Memorable managerial meltdowns

The 2012 season sure wasn’t a very nice one for newly hired big-name managers.

Sure, it’s not that extraordinary for a manager to get canned after just one year on the job. Yeah, that happens. But it’s supposed to be someone you’d never heard of before the season started. How often does it happen to big-name skippers?

Well, in 2012 the answer was twice. Two different high-profile skippers came, saw, and were conquered by their new job after just one campaign: Bobby Valentine with the Red Sox and Ozzie Guillen with the Marlins.

The stories of their dueling disastrous seasons are so fresh and widely reported, it hardly seems to be worth recapping.

In short, Valentine’s Boston experience was a disaster from start to finish. He began by alienating the team over his problems with Kevin Youkilis, and things never improved from there. Bobby V had problems in the clubhouse and managing his bullpen. As 2012 has come to an end, Valentine has bashed his coaches for not working with him, accused veterans like David Ortiz of quitting on the team, and engaged in an overall scorched-earth policy that makes everyone look bad (including Valentine).

Guillen was the big-name managerial hire by a Marlins franchise that went on an offseason spending spree with playoff hopes for their new stadium in 2012. Instead, not only was the team a flop, but Guillen spent the year as a painful distraction.

He began things by telling Time magazine that he loved Cuba’s communist dictator, Fidel Castro. Yeah, that’s really not good, especially when you manage a team in Miami, which is full of refugees who left Cuba because of Castro. Things never got on track, and as the season ended, Guillen was badmouthing the franchise and saying he didn’t really care—he was going on vacation in Spain.

Given how their seasons played out, neither firing is especially surprising, but it’s still odd to see well-known managers go so quickly. What precedents exist for this? And what do those precedents tell us about the possible futures for Guillen and Valentine?

I looked at all skippers in the top 100 all time for games managed, and here in chronological order are the cases where one lasted a season or less with a club. In a few cases, if a manager is prominent enough, we’ll cheat a little bit and include guys who lasted a little over a year, as long as it was less than two years.

One last thing to note: in order to make this list, a person must already be an established manager. There are numerous cases of someone who would later become a well-known manager lasting one year before establishing himself. It happened to John McGraw and Whitey Herzog, for instance. Those cases aren’t good comps for what we’re looking at Here are the guys that fit.

1923 Red Sox: Frank Chance

Chance had tremendous success with the Cubs from 1905-12, but when they began declining, the team cut him loose. He ran a far worse Yankees club in 1913-14 but then didn’t manage again until 1923.

Chance had a big problem by 1923. In his playing days, he did whatever he could to get on base, including being willing to get hit by fastballs, including some to his head. By 1923 he was in decline. In fact, he’d die during the 1924 season, but by then the Red Sox had a new manager; one in better health.

1928 Braves: Rogers Hornsby

Hornsby’s is a very strange situation. He was a great hitter, so front offices always wanted him on their team. But he was an absolute jerk who was difficult to manage. Since it was olden times, teams tried to deal with him by making him player-manager, figuring it would make him the leader instead of someone who undermined the leader. As player-manager, he led the Cardinals to a world title in 1926.

It didn’t work out well. He served as player-manager for half the NL, and it always came to an end when the team decided it was better off without him. Even the Cardinals traded him immediately after their world title season. The Braves were the only team to give their star player-manager less than a full season on the job before wising up. (Technically, Hornsby managed the Giants for less than a full season, but he just filled in for McGraw for part of the year. Everyone knew the team belonged to McGraw).

1928 Cardinals: Bill McKechnie

In 1928, the Cardinals brought in McKechnie, who had already won a pennant with the Pirates. McKechnie led St. Louis to a pennant in his first season there, so they fired him.

Huh? Yeah, the above doesn’t make much sense, does it? Well, the problem was a civil war going on in the front office, pitting the team’s owner versus GM Branch Rickey. McKechnie was a casualty caught in the crossfire.

In fact, it was the third straight season the Cardinals got rid of their manager despite fielding a great team every year. Player-manager Hornsby helmed them during their 1926 world championship season, but the club traded him that winter. In 1927, someone named Bob O’Farrell led them to a 92-61 record, but lost his job anyway. Apparently, no one thought that much of O’Farrell, as he managed just 135 games in the majors after 1927.

St. Louis’ managerial merry-go-round didn’t end in 1928. In 1929, the Cardinals replaced McKechnie with another Hall of Fame skipper, Billy Southworth. However, Southworth was a rookie skipper and not year ready for prime time. He alienated the team and lost his job in midseason. He wouldn’t get another shot until the 1940s.

Oh, and the Cardinals ultimately called on McKechnie to finish out the season with them in 1929. So he did … and they fire him again.

McKechnie went on to a great dugout career. This wasn’t a managerial meltdown as it was an ongoing front office debacle.

