Baseball’s Misbegottens: Expansion Era Managers

This article was written by David Q. Voigt

This article was published in the The National Pastime: Premiere Edition (1982)


In the 1970s, the very time when players and umpires gained wealth and power, baseball’s field managers’ status declined as they became wretched scapegoats to be sacrificed to the bloodlust of victory-starved fans. True, sacking the manager was a time-honored ploy; whenever rumblings of fan discontent erupted, a manager was bumped off as virgins in ancient rites were thrown down to appease the volcano god. From the 1880s till 1970, indeed, every passing season was littered with cashiered pilots. But beginning in 1970 this practice was accelerated. From then through 1981, National League managers enjoyed but a 2.4-year tenure on the average, while American League managers stood to last only 1.9 years. Incredibly, Earl Weaver of the Baltimore Orioles was the only manager to survive with the same team thru the ’70s, and in 1981 12 of the 26 teams changed managers.

Managers have always known that they were hired to be fired. But if any manager in 1946 dared think that his status had sunk so low that it must improve, he was deluded. In the years 1946-66 firings reduced managerial tenure to 2.3 years on the average. Thus, Walter Alston, the most enduring manager of the 1946-1981 era, who served 23 years with the Dodgers, watched about 85 colleagues get walking papers. And from 1968 till now, Weaver, the next hardiest survivor, exchanged lineup cards at home plate with 95 different helmsmen.

Like vulnerable foremen in industry, managers had every right to feel paranoid. On the one hand their bosses expected them to win games with personnel provided by the front office; on the other, they faced the hopeless task of pleasing 25 individualistic players. Worse, the latter gained steadily in power what with multiyear contracts and salaries often exceeding the manager’s own. As Dick Williams recently put it: “If a manager who’s in the last year of his contract tries to tell a player who’s got four or five more years left in his contract what to do, the player won’t pay attention, because he knows he’s going to be there long after the manager is gone.”

In the postwar era a few managers still emulated the dictatorial style of the late John McGraw, who regularly called five-hour practices on days of scheduled games and who made both major and minor tactical decisions himself, down to the calling of each pitch. Convinced of his own importance, McGraw was contemptuous of his charges. Once, spotting a player at practice ogling a woman in the stands, he told a nearby rookie: “See that? That cement head is thinking more about that girl than today’s game. Remember this, son. One percent of ballplayers are leaders of men. The other 99 percent are followers of women.”

For many reasons that kind of vanity became passé. Nevertheless, the years after World War II still provided some Little Napoleon managers who wore number 1 on their backs and lorded their rank over the players. In the ’40s the archetype of McGraw was Leo Durocher: in the three-way classification of managers served up by pitcher-writer Jim Brosnan–the “I did it,” the “We did it,” and the “They did it”–Leo the Lip was an unreconstructed “I” type. Managers of this category also included such men as Charley Dressen, Eddie Stanky, and Gene Mauch.

But increasing pressure from organized players and from owners was endangering this breed to the point of extinction, replacing them with “We” and “They” types. Resembling school guidance counselors, the “We’s” oozed concern for players and tried to win their cooperation by downplaying their own roles. According to Brosnan, examples included Walter Alston, Ralph Houk, and Danny Murtaugh; one surely must add Tom Lasorda of the Dodgers. Of course, some like Hank Bauer, Fred Hutchinson, Sparky Anderson, and Weaver mixed into the “We” method a strong dash of egoistic “I” projections.

Meanwhile a third type spotted by Brosnan, the “Theys,” sought to weld players into tightly knit communities. Insisting on conformity to team standards, they unloaded trouble-making players. In general, this posture worked best with talent-rich teams. Representatives of this type in Brosnan’s judgment included Joe McCarthy, Casey Stengel, Billy Southworth, and Al Lopez.

The growing number of “We” and “They” types spotlighted the tendency of status-deprived managers trying to adapt to eroding powers. Certainly the importance of field managers was being questioned. Bill Veeck voiced his opinion that managerial strategy and tactics were a minor factor in a game’s outcome. Naturally a Durocher or a Paul Richards disputed this, but not Yogi Berra who, while managing the 1964 Yankees, told a reporter that he could hardly invent any new plays!

For openly debasing managers in the 1960s, nobody matched Charles Finley. After firing a dozen, Finley suggested that any fan could do the job–even an above average monkey. Yet, ironically, to this day only the conservative owner Phil Wrigley has ever tried to eliminate managers. Back in the ’60s he employed a system of revolving coaches for a couple of years before returning to the manager system. Not surprisingly Wrigley’s experiment was derided by other clubs; still, a general trend was taking shape in the direction of excluding managers from such matters as trade decisions, player discipline, policy making and–by surrounding them with bevies of coaching specialists–even from strategy, tactics, and training.

