Marse Joe’s last hurrah

Joe McCarthy is widely regarded to be among the small handful of all-time best managers. As skipper of the Cubs (1926-30), Yankees (1931-46), and Red Sox (1948-50), he compiled an astounding aggregate winning percentage of .615 in nearly 3,500 games (and on top of that, a stupefying .698 in 43 World Series games). Bill James puts it about as directly as can be: “I believe that Joe McCarthy was the greatest manager in baseball history.” McCarthy was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1957.

McCarthy’s nickname, “Marse Joe,” was a derivation of “Master Joe,” an allusion to McCarthy’s famously tough standards of discipline, execution and general professionalism. He wasn’t at all demonstrative in the manner of a John McGraw, but McCarthy was no less demanding. The undisputed boss of his ball clubs, McCarthy established and maintained his authority with piercing intelligence and quiet dignity. It’s difficult to name a good modern style comp for McCarthy: probably he would be best understood as some combination of Tony LaRussa and Joe Torre.

Yet in the final chapter of his long career, the deeply competitive McCarthy met with mounting, and finally unbearable, frustration. The Boston Red Sox teams under his direction, prominently featuring the in-his-prime Ted Williams, were a lavishly talented crew, considered by all observers as more than capable of capturing a championship. But winning 96 games in both 1948 and 1949 achieved only second place, as Boston lost a single-game playoff to the Cleveland Indians in ’48, and then finished a single agonizing game behind the pennant-winning New York Yankees in ’49.

Thus McCarthy and his Red Sox entered the 1950 season with particularly intense urgency to make a pennant happen, at last, this time, to prove to the baseball world (and to themselves) that the best team in the American League, manager and players combined, was the Boston Red Sox.

1950

Things didn’t start out well. Opening Day was Tuesday afternoon, April 18th, at home against the Yankees. Boston ace Mel Parnell took a 9-0 lead into the sixth inning, and a 10-4 lead into the eighth, only to tire and then see his bullpen grotesquely betray him, and the Yanks won it 15-10. The Sox staggered out to losses in six of their first nine games.

But they found their footing, winning 11 of their next 12, and for the first couple of weeks in May Boston was in and out of first place. The ball club then embarked upon a two-week road trip in which they were so-so, going seven-and-six before being swept in a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium. The Red Sox finished the month of May, 1950, with a record of 24-18, in third place, two games behind the second-place Detroit Tigers, and five games off the pace of the league-leading Yankees.

The Red Sox began June with a homestand that would see them face the Indians, White Sox, Browns, and Tigers.

The week of hurrah

The first game was on Friday night, June 2nd. The Red Sox knocked Cleveland’s Bob Feller out of the box in the first inning with six runs, and coasted to an 11-5 victory. Williams and Walt Dropo each contributed a home run.

The next day it was the Indians’ Mike Garcia unable to survive the first, as yet again the Red Sox scored six in the opening frame. This time Cleveland made it interesting with some heavy hitting of its own, but Boston prevailed by the final score of 11-9, with Williams hitting another homer and Birdie Tebbetts adding one as well.

On Sunday afternoon the White Sox came to town, and their starter Mickey Haefner was able to put up a scoreless, three-up-and-three-down first inning. But in every subsequent inning except the sixth the Red Sox would score, resulting in a 17-7 laugher. No Boston hitter went deep, but the Red Sox’ attack tallied 21 hits (including four doubles and a triple) to go with nine walks.

Monday night, June 5th, saw McCarthy forced to replace starter Ellis Kinder due to an injury, with just one out in the first inning. But reliever Mickey McDermott stepped in to toss shutout ball against the White Sox for the remaining eight and two-thirds—not that such stalwart pitching was crucial, as for the fourth straight game Boston scored in double figures. A three-run homer by Vern Stephens in the bottom of the first was the opening salvo in a 12-0 shelling.

The following day the Boston offense was finally held in reasonable check, as a solo home run by Williams and a bases-loaded triple by Al Zarilla was the extent of their scoring. The White Sox won 8-4 behind a Ken Holcombe complete game.

On Wednesday afternoon the St. Louis Browns arrived at Fenway Park. Boston utility outfielder Clyde Vollmer, batting leadoff in place of injured center fielder Dom DiMaggio, greeted Browns starter Harry “Fritz” Dorish with a home run, and another rout was on. Vollmer would hit a second dinger, Stephens would also launch a pair, and Dropo would add an additional bomb to the Red Sox’ 23-hit assault. The final score was 20-4, just the fifth time in their half-century of franchise history that the Red Sox had scored that many runs in a game.

The exclamation point

On Thursday, June 8th, the afternoon was scoreless until the bottom of the second. Then the Red Sox exploded for eight runs.

They were just getting started.