(As it happens, this was the second time McKechnie lost his job due to front office follies. He led the Pirates to the pennant in 1925 and was let go that year due to bizarre circumstances. Team GM Fred Clarke wanted McKechnie’s job, and the players preferred McKechnie and revolted against the front office. Several players were cut, Clarke was banned from the clubhouse, and McKechnie lost his job. Everyone lost).

1934 Red Sox: Bucky Harris

Harris is fifth on the all-time games-managed list. He usually lasted several years, but this time he just survived one. I’m not entirely sure exactly what happened, but a few items are of note.

First, the Red Sox were under new ownership, as a rich kid named William Yawkey recently had bought them. He immediately poured a lot of money into the team, trying to turn a longtime doormat into a contender.

In late 1934, Yawkey spent a record sum of $225,000 on Joe Cronin, the Senators player-manger who led Washington to a pennant in 1933. On Opening Day 1935, Cronin was the team’s new skipper. As for Harris? After Cronin took his job, he ended up taking Cronin’s job as Senators skipper by Opening Day, 1935.

1943 Phillies: Bucky Harris

Harris had first been a manager in the 1920s and was viewed a boy wonder who had won two pennants. By 1943, it was nearly 20 years since his last pennant, and he’d had just one winning season since 1932.

Harris was a name manager but not much more than that. The Phillies, baseball’s worst club, hired him. They fired him in the middle of a lousy season, but Harris had his revenge.

Immediately after getting fired, Harris told reporters a dirty little secret: the Phillies’ owner bet on baseball games. That’s a huge no-no, and the owner was soon forced to sell the team. Harris, who managed some team every year from 1924-43, didn’t get hired again until 1947 but won a pennant with the 1947 Yankees that allowed him to bounce around the league for another decade.

1952 Browns: Rogers Hornsby

This hiring was a massive mistake. Browns owner Bill Veeck later admitted this was one time he did what his critics always accused him of: prioritizing publicity over good baseball. Veeck hired Hornsby to manage his team because Hornsby was a St. Louis legend. A mere 51 games into the year, Veeck realized what a huge mistake he’d made and fired Hornsby. It was Hornsby’s first big league managerial stint since his player-manager days, and it makes sense that if you couldn’t put up with him when he helped out at the plate, why would you put up with him when he didn’t hit anymore?

(Bizarrely, the Reds then hired Hornsby and kept him for a year and a half. Hornsby was hired seven times as a skipper but managed barely 1,500 games in all).

1954 Orioles: Jimmie Dykes

Dykes was a longtime White Sox manager when they weren’t very good, and he then replaced Connie Mack with the A’s. After the A’s fired Dykes, he immediately latched on with Baltimore.

On one hand, Dykes was a notable and respected dugout name with over 2,200 games under his belt before coming to Baltimore. But he was nearly 100 games under .500 for his career, and he proceeded to go 54-100 in Baltimore. That made him easy to fire. Besides, the club had a chance to reel in high profile and well-regarded young manager Paul Richards, who ran them for the rest of the decade.

Dykes bounced around for a bit more, but never lasted two full seasons in any of his remaining three stints as manager.

1960 Cubs: Charlie Grimm and Lou Boudreau

Each of these men lasted over 2,000 games as managers and won at least one pennant. Neither managed after 1960.

Grimm began the year in the dugout, but after 17 games the team switched him with broadcaster Boudreau. Both men were past their prime, and the team went 64-90.

1967 Pirates: Danny Murtaugh

This one hardly counts, but it technically is the case of a prominent manager lasting less than a season. Murtaugh led the Pirates to a world title in 1960, but after 1964 left the dugout due to a heart ailment. Instead, he took a less stressful role with the club. In 1967, when the club fired its manager, they had Murtaugh fill in the rest of the year. Later, Murtaugh served two other stints as Pirate manager. Continued concerns over his heart ended the first one, and a fatal heart attack ended the second. Had it not been for his heart, Murtaugh would’ve lasted as long as he wanted with the Pirates.

1972-73 Astros: Leo Durocher

This is one that doesn’t belong as it was for more than one year—but only barely—as Durocher only manager Houston for 193 games in all. Also, Durocher was a pretty damn prominent manager when Houston hired him, so we’ll fudge the rules a bit and include him.

He was a big name, but he was well past his prime. He’d lost his previous gig with the Cubs because he couldn’t relate to players less than half his age, and the same problem quickly repeated itself in Houston. Durocher lost his job after 1973 and never was hired again.

1976 trio: White Sox – Paul Richards, A’s – Chuck Tanner, Giants – Bill Rigney

2012 is odd for having two prominent managers lose their jobs after just one year in the role, but 1976 tops it with a trio of skippers all losing their job in short order.

