On Oct. 4, 1944, Tony LaRussa was born. Like many great skippers, if LaRussa the manager had been stuck with lots of LaRussa players, many wins likely would not have come.
Quoteland.com—a great resource of one-line wisdom—includes 27 quotes on teaching. These range from those that originate in alleged Chinese proverbs to Carl Jung to H. Ross Perot. Not included is the classic cliché that those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach.
I have always thought that is perhaps a bit harsh, but when it comes to the great managers, there is more truth than falsehood in such a statement. The all-time leader in wins is Connie Mack. As a manager, Mack won 3,731 games, five World Series titles and four other pennants. Thirteen times Mack posted a winning percentage over .600.
As a player, however, Mack was more likely to be of the quality that characterized the teams Mack ran when trying to save money. Those kinds of teams went 36-117 in 1916 or 49-105 in 1946.
The Tall Tactician played 11 seasons in variants of the major leagues. His first season, Mack hit .361 in just 10 games.
He was never that good again. In 1891, Mack played in 75 games for the Pittsburgh Pirates and hit .214, which was an improvement on 1888 when he played in 85 games and batted .187. For his career, Mack batted just .245 with a .300 slugging percentage, which is lame even for the deadball era in which Mack largely played.
Of course, all those gruesome budget teams rather dragged down Mack’s career winning percentage. Mack is—far and away—the all-time leader in losses. His 3,948 are nearly 1,750 ahead of second-place Bucky Harris. And fairness dictates I point out that the man who is second all-time in wins, John McGraw, was a pretty solid player in his own right.
Nonetheless virtually any measure of calculating the successful managers would have to conclude that quality as a player and quality as a leader of players often have little if anything to do with each other. Take Joe McCarthy for example. McCarthy is the all-time leader in winning percentage, at an exemplary .615, equal to nearly 100 wins over a 162-game season.
McCarthy won nine pennants and seven World Series titles. Incredibly, despite managing for all or part of 24 seasons, he never had a season below .500 and never finished lower than fourth. He is the Yankees’ all-time leader in managerial wins (he was 1,460-867, .627 during his time in the Bronx) and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1957.
So what did the man who accomplished all this managing major league players actually accomplish himself as a major league player? Try nothing. Literally nothing. Joseph Vincent McCarthy, maybe the greatest manager in major league history, played in as many games at that level as I have.
This is not to say that McCarthy was quite as hapless in the field as I was. He did play in the minor leagues for several years, and was a sufficiently talented player that had the Federal League survived additional seasons he might have reached that level. Nonetheless the fact remains that he never played in the majors.
These days, that’s something of rarity among managers. All but one manager in the playoffs this season—the exception is Tampa Bay’s Joe Maddon—played in the majors, albeit some at the Connie Mack level of quality. Or worse.
Although his Cardinals missed out on the postseason, Tony LaRussa is unquestionably one of the greatest of the modern era of the managers. He is third all-time in wins, easily in the top 50 all-time in winning percentage, won five pennants and two world titles and has guided his team to a first-place finish 11 times.
LaRussa also is notable for his role in developing Dennis Eckersley into the modern closer role that helped carry “The Eck” into the Hall of Fame and probably will guide Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman there as well.
Despite his innovations and well-known managerial talents (he featured prominently in George Will’s Men at Work) LaRussa’s pro career more resembles the 25th man on the bench than the Hall of Famer he has been while running things from the bench.
In just over 200 plate appearances, LaRussa was a career .199 hitter, with a .542 OPS. LaRussa played in parts of six seasons spanning 10 years in the majors. He never hit a home run, never had more than six RBIs in a season. LaRussa’s only decent talent was a batting eye; despite his .199 average he managed to drag his on-base percentage up to nearly .300 for his career.
Outside of McGraw, the only really talented player among the top 10 in managerial wins is Joe Torre, who was the 1971 National League Most Valuable Player. Other notably solid or better players who went on to a solid or better careers in the dugout include Lou Pinella, Dusty Baker and Frankie Frisch.
Being able to list such competent player/manager combinations with ease rather proves the point. This isn’t to say that being a great player entirely rules out being a good manager—though it is worth pointing that no truly great player has ever been a truly great manager.
But whether it is the transition from star player to manager, the natural gifts of a star making it difficult to teach, or something else entirely, the greats have not succeeded at the helm of a team.
While who knows what trends might yet emerge, it appears that at least for the near future it will remain the marginal players who make the best skippers. Connie Mack, Joe McCarthy and Tony LaRussa would be proud. And probably wouldn’t have it any other way.