Unusual midseason managerial departures

It was unexpected news: Nationals manager Jim Riggleman resigned. Managers resign. That’s fairly normal. It happened earlier this month to the Marlins. But the circumstances in Washington, D.C. are decidedly abnormal. The team, picked as a doormat when the year started, was one game over .500 thanks to a recent hot streak.

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Riggleman: going, going, gone.

In the story that has come out, Riggleman apparently felt like upper management wasn’t respecting him and wanted the team’s option to renew his contract for next year taken care of right now. They didn’t, so he left.

The pro-Riggleman side is that they disrespected him—the team GM wouldn’t even talk to him during their recent homestand. Riggleman felt the club treated him in an unprofessional manner.

The pro-management side is that Riggleman’s demands were overdone. Guys go an entire year without knowing if their option will be picked up all the time. And Riggleman had problems with some players on the team, too.

Besides, when you’re Jim Riggleman, you don’t have the stature to make many demands, so the club didn’t feel the need to meet Riggleman’s demand to pick up his option by the end of last Thursday.

This sudden departure in the middle of a season brings up a question: What are some of the other stranger mid-season managerial departures in baseball history? Trying to create a list, I focused on the following items:

- Manager who left in the middle of the season. I already did a column on those who left in the final weeks of a season.

- Guys who left a team with a winning record. This won’t be a complete list of such individuals. That list would be too long, so just the ones who seem the most interesting or unusual.

- Prioritize those who resigned, but don’t limit to them exclusively. The original goal was to focus only on guys that resigned from the job. But I don’t always know who resigned and who got fired. Besides, there are some good stories from the ranks of the fired.

Without further delay, here are some of the most unusual and unexpected mid-season managerial departures.

1905 Frank Selee, Chicago Cubs, 37-28

Selee is a Hall of Fame skipper. He created a dynasty with the Boston Beaneaters in the 1890s and assembled the famous Tinker-Evers-Chance Cubs that won four pennants and two World Series from 1906-10.

But he wasn’t there for the pennants. He resigned in mid-1905 because he was dying of tuberculosis. He lived to the summer of 1909, but he never managed again.

He wouldn’t be the first successful manager to leave due to health concerns.

In 1964, Reds manager Fred Hutchinson had to leave the team late in the season because he was dying of cancer.

In 1986, Dick Howser stepped away from the Royals at mid-season because of the brain tumor that eventually killed him. The Royals had a losing record at the time, but they were also defending world champs.

In 1995, Tommy Lasorda stepped down while the Dodgers were in second place because of health problems.

1919 Lee Fohl, Cleveland Indians, 44-34

The Indians’ firing of Fohl in mid-1919 is one of my favorite stories.

On July 18, 1919, the Indians entered the ninth inning up 7-3 over the Boston Red Sox. Boston rallied, scoring a run and loading the bases, putting the prospective winning run at the plate. That batter? Some guy named Babe Ruth. Yeah, that ain’t good. Time for a reliever.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Fohl had largely ceded in-game management of the pitching staff to star center fielder Tris Speaker. In the 19th century, it was common for a team captain to call the shots in the game, and Fohl was one of the last men to manage in that tradition. July 18, 1919, would help kill off the concept altogether.

When Ruth went to the plate, Speaker signaled to Fohl to bring in a particular reliever. Fohl misread the signal and brought in someone else. Speaker wasn’t sure if Fohl overruled him or misinterpreted and so did nothing. The man did have the right to overrule him, after all.

The upshot? A grand slam for Ruth off the wrong reliever. An ugly scene occurred in the Cleveland clubhouse after the game, and Fohl was out as manager. Tris Speaker became the player-manager and led the team to the world championship in 1920.

1929 Donie Bush, Pittsburgh Pirates, 67-51

The Pirates were in second place, albeit 14.5 games behind the Cubs, when Bush resigned on Aug. 27. Short-term cause: They’d just cratered. Pittsburgh was in first place five weeks earlier, but had gone 11-21 while the Cubs went 29-7.

Longer term, Bush dug his own grave. Late in 1927, he benched star outfielder Kiki Cuyler for a perceived attitude problem. The team won the pennant without Cuyler, seemingly justifying Bush’s hard-line approach. The team dumped Cuyler a little later, where he would up on the Cubs. This was one giant overreaction. He’d used the nuclear option on one of his best players when he didn’t have to. The Pirates declined in 1928 and that left Bush vulnerable.

When the Pirates tanked in 1929, Bush was through. It didn’t help that the team roaring past them in the standings was Cuyler’s Cubs. During the five-week stretch the Cubs blew past Pittsburgh, Cuyler hit .411 with seven stolen bases. Bush resigned on the eve of a series with the Cubs, too.

