Managing and the back of the bus

Remember Chris Chambliss? A fine player from the 1970s and 1980s, he became a well-regarded minor league manager and major league hitting coach. For a while, it seemed like every time a managerial vacancy appeared, Chambliss was mentioned as a possible replacement.

He never did get the call, though. After getting passed over enough times, he started getting a reputation as a guy you pass over, not that you hire. He’s almost 60 now, and men that age almost never get hired unless they have some previous experience under their belts.

There were always some murmurs that he never got the job because he’s black. Baseball had a lousy reputation for hiring black managers after all. Forty years after Jackie Robinson, the history of black managers was scarcely more than the history of Frank Robinson. This point was brought home rather dramatically in 1987, when Dodgers honcho Al Campanis responded to a question on the lack of black managers by saying they didn’t have the capabilities to do the job on national TV.

One time, while looking at when managers first get hired, I noticed a trend. I looked at everyone with at least 600 wins; the oldest upon his first hiring was Felipe Alou at age 57. He’s Hispanic, but a dark-skinned Hispanic who looks nothing like pre-1947 baseball players. He was quite the outlier, as most mangers were in their late 30s or early 40s when they got their first chance. Heck even Sparky Anderson, who I always assumed was born with an AARP card in hand, was in his mid-30s when first tapped by the Reds. Joining Alou among the outliers was fellow Afro-Caribbean Cito Gaston, aged 55. The oldest of the pack were guys in their mid-40s. Among those mid-40s first hires were Don Baylor and Dusty Baker. Along with Frank Robinson, there were only five managers I looked at, but four were among the oldest. That’s … interesting. Is there something going on here?

Background

MLB got off to a pretty damn bad job hiring blacks as managers. Sure these things move in stages, but that doesn’t mean the pace can’t be bettered. When they finally started hiring blacks, it looks like black candidates had to wait a little longer. Is it true that blacks had to wait longer than whites to first prove themselves?

Approaching it

First off, I have to be a lot more careful in my prepping. First, who counts as black? For purposes of this study, anyone too dark to play ball before Jackie Robinson qualifies. Now, when I think of Ozzie Guillen, I don’t think “black,” but he doesn’t look like anyone from the 1930s. Teams back then were on the lookout for any blacks trying to pass over as some “in-between” group. Only 5% of the Africans brought over in the slave trade went to the 13 colonies/US. The rest went south of the border or to the islands. Mixed blood and dark enough to qualify for prejudice makes them black for this study. I guess I could call them racial minorities, but that’s a little wordy. It’s sometimes tricky to determine which Hispanics are light enough to qualify as white and which ones aren’t. When in doubt I did a yahoo image search.

More importantly, I have to see if the older hiring phenomenon could be an era affect, and not a racial thing. It ain’t fair to compare them to guys like John McGraw who first got hired as player-managers or others from way back when. Maybe they’re just the same ages as current managers. Alternately, maybe this was a problem 10-15 years ago, but no longer really matters.

Rather than compare all black hires to all white hires, I limited it by era. Specifically, I looked at 1989-2007. You had blacks like Frank Robinson, and Larry Doby hired earlier, but it was dribs and drabs. From 1989-1993 you had Cito Gaston, Hal McRae, Alou, Baker, and Baylor forming the first real group.

Also, what constitutes getting hired? For example, in 2002 the Cubs had three managers: One lasted exactly one game. That’s not getting hired. That’s placeholding. What’s the difference between being given a real shot and being an interim manager just playing out the string until the next season? Tough to say, because obviously a lot of interim guys become full-time managers. I set the bar at 50 games. Somewhat arbitrary, but it works. Anything less and it’s tough to really gauge a manager.

What happens if a manager first gets hired as an interim guy, does fewer than 50 games before someone else takes over, and then gets a regular gig years later? The second one is his first time with enough games, but it’s not his first “real” hiring. I’ll handle it like baseball does rookie players. If you only had a cup of coffee before, you can still be a rookie.

Results

In all, there were 80 first time hires from 1989-2007. Fifteen were black: Gaston, McRae, Alou, Baker, Baylor, Jerry Manuel, Davey Lopes, Tony Perez, Lloyd McClendon, Tony Pena, Luis Pujols, Jerry Royster, Guillen, Willie Randolph, and Ron Washington. Based on the hazy recollection of my 1982 Topps baseball card, I don’t remember Lopes being that dark, and I didn’t realize Manny Acta was so light, but that’s how I figure it.

