The story of kindly old Burt Shotton

When one thinks of Dodgers managers, the obvious big names come up- Tommy Lasorda, Walter Alston, Leo Durocher and Chuck Dressen—all larger-than life personalities who were often as or more high profile than any of their players. Even the quiet Alston had a huge presence and charisma, although he was much quieter than the others.

Often overlooked, perhaps due to his short tenure and perhaps his quiet nature, was Burt Shotton, who managed some very good Dodgers teams during management and ownership upheavals. He took over for virtually a whole season on an interim basis when Durocher was suspended by commissioner Happy Chandler, and took the reins back when Durocher was let go in June of the following year. He was also manager while owners Branch Rickey and Walter O’Malley fought over the control of the team.

Shotton had a fine playing career, which spanned from 1909 to 1923. He played for the St. Louis Browns, the Washington Senators and the St. Louis Cardinals. In 14 seasons, he had more than 20 steals eight times, and four of those times, more than 40. He had a solid career batting average of .271, including .297 in 1913 and .283 in 1916. His real talent was in on-base percentage, mostly in walks. He led the league in walks in 1913 and 1916, and was the top 10 in five years of his career. He had an OBP of .405 in 1913, and .409 in 1916.

He wasn’t perfect. Bill James in his Historical Baseball Abstract called him a “noted leadoff man” but also listed him as in the bottom five of the ratio of hits to runs scored, although that may well have to do with the lineups around him than it anything he did (he did have a high rate of being caught stealing). Overall, James listed him as No. 104 in his list of all-time center fielders. It was with the Cardinals, toward the end of his career, that he became close to Rickey, who would ultimately be the biggest influence on his post-playing career.

Rickey is remembered as one of the best innovators in the game. He is best known for breaking the color barrier by signing Jackie Robinson. Among other things, he is given credit for is implementing the modern minor league system and promoting the use of batting cages, pitching machines and batting helmets. Although he was referred to as the “business manager,” he is also thought of by many as one of the first modern general managers.

Not much of a player, his best known feat as a pro was giving up 13 stolen bases in one game while playing catcher. He was a manager and executive for the St. Louis Browns from 1913-15, where Shotton was his cente fielder. He got fired when the team was sold; he then fought for a few years in World War I, eventually re-surfacing in 1919 with St. Louis Cardinals. He was their chief executive (also manager until 1925), until the time he took over the Brooklyn Dodgers as part owner and business manager in 1942. He would go on to win two pennants with the Dodgers, one in 1947 and one in 1949. Both of these pennants were won with Shotton at the helm.

After Shotton’s playing career, he was a scout for a few years, until taking over the Cardinals’ top farm club, the Syracuse Stars. His first formal managing job came with the 1928 Philadelphia Phillies, which he managed until 1933. In those days, the Phillies were much like the Pittsburgh Pirates of today, perennial losers. They went 35 years without winning a pennant, between 1915 and 1950. While two of Shotton’s teams lost more than 100 games, in 1932 he did give them their first winning season since 1917, with a 78-76 record. Perhaps the biggest development in his tenure was the emergence of future hall-of-famer Chuck Klein, who averaged 34 homers from 1929-33 and had more than 120 RBIs in each of those seasons.

After he left Philadelphia, he coached for the Cincinnati Reds and the Cleveland Indians, than managed in the Cardinals system after that. He eventually followed Rickey to the Dodgers organization, where he was a scout. The Dodgers at the time were managed by the fiery Leo Durocher. Under Durocher, who took over in Brooklyn in 1939, they had won over 100 games twice (1941, 1942), and had won the pennant in ’41. Aside from a disastrous 1944 campaign in which they ended up in seventh place, they were usually in contention.

Durocher had a tempestuous relationship with president and general manager Larry McPhail. When McPhail resigned to fight in World War II, Rickey took over, and they also had a stormy relationship. Durocher also raised the ire of commissioner Albert “Happy” Chandler, who was unhappy with Durocher’s outside interests, which included pool sharking, gambling and an extra-marital affair with actress Larraine Day. Eventually, Durocher was accused of running an illegal craps game that took an active ballplayer for a large sum of money.

Chandler suspended Durocher for a year. An interesting side note (perhaps a future conversation) was that Durocher’s problems with McPhail continued even after Durocher took over the Giants. Durocher accused his old boss of many of the same things he himself was being accused of. The kicker was that Chandler was close with McPhail, and many say that friendship played into Durocher’s suspension. According to Gerald Eskenazi, author of The Lip: a Biography of Leo Durocher, “it was the first time a baseball commissioner had suspended a man without stating in writing specific charges against him.”

