Playing Managers: Active Pilots 20% Over Norm in Titles Won

This article was written by John McCormack

This article was published in the 1984 Baseball Research Journal


Anyone researching National and American League playing managers soon realizes that unlike Gertrude Stein’s rose (“Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”), a manager who also played may or may not have been a playing manager. Three examples will make this clear:

  1. On September 23, 1930 in a less- than-inspired move the Chicago Cubs sacked manager Joe McCarthy and replaced him with Rogers Hornsby, their second baseman. The Cubs had four games left to play. Hornsby played in none.
  1. In 1914 at age 45 – perhaps to hype a late-season gate-Washington Nationals manager Clark Griffith pitched one inning.1
  1. In 1942 manager Mel Ott played in 152 games as his New York Giants compiled an 85-67 record. Ott thereby became the fifty-ninth and last manager to play in at least as many games as his club had decisions.

It would be ludicrous to equate as playing managers Ott, who played in 152 games; Griffith, who pitched one inning, and Hornsby, who didn’t play at all. Yet, strictly speaking, Griffith and Hornsby were playing managers. A basis is clearly needed to distinguish those managers who played and managed (PAMs) from those who managed and played (MAPs). If one swallow doesn’t make a summer, then one inning doesn’t make a playing manager.

Since playing must be the criteria for distinguishing PAMs from MAPs, for purposes of this paper a playing manager (PAM) will be a non-pitcher who played in at least 50 percent of his team’s games while managing it. Pitcher-managers must have played in at least 20 percent of their team’s games. A manager playing in less than the requisite percentages would have spent most of his time in the dugout thinking and thus was, in reality, a bench manager (MAP).

From 1876 through 1983 a total of 418 managers (144 individuals) played in one or more of their teams’ games.2 Of these 266 (99 individuals) were PAMs.3 It is interesting to note that of the 252 MAPs (45 individuals) only 15 played in as many as 40 percent – but fewer than 50 percent – of their teams’ games in a particular season. It thus would seem the 50 percent criteria is quite realistic.

Having established what a playing manager is, let’s now turn to the most obvious questions concerning PAMs:

  1. How successful were they?
  2. Which positions did they play?
  3. At what ages did they become PAMs?
  4. Did managing affect their play?

Baseball success can be measured in various ways. A team that was expected to finish last and came in third would normally be considered to have had a successful season. So, too, would a team that finished in the first division. However, if in battle victory is the payoff, so, too, it is in baseball. The primary measure for success is winning the pennant.

During the 58 National League seasons in which one or more PAMs were chargeable for their teams’ standings,4 there were 159 PAM-led teams (32.3%) and 333 bench-managed clubs. PAMs won 22 pennants (39.7%), which is 22.9 percent more than they were entitled to on a pro rata basis. In the American League 82 PAM-led teams (23.7%) won 12 pennants (28.6%) in the 42 seasons in which there was at least one PAM. American League PAMs thus won 20.7 percent more flags than they were entitled to.5

How did PAM-led teams fare when they faced the best bench manager of the other league in the World Series?6 Very well. PAMs won nine of 14 such Series for a .642 mark.7 Note that a team playing a full season at that clip would win 104 games over a 162-game schedule. Since division play began in 1969- excluding strike-torn 1981 – a .642 percentage would have won a division title about 90 percent of the time.

Regardless of the measure of success that is used, the only conclusion must be that PAM-led teams were very successful as a group.8

Most PAMs (62) were infielders. Of the others 17 were outfielders, 12 catchers and five pitchers, while three managed two seasons each at different positions. Two played the infield one season and the outfield the other; the third pitched one year and played the infield the other.

The infielders (62.6% of the PAMs) won 23 pennants (67.6%). Six of the 11 other pennants were won by outfielders, while catchers won three and pitchers two. First basemen took 14 of the pennants, far outdistancing second basemen and left fielders, each of whom won four. No right fielder ever managed a team to a flag (or even finished better than third, a plateau reached but once).