Even with clipped wings some managers are avidly courted, especially those reputed to be good strategists and leaders. In 1967 the Mets gave the Senators $100,000 and a pitcher to obtain Gil Hodges as manager, and in 1976 the Pirates paid cash and a good catcher for Chuck Tanner, who currently holds a five-year contract–the longest ever issued to a manager. In the fullness of time each of these acquisitions produced a world championship, thus fueling the mystique of the charismatic manager. Even the cynical Finley was not wholly immune to its siren song as demonstrated by his refusal to let the Yankees sign one of his better prodigals, Dick Williams.

With geniuses in short supply, many managers when sacked were paid off only to be plucked later by another club to fit the same role. Sometimes this game of managerial musical chairs waxed ludicrous, as in the early ’50s when three working managers drew double salaries, one for managing their current team and another from the team that had discarded them. Usually this kind of double-dipping was limited, but sacking managers was not. Open season began in earnest in the Eisenhower decade when a record 58 were fired or quit, but that record was erased by the 90 cashiered in the 1960s and by the 95 jettisoned in the ’70s.

One must look hard to find the logic behind some managerial dismissals. Incredibly, two were fired during spring training after having given apparent satisfaction over the previous season. The Cubs dumped Phil Cavaretta in March 1954, and shortly before the 1978 season was to open the Padres fired Alvin Dark. In 1969 the Angels’ big-spender owner Gene Autry dropped Bill Rigney to save money from Rigney’s salary. And that same year Larry Shepard was dismissed as Pirate pilot for winning only 88 games; in 1970 his successor, Danny Murtaugh, went on to become Manager of the Year on the strength of 89 wins!

Such Alice-in-Wonderland owners’ antics were accompanied by their growing contempt for managers and their tendency to impose their whims as tacticians and strategists. Most notorious was Finley, whose dreaded phone calls reduced managers to page boys. And late in the 1970s George Steinbrenner’s clashes with Billy Martin drew national attention, especially when Steinbrenner laid down a list of commandments aimed at reining in Martin’s independence. But Martin hung tough. In times past, his defiance of owners cost him jobs at Minnesota, Detroit, and Texas, and with the Yankees he was twice fired by Steinbrenner. Bloodied but unbowed, Martin surfaced in 1980 at Finley’s Oakland gulag. Yet the brash Martin, after getting that sorry team off to a flying start with his old-fashioned “Billy Ball,” warned Finley to take no credit, saying, “I’ve dealt with owners like that before. I didn’t take it then, and I’m not gonna take it now. If it does happen, it’s bye-bye Billy.”

Luckily for Martin, Finley sold out to a jeans manufacturer, ending that owner’s stormy baseball career during which no manager satisfied. Outfielder Rick Monday, during his five years with the Athletics, saw six skippers come and go, including hard-nosed “I” type Williams, “We” type Al Dark, and “They” type Bob Kennedy.

As if meddling owners were not enough of a plague, managerial authority was challenged by the new breed of players. While admitting that expansion players were able, older managers generally viewed them as less dedicated and tougher to discipline than players of the ’50s. Now shielded by a strong Association, a generation of better-educated, better-paid players resisted dogmatic authority. They challenged training programs, demanding the right to use regimens of their own design. Nor did they passively accept strategical and tactical decisions: sidelined players protested lineup decisions hotly, and in 1980 pitcher Luis Tiant, when taken out of a game by Dick Howser, angrily threw the ball to the ground and later tossed his glove into the stands. Humiliated by this public tantrum, Howser could only level a $500 fine; to do more would have brought Player Association counteraction.

In the 1970s all managers faced this problem of lese majesty and eroding credibility. From their retirement haunts, former hardline managers like Jimmy Dykes and Billy Herman wondered how modern managers survived. Dykes blasted opinionated players, interfering wives, and pampered specialists. And after being fired by the 1966 Red Sox, Herman accused modern players of placing personal glory ahead of the team. In 1977 Sparky Anderson groused that only rookies responded to discipline, and after three seasons they too were prima donnas.