Either way, Rickey was in a bind. None of Durocher’s assistants were interested in the interim job, so he called his old friend Shotton, now 62 years old, who was scouting in Florida. He told Shotten, “Be in Brooklyn in the morning. Call nobody, see no one.” According to Shotton, he didn’t know the job was his until 90 minutes before his first game (the third game of the season), and he allegedly didn’t show up until right before game time, saying he forgot how to get to the Polo Grounds. One of Shotton’s conditions was that he didn’t have to put on a uniform. Throughout his stints with the Dodgers he wore a suit with a Dodgers jacket and cap.

It was quite a year. It was Robinson’s rookie year and almost everywhere the Dodgers went (including their own clubhouse), there was upheaval. Despite the rancor, the Dodgers, sparked by Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Carl Furillo and Dixie Walker, jumped out into a quick lead and never looked back after the All-Star break. Robinson won rookie of the year, hitting .297 with 29 stolen bases, his 12 homers tying Reese for the team lead.

The Dodgers’ key was their ability to get on base. Four starters and one key reserve all had OPBs of over .400. Despite not hitting a huge amount of homers, four players did have OPS over .800, which told of plenty of extra base hits. The pitching was anchored by Ralph Branca, who won 21 games with a 2.67 ERA. They won the pennant easily, but went down to the New York Yankees in seven hard-fought games in the World Series. While it was certainly a disappointment, it was the first pennant they had won while known as the Dodgers, and according to Neil Jay Sullivan, author of The Dodgers Move West , “Dodger fans had a reason to admire their team’s spirit and cherish October memories”

Durocher came back the next year, and Shotton willingly moved to the front office. However, Durocher and Rickey soon began to have issues, and the team was underperforming. Meanwhile, the Giants across town were in even worse straits and were going to fire Mel Ott. When McPhail called Rickey to inquire about Shotton, Rickey instead offered him Durocher, and brought Shotton back to the dugout, telling Durocher that his future “lay across the river.” He inherited a team that was 36-37, and went 48-33 the rest of the way. The Dodgers made a decent run, but finished in third place. The offense was strong, but they didn’t get on base like they did the previous years, and the pitching was solid, if unspectacular. Shotton was kept on.

In 1949, it came all together again. Robinson had a career year, hitting .342 with a .4321 OBP, 16 homers and 37 stolen bases. He won MVP that year. Furillo also had a fine year, and it was also the year that future Hall of Famer Duke Snider emerged, hitting .292 and tying with Gil Hodges for the team lead in homers with 23. Don Newcombe and Preacher Roe led a pitching staff that finished first in strikeouts and shutouts and second in ERA. However once again, they were downed by the Yankees in the World Series, this time four games to one.

In 1950, the offense became very dominant, leading the league in homers, batting average, OBP, and many other categories. Hodges, Snider and Roy Campanella had more than 30 homers apiece, and while Robinson’s stolen bases were down, he was strong otherwise.

The pitching took a dip, however. Newcombe and Roe had 19 wins apiece, but their ERAs were significantly higher, as was the team’s WHIP. There were no other solid starters behind them; nobody else had more than 19 starts. Although they ended up only two games out of first place, Rickey’s exit, along with the ascension of O’Malley and an increasing impatience among fans and the press, led to Shotton being let go after the season. Successor Chuck Dressen was referred to by author Thomas Oliphant as loving “to talk baseball, be quoted in the press and gamble. He was the precise opposite of Shotton’s understated demeanor and dignity”

Despite his winning two pennants in three years, the fans, the players and the press had mixed feelings about Shotton. First was his low-key style, which flew in the face on Durocher’s fiery demeanor. Shotton, because he wore suits, was not allowed on the field, so to argue a call or replace a pitcher, he’d have assistants Clyde Sukeforth or Ray Blades take care of it. According to Eskanzazi, his insistence at not wearing a uniform struck Dodgers fans as “odd”: “Burt Shotton sat there just waving his finger at his coaches, not really planning ahead, frustrating players like Branca, who were accustomed to a lively bench (Durocher’s) with plenty of cerebral baseball.”

Not all the players disliked Shotton; perhaps it was more a love for Durocher than anything against Shotton. Robinson remarked “I sure do like to play for that man” when told Shotton was coming back in 1948, while Reese was more circumspect. “I’m a Durocher man, myself. But Leo was on the spot. He had to win or quit, and he never would’ve quit. But I’ll play my head off for Shotton.”

