.L., but between Mike Sciosica, Terry Francona and the others, odds are quite strong someone will pull through.)

From 1962-65 there was another skipper alongside Lopez and Alston: Casey Stengel of the Mets. However, that’s a rather awkward third manager to put in. Make no doubt, Stengel was one of the greatest managers of all-time, but his work with the Mets surely didn’t help his career. In parts of four seasons, he posted a .302 winning percentage and lost at least 109 games in each of the three seasons he did finish.

While the team was truly terrible, Stengel was personally past his prime. He was 75 when he retired. Only Connie Mack lasted until age 75, by which point he was well into eclipse. I’ve even heard an interview with a former Yankee who said Stengel seemed to be slipping a bit in the last year or two in the Bronx. Certainly management thought he was wearing out, as they dumped him after 1960.

Really, from 1961 to 1966, there was a substantial gap in great mangers. It was a changing of the guard where the old lines stepped down before the young ones arrived. In 1967, Dick Williams showed up, soon joined by Weaver and Anderson.

In part the gap was caused by the Yankee dominance, as winning pennants is the best path to Cooperstown for managers and the Yanks claimed 14 of 16 from 1949 to 1964. It’s more than just that, though. From 1961 to 1966, only Alston won a pennant among Hall of Famers.

The 1960s’ lost Hall of Fame skippers

In the early-to-mid 1960s there were a handful of managers with Hall of Fame potential who didn’t pan out.

First, was long-time Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh. He lasted for almost 20 years and won two world titles while boasting a fine reputation. He had the talent, but lacked the physical health. Heart problems forced him in and out of the dugout. The Pirates used him whenever health permitted, but he worked barely 2,000 games from 1957 to 1976 before dying.

Second, was the boy genius of the early 1960s: Gene Mauch. Widely hailed as the sharpest mind in the game, he ultimately ended up as the longest lasting manager to never win a pennant. His problem was that he kept getting hired by down-and-out teams: a traditionally futile Philles, the expansion Expos and the cash-strapped Twins. He finally had a good team with the Angels, but he never had a chance to really amass the sort of postseason hardware required to become an immortalized skipper.

Also, there was Ralph Houk. Not normally listed among greats, the beginning of his career was the best ever. He won 109 games in his first season (most ever for a rookie skipper) and a world title. Then he repeated the next October and won a pennant in his third year. At which point he moved into the front office, an oddity for such a successful manager. He came back to the dugout, but was just a well-respected journeyman from that point forward.

One final non-Cooperstowner should be mentioned: Paul Richards. He was a great manager in the 1950s, but voluntarily left the dugout to become a general manager in the early 1960s. He never won a pennant, but he did help resurrect two hapless franchises, the White Sox and Orioles.

All four of these men could’ve been Hall of Famers had things broken differently. Since none did, the early 1960s are the worst stretch for future Hall of Fame skippers since 1900.

In that case, what are the high points for HoF managers?

High point: Eight skippers in 1929

In 1929, baseball peaked with the employment of eight future Hall of Famers in the dugout at once. Old warhorses Mack, McGraw and Robinson still toiled the trade, as did young up-and-comers McKechnie, McCarthy and boy wonder Bucky Harris. To that, Yankees skipper Huggins ended his career while Southworth began his.

That was an impressive mix, but it isn’t quite as overwhelming as it sounds. Though eight managers worked for the 16 teams, they combined for fewer than half of all games managed that year as only five worked all year-round. Southworth’s Cooperstown career began disastrously, as the Cardinals fired him midway through the season. After an interim skipper, McKechnie replaced him (only to be let go that offseason). Finally, Huggins died near the end of the season.

Still, it’s the only time eight Cooperstown-able managers worked at once.

Other pinnacles

Let’s shift the question. Instead of looking at all of baseball, let’s just look at one league.

Once a majority of games in a league were managed by Hall of Famers: the 1943 National League. Southworth, Durocher and McKechnie were in the midst of extended stretches with St. Louis, Brooklyn and Cincinnati, respectively. Elsewhere, Stengel spent two-thirds of the year managing the Braves. Finally, putting the league over the top, Bucky Harris had the only N.L. stint of his lengthy career, when he lasted a little over half the season with last-place Philadelphia. Combined, this quintet oversaw 54 percent of the N.L.’s games.

While the 1943 National League was the only time a majority of games in a league were helmed by HoF skippers, it doesn’t hold the record for most games managed in a league in one year by future Hall of Famers.

That honor will certainly fall to the 1978 N.L. This was the only other time five Hall of Fame skippers worked in the same league, but this time all lasted the full season, for a total of 809 games, dwarfing the 1943 N.L.’s total of 644.

The fab five were Sparky Anderson, Tommy Lasorda, Dick Williams, Bobby Cox and Joe Torre. It was Anderson’s last year in Cincy, and Cox’s first year in Atlanta. It was Torre’s first full season and Lasorda’s second full season. You know how Lasorda has been gone for a long time after lasting seemingly forever in L.A.? Well, he began about the same time as Torre and Cox (and LaRussa for that matter). Man they’ve been around a while.

Let’s go back to the league-wide perspective for a second; 1929 had the most HoF managers at eight, but only five worked all year-round. What’s the most managers to work all year? The answer is seven, which has happened in three different clusters for a half-dozen times in all.

The first cluster came in 1926 and 1928. It makes sense that one cluster would occur right around the 1929 bunch. The ’26 and ’28 bunch is the same as the ’29ers, save for Billy Southworth. (If you’re wondering, Bill McKechnie was fired by the Pirates after 1926 and didn’t land another MLB gig until 1928 when the Cards grabbed him.)