Billy Martin blamed the salary revolution for eroding his authority: in 1972 he urged owners to adopt pro football’s policy of paying coaches higher salaries than players and giving them long-term contract security. Managers also complained of affluent players being distracted by their outside business investments. But reforming the new plutocrats was touchy-push a star too hard and a manager was likely to be the loser. It was a lesson Martin learned from Reggie Jackson. Comparative beggars amid affluence, to survive some managers evoked ethereal ideals like team loyalty and “family” spirit. A favorite ploy of “We” types, making it work took great patience and huge dollops of praise. When it worked, according to Jim Bouton, the style produced nondescript managers like Houk, Ed Kasko, Ken Aspromonte, Tom Lasorda, Bill Virdon, and Whitey Herzog. But even if a sunny optimist like Lasorda managed to make a theology of Dodger blue and Great Dodgers in the Sky, glory was fleeting at best: by 1980 he presided over a divided team and admitted that most players nursed grievances against him.

Besides having to fight off interfering owners and hostile players, managers had to contend with their ancient enemies the sportswriters, who often sided with the players in their reporting of confrontations. In Billy Martin’s Yankee ordeal, writers seized on every rumble involving that embattled manager: when Martin blew off steam, writers captured his words and printed them, thus hastening his ouster. (When Bob Lemon succeeded Martin, a providential New York newspaper strike blacked out baseball news for the second half of the campaign. Thus in blissful silence, Lemon regrouped the team and drove it to a miracle victory.) But even phlegmatics like Danny Ozark of the Phils suffered at the hands of the scribes: a yearlong campaign mounted by Inquirer writers ended with Ozark’s dismissal in 1979. And in 1972 Durocher was cut loose as persistent Chicago writers eventually wore down Phil Wrigley’s stubborn refusal to let any “reporter S.O.B. . . . run my ballclub.”

In what must be the most unkindest cut of all, even umpires now lorded it over managers. Long the whipping boys, umpires turned tartars behind their Association, which won them job security and relief from harassing managers. In times past a manager could confront an ump, blame him for a defeat or a boner, and blast him in postseason evaluations, but by the mid-’70s the tables were turned. Now arbiters like Tom Gorman wrote taunting books, citing ump-baiters like Hutchinson, Durocher, Stanky, Mauch, Anderson, and Weaver. And Gorman’s best line might have been his description of his visit to Durocher’s bedside: he came, he told the ailing Durocher, “to see if you were dying.”

By the 1980s it was abundantly clear that with the possible exception of super managers like Weaver, any semblance of job security was a thing of the past: even winning was no assurance of continued employment. Although the divisional system adopted in 1969 provided four winners in place of two, in the minds of owners a division victory was not enough, a lesson learned by Whitey Herzog and Danny Ozark. Each won three consecutive division titles in the ’70s, but for failure to do more both were canned in 1979, and before the axe fell, each was booed by fans, scorned by players, and pilloried by scribes.

It was the same with Don Zimmer, who managed Boston to more than 90 victories in 1978 and 1979 yet was sacked in 1980. His Red Sox had taken the 1978 Eastern race to a playoff game with a valiant final-week win streak; the following season he was so cruelly booed at Fenway that his wife quit going to games.

To be fired or laid off from one’s job is a major trauma. Like bereavement or divorce, it is linked with suicide. Yet managers, whose firings are so flagrantly public, seem to suffer surprisingly little stigma. Indeed, firings are usually gentlemanly affairs, with damnation speedily followed by redemption. And often the fallen wretch is replaced with a previous victim, which makes for a lively market in used managers (Bucky Harris setting the record by being rehired seven times.) Still, the public airing of one’s failures is devastating upon one’s family; according to Frank Lucchesi, after a firing his school-aged son came home crying, saying, “Dad . . . do we have to go through that again?” To escape the stigma of being fired some “resigned,” but Harris sneered at that dodge, saying that departing managers are always fired.

Once dismissed, decorum prescribed a quiet exit. Yogi Berra showed how when dumped by the Mets in 1975: questioned by reporters, he badmouthed no one and even promised to pray for the Mets, who needed supernatural intervention. Only a cut below this in style were performances by Frank Robinson and Preston Gomez. When fired by Cleveland, Robinson–the first black manager–told reporters that some players took advantage of him but added that he learned much and would go home and live on his severance. When Gomez was fired by the Padres, he took it philosophically, saying that the club needed a fresh face to hype attendance.

But some did not go gentle into the night. At Baltimore, tough Hank Bauer raged at the new breed of players, saying he’d manage no more. To the G.M. who pink slipped him, Bauer warned that the severance payments better not be late. Mayo Smith, when told, quickly downed a drink and summed up his experience with the judgment that “Detroit fans don’t know the difference between a ballplayer and a Japanese aviator.”