The famously impatient New York press, particularly famous columnist Dick Young, never took to Shotton. Young continually referred to him as K.O.B.S. (Kindly old Burt Shotton), and was quoted as saying Shotton was “aloof,” “indifferent to his players’ problems” and “a vain, stubborn person.”

One can rightly assume that Shotton’s unassuming nature and relatively short tenure contribute to his being overlooked. One can also say that pretty much all Shotton did was ride the coattails of managers like Durocher, executives like Rickey and O”Malley and the Hall of Fame-worthy talent of Robinson, Snider, Newcombe and Roe. One possible similarity that comes to mind is George Seifert, who won two Super Bowls with the 49ers and compiled an excellent won-loss record, but rarely gets credit because of the huge influence of his predecessor, Bill Walsh.

Using the 1940s and 1950s as a sample, the Dodgers had many winning seasons, but only one pennant under Durocher. Shotton’s teams won two pennants in four years, and still contended even when they didn’t win. Dressen won two pennants in his three years at the helm, and Walter Alston won three pennants, including two World Series in that period. Alston’s World Series victories probably make him the most successful. Dressen had a similar short but successful run as manager, and while Durocher won only one, the role he played in developing the talent of the core 1950s era Dodgers can’t be questioned.

But Shotton’s two pennants in a short period qualify him to be in the conversation also. As for long-term success, Alston and Durocher are deservedly icons, but Dressen never matched the success he had with the Dodgers, and Shotton’s long stint managing the mediocre Phillies probably didn’t help his long-term legacy.

Not considered here is Shotton’s obvious patience and talents in developing players. As a player who had an excellent on-base percentage and huge number of walks, he was amazingly patient. Managing the Phillies, it was certainly his stable and unruffled nature that helped him survive as long as he did. He got thrown into a hornet’s nest in 1947, with the upheaval surrounding Robinson’s rookie year and Durocher’s suspension, and came within one game of winning a World Series. While Robinson had is early ups and downs, Shotton wouldn’t bench him. When Durocher couldn’t get the team back on track in 1948, he took a sub- .500 team and made it into a contender that just fell short. In 1949, although his pitching let him down, he ended the season only two games out of first.

Although the talents of the others mentioned above indisputably played a role, one can’t question Shotton’s role, either. Snider, Campanella and Robinson blossomed into superstars under his watch. Many of the players the Dodgers had were certainly products of his scouting efforts in the early 1940s.

This speaks of his patience: He was asked by a reporter about 22-year-old Snider’s disappointing 1947 World Series (he went 3 for 21 with eight strikeouts, after having a career year in the regular season).

“I believe these games against the Yankees will benefit Snider,” Shotten said. “Sure he looked awful striking out so much, but it was worth it for the future. Nothing will seem tough to him after that.”

References & Resources
Bill James- Historical Baseball Abstract
Neil Jay Sullivan- The Dodgers Move West
Thomas Oliphant- Praying for Gil Hodges
Gerald Eskenazi- The Lip: A Biography of Leo Durocher
Duke Snider and Bill Gilbert- The Duke of Flatbush

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Comments

  1. Arthur Coulter said...

    I’d like to offer one correction myself…

    “This speaks of his patience: He was asked by a reporter about 22-year-old Snider’s disappointing 1947 World Series (he went 3 for 21 with eight strikeouts, after having a career year in the regular season).”

    In 1947 Duke Snider played in 40 regular season MLB games. It was his debut. He hit .241-0-5 / .276 / .301 / .577 w/ 24 K’s & only 3 BB’s. He didn’t even play in the World Series.

    It was 1949 when he broke out but had that awful postseason. Then he became the Dodgers’ resident ‘Mr. Clutch.’

    Nice story on an otherwise obscure figure though.

  2. Michael Green said...

    Great piece, and thanks for a reminder of a kind of lost figure in Dodger history.

    I’d like to offer a correction.  In mid-1948, it was not Larry MacPhail who sought out Durocher, but Horace Stoneham of the Giants, who was about to fire Mel Ott and asked Rickey for permission to speak to Shotton.  Rickey gave him the choice, and Stoneham understandably went for Durocher.

    Also, one theory is that Walter O’Malley was trying to undermine Rickey, and the pressure was on him to fire Durocher, which he didn’t want to do, so this was a way to solve the problem.

  3. Steven Booth said...

    Thanks for the feedback, guys

    Right it was Stoneham who approached Rickey, and I thought I corrected the thing about Snider in 1949. It was a typo.

    The readers here don’t miss much!

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