Since Lou Piniella’s retirement, it’s become clear that former Cub Ryne Sandberg is the favorite for his replacement. This isn’t coming from the team so much as from fans and commentators. In fact, the impression I’ve gotten from the relevant commentary is that it would be a huge blunder to offer the job to anyone but Sandberg.
The rationale behind Sandberg’s candidacy is that a Hall of Fame player is supremely qualified to be a major league manager. At the risk of overusing my favorite word, I must call this rationale pure hogwash.
That’s not to say that I know for a fact that Sandberg won’t be a good manager. He’s been managing in the minor leagues for a few years now, and he may in fact be a perfect fit for the job. But I don’t know that. And, more importantly, neither does anyone else making this claim. Being a Hall of Fame player doesn’t automatically make you a great manager. Sandberg’s candidacy should be judged by his skill as a manager, not his skills as a player.
To further illustrate this point (which has been absent from most of the commentary I’ve come across), I’d like to list the best managers in baseball history and consider their skills as players. These are the best managers, in terms of career wins:
Connie Mack: 3,731 Wins (HOF)
The winningest manager of all time was, at best, a decent player. Mack was the classic “good glove-no hit” backstop. I’ve just started reading Norman Macht’s biography on the longtime Athletics manager, and Mack himself is honest about his offensive shortcomings. When he broke into baseball, the rules still allowed a hitter to call for either a high pitch or a low pitch. Soon into his career, though, the modern strike zone was implemented. This spelled trouble for Connie, who was strictly a high-ball hitter. Or as Macht quotes him as saying, “If they kept the ball low on me I couldn’t hit for sour apples.”
And neither did he for an 11-year career as a player. Mack’s career batting line is 244/305/300, which was terrible even by the standards of the era. The only thing that kept Mack around that long was his well-regarded defensive skill and general baseball acumen. The latter had more to do with his subsequent managerial success than any skill (or lack thereof) he showed with the bat.
John McGraw: 2,763 Wins (HOF)
John McGraw, on the other hand, was a legitimate Hall-of-Fame talent before he became a full-time manager in 1899. McGraw’s career on-base percentage of .466 is the third-best of all time, behind only Ted Williams and Babe Ruth.
If he had never managed and finished his career as a player, McGraw would likely be considered the best third baseman of all time before Eddie Mathews showed up. As it is, McGraw’s playing time decreased when he became the manager of the Orioles in 1899, and fell away to a handful of at-bats per year as manager of the Giants.
Therefore, the Little Napoleon played his last full season at age 29 and finished with just 1099 career games played. But he was a Hall-of-Fame quality player, and if he hadn’t taken up managing he likely would have made the Hall purely on the merits of his skills as a player. As it is, McGraw is easily the best player of all the managers inducted into Cooperstown. But as we shall see, he is the exception that proves the rule.
Tony LaRussa: 2,620 Wins (Active)
LaRussa played 132 career games in the major leagues between 1963 and 1973. A middle infielder, his career batting line was 199/292/250. Despite his status as a marginal major leaguer, LaRussa is #3 on the all-time wins list and could easily pass McGraw before he’s done.
Bobby Cox: 2,486 Wins (Active)
Bobby Cox was supposed to be a phenom. He was a highly-touted third baseman in the Yankees system in the mid 1960’s. He reached the majors in 1968, and 628 at-bats later, he was gone. He was doomed by a career batting line of 225/310/309, which was poor even for a pitcher’s era. Of course, the Yankees’ track record with prospects in the late 1960’s is pretty sorry all around.
Joe Torre: 2,312 Wins (Active)
I mentioned before that John McGraw was the best player among all the managers enshrined in Cooperstown. But that’s just until Joe Torre gets elected.
There’s a good argument that Torre belongs in the Hall of Fame as a player. Torre was a great-hitting catcher/third baseman for most of his career. Despite playing in a pitcher’s era, Torre managed a career batting line of 297/365/452. True Average (TAv) is a measure created by Baseball Prospectus to express a player’s total offensive output, adjusted for things such as ballpark and era (True Average was formerly known as Equivalent Average). Torre’s career True Average is .298. Only two catchers in history posted a better career mark: Mike Piazza and the unheralded Gene Tenace. Torre edges out Hall-of-Famers Ernie Lombardi and Bill Dickey by .003 and .005 points, respectively.
I don’t mean to say that Torre the player has a great case for induction. Despite the other catchers in the top ten list, Torre spent more of his career at first and third base (1302 games) than behind the plate (903 games). This makes his Hall-of-Famer case tougher to make, spending so much time at more offense-oriented positions.
Still, for the purposes of this argument, Torre was a Hall-of-Fame quality player, like McGraw.
Sparky Anderson: 2,194 Wins (HOF)
Anderson spent one year in the majors; in 1959, he played 152 games as the Phillies’ primary second baseman. Then, nothing. It’s extremely rare for a player to play one full season – as an everyday guy – and then never play again. Especially if they’re just 25 years old.
While such things are unusual, they’re not surprising – at least, not when the player hits 218/282/249. Sparky makes Ozzie Smith look like a home run king.
Bucky Harris: 2,158 Wins (HOF)
Harris was neither a Hall-of-Fame talent nor a marginal player. For about ten years, Harris was the Washington Senators’ everyday second baseman. He was a well-regarded defender and a capable hitter, to the tune of career 274/352/354 mark; not bad in cavernous Griffith Stadium.
