Replacing managerial legends

Mike Matheny? Uh, okay—Mike Matheny.

St. Louis recently named the former catcher as their new manager. This was a surprise announcement, as many assumed Jose Oquendo was the heir apparent. Perhaps more importantly, Matheny’s appointment was a surprise because he lacked the normal qualifications for a big league manager. He’d neither managed nor coached over a full season.

Matheny replaces a sure-fire Hall of Famer who is the third-winningest manager of all-time and who just capped his career with his third world title. He’ll have to begin his managerial career stuck in the long shadows of Tony La Russa.

That just brings up a question: What has happened in the past to the men who replaced long-lasting managers who were highly regarded fixtures of the dugout? How well did they do? Did they crumble in the shadows or thrive? None of this will necessarily tell us anything definitively about what the future holds for Matheny, but it will be interesting to see how it plays out.

Let’s go through it, looking at Cooperstown-caliber managers. I’ll note the year the change occurred, the incoming and outgoing managers, and how long a manager’s tenure was. We’ll go from the longest lasting and work our way through.

1951 Philadelphia A’s: Jimmie Dykes replaces Connie Mack (7,466-game tenure)

No one has ever outlasted Mack. After his half-century-long stint as A’s manager came to an end, Dykes got the nod. Dykes had a few advantages. First, he was already a veteran manager, having piloted a White Sox team for over a decade in the 1930s and 1940s. The team lost more than its won, but that was due to a dearth of talent. Dykes himself was well regarded.

Also helping Dykes, he was something of an heir apparent. He had played for Mack for a long time and at the end of Mack’s time on the bench, Dykes served as a coach, largely managing the games for the old man. Dykes and fellow coach Al Simmons were the candidates to replace Mack.

Despite those advantages, Dykes only lasted three seasons helming the A’s. In his first year, the club improved by 18 games, and the next year the A’s posted a winning record—only their third winning season in the last 19. Then the team flopped badly the next year, and that was all for Dykes.

1932 New York Giants: Bill Terry replaces John McGraw (4,424-game tenure)

This one worked out much better than the Dykes replacement did. Terry was an heir apparent. In fact, when McGraw decided to retire, he personally asked Terry to take over the team. Up to that point, Terry was the team’s star first baseman.

Terry agreed, but only if his terms were met. He said he’d take the job only if he was given actual authority. He didn’t want anyone to look over his shoulder. He made McGraw promise not to return to the Giants dugout unless Terry personally asked him to do so, and McGraw agreed.

Helping Terry further, at the moment McGraw retired, the Giants were in last place in the NL. Granted, they were only 17-23 in a tightly bunched up league, but then again the Giants hadn’t won a pennant since 1924; McGraw appeared past his prime.

So it sure helped Terry that the Giants won the world championship in 1933, his first full season. Terry’s Giants narrowly missed a pennant in 1934, and then they claimed another pennant in 1936 and repeated in 1937.

Terry’s success kept him on the job for nearly a decade before the team let him go in the early 1940s.

1976 Los Angeles Dodgers: Tommy Lasorda replaces Walter Alston (3,658-game tenure)

This has to be the best-case scenario, as the Dodgers replaced a long-time fixture of a manager with a man who lasted almost as long. Alston managed more games for the club, but he never became the personification of the Dodgers the way Lasorda did.

Lasorda had a couple of advantages in retaining his job for as long as he did. First, he was the heir apparent. He had been in the Dodger organization almost all his adult life and was a highly regarded managerial prospect. The Dodgers wanted to make him manager before another team hired Lasorda away. Also, the Walter O’Malley-owned Dodgers prided itself on continuity, which is a big reason why the team had only two managers for a 40-plus year period.

Lasorda’s initial success also helped establish him in Los Angeles. He took over for Alston with four games to go in 1976, then guided the Dodgers to back-to-back pennants in 1977 and 1978 before claiming the world championship in 1981.

One final factor helps Lasorda. Of all the long-lasting managers, Alston cast the least imposing shadows on his successor. Though well regarded and a Hall of Famer, Alston spent much of his career fighting the perception that he was just a cog in the O’Malley machine. A series of 23 consecutive one-year contracts symbolized that perception. He was a man that could be let go at any time. Lasorda also had just one-year contracts originally, but by the 1980s moved to multi-year deals.