There’s one guy who first got hired for a stint of fewer than 50 games only to reappear later. Sure enough, he’s one of the guys above: Tony Perez. Annoyingly, he had an eight-year gap between hirings. I’ll prioritize the second hire, but just to keep it fair, I’ll look at average age using both his hirings.

So then, what was the average age of newbies? Overall they were 45.2 when first hired. Use Perez’s younger age and it’s 45.1. That’s younger than I think of managers being, but then again the overwhelmingly majority of managers ain’t rookies. If you’re curious, the youngest of them all was Eric Wedge at a spry 35. Technically, he’s tied with Nick Leyva (no, I never heard of him either), but Wedge has him beat by a few months. The oldest? Tony Perez, if you use his listed age of 59 years. Otherwise it’s Phil Regan at age 58

Now for the real question: What happens when you chop it up by race? The 65 whites were 44.6 years of age. The blacks were 48.0, or 47.5 if you want younger Perez. That’s not an especially big difference. It’s crucial, however, because based on my previous work, managers peak from ages 44-51, so that’s part of the prime lost. Also, just looking at the averages can be a little misleading. Anytime you try to find an average of a sizable group of people, they’ll veer toward the middle. That is the nature of averages.

A number of black managers were hired right around the average. Baylor, Baker, Manuel were all 44 years old. Gaston, McRae, Pena were 45. However, when you go away from the middle, things get a bit more interesting. Of the 65 whites, 26 (40%) were 43 or younger when first hired. Only two (13%) of the blacks were: McClendon at 42 and Guillen at age 40. Not only was he the youngest of the bunch but Guillen, was also the only one hired by a black general manager.

At the opposite end of the list, something different emerges. Here are the oldest hires of them all:

Name                Age     Race
Tony Perez           59      b
Phil Regan           58      w
Joe Morgan           57      w
Felipe Alou          57      b
Charlie Manuel       56      w
Davey Lopes          55      b
Ron Washington       55      b
Sam Perlozzo         54      w
Marceel Lachemann    53      w

No, not that Joe Morgan. Four of the oldest seven—Perez, Alou, Lopes and Washington—are minorities. Move Perez down and blacks still are pretty high up, and Perez still wouldn’t miss by much, nor would a 50-year-old Willie Randolph.

So how important is it? Well, personally I find it disconcerting. Sure it could just be a fluke-arific bit, but given baseball’s inability to hire minority managers before the late 1980s, I’m not inclined to write the difference off as immaterial. Besides, there’s a danger that if a manager gets passed over too many times or gets old enough without getting his shot, he might never get it. Just ask Chris Chambliss.

Why?

It’s a fair question. If baseball is slower to hire blacks as managers&mdsah;and they are&mdsah;why would that be? I don’t think it’s due to any deliberate malice. Very few people these days like to think of themselves as racist.

One memory comes to me when looking at this data. I took a pysch class in high school. One day we were given a list of 50 or so occupations and asked which ones we associated with men, which ones we associated with women and which ones we associated with either. I went with the first impression that came to mind: cop – man; nurse – woman; teacher – either.

I ended up with 35-40 jobs associated with men. The girl sitting next to me in class glanced at my results and ooohh … if looks could kill. I assume she thought I was saying those were jobs that should be for men or not. I know there are women cops, and have no problem with that. But looking back, I can understand the nasty look. Peoples’ hazy impressions of what sort of person belongs in a particular job can influence who gets slotted in that job. I don’t mean societal pressure. I mean what happens if the person doing the hiring has a hazy mental image in mind.

Bringing it back to baseball, when a GM wants to hire someone, he’s got an image in mind of what sort of manager would be best. Maybe he wants a grinder or a low-key man, a yeller or a diplomat. His impression of what sort of manager he should hired would be affected by his previous experiences and memories with managers. His hazy mental image, whether intentional or not, will often be of a white guy. Doesn’t mean he’s opposed to hiring a black, but it’ll be that much harder for the minority to get the nod because he’s got an extra hurdle in front of him. If it’s close, it might go to someone else. That’s one reason I figure these changes happen gradually. It takes time to break down those hazy images.