Among the cashiered were weepers, drinkers, and solitary brooders. But few outdid Bill Norman. Fired by the Tigers in 1959 after winning two of 17 games, he stripped to his shorts in the clubhouse, downed two cases of beer, and was finally led out “in a maudlin state,” according to Sports Illustrated.

Next to the ordeal by public firing, loss of effective control over players ranked high on the list of woes. In 1971 rebellious Astros destroyed Harry Walker’s tough disciplinary code. A good teacher of hitting and fundamentals, Walker fined players for tactical mistakes and sought to curb boozing and wenching. But the Astros mocked Walker’s “horseshit” lectures, protested his fines, and openly parodied his moral stance by loudly singing a satirical ditty with this refrain:

 

Now Harry Walker is the one that manages this crew;

 He doesn’t like it when we drink and fight and smoke and screw:

 But when we win our game each day,

 Then what the fuck can Harry say?

 It makes a fellow proud to be an Astro.

 

One year afterward, Walker walked the plank, but his was no isolated fate. At Philadelphia and other stopovers Richie Allen’s refusal to meet deadlines undercut managers. Alex Johnson bounced around not only because he refused to hustle, but also because he persisted in calling teammates and managers alike “shitheads.” And Minnesota pitcher Jim Kaat protested manager Sam Mele’s firing of pitching coach John Sain by festooning his locker with heroic poses of Sain.

Not only were managers routinely undercut, but at times they were uppercut. In 1977 the luckless Lucchesi was punched and kicked into unconsciousness by Lenny Randle, who was embittered at being benched. Lucchesi’s injuries required plastic surgery and dental work, but humiliation hurt him more. Randle was fined $10,000 and dispatched to another team, but Lucchesi was fired soon after. Although retained by the club, Lucchesi still sued for $200,000 to preserve “the integrity of baseball.”

Protesting fans could undercut managers, too, and their protests were often orchestrated by the press. Indeed, columnist Milt Richman once told Frank Robinson that his chief managerial task was to please writers. Some managers, like Stengel and Murtaugh, were great with reporters. And those who were not, like Durocher, Ozark, and Zimmer, had their stays shortened by massive press criticisms.

Managers were likely to feel pressure from above, in the form of meddlesome owners and general managers, and also from below, in the form of their coaches. Usually these were cronies of the manager, but they also represented a labor pool of potential replacements. Realizing this, some managers rid themselves of underlings who became too popular. Thus Sain was cut loose on at least three occasions for his close rapport with pitchers. And for his personal zeal as Dodger batting coach, Jim Lefebvre was first barred from filming Dodger batters and later fired by Manager Lasorda. In the stormy aftermath to that firing, Lefebvre decked Lasorda. If such outcomes were rare, the plenitude of coaches threatened all managers by 1980. Some teams counted as many as eight coaches, plus auxiliaries that included trainers, physicians, and occasional psychologists and priests. If managers might otherwise be lulled into thinking they were prime movers, the presence of so many experts sent a message that perhaps a single manager was no longer up to the job.

The role of the modern manager is that of supervisor, disciplinarian, and strategist. As supervisors, managers now delegate authority to coaches who conduct practices and instruct players; each coach contributes his bit of expertise and the manager is charged with coordinating these activities. As a disciplinarian, the manager retains enough authority to compel players to follow rules and do their duty. Indeed, some managerial discipline codes yet resemble those of closed institutions like police forces and mental asylums. At Philadelphia in 1980, Dallas Green’s rules were formally printed and issued to each man. The code established a curfew, set dress standards, limited drinking and card playing, imposed rigorous rules of conduct at practices, and banned players’ children from the dugout during practice sessions. As strategist, which is still the essence of the managerial mystique, pilots still rely on time-honored devices such as flashing signals to third-base coaches, devising defensive alignments to thwart hitters, and most important, setting a pitching rotation and knowing when to change pitchers.

In the final analysis, however, it may be that the manager’s main function is to serve as scapegoat and thus preserve the jobs of others. Like the legendary lamed vov, whose task was to shoulder the collective grief of his downtrodden Jewish brethren, the manager is answerable for a multitude of sins, few of his direct commission. Lest one doubt this continuing function, consider that during last year’s grotesque split season, which canceled more than a third of the games, six managers were jettisoned, and over the winter another six.

And with an owner like Steinbrenner intervening incessantly, going so far as to order special fundamental drills, one can only expect continuing pressure on managers. Indeed, the best relief for these besieged foremen seems to have been hit upon by Whitey Herzog. By functioning both as manager and GM, he seems to be pointing the way toward a protective adaptation for an otherwise highly endangered species. And if he can find a way to buy his club–well, how do you think Connie Mack lasted 50 years?

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