1938 Charlie Grimm, Chicago Cubs, 45-36

This is the weirdest one of all. I don’t know quite what happened, but if someone could look it up, it would make a great book.

The facts: Grimm resigned. It came right after a seven-game winning streak. (Well, he lost his last game, but won the seven before it). He’d been a respected manager before. When he replaced Rogers Hornsby at the helm in mid-1929, the Cubs caught fire and won the pennant. They won another flag under Grimm in 1935.

That said, the Cubs had a death spiral earlier that year. They went 29-16, but then dropped 19 out of 28. The knives came out for Grimm during that period, including apparently some from inside Cub upper management. I guess that was enough for Grimm.

In a reverse of 1932, the Cubs got hot after Grimm left, eventually winning the pennant. I’ve also once heard Grimm helped advise the club down the stretch, so go figure. Grimm later came back to manage the Cubs, guiding them to the 1945 pennant.

1946 Joe McCarthy, New York Yankees, 22-13

This is a simple one: McCarthy resigned largely because he had a serious drinking problem. There were a few times earlier in the decade when he left the team for short spells, officially to go back home to Buffalo for gall bladder issues, but really because he was on a bender.

In May, 1946, the Yankees were off to a good start, but the Red Sox were running away with it, beginning the year 27-8. McCarthy had a possible nervous breakdown, publicly berating one player on an airplane, ranting to coaches, insulting the team to the press and screaming at a taxi driver.

He’d never be that bad again, but a drinking problem helped force him out of his last managerial job with the Red Sox, too.

1972 Harry Walker, Houston Astros, 67-54

On paper this one looks weird. After three straight years right around .500, the Astros fired manager Walker during a campaign well over .500. In reality, the surprise was that the team kept Walker as long as they did.

In 1969, they started out hot and stayed in the division race until cooling off late in the year. After that, Houston expected to compete, but never really did. Many expected Walker to get fired in the 1971-72 offseason and were surprised when he returned.

In the summer of 1972, Houston dropped four of six just as the front-runner Reds got hot, dropping them from 5.5 to nine games out. That cost Walker his job.

Oh yeah, some background: Walker had trouble dealing with, and relating to, black players. His former second baseman Joe Morgan was the most vocal critic of Walker’s race relations. In the 1971-72 offseason, the team traded Morgan to the Reds, where he enjoyed a breakout All-Star season, helping lead Cincinnati over Houston.

1975 Yogi Berra, New York Mets, 56-53

Yogi led the Mets to a surprise pennant in 1973 (albeit after an 82-79 season), and came just one game from the world championship that year. They fell back in 1974, but were doing better in 1975.

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Ex-Yankee Berra had some success as a Mets manager.

There’s a back story involving veteran outfielder Cleon Jones.

Earlier in 1975, Berra benched him for not hustling. Then, when Berra asked him to enter a game as a defensive replacement, Jones flatly refused.

Berra was rather vexed, doubly so when management refused to further discipline Jones.

So Berra gave them an ultimatum: Berra couldn’t manage with Jones on the team and demanded the team release him.

Mets honcho M. Donald Grant didn’t like ultimatums. Sure, he released Jones as Berra wanted on July 27. But when the team lost five games in a row in early August, he fired Berra.

1977 Eddie Stanky, Texas Rangers, 1-0

Here’s an odd one. Stanky is one of many interim managers who lasted one game, but he’s different from others.

Most are placeholders: One manager is hired or quit, and before the new one can get there, a coach runs the team for a game or two.

Stanky was an interim manager, but one expected to last a while, and perhaps because he was the official manager. He accepted the job, but after one day, Stanky quit.

He said once the initial enthusiasm of getting the job wore off, he realized he was just lonely and homesick, and even winning a game didn’t shake it, so he left.

1978 Bobby Winkles, Oakland A’s, 24-15

A’s owner Charles Finley was impatient. No manager ever lasted more than three seasons with him. He once changed managers in midseason four times in six years.

In 1978, his post-dynasty franchise got off to an unexpectedly hot 19-5 start. That raised Finley’s hopes so much he fired Winkles when they cooled off, never mind the fact that they still stood in first place.

Finley turned to Jack McKeon to replace Winkles. This was an odd bit of turnabout, as Winkles replaced McKeon as manager the year before. Long story short, the hot start was a total mirage. The team didn’t have much talent. Finley fired McKeon at the end of the 69-93 season in 1978 and saw Oakland go 54-108 the following year.

This wasn’t McKeon’s only experience in an odd mid-season managerial change. The Royals fired him while 50-46 in 1975. They expected to do better and lost 11 of their last 15 games under him, seemingly ruining their pennant chances.

1978 Billy Martin, New York Yankees, 52-42

Officially, Martin resigned, as he tearfully announced his departure at a press conference. Behind the scenes, he was forced out.