At the time, Paul Richards was the biggest name. As manager for the White Sox and Orioles in the 1950s, he gained the reputation as “The Wizard of Waxahachie” (after his hometown in Texas), and he was especially good at dealing with pitchers. However, Richards had last managed in 1961. He’d become a GM, but by 1976 was done in that capacity. By then, Bill Veeck was the new White Sox owner, and he’d long said that if he ever bought another team, he wanted Richards to be the manager.

Bad move. Richards was a brilliant mind in his day, but his day had passed. The man previously known as the sharpest mind in the game kept falling asleep in the dugout during games. Perhaps even more telling, the man who once had been known as some king of pitcher whisperer didn’t know how to run staffs anymore. He took relief ace Rich Gossage and made him a starting pitcher while shifting future Cy Young Award winner starter Pete Vukovich to the bullpen. It was a mess. Predictably, Richards never managed again.

As it happens, Richards took the 1976 dugout position because previous manager Chuck Tanner had just left it. Instead, Tanner ran the A’s, owned by Charles Finley, who had a well-deserved reputation for rapidly hiring and firing managers. Oakland had a good year under Tanner, finishing 87-74, but for them that was a disappointment. After five straight years of winning the division, Oakland came in second. Even still, the fire-prone Finley didn’t dismiss Tanner; he actually traded him to Pittsburgh. Tanner became a Pittsburgh institution, holding court there for a decade. His losing the Oakland job had more to do with the owner than himself.

Rigney was not a world-class manager, but he was a respected journeyman with over 2,500 games under his belt. However, managing the Giants in 1976 was his first dugout stint since 1972, and when the team finished well under .500, the aging Rigney was shown the door. It was less a meltdown than a disappointing season, but he never managed again.

1977 Padres: Alvin Dark

Discussing all the pitfalls of Dark’s career could take a column in and of itself. In the early 1960s, he managed the Giants to a pennant but hurt his reputation with some racially inflammatory comments about black and Hispanic players. A few years later while managing the Indians, the openly born-again Christian Dark was involved in an embarrassing off-field scandal due to an affair he had while married. In the mid-1970s, he led the A’s to a title, but the players nearly revolted on him, seeing him as a toadie for the unpopular owner, Charles Finley.

When Dark came to the Padres a quarter of the way through the 1977 season, he was both high-profile and damaged goods. So when the team fumbled through the rest of the season with him, Dark never managed again.

Yankees and Billy Martin: 1979, 1983, 1985, and 1988

Five times Yankees owner George Steinbrenner hired Martin as manager. Four times he fired him after a season or less on the job. These rapid hirings and firings of one manager are without precedent in baseball. It tells us something of Martin, the talented skipper who could wear out his welcome faster than any other manager in baseball. It also tells us about Steinbrenner, who had a very strong reputation for his willingness to overturn managers quickly in the pre-Joe Torre era. In that way, they both made each other’s reputation.

For our purposes, let’s just note that once Martin and Steinbrenner began to fall into their dysfunctional relationship, the rest of baseball stopped hiring Martin. He’d managed the Twins, Tigers, and Rangers before coming to New York, but after Steinbrenner got his hooks on him, Finley’s A’s gave Martin his only non-Yank stint. (Finley fired Martin after three seasons, which is among the longest tenures any manager ever had for him.)

Martin’s last three hirings were all with the Yankees.

1985-86 Orioles: Earl Weaver

This is another guy who lasted more than a full season, but because he’s such a prominent manager and because he lasted fewer than two years, we’ll include him.

Weaver voluntarily retired after 1982, and by 1985 had second thoughts. He was such an icon in Baltimore, it didn’t matter that replacement Joe Altobelli won a world title for the team in 1983. Weaver came back, and it was a big mistake. Not only was 1986′s 73-89 campaign Weaver’s only losing season, his team dropped 42 of its last 56 games.

This time Weaver retired and stayed retired.

1999 Rockies: Jim Leyland

Leyland previously had led the Pirates to three straight division titles from 1990-92 and the Marlins to a world championship in 1997. After the great Florida fire sale in the 1997-98 offseason turned the Marlins into the worst team in baseball, Leyland left for Colorado.

However, he didn’t stay long. Leyland wasn’t fired. Leyland was just exhausted. Late in the season, he began talking of resigning, and that’s what he did. He needed time to recharge after 14 straight years managing. After a half-dozen years off, Leyland returned, taking the Tigers to the World Series in 2006 and now again in 2012.

2012 duo: Red Sox – Bobby Valentine, Marlins – Ozzie Guillen

Okay, so where does that leave Valentine and Guillen? How do they fit into all of this? Looking through the list of meltdowns above, there are two main themes.