In this game Boston scored its 20th run in the fourth inning. The Red Sox frightfully battered four beleaguered Browns’ pitchers for seven home runs (three by Bobby Doerr, and two each by Williams and Dropo), a triple, nine doubles (including four by Zarilla), and 11 singles in a devastating 28-hit bombardment—layered on top of 11 walks, just to make it a perfect storm. This time the tally was a staggering 29-4, the most runs that any major league team had ever scored, and would ever score, in a single game across the entire breadth of the 20th century.

Wow

In winning six of these first seven games of the homestand, the Red Sox had outscored their opponents 104-37, or an average of 15-5 per game. In 281 at-bats, Boston hitters racked up 24 doubles, four triples, and 18 home runs, walking 55 times while striking out just 25. The Red Sox team batting average for this week was .409, with an on-base percentage of .503 and a slugging average of 1.306, for a team OPS of 1.809.

It was, all in all, the most ferocious one-week demonstration of offensive might that any team has ever put forth. The 6-1 week pushed Boston, now 30-19, one game closer to both Detroit and New York, and the extravagant display no doubt meant that the Tigers and Yankees were hearing very loud footsteps.

And then

On Friday afternoon, June 9th, the Red Sox jumped out to a 4-1 lead over the Browns after three innings. But this time they couldn’t hold it, as St. Louis roughed up the Boston bullpen and salvaged the third game of the series by a score of 12-7.

Then the Detroit Tigers came in for a showdown weekend series. Whatever expectations the Red Sox had to teach the upstarts a lesson were quickly dashed, as the Tigers swept with an 18-8 pounding on Saturday, and 6-2 and 9-6 (in 14 innings) victories in a doubleheader on Sunday. In the space of three days the Red Sox had suddenly lost four straight games.

They left on a road trip. In Cleveland on Tuesday night, the Red Sox started off with an 8-1 win as Chuck Stobbs went the distance, defeating Feller. But following that the red-hot Boston offense went into deep freeze: the Red Sox dropped the next two games to the Indians, 7-3 and 3-1, then were swept in Detroit by scores of 4-1, 2-1, and 10-2.

By losing nine out of 10, the Red Sox were now 31-28, and their early-June gains were wiped out. On Sunday, June 18th, at the conclusion of the series in Detroit, the Red Sox had dropped behind Cleveland into fourth place. They were now nine-and-a-half games behind the Tigers, who’d taken over first, happily boosted by taking six of six from Boston.

The end

The final loss in Detroit was the final game Joe McCarthy would ever manage. As the Red Sox continued their road trip in Chicago, McCarthy was absent, and coach Steve O’Neill was in charge. Within a few days O’Neill would be officially announced as the new Boston manager. McCarthy’s 24-year major league managing career, along with his 44-year career in professional baseball, was over.

It isn’t clear whether McCarthy voluntarily retired due to health reasons (as was reported at the time) or if he was fired by Red Sox General Manager Joe Cronin and owner Tom Yawkey. What is clear (and was not reported at the time) is that McCarthy’s level of drinking had gotten out of hand (as it had periodically in the later years of his Yankee tenure).

Mark Armour’s biography of Cronin assesses the situation this way: “When McCarthy felt pressure, he drank.” During that agonizing string of defeats immediately following the explosive hot streak, “the press was increasingly antagonistic, the players were ever more grouchy, and McCarthy was drinking.”

One suspects that the accurate description of the ignominious end of McCarthy’s career was that if he didn’t quit, he would have been fired. One way or the other, it was time for him to go.

The epilogue

McCarthy, 63 years old, retired to his farm near Buffalo, New York. He rarely again made public appearances in the baseball world. But he didn’t sink into an alcoholic demise: quite the contrary, McCarthy enjoyed a long and healthy retirement, living to the ripe old age of 90. It appears to be the case, as Armour suggests, that McCarthy’s excessive drinking was a response to the stress of managing, and once removed from that stress, he regained self-control.

As for the Red Sox, under O’Neill in 1950 they would rally in August and September, and climb to within one game of first as of Sept. 18th. But then they would drop seven of their final 12, and finish in third, four games behind. Boston would fail to finish as high as second place for more than a decade and a half to come, until the “Impossible Dream” comeback season of 1967.

References & Resources
The Bill James quote is from Bill James, The Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers from 1870 to Today, New York: Scribner, 1997, p. 97.

The Mark Armour quotes are from Mark Armour, Joe Cronin: A Life in Baseball, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Place, 2010, pp. 188, 198.

An exceptionally good analysis and discussion of McCarthy’s career can be found in Chris Jaffe, Evaluating Baseball’s Managers: A History and Analysis of Performance in the Major Leagues, 1876-2008, Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2010, pp. 139-144.

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Comments

  1. Marc Schneider said...

    Excellent article.  McCarthy was obviously a great manager, but he also had incredible talent for most of his career.  While managing the Yankees,he was often called a “push-button” manager because all he had to do, supposedly was push a button and have someone hit a home run.  Clearly, there was more to it than that, a look at Casey Stengel’s career shows that the most aspect of managing is having good players.

