The idea of a big league manager lacing up his cleats and taking a spot in the lineup may seem foreign to today’s baseball fans. However, player managers were the standard for the sport for many years. Brandon Magee takes a look at some of the most notable managers from a time when many played in the field.
Managing a baseball team is not an easy job. Besides the pre-game preparations – setting line-ups and rotations, working with coaches and trainers, managing players’ injuries – a manager also has to meet with the press on a daily basis, work with the front office on minor league call-ups and major league acquisitions, and make promotional and charitable appearances. And, of course, he must manage the game itself, where play on the field may dictate “discussions” with the umpires, pitching changes, and pinch hitting appearances. Yet, for much of the long history of the game of Major League Baseball, the manager also had a second job – being a major league player.
As baseball entered the 20th century, changes were beginning to slowly infiltrate Major League Baseball. The 1901 season saw the establishment of the American League, bringing competition to the National League for the first time since the dissolution of the American Association after the 1891 season. After 30 seasons, professional baseball was becoming more stable and established. The itinerant nature of baseball clubs was ending and with that stability in place, stability in the dugout soon followed.
The Rise of Managerial Stability
At the end of the 1900 season, 196 managers had taken on the task of running a ball club for at least one day, 130 (66%) had started their managerial career as a player manager. The number stayed stable entering the 1901 season, as four of the six new managers to start the season were also players on the field.
But subtle changes were already making their way into the dugout. Connie Mack started his managerial career with the Pittsburgh Pirates as a utility-player/manager at the end of the 1894 season, reprising the same role the next two seasons. Mack moved to the Milwaukee Brewers of the “minor league” Western League in 1897 as player manager. When Mack returned to the Majors in 1901, it was just as a field boss. Taking on the managerial reigns of the Philadelphia Athletics in the newly established American League, Mack would become the enduring symbol for the franchise. In his first 14 seasons at the helm, he led the A’s to six AL pennants and three world championships, dipping below .500 in only a single season. The A’s would undergo a massive change for the 1915 season, winning 56 fewer games than the pennant-winning 1914 club and entering a decade of irrelevance.
However, Mack continued at the helm and brought Philadephia back to glory in 1929, winning back-to-back world championships and a trio of AL Pennants. Mack would continue to lead the Athletics until retiring after 50 years of leading the team in 1950. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1937 while still an active manager.
John McGraw was also one of the new managers in the American League in 1901, reprising the role of player manager for the Baltimore Orioles that he had held in the 1899 season when the Orioles competed in the National League. After being suspended by AL president Ban Johnson in 1902, McGraw jumped the AL ship and was installed as player manager of the New York Giants. The Giants would rise up the standings under McGraw’s tutelage, winning five pennants and a world championship in his first dozen seasons in New York. McGraw, who retired as a player after the 1906 season led the Giants for 31 consecutive seasons, being dismissed in 1932 after a 17-23 start. McGraw brought his teams consistent success, falling under the .500 mark only twice in his full seasons with the Giants and Orioles. Like Mack, he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1937.
Clark Griffith was another of the new AL managers in 1901, leading the Chicago White Sox to the first AL Pennant as the team’s player manager. While Griffith would continue to lead teams for the next twenty seasons (with Chicago, the New York Highlanders, the Cincinnati Reds, and the Washington Senators) as a player manager and then as just the field boss after his retirement in 1914, Griffith was unable to return to pennant winning glory.
While Mack and McGraw were fortunate to have extra-long managerial tenures, others were also making the managerial hotseat a career. George Stallings, Patsy Donovan, and Fred Clarke all started as player managers in 1897, and all would garner over a decade in the managerial chair, with Clarke earning a world championship with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1909 and Stallings earning the ultimate trophy with the Braves in 1914. While Clarke never gave up an on-field role during his two-decade managerial career, both Donovan and Stallings ended their baseball careers in the singular role of manager.
While players were successfully retiring as a player and continuing on as manager, the default action in hiring the on-field boss was still to hire a player. 30 of the 38 managers hired between 1902 and 1910 were players as well as skippers. While some players like Frank Chance, Fielder Jones, and Hughie Jennings were able to garner a decade or more on the managerial throne – many as player manager, but some in the singular role – others were discarded more quickly. Cy Young was player manager for six games at the beginning of the 1907 season for the Boston Americans. Kid Nichols managed the 1904 season for the St. Louis Cardinals, but was dismissed from the role after only 14 games in the 1905 season. Nap Lajoie managed the Cleveland club for five seasons between 1905-1909, but saw his on-field contributions wane. The great batsman put up a .959 OPS in 1904 and a .960 OPS in 1910, but only once was able to break an .810 OPS (.857 in 1906) during his managerial tenure.
The trend of managerial hires as on-field participants continued unabated through the first half of the 1910s, with 17 of 22 new managerial hires also being a player. However, there were changes afoot. Wilbert Robinson, who had a one-season player manager stint for the Baltimore Orioles in 1902 (taking over for John McGraw), returned to the managerial throne with the Brooklyn Robins in 1914 and stayed in that post until 1931. Miller Huggins retired from the playing side of the coin after four seasons as the player-boss for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1916. While he would only spend one more season with the Cardinals, he would move onto the New York Yankees in 1918 where he would lead the Bronx Bombers to three world championships and six AL pennants in a decade of service.
Branch Rickey was hired as the manager of the St. Louis Browns in 1913, a post he would stay in for three seasons. Although he allowed himself two at bats in the 1914 season (and thus technically earning the player manager monicker), he was hired for his managerial acumen. Rickey would switch leagues in 1919, moving to the National League Cardinals for seven seasons before becoming the influential front office executive we know him better as. Lee Fohl retired as a ballplayer in 1914 and returned to the field as a manager the next season with the Cleveland Indians. He would manage the Indians, St. Louis Browns, and the Boston Red Sox in the ensuing dozen seasons. Pat Moran followed the same path, retiring in 1914 only to return as manager of the Philadelphia Phillies in 1915, earning the pennant in his first season at the helm. After four seasons with the Phillies, he would move to Ohio for five seasons with the Reds, earning a world championship in his first season there.
While the shift away from player managers was becoming evident, it would not become the default hiring position for a few more seasons. While Pants Rowland would join Fohl and Moran as non-playing managers for the 1915 season, five others managers were hired in the dual role. Even though Bill McKechnie eventually forged a 24-season Hall of Fame career in the NL with the Pirates, Cardinals, Braves and Reds, he was first hired as a player manager in 1915 by the Federal League’s Newark Pepper. Lee Magee, Harry Lord and Walter Blair were less lucky, never getting another managerial chance after their 1915 debut. But the difficulty of handling both the position of player and manager was certainly starting to show.
Christy Mathewson was placed into the position of player manager for the Cincinnati Reds midway through the 1916 season. He would walk off the pitcher’s mound at the end of the 1916 season, continuing on as just the manager of the club for 1917 and 1918. Honus Wagner spent five games as manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1917 before giving up the managerial reigns. While former players like Jack Hendricks, Kid Gleason, George Gibson, and Fred Mitchell were able to forge multi-season careers as managers, player managers like Jack Barry, Heinie Groh, and Ivey Wingo lasted a season or less.
The end of the hegemony of player manager was close at hand as baseball entered the roaring ‘20s. However, there was one last gasp before the title of player manager became a curiosity. We’ll explore the rise of the Hall of Fame players as management in our next installment.
Brandon Magee is our minor league expert; he has written about minor league travel, ranking prospects, a first round draft pick, and the MLB First-Year Player Draft.
Follow Brandon on Twitter @cuzittt.