The second cluster came in 1941-42 with Mack, Harris and McCarthy in the A.L. while McKechnie, Southworth, Durocher and Stengel worked in the N.L. In other words, exactly half the N.L.’s games were run by future Hall of Famers. This also occurred in the N.L. in 1926 and 1928. Despite the perennial existence of Connie Mack, it never happened in the A.L. The closest it came was 1950, when Mack, Stengel and Harris lasted all year with their teams while Joe McCarthy retired in midseason.

The final cluster of seven year-round managers came more recently: 1980 and 1982. In those years, LaRussa, Cox, Torre, Anderson, Weaver, Williams and Lasorda worked in the dugout. (The Expos fired Dick Williams during the 1981 season, but he landed with the Padres that off-season.)

The early 1980s have the obvious advantage of more teams to draw from, but suffer from a corresponding disadvantage: less time for their guys to get enshrined. Southworth didn’t get inducted for more than half-century after he managed his final game, for example. Billy Martin and Whitey Herzog, both active in this period, could conceivably enter Cooperstown.

Looking it over, all these periods of massings of Hall of Famers have a similar theme: a changing of the generational guard. The McKechnies and McCarthys overlapped with McGraw and Robinson in the late 1920s. Durocher and Southworth began when Mack was still around (and Stengel had his first go-around as skipper). Cox and Torre got started before Weaver retired.

References & Resources
Baseball-Reference.com came in handy for this.

On a side note, had I thought up this line of inquiry several months ago, I probably would’ve sprinkled it in the book, most likely in the sections on Murtaugh, Harris, Southworth, Clarke and Williams. Something like that.

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Comments

  1. Mike said...

    I think the entire premise of this article is totally wrong.  There are many excellent managers right now who will likely not get into the hall of fame (i.e., Jim Leyland, Lou Piniella, Cito Gaston etc.)  A real managing dark age is when your team brings in someone like Ozzie Guillén, Charlie Manuel, Dusty Baker, Larry Bowa

  2. Mike Emeigh said...

    Chris:

    Small error – Fred Clarke was 1-1 in World Series, losing against Boston in 1903, winning against Detroit in 1909.

  3. Jack Marshall said...

    I too wonder about the Hall of Fame being used as a benchmark of managerial greatness. (Ask Bill James his opinion of Sparky Anderson.) One marker that should count for something: never getting fired. Ralph Houk was in this category, and I think it testifies to his dual skills at managing a clubhouse and managing the team on the field.

  4. Chris J. said...

    Mike – thanks for the correction on Clarke.  Oops!

    Mike & Jack,

    Looking at HoFrs is a rought and imperfect way to gauge quality of managers, but it works tolerably well.  I don’t think the 22 in (or shoe-ins) are the 22 best ever, but it’s a good starting point.  The only really obvious mistake I see is Wilbert Robinson.  There are no obviously deserving candidates who have been left out. 

    If Bill James thinks Sparky Andeson wasn’t that great, that says more about Bill James than it does about Sparky Anderson.  Ditto anyone who thinks Ozzie Guillen is one of the worst managers ever.

  5. Jack Marshall said...

    Chris: I think what it says about James is that he puts a higher value on the tangible skill of game tactician and less on the intangible, but ultimately more crucial skill of leadership. Baseball management is, ultimately, a job in which results count more than style. James loves brainy guys like Weaver and Herzog, and guys like Anderson drive him nuts. I remember fondly how in one of the old Abstracts, James did profiles of all the managers and one of the categories was, “If there was no major league baseball, what would he be doing for a living?” His answer for Sparky was “Housepainter.”

  6. robert said...

    “James did profiles of all the managers and one of the categories was, “If there was no major league baseball, what would he be doing for a living?” His answer for Sparky was “Housepainter.””

    That’s Sparky Anderson’s own description of what he would he would have done if he hadn’t been a ballplayer. Anderson’s father was actually a house painter, and Anderson was saying that he would have joined the family business if baseball hadn’t been available.

  7. Jack Marshall said...

    Robert: that’s really interesting, and sneaky/misleading of James. The whole thrust of his profile of Sparky, as well as many of his comments in before and after that, was that Anderson was an amiable dim-wit blessed with good talent, and the housepainter coda was consistent with the theme, especially since there was no mention of it as the family trade. So Bill could get in his shot, but plausibly argue he was only quoting Sparky if he was ever called on it.

    Full Disclosure: I was never impressed with Sparky and gravitated toward BJ’s verdict until, by pure accident, I met Anderson in a hotel lobby. Like many great leaders, he radiates confidence, warmth, sincerity and charisma…the stuff you can’t learn. I’m a great admirer of James, but I think he’s wrong about Sparky.

  8. Chris J. said...

    I just re-read the James section on Sparky Anderson in the Managers book, and it seems pretty sympathetic to him.  I know elsewhere James made a crack about how Anderson thought he made a winner by taking a team with Rose, Morgan, Bench, and Perez and made them winners by teaching manners, but Managers Guide writeup is a bit different.

    James argues that what set Anderson apart from his peers (Martin, Weaver, Williams all get mentioned) was that he genuinely cared about his players.  So far, this merely fits the dim-wit blessed with good talent meme, but that’s not how James play it here.

    Just the opposite, in fact.  He notes Anderson was blessed with great talent, but then notes such teams don’t always win as they should.  Then he notes some players markedly improved under Anderson, and gives Anderson some credit. 

    In the final question – what would he do if he didn’t manage, James’ exact words are: “According to his own description, he’d have been a house painter.”

    It’s pretty damn sympathetic to him overall.

  9. dooley said...

    i doubt chris pittaro thinks all that highly of sparky.

    he was entertaining, and he really cared about his players.  he was great with the media.

    at the same time, i always thought my tigers achieved less under sparky than they should have.

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