Then again, maybe I am giving baseball execs too much credit. I doubt Campanis was really an aberration.

Felipe Alou

I think race cost Felipe Alou his shot at Cooperstown because he didn’t get his chance until he was 57. He got hired to manage at an age when most men, even most Hall of Famer managers, have at least one foot out the door. The season can be a real grind when you’re about 60 years old. Just the wear and tear of the travel, and the effort needed to stay mentally sharp all that time can drain you.

At age 57, Earl Weaver had retired. Twice. Miller Huggins had been dead for the better part of the decade. It’s even more dramatic when you compare Alou to contemporaries. Here’s when recent ones did/will turn 57 Try to imagine what our image of these guys would be different if they hadn’t managed until that year.

Manager        Age 57 Season
Joe Torre            1998
Bobby Cox            1998
Lou Piniella         2001
Tony LaRussa         2002
Jim Leyland          2002
Art Howe             2004
Dusty Baker          2006
Phil Garner          2006
Mike Hargrove        2007
Buddy Bell           2009
Bruce Bochy          2012
Buck Showalter       2013
Ron Gardenhire       2015
Mike Scioscia        2016
Terry Franco         2016
Ozzie Guillen        2021
Joe Girardi          2022
Eric Wedge           2025

I know there are some black managers on that list as well. Remember though, when Gaston was in his 40s, baseball intersperced periods where there were no black managers with periods when Frank Robinson managed. This problem was especially acute for him.

You know how Mike Hargrove retired this year? He was too worn out after managing for so very very long. He’s the age now Alou was when he started. Art Howe was also on his way out at age 57. Jim Leyland‘s one of those guys who has always seemed old. But he’d been drummed out by three teams before turning 57. Terry Francona won a pennant over a dozen years ago. He’s still almost a decade younger than Alou was in his rookie year. Can you imagine if Mike Scioscia had to wait another nine years just to get his shot?

To look at it another way, Felipe Alou is one of the greatest managers in baseball history from the age of 57 onward. Here are the 10 winningest, plus other notables. (Records through Aug. 7 for current guys).

Name                  W-L
Connie Mack       2057-2399
Casey Stengel     1324-1100
Felipe Alou       1033-1021
Joe Torre         953-613
Wilbert Robinson  930-909
Bobby Cox         918-680
Tommy Lasorda     912-877
Jack McKeon       752-630
Walt Alston       721-562
Leo Durocher      633-621
Tony LaRussa      521-397
Joe McCarthy      409-300
Sparky Anderson   352-388
Bucky Harris      227-235
Bill McKechnie    214-244
John McGraw       191-155
Dick Williams     159-192
Billy Martin       131-82
Whitey Herzog     119-123
Billy Southworth  111-102
Al Lopez            29-35

The first 11 are the all-time leaders. Nine of the other ten are or will be in the Hall of Fame. And those are the only ones who have half as many 57-onward wins as Alou. Almost all of them were on the downside of their careers by his time, including some big winners like Walt Alston and Wilbert Robinson. Odds are, Alou was at his best when he wasn’t getting hired. That makes his delayed hiring that much more painful to notice.

And while he was around, he had a helluva reputation. Some of the younger readers out there in THT-land might not remember it, but he was exceptionally well regarded while he ran the soon-to-be-extinct Expos. Players developed well under him, and he did a good job working his pitchers without pushing them too hard. I remember someone making a crack that the 2003 Giants were Barry Bonds, Jason Schmidt and not much else. Well, the Barry and Jason Show won 100 games. Neat trick.

He never won any pennants, but I’m a firm believer that the highest compliment you can pay a manager is to say that you can’t imagine his teams doing better than they actually did. That’s was generally true of Alou’s teams. At the end he was shaky, but damn, he was 71.

I’m not advocating putting him in the Hall-of-Fame. I’ve looked at managerial aging patterns, and while they do exist, it’s a much slippier affair than player aging patterns. With a guy like Monte Irvin, even if there were no Negro League stats, you could project how good he was based on what he actually did. Doesn’t work that way for field generals.

Overall, baseball’s made progress, but there’s still some road to walk down. It’s a damn shame it didn’t come quicker for Felipe Alou.

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