Batting averages as PAMs (as contrasted to their averages for the entire season) are unavailable in The Baseball Encyclopedia for the 14 PAMs who managed for only part of a season (but were not interim managers). Of the remaining 80 non-pitcher PAMs, 20 hit ten or more points better than they did as players, 30 hit within ten percentage points of their player mark and 30 hit at least ten points worse. Thus about 63 percent of the PAMs were not adversely affected at the plate by their managerial duties. It should be noted that nine of the 30 who hit worse were 34 years or older when they first became a PAM. It’s conceivable that in their cases advancing age was as great a factor in their declining batting averages as was managing.

The youngest PAM was Jim McCormick, skipper of the 1879 Cleveland club. Because only the year of his birth is known, his exact age cannot be determined. He probably was only 22. At most he was 23 and about four months.9 Of the 97 PAMs whose years of birth are known, 68 were at least 30 years old when they first became PAMs. The oldest, Cy Young10, was 40. The median age at which PAMs began their managing careers was a bit under 31.

The prospects for more playing managers would seem virtually nil. A poll of major league executives indicated they agree that the strategy of the game remains essentially the same now as it always has been. The only change, the designated hitter, makes the manager’s task easier because he no longer has to make difficult decisions of whether or not to pinch-hit for his pitcher. Nevertheless these executives gave many reasons why the age of the playing manager has passed and presumably will never return. Some of their reasons (with my comments in parentheses) are:

  1. Player problems are far more complicated today. Young people are more complicated and require the more sophisticated leadership that a bench manager can provide. (A major contention of young people is that older people don’t understand them. A 30-year-old PAM, having probably recently experienced his younger players’ problems, would seem in a better position to deal with them to his players’ satisfaction.)
  1. Salaries far above that of the manager make discipline and cooperation more of a problem today. (This strikes me as more of an argument for rather than against a PAM. The salary problem, which is very real for bench managers, would virtually disappear with a PAM, who quite likely would be the highest – or close to the highest – paid player on the team. Discipline and co-operation would be lesser problems in such a situation.)
  1. Players have other interests than baseball and don’t have the 90 percent dedication of players of two decades ago. (Alas, all too true. Neither a PAM nor a bench manager will have a big edge in dealing with lack of dedication, viz., peer pressure. If the manager is on the field living and dying with his troops, peer pressure would become a great factor. Greater esprit de corps and a “We’re all in this together” spirit could bring some rockheads into line.)

Nine Player-Managers In Both 1934-35

Does Pete Rose’s appointment as manager of the Cincinnati Reds portend a return to the days of playing pilots? Or is it likely to be merely an isolated situation? While most observers probably would lean to the latter, only time will tell.

The heydey of the full-time player-manager ended almost 50 years ago. In the mid-1930s there were two consecutive seasons when nine of the 16 teams were headed by skippers who were still active on the playing field. By contrast, until Rose took over the Cincinnati reins in August 1984, the majors had not had a manager who also played regularly since Lou Boudreau with Cleveland in 1950.

The Great Depression doubtless figured in the last great flurry of player-managers. Having one person fill two positions obviously affected the payroll considerably.

The 1930 season began with a full complement of bench bosses, but during the final week of the campaign the Cubs fired Joe McCarthy and replaced him with Rogers Hornsby. In 1931 Hornsby was the only legitimate player-manager, although Bucky Harris of Detroit played in four games and Gabby Street, 48-year-old boss of the champion St. Louis Cardinals, made one brief appearance.

Two teams launched the 1932 season with playing pilots while two more joined the ranks during the summer. One year later five opened with skippers still active on the diamond and two others promoted players to manager during the season. Charlie Grimm, who succeeded Hornsby in August, proceeded to lead the Cubs to the 1932 flag, while Bill Terry and Joe Cronin guided the Giants and Senators, respectively, to pennants in 1933.