2011 Atlanta Braves: Fredi Gonzalez replaces Bobby Cox (3,270-game tenure)

It’s too soon to say how the Gonzalez experience will go in Atlanta. Clearly, the first year didn’t go the way anyone wanted it to, with the team blowing a big lead in the wild card race in the last month.

Gonzalez is another heir apparent. He coached on Cox’s staff for a few years before managing the Florida Marlins. Upon losing that job, the Braves rehired him as coach, and from then until the day he became manager, he was widely considered to be Cox’s successor.

1996 Los Angeles Dodgers: Bill Russell replaces Tommy Lasorda (3,040-game tenure)

After Alston lasted 20-plus years and Lasorda endured nearly as long, it just seemed natural that new manager Bill Russell would also last 20-plus years. After all, he had the same pedigree: a lifelong Dodger long assumed to be the future manager.

Yeah, but what matters isn’t the job but the person you put into it. Russell lasted only two years, and no team has ever hired him as manager after that.

1932 Brooklyn Dodgers: Max Carey replaces Wilbert Robinson (2,736-game tenure)

Carey played for Robinson for a few years at the end of Robinson’s lengthy managerial tenure. He didn’t have as long an established relationship with the team as most of the guys listed so far, but he had some at least.

Aiding Carey, Robinson hadn’t had much success in a long time before losing his job. Robinson won only two pennants, the last one coming in 1920. Despite that, Carey lasted only two years on the job before the Dodgers replaced him with Casey Stengel. All Dodger managers from 1914 to 1946 eventually went into Cooperstown, either as a player or skipper.

2012 St. Louis Cardinals: Mike Matheny replaces Tony LaRussa (2,591-game tenure)

We’ll find out how Matheny will do. In terms of games, La Russa’s St. Louis experience was the seventh-longest tenure of any manager ever.

One common theme so far: All the replacements had some connection to the club before becoming manager. Matheny is no exception, having played for La Russa’s Cardinals.

That said, looking at the list so far, it’s that much more surprising that St. Louis passed on Oquendo. Terry, Lasorda, Gonzlaez, Russell—these were successors-to-be, as was Oquendo. Yet the Cardinals have decided to go with a different heir.

1997 Detroit Tigers: Buddy Bell replaces Sparky Anderson (2,580-game tenure)

Unlike every single other manager listed so far, Bell had no relationship with the team whatsoever before it hired him to replace the departing legendary skipper. Bell had played, coached, or served in the front office for five clubs, but none gave him any connection to Anderson or the Tigers. The team wanted to make a clean break.

Making it even more interesting, Bell was a rookie manager, so he didn’t even carry much previous stature with him when he came to Detroit. Then again, the Tigers hadn’t posted back-to-back winning seasons since 1987-88, so Anderson’s shadow wasn’t as long as it otherwise would’ve been.

Bell’s stint was a complete disaster. In his first year, the Tigers set a new franchise record by losing 109 games. They allowed 1,103 runs, the second-most by any team since 1900. Detroit fired Bell two years later.

1916: Pittsburgh Pirates: Nixey Callahan replaces Fred Clarke (2,427-game tenure)

You probably don’t think of Clarke as a great manager; in fact, you probably don’t think of him at all. Though inducted into Cooperstown as a player, Clarke was one of the most successful managers of his day. In fact, he was baseball’s all-time winningest manager for a while until McGraw passed him.

Clarke managed Pittsburgh for 16 years, all a player-manager. When he stopped playing, he stopped managing. He would later rejoin the Pirate front office, but in 1916, the team opted to go with a man with no previous experience with the team to manage them, Nixey Callahan.

The team floundered under Callahan in 1916, and after a 20-40 start in 1917, they fired him outright.

1946 New York Yankees: Bill Dickey replaces Joe McCarthy (2,348-game tenure)

Dickey might be the best comp for Matheny. Both were veteran catchers who’d played under the previous legendary manager. Also, neither had any managing or coaching experience before getting the job.

There are key differences, though. Hall of Famer Dickey was far more a fixture in New York than Matheny ever was in St. Louis. Also, Dickey was still a player. He was at the end of his career, but he has the distinction of being the Yankees’ only player-manager since the club claimed its first pennant 90 years ago.

Matheny better hope the differences with Dickey mean more than the similarities. After 1946, Dickey never managed again.

