A Brief History Of Player Managers: The Dawn Of The Game To The Modern Era

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 they nearly all 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.

Of the 695 managers who have taken on that mantle of responsibility since 1871 (the first season listed by Baseball Reference), 247 (35.5%) started their managerial careers as active players on the field. Each season from 1871 through 1955, at least one Major League team utilized a player on the field as their field boss. In the 60-plus seasons since that streak ended, only seven players have taken on the added responsibility, with only a pair taking on the task for more than a single season.

The Age of the Player Manager

The early years of Major League Baseball were dominated by player managers. In the 1871 season, only Nick Young, the skipper for the Washington Olympics, was not an active on-field participant. Young maintained that status in the 1872 season before being joined by Bill Smith in 1873, whose Baltimore Marylands lost all five games he managed  that season. The 1874 and 1875 seasons saw not a single off-field manager.

Of course, the practicalities of professional baseball were much different than they are now. The National Association of 1871 included just nine teams, with the New York Mutuals playing three more games than any other team in the league (with 33 total), while the Fort Wayne Kekiongas played only 19 games. The Rockford Forest Citys played 18 of their 25 games on the road. Just six years after the Civil War, travel was slow and laborious, tarps and other field protection did not cover infields and on-field substitutions were nearly unheard of. The 1871 Boston Red Stockings utilized 11 players during the season, with Al Spalding pitching every inning of every game.

The first prominent manager was Harry Wright, the manager of the Red Stockings for eleven seasons, starting in 1871. Wright led the Boston club to six pennants in the first eight seasons of professional league play. In the first seven seasons as the field boss, Wright also played on the field as an outfielder and a pitcher. Wright retired as a player after the 1877 season at the age of 42, but would continue his managerial career for the next 15 seasons, leaving the Boston club to manage in Providence for the 1882 and 1883 seasons before moving onto the Philadelphia Quakers/Phillies for his final decade starting in 1884. Wright was one of the first managers elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame, earning that honor in 1953.

The 1875 season saw the debut of Cap Anson in the dual role of player manager, as the 23-year-old went 4-2 at the end of the season for the Philadelphia Athletics. The future Hall of Famer moved on to the Chicago White Stockings in the 1876 season as a player only, and resumed his dual role in the 1879 season, where he went 41-21 as manager before being replaced at the helm by fellow player Silver Flint at the end of the season. After Flint went an abysmal 5-12 down the stretch, Anson was restored to the managerial position for the 1880 season. Anson would continue to be a player manager for the Chicago franchise for the next 18 seasons, winning five National League pennants in that time. He would retire as player and manager after the 1897 season, but would briefly return as a manager the next season, going 9-13 as the second of three managers for the New York Giants.

The 1876 season featured a brief uptick of non-playing managers, as three of the managers in the National League stayed off the field. The newly established St. Louis Brown Stockings utilized two of the three with Mase Graffen going 39-17 before being replaced by George McManus, who went 6-2 to finish off the season. Graffen’s squad went 28-32 in the 1877 season, after which the team folded.

Jack Chapman was named manager of the Louisville Grays for the 1877 season, guiding the team to a 30-36 record while playing in 17 games. The 34-year-old would relinquish his playing career the next season, becoming the first player manager to make the transition to the singular role of manager as he guided the Grays to a 35-25 season. He continued to manage the Grays the following season when the team relocated to Milwaukee. The team finished 15-45 in its only season in Milwaukee. The delightfully nicknamed “Death to Flying Things” returned to managing in 1882 for Worcester, moving on to Detroit in 1883 and 1884 before shuffling off to Buffalo in 1885. After a few years away, Chapman returned to managing in 1889 with the Louisville Colonels, where he stayed until 1892, winning the American Association Pennant in 1890 with an 88-44 record.

The appointment of Horace Phillips to the managerial position of the Troy Trojans in 1879 was not a successful one, as Phillips was replaced mid-season after going 12-34. However, the non-player got a second chance to manage professionally, leading the Columbus Buckeyes to a 32-65 record in 1883. Phillips did not return to Columbus for the 1884 season, but instead got his third crack at the managerial whip, becoming the fifth manager of the Pittsburgh Alleghenys. Despite a 9-24 record to finish the season, Phillips kept the managerial reins of Pittsburgh for five seasons, finally being dismissed after a 28-43 opening to the 1889 season.