The start of the 1934 season found seven teams with player-pilots and two others elevated active players to the helm during the season. Both pennant-winners again were directed by field bosses – the Cardinals by Frank Frisch and the Tigers by Mickey Cochrane.

All nine playing managers returned in 1935 and retained their posts throughout the season. Five were essentially full-time regulars Cochrane, who led Detroit to the world championship; Frisch, Terry, Cronin and Jimmy Dykes. Jimmie Wilson and Pie Traynor played about half the time, while Grimm, whose Cubs won the National League pennant, and Hornsby saw only limited action.

The number of player-mangers declined steadily the next several years, and by 1941 there were only two. Cronin still was the Red Sox’ regular shortstop, but Leo Durocher played in just 18 games while leading Brooklyn to the pennant.

Prior to Rose’s return to Cincinnati, the majors had seen only six player-managers in the last 20 years. They were Harry Walker, 1955; Solly Hemus, 1959; Hank Bauer, 1961; Frank Robinson, 1975-76; Joe Torre, 1977, and Don Kessinger, 1979. The last player-pilot to lead his team to a pennant was Lou Boudreau in 1948.

  1. Drug and family problems. (Whether a 30-year-old PAM could capably advise a player so beset any better or worse than a bench manager is anyone’s guess. Certainly at age 30 the PAM would have the maturity to give sound advice.)
  1. Variation in races and religions on clubs is much greater today. (Here the PAM would figure to have a much better relationship because by and large younger people are less prejudiced than their seniors.)
  1. Handling the media. This is a very important job and requires a large percentage of a manager’s time. (But not during a game. Afterwards media distraction would be equally great regardless of who the manager was.

Whether a PAM, or for that matter a bench manager, could handle it would vary from individual to individual.)

  1. Pressure on managers to win is much more intense than in the old days. (But why would it be any more intense on a PAM? Pressure is pressure.)
  1. Managing responsibilities detract from a player’s performance on the field. (As we’ve seen, history emphatically refutes this contention.)
  1. If a player fails as a manger, the team will have lost a star player. (This is a valid point. It shouldn’t, however, rule out the use of a PAM. Instead it shows the need to select a playing manager with great care. If that is done, the chances are that the player will succeed as a manager.)

When judiciously used the contrary opinion theory of investing has proved profitable. It’s simple. If others are selling, one buys. And vice versa. The problem, of course, is to apply the theory to the right stock. With baseball’s current view of playing managers, the contrary opinion theory might well be applied profitably to them.

A playing manager would not per se be a panacea. However, a solid third-place team might just close the gap the following year with a PAM at the helm. The trick would be to find him. Painstaking care in selecting the PAM would be required. Ideally the choice would be an infielder about 30 years old with the requisite attributes – intelligence, drive, maturity, leadership and aggressiveness. Such a manager could prove to be worth quite a few games to his team.

A playing manager would bring to his club an additional benefit. The trend in baseball franchises is – and, unfortunately, has been for some time – toward depersonalization. Corporate ownership seldom brings warmth with it. Corporate officials are rarely knowledgeable about baseball. Their specialty is the bottom line, not cutoff and squeeze plays. As a result, some observers feel today’s fans no longer relate to their clubs as those of yesteryear did to owners like Clark Griffith, Frank Navin and Connie Mack, who were baseball men through and through.

A playing manager would be a symbol for the team’s fans. Their leader would be on the field giving his all for the cause. He would be visible rather than a shadowy figure surrounded by a cluster of coaches in the dugout. A PAM is a field commander; a MAP or bench manager is a chief of staff. An analogy as to the comparative emotional impact of the two would be the feeling of the public toward George Patton and George Marshall during World War II. Patton fought the war with his men. He was a PAM. Marshall planned the war an ocean away. He was a MAP. Patton stirred the public. Marshall left them unmoved.

A franchise with a good, but not yet winning, team and the vision and courage to install the right playing manager might be very pleased with the results both on and off the field.