Starting in 1924, Harris became player-manager of the Senators. He’s the first man on this list to hold down both jobs for a significant period of time. And he did quite well for himself, leading Washington to its only World Series title in 1924 and repeating the feat as manager of the Yankees in 1947. Oddly, though, despite two seasons of 90+ wins with the Yankees, Harris lost his job to Casey Stengel in 1949, a move which makes sense now but was quite puzzling at the time.
Harris was no Ryne Sandberg at second base, but he was a useful guy – sort of a Robby Thompson type – who went on to a fine managerial career.
Joe McCarthy: 2,125 Wins (HOF)
McCarthy never played in the majors. The manager with the best career winning percentage (.615), considered by some to be the best of all time, never made as much as a pinch-hitting appearance in the big leagues.
As an outfielder/second-baseman, McCarthy made it as high as the American Association (there was no AAA at the time), but never to the majors. He spent the last six years of his career with Louisville, where his batting average ranged from .259 to .278, with little power (walks totals from that era are sketchy).
It’s odd though, that a player like McCarthy never made the majors, even in the deadball era (Joe was in the minors from 1907 through 1921). He was no star, but it seems like he was good enough to be a backup for a big-league club, unless his defense was just terrible. And he must have gotten visibility playing for a top team like Louisville (this was before the advent of farm systems).
For whatever reason, McCarthy still never made it to the majors. He became one of the best managers in baseball history despite his status as a career minor-leaguer.
Walter Alston: 2,040 Wins (HOF)
Alston’s major league career consists of one game for the Cardinals in 1936. He came to bat once and struck out, and he made one error in two chances at first base. Not much to tell the grandkids about.
Leo Durocher: 2,008 Wins (HOF)
Durocher wasn’t a very good player, but he was a pain the ass, and I guess that counts for something. He was known for his scrappiness and determination as the quintessential undersized shortstop. His career batting line is 247/299/320, which is terrible by any estimation. Someone should have told his managers that the deadball era was over; Durocher wrecked otherwise productive offenses with the Yankees, Reds, Cardinals and Dodgers.
Whatever his skills as a player, though, he did come away with a Hall-of-Fame career as a manager – and, perhaps, Babe Ruth’s watch.
Casey Stengel: 1,905 Wins (HOF)
Stengel was famous as a flake and a goof, despite his remarkable run with the Yankees. Just think of what his reputation would be without those glory days in the Bronx.
Stengel wasn’t a bad player at all, but he wasn’t a star. He was often the best hitter on his team, but when you consider that he was with the Dodgers, Phillies and Braves in the '10’s and 20’s, that’s a dubious compliment. To be fair, his career batting line of 284/356/410 is actually quite good given the context. And he was seen as something of a leader, even if he was a boob.
Gene Mauch: 1,902 Wins
Among managers eligible for the Hall of Fame, Mauch has more wins than any of them. In fact, he’s got nearly 300 more than the next-winningest non-Cooperstown manager, Ralph Houk. But he’s also got about 450 more losses than Houk, which is basically why he’s not in.
Mauch was a utility infielder during his 9-year major league career, hitting 239/333/312, which isn’t terrible by utility standards. He played for some pretty good teams, but never won a shot as an everyday player. His career high for at bats in a season is 151, in 1948.
To save time, I’ll finish up in bullet-point format:
- Bill McKechnie: 1896 wins. McKechnie hit 251/301/313 in 11 years as an infielder, and even then his best season came with the semi-major Federal League.
- Lou Piniella: 1835 wins. Piniella was certainly good. A 291/333/409 batting line is nothing to sneeze at, even though it’s disappointing for a left fielder.
- Ralph Houk: 1619 wins. Houk had a poor year with the Yankees in 1947 and never got more than 30 at bats in the next seven seasons.
- Fred Clarke: 1602 wins. Clarke was inducted into the Hall as a player, thanks to an impressive 312/386/429 batting line over 21 seasons.
- Tommy LaSorda: 1599 wins. LaSorda posted an ERA of 6.48 in 58.1 major league innings with the Dodgers and A’s.
- Dick Williams: 1571 wins. Williams was an all-around utility man whose glove helped compensate for a career 260/312/392 batting line.
In conclusion, we’ve got two or three legitimately great players as opposed to about a dozen utility guys and one or two “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” careers. If being a great player was a strong qualification for being a great manager, then surely we’d see more great players among the all-time best managers, right? And even the Hall-of-Fame talents we see here were mostly marginal guys rather than the elite, first-ballot players.
If that’s not enough, I’m not even going to begin discussing the Hall-of-Fame talents who proved to be bad -- or at least marginal – managers. Sure, guys like Hornsby, Speaker and Cochrane did okay, but what about Jimmie Foxx? What about Eddie Collins, Alan Trammell, Willie Randolph, Buddy Bell, Walter Johnson, George Sisler, Joe Adcock and Maury Wills?
I don’t want to get ahead of myself and say that being a great player makes you a bad manager. And in the scheme of things, I think experience as a productive player is a point in someone’s favor. But that’s all it is – a point. If the names listed above tell us nothing more, it’s that you have to be more than just a great player to be even a good manager.
In case Sandberg doesn’t get the job, Cub fans (and ESPN analysts) should keep this in mind before rioting.