The first non-playing manager to get a second turn in the dugout was Frank Bancroft, who started his managerial career with the Worcester Ruby Legs in 1880. He moved to the Detroit Wolverines for the next two seasons, then to the Cleveland Blues for the 1883 season. The itinerant manager moved on to the Providence Grays for the 1884 and 1885 seasons, leading Old Hoss Radbourn and the rest of the pride of Rhode Island to the National League pennant in his first season. He also led them to the first “World Series” title, as the Grays met the champions of the American Association, the New York Metropolitans, in the first post-season competition between leagues. The Grays swept the series, with Radbourne allowing three unearned runs in the three games played. Bancroft returned to the Grays for the 1885 season, the final season for the Providence franchise. Bancroft later returned to managing with the Philadelphia Athletics for the first half of the 1877 season before beginning the 1879 season with the Indianapolis Hoosiers. After a decade and a half out of the managerial throne, Bancroft managed 16 games for the Cincinnati Reds during the 1902 season, the second of three managers for the Reds that season.

The relative successes of Bancroft and Phillips drove more teams to eschew the default position of player manager. Jim Mutrie was appointed to the managerial post of the American Association’s Metropolitans in 1883 as a non-playing skipper, leading the team to the league championship in 1884. He moved to the National League’s New York Giants in 1885, leading the team to winning records in six of his seven seasons at the helm while taking home the pennant (and the “World Series”) in 1888 and 1889. While others, like Gus Schmeltz, Bill Sharsig, and Al Buckenberger, would join Bancroft, Phillips, and Murtrie with multi-year management careers, the default position of player manager remained.

Like Cap Anson, Charlie Comiskey started his managerial career with a couple of false starts, playing and managing the St. Louis Browns in 1883 and 1884 for the final games of the season after the club dismissed its opening day chieftain. Comiskey kept the position for the 1885 season, leading the Browns to the American Association title. The first baseman manager continued to bring the Browns trophy success, as St. Louis defended the title in the 1886, 1887, and 1888 seasons. Comiskey continued on as a dual-threat through the 1894 season, when he guided the Cincinnati Reds to a 55-75 record, the only season Comiskey finished under .500.

Ned Hanlon began his managerial career taking over the Pittsburgh Alleghenys as their third manager of the 1889 season. He continued as an outfielder-manager in Pittsburgh the next two seasons, first with the Players League Burghers in 1890 and back with the National League Pirates in 1891. He moved to Baltimore in 1892, taking over the management reins midway through the season while playing 11 contests in the field. Like Jack Chapman, Hanlon found greater success after eliminating the playing portion of his role, leading the Orioles to three consecutive National League titles from 1894-96. More impressively, Hanlon’s teams won over 60% of their games for seven consecutive seasons, ending with two more pennant-winning seasons with the newly established Brooklyn Superbas in 1899 and 1900. Hanlon’s 10 consecutive seasons of over .500 ball (from 1894-1903) would eventually lead to his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

In 1890, the same season players Buck Ewing and Patsy Tebeau started their dual-roles of player and manager, Frank Selee took on his singular role of manager for the Boston Beaneaters of the National League. Although the Beaneaters finished in 5th place (despite a 76-57 record) in his first season, Selee followed up with three consecutive pennants for Boston starting in 1891. Selee later returned the Beaneaters to the top pedestal in the 1897 and 98 seasons as well and led the Boston club to 10 consecutive finishes over .500. Fortunes flagged for Selee in 1900 and 1901 for Boston, and he moved on to the Chicago Orphans/Cubs for his final foray in managing starting in 1902. While his stay in Chicago lasted for only three-and-a-half seasons, Selee led the team to 82 wins in 1903 and 93 in 1904. Selee would be posthumously elected to the Hall of Fame in 1999, becoming the earliest full-time manager so honored.

In our next installment of a Brief History of Player Managers, we will look at the initial seasons of the “Modern Era” of baseball as the reign of player managers slowly came to an end.

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.

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