Martin didn’t get along with team owner George Steinbrenner and publicly feuded with his team’s biggest star, Reggie Jackson. The situation bottomed out completely at an airport bar at O’Hare in Chicago. There, Martin made some on-the-record criticisms of Steinbrenner and Jackson to future-blogger Murray Chass, most notably declaring, “They were made for each other—one is a born liar and the other is convicted.”

Steinbrenner then arranged Martin’s resignation press conference. In an odd twist, there was such a pronounced fan backlash in support of Martin, Steinbrenner backtracked and had Martin announced as the team’s future manager at an Old Timer’s Game. Adding complications upon complications, Bob Lemon, who replaced Martin in 1978, led the team back from the dead to a world title. Yet Lemon was soon shown the door anyway for Martin.

In all, Martin got hired and fired five times by the Yankees. Growing up in the 1980s, it seemed like Steinbrenner hired Martin just so he could soon fire him. In the last go around, Martin was 40-28 in a half-season, but got fired due to one bad road trip.

In fact, even before the Yankees, Martin had been fired in mid-season despite a winning record. In 1973, the Tigers canned him despite his 71-63 record and leading them to a surprise division title the year before.

His end in Detroit was memorable. Upset that Indians hurler Gaylord Perry used the spitball, Martin ordered his pitchers to blatantly and obviously load up the ball late in a Tigers-Indians game. Martin drew a seven-game suspension for that one, and Detroit fired him during the suspension.

Martin had a habit of wearing out his welcome sooner rather than later. He never lasted more than three seasons with any club.

1985 Joe Altobelli, Baltimore Orioles, 29-26

Apparently, it’s tough to replace a legend. After the 1982 season, Earl Weaver retired as Orioles manager. In 1983, replacement Joe Altobelli led them to a world championship. A lot of good it did him.

They went 85-77 in 1984 but finished fifth in the old AL East. In 1985, they had a good start and were tied for first as late as May 19, with a 21-14 record.

But Weaver was interested in managing again. And the Orioles slid under Altobelli. After a fifth straight loss on June 12 knocked them into fourth place, Baltimore fired Altobelli. Earl Weaver returned, and the team finished fourth anyway.

2007 Mike Hargrove, Seattle Mariners, 45-33

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Who needs baseball when you have grandkids?

Hargrove’s resignation was a shocker because the Mariners were playing far better than anyone expected. The team had won eight straight and 10 of their last 11 under Hargrove.

At 45-33, this was Hargrove’s best team since leaving Cleveland nearly a decade before.

At his press conference, he said the burn was gone. He’d trudged through the valley of the poor seasons hoping that the heights of a good team would boost his spirits once again. Instead, now that the team was winning, his mood hadn’t returned.

Thus, Hargrove decided he would be happier to step away from baseball.

2011 Jim Riggleman, Washington Nationals, 38-37

The recent one. Having already spoken about Riggleman up top, I’ll just add this: Is his resignation managerial suicide? Yeah, probably. Oh, he’ll work again—as a coach or scout—but it’s difficult to see him working as a manager again.

That said, he probably wasn’t going to work as a manager again, anyway. He was a 58-year-old with a losing record in each of his four stops.

It’s not really his fault the teams had losing records—look at the hands he was dealt—but overall he’s 162 games under .500, the 11th-worst mark ever. Teams hire twice-fired managers with bad records all the time. Four-time losers? Not really.

References & Resources
Other managerial firings/resignations considered but ultimately not included due to space constraints: Eddie Mathews (1974 Braves), King Kelly (1887 Braves), Lee Mazzilli (2005 Orioles), Hank Bauer (1968 Orioles), Lee Fohl (1923 Browns), Jimy Williams (2001 Red Sox), Leo Durocher (1972 Cubs), Rogers Hornsby (1932 Cubs), Mickey Cochrane (1936-38 Tigers), Gene Michael (1981 Yankees), Bobby Valentine (1992 Rangers), and Dick Williams (1981 Expos).

Some of the reasons for their firing/resigning seemed pretty obvious (declining team fortunes, the manager had been there too long, etc), or just didn’t seem as interesting to me as the ones listed.

I did sneak in several not officially listed in the article headers, such as Billy Martin with the 1973 Tigers and 1988 Yanks, Bob Lemon with the 1979 Yanks, Fred Hutchinson with the 1964 Reds, and Tommy Lasorda with the 1995 Dodgers.

Sources included Mark Armour’s biography of Joe Cronin (for the Joe McCarthy stories) and Allen Barra’s book on Yogi Berra, but most of the info came from the research I did for my own book, Evaluating Baseball’s Managers.

I also used ProQuest to look up info on Harry Walker’s firing.

And Baseball-Reference.com came in handy for specifics on the records for various teams on specific dates, and other matters such as how Kiki Cuyler did in his big hot streak.

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