  2. Steve Treder said...

    Marc, no question that the most important variable in whether a team wins is the quality of its player talent.  But managers have significant influence as well.  What Stengel’s career, as well as McCarthy’s, may mostly show is that a manager’s talent (just like a player’s) doesn’t remain constant over a period of many years; managers have a development phase, a peak phase, and a decline phase, just like players.

    In Stengel’s tenure with the Mets, he had simply gotten too old, and was simply not up to the task.  He wasn’t the same Stengel he’d been at his best a decade earlier.

    In McCarthy’s tenure with the Red Sox, while he wasn’t generally as “out of it” as Stengel would be with the Mets, he struggled to keep it together.  There were other incidents (not reported by the press at the time) of McCarthy finding himself unable to control his drinking in both 1948 and ‘49.  It doesn’t seem unreasonable to believe that the McCarthy of a decade earlier than that wouldn’t have behaved that way, and that his lapses quite possibly caused the Red Sox to lose a few more games in those years than they would have otherwise—and in either season, a single additional win would have brought them the pennant.

  3. Marc Schneider said...

    I don’t disagree with you Steve that managers, like everyone else,have peaks and valleys.  But my point about Stengel was not in regard to his Met years but his years before coming to the Yankees, with the Dodgers and Braves.  He was considered a clown; I’m sure he knew just as much about baseball then as he did with the Yankees but didn’t have the horses.

    With respect to McCarthy, obviously it’s not good to have a drunk for a manager.  At the same time, you have to wonder if his drinking actually affected his managing—if he was drunk during the games that’s one thing.  It’s at least possible, as well, that McCarthy made mistakes during his tenure with the Yankees but that the overall talent of the team and their clear dominance hid them.  Obviously, that’s just speculation.

    Having said that, I will argue against myself and suggest that Stengel’s managing was a critical component to the Yankees’ success, and he was probably more important to those Yankees than McCarthy was to the Ruth-Gehrig-DiMaggio Yankees.  My impression of the early 50s Yankees that won five straight World Series is of a very good but not necessarily dominant team. DiMaggio was at the end of his career and Mantle was not yet in his prime.  The pitching was good, but not overwhelming. I think Stengel’s ability to platoon and find the right combination of players really had a lot to do with the Yankees’ success.

  4. Brandon Isleib said...

    While I’m not particularly versed in Boston Bees lore, Stengel got about the same records out of his crew that Bill McKechnie did, and McKechnie very clearly was squeezing the last drops out of his talent to get even to .500. Given further that ubergoof Stengel was replacing antigoof McKechnie, basically anything he did in his nature would get him perceived as a clown.  Perhaps that period is misconstrued a bit.  I don’t know

  5. Steve Treder said...

    I think you’re perceiving it correctly, Brandon.  With both the Bees/Braves of that era, and the Dodgers whom Stengel also managed for a few years, it would be nuts to expect any manager to get many more wins out of them than Stengel did.  Doing about as well as Bill McKechnie is no small feat, as McKechnie was one of the very, very best managers.

    You’re also correct that the press focused almost exclusively on Stengel’s colorful, quotable personality, and didn’t take his managerial skills seriously.  But it’s also likely the case that Stengel in those years was growing, learning, and developing his managerial skills.

    I think it was in his subsequent AAA managing stints at Milwaukee (1944), Kansas City (1945), and especially Oakland (1946-48) that Stengel truly gained the nearly limitless self-confidence that allowed him to enact his spectacularly complex and elegant platooning schemes that would make him famous with the Yankees.  A manager really has to have some chutzpah to pull that off, and by this point in Stengel’s life and career he’d developed chutzpah aplenty.

  6. Charley Walter said...

    I think Stengel was more than just platooning.

    I used to work with a bunch of guys who said things like “it seemed like very time Whitey pitched it was Friday night, at Yankee Stadium, against the White Sox”.

    I don’t know how accurate that is, but, that was the perception of more than one very serious Yankee fan.

  7. Steve Treder said...

    Stengel was an ardent practitioner of leveraging his starting pitchers based on opponent, as opposed to using them in strict rotation, which is the modern mode.  That could well be described as a form of platooning starting pitchers.

  8. the_slasher14 said...

    I cannot believe that this article didn’t mention that the Sox scored over 1,000 runs that year—the last team to do so, unless I’m mistaken.

  9. Steve Treder said...

    You are correct:  the 1950 Red Sox were the last major league team to score 1,000 runs in a season.  They were a great-hitting team, playing in a very good hitters’ home park, in a high-scoring league, and thus everything lined up for them to surpass that threshhold.

    Yet even within that context, their offensive explosion during that homestand in the first week of June was astonishing.  The Red Sox scored 1,027 runs in 1950—with nearly one-tenth of that staggering grand total coming in just those seven games, and over one-twentieth coming in just those two back-to-back games against the Browns.

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