 

Notes

1 In 1909-10-12-14 Griffith, as manager, made an annual playing appearance. He pinch-hit once and pitched one inning in each of his other appearances. His only real rival for the manager-making-a-single-appearance role was Hughie Jennings, Detroit’s skipper from1907 through 1920. He had three such years between 1908 and 1918. When Jennings played in his last game (one at-bat), he was 48 years old.

2 As a matter of judgment six interim managers who met the definition of a PAM have not been included. For example, Honus Wagner managed Pittsburgh for five games in mid-season 1917 while the team sought a new manager. Wagner played in all five games. However, he made it clear that his role was temporary and that under no circumstances would he become the team’s manager. The five others, with the number of games they managed in parentheses, were: Chick Stahl, 1906 Boston AL (18); Roger Peckinpaugh, 1914 New York AL (17); Ivy Wingo, 1916 Cincinnati NL (2); Jimmy Austin, 1918 St. Louis AL (14), and Heine Groh, 1918 Cincinnati NL (10). It is possible that interim managers Arlie Latham, 1896 St. Louis NL (2), and Mike Griffin, 1898 Brooklyn NL (4), may also have qualified as PAMs.

3 My sources did not permit ascertaining whether five others were PAMs: Jim Rogers, 1897 Louisville NL (almost surely); Pud Galvin, 1885 Buffalo NL; Fred Dunlap, 1889 Pittsburgh NL, and Connie Mack, 1894 Pittsburgh NL (all quite likely), and Wilbert Robinson, 1902 Baltimore AL (unlikely).

4 The same standards used to determine winning and losing pitchers serve well in deciding whether to credit or charge a PAM for his team’s efforts. For example, if a PAM managed for half a season and was fired with the team in third place, the PAM would get no credit if it eventually won the pennant and would be charged if it did not win.

5 During the same periods National League PAMs gained 33.9% of the first-division berths (5% more); American League PAMs took 30 percent of the first-division spots (26.8% more).

6 In the four Temple Cup Series (1894-97) PAM Monte Ward, 1894 New York (NL), won and PAM Patsy Tebeau, 1896 Cleveland (NL), lost. Their clubs had each finished second. The 1895 Cleveland club which won the Cup (after finishing second) was also led by Tebeau, who came within two games of being a PAM (which he had been in 1892-93-94 and was again in 1896-97-98-99.

7 PAMs managed both teams in the 1903, 1906, 1933 and 1934 World Series.

8 PAMs did not generally do well subsequently as bench managers. Thirty-one did poorer, 17 did better and five did equally well. Notable failures were Frank Chance (.688 vs .487), Frank Frisch (.603 vs .490) and Fielder Jones (.593 vs .483). Successes included Miller Huggins (.447 vs .578) and John McGraw (.520 vs .594).

9 Interim manager Roger Peckinpaugh was 23 years and 7 months of age when he took over as manager of New York (AL) in 1914. The next three youngest PAMs were Monte Ward, 1884 New York (NL), who had just turned 24; Fred Clarke, 1897 Louisville (NL), who was about 24½, and Lou Boudreau, 1942 Cleveland (AL), who was about 24 years and nine months of age.

10 At age 41 the virtually indestructible Cap Anson, the quintessential PAM, played in 146 games as his Chicago (NL) team went 70-76 in 1892. In his final year as Chicago’s manager, 1897, at age 46 Anson played in 114 games as his team again had a 70-76 record.

11 The worst record in baseball history was the 20-134 mark by Cleveland NL in 1899. It was achieved under not one but two PAMs – Lave Cross and Joe Quinn.

12 Bucky Harris’ leadership produced a 17-game improvement as the 1924 Washington AL team won the pennant and the World Series. This was essentially the same team that had finished a bad fourth in 1923. The improvement Harris brought was typical of that of the eight other PAMs who also won a flag in their first full year as manager. Their teams improved about 18 games on average.

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