1983 Baltimore Orioles: Joe Altobelli replaces Earl Weaver (2,274-game tenure)

Altobelli might be the best cautionary tale of how long the shadow of the previous man can be.

Altobelli had once managed in the Baltimore farm system before getting a shot as big league manager for the Giants in the 1970s. He returned to the Orioles to manage in 1983, and on the face of it, things couldn’t have gone better for him.

In his first year as skipper, Altobelli won a world championship. In fact, that tied him with Weaver himself with one world title. (The World Series was always Weaver’s Achilles’ heel, as he won only one of the four in which he skippered.)

You’d think that would earn the new guy some respect, right? Eh, no. Rumors soon swirled that Weaver wanted to return to the dugout. A third of the way into the 1985 season, just Altobelli’s third on the job, the Orioles fired him for Weaver, despite the fact that Baltimore had a winning record each year under the new guy.

Under Weaver, the Orioles flopped to 73-89 in 1986. This didn’t go well for anyone.

2008 New York Yankees: Joe Girardi replaces Joe Torre (1,942-game tenure). 1961 New York Yankees: Ralph Houk replaces Casey Stengel (1,851-game tenure). 1930 New York Yankees: Bob Shawkey replaces Miller Huggins (1,796-game tenure).

I’m lumping these three together for a few reasons. First, they are all Yankee managers. Second, all three lasted about a dozen years on the job—exactly a dozen for Torre and Stengel, and just shy of it by Huggins (who died near the end of his 12th season with the team).

These guys are all similar in other ways as well. All had experience with the Yankees before becoming manager. Shawkey pitched for them for 13 years, including five pennant winners and two world champs. Houk played his entire eight-year career, during which time the Yankees won six world titles. Girardi caught for them for only four years, but that period included three world titles.

In that regard, these guys are all like Dickey—a guy who experienced success as a player with the team, called on to manage after the departure of a legend. In fact, Dickey, Houk, and Girardi all served as catchers.

None of these guys ever made the pantheon of great Yankee managers (though Girardi still has a chance). Shawkey lasted one year before getting replaced by Joe McCarthy. Dickey, as noted already, lasted less than a year before the team turned to Bucky Harris (who lasted only two years before Stengel got hired). Neither Shawkey nor Dickey won a pennant.

Houk had the strangest experience. He won a world title in each of his first two seasons and a pennant in his third year on the job. Then he left the dugout for the front office. By the time he returned to the dugout, the dynasty was over. He remained a well-regarded manager but never lived up to his early promise.

Who knows what the future holds for Joe Girardi? Yes, he has won a World Series already, but while winning a world title gives you prestige with most teams, you need to add some extra ones to impress people when managing the Yankees.

(Note: technically Art Fletcher replaced Huggins in 1929, but that was only for a dozen games when Huggins suddenly took ill and died at the conclusion of the season).

Summary

The main trend here is that the men who replace legends almost always have some previous connection to the team. That makes sense. The only ones with no previous association with the team, Bell and Callahan, probably had the worst experiences of all.

They almost never leave as big a footprint behind them as the legend, but that should be expected. It’s hard enough for a team to land one legendary manager. It’s much harder to do it twice in a row, though some of these men did have success.

References & Resources
Baseall-Reference.com provided the numbers used in this article.

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Comments

  1. Chris Jaffe said...

    And though I’m not sure he qualifies as a managerial legend, but Tom Kelly had a 2,385 game stint with the Twins.  They replaced him with in-house guy Ron Gardenhire with Kelly retired.

    Well, I said “Cooperstown-caliber” skippers up top, so I can justify leaving him out, I suppose.

  2. Jim G. said...

    In fairness, Buddy Bell’s 2nd year with the Tigers was not bad. 3 games under .500 and the Tigers had reason to be optimistic. His 1st year 109 loss season in 1996 was a transitional year, with Gibson, Whitaker and Henneman, Fielder and David Wells all leaving the team in ‘95 and Trammell would follow halfway through ‘96, Bell had an empty shell of a team to manage. The Tigers effectively received little in return for Fielder and the newly blossomed Wells. Bell’s 79 win season in ‘97 felt like a 100 wins under the circumstances. Then the wheels fell off again in ‘98 and he was soon gone.
    One thing you don’t discuss is why the legendary managers left. In Sparky’s case, he could see the handwriting on the wall of talent.

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