First are managers whose one-year stints came at the end of their careers. These guys included Frank Chance, Lou Boudreau, Charlie Grimm, Leo Durocher, Paul Richards, Bill Rigney, Alvin Dark, Earl Weaver, and—to some extent—a Yankees-era Billy Martin. Jimmy Dykes and a Browns-era Rogers Hornsby both only sort of avoid it. Both managed again, but neither had much leeway in their future jobs. By and large, these guys’ careers already were winding down, so when they lost their jobs so quickly, that killed their dugout careers.

Finally, some men managed dysfunctional organizations. The 1920s Cardinals with McKechnie and Southworth had their problems. Finley and Steinbrenner were always willing to hire/fire managers rapidly, as Piniella, Martin, McNamara, and Tanner can all attest. For that matter, Harris walked into a bizarre situation with a gambling owner in Philadelphia.

Looking at Valentine and Guillen, it’s easy to see where Valentine fits into these themes. He’s one of the guys at the end of his career. Given what a fiasco his season was, the war of words being said in its aftermath, and the fact that he’s 62, it’s almost impossible to imagine that he’ll manage again. In fact, of all the end-of-career guys who endured a one-year stint, Valentine may have had the ugliest one of all.

However, Guillen doesn’t fit perfectly into any of these themes. He’s neither a guy starting out, and at age 48 he’s not exactly a 1973-model Durocher. You can make the case that he suffered from dealing with a dysfunctional franchise. After all, the Marlins once fired Joe Girardi after one season on the job when he won the Manager of the Year award. But Guillen’s wounds were more self-inflicted. Besides, it’s the second straight year Guillen has run himself out of a job.

Probably the best comp for Guillen is someone not listed above, Jim Tracy. Like Guillen, Tracy established himself as a respected manager with his first club, in this case the Dodgers.

Then Tracy had a fiasco of a season. He wasn’t new to the job, but he had a new boss in LA that he couldn’t get along with, GM Paul DePodesta, in 2005. The season was a total disaster, with both manager and GM getting fired at the end of the year. It wasn’t quite the same as Guillen’s partially self-orchestrated departure from Chicago, but in both cases, a toxic relationship with the front office ended their managerial tenures.

Still respected, Tracy immediately landed a new job, this time with the Pirates. He lasted longer than Guillen did in Miami, but not by much. Despite being the most prominent manager the Pirates have had in recent decades, he also had the shortest tenure. Pirate fans I know absolutely loath Tracy. There were no, “I love Castro!” comments from Tracy, but his reputation was in tatters.

He still got hired again, this time by Colorado. My hunch is that Guillen will get hired again, because he is still fairly young and does have a World Series ring. It’s no guarantee, though, and it’s doubtful it will happen in the next few years. But Guillen better learn a little humility or the ability to temper himself a bit. A third straight ugly end would end any future hopes of working in a dugout.

References & Resources
I looked up the managerial stints on Baseball-Reference.com. The stories I knew from researching my book, Evaluating Baseball’s Managers.

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Comments

  1. bucdaddy said...

    “Still respected, Tracy immediately landed a new job, this time with the Pirates.”

    I find it odd that Tracy would still be “respected” since he basically mutinied on DePodesta. I always figured the Pirates wound up with him because a) nobody else would touch Tracy and b) nobody else wanted the Pirates job. A marriage made in hell.

    I was just kind of “meh” on him while he was in Pittsburgh, because I don’t put a lot of stock in the kind of “rah-rah, the buck stops here” type of leadership most fans seem to think is important. Tracy had the odd habit of conducting his own interviews, and the not-so-odd habit of (to use most fans’ complaint) throwing his players under the bus when they didn’t produce. His players and his team were mostly terrible anyway, so I don’t know why Tracy was supposed to excuse them and blame himself for the team being terrible. I think he used some strange in-game tactics that fans also questioned, but I’m (thankfully) erasing the Tracy era from my memory, so I’m not sure and would rather not re-live the pain by looking it up.

  2. dweebz said...

    “…someone named Bob O’Farrell led them to a 92-61 record, but lost his job anyway. Apparently, no one thought that much of O’Farrell, as he managed just 135 games in the majors after 1927.”

    you mean the bob o’farrell who was considered one of the best catchers in the majors?  the guy who won the NL MVP in 1926?  that guy?

  3. asym said...

    ‘My hunch is that Guillen will get hired again’

    I expect a year off, and then someone will try him.  Watch for rumors to start, that’s how smart folkes test the waters.  AJ continues to say good things about Ozzie, and AJ might not be popular, but he is a good catcher – hint, hint Detroit…

  4. KJOK said...

    Durocher is exactly the guy I thought of when Valentine was going crazy this year.  Both didn’t know when to shut up and stop talking, especially about themselves, couldn’t get along with players or coaches, and the game had passed them by.

  5. Cliff Blau said...

    Interesting article.  BTW, it was Tom Yawkey who bought the Red Sox;  William Yawkey was his uncle who’d previously owned the Tigers.

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