A Brief History of Player Managers: The Final Chapter

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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.

At the end of the 1955 season, 390 managers had taken the helm of a team since league play had started in 1871. 240 of those, nearly 62% of all managers, had at some point managed a team while playing on the field. However, from 1956 through 2015, an additional 305 managers debuted, of which a mere seven were active players on the field – a scant 2% of the managerial field.

A Small Blip on the Radar

The first of the final seven to act as player manager was Solly Hemus, who took the reins of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1959. The infielder, however, had essentially retired from playing after the 1958 season, utilizing himself in only 24 games as a pinch hitter during the his first year as manager with the Cardinals. Hemus would refrain from entering any games in his final two seasons at the helm, leading the team to an 86-win season in 1960 before being dismissed when the team slumped in 1961.

Hank Bauer would be installed as the Kansas City Athletics manager after Joe Gordon was dismissed 59 games into the 1961 season. Bauer, who appeared in 43 games for the A’s that season, would play his final game in mid-July,  focusing instead on managerial tasks. Bauer was not able to make much headway in turning the A’s around, and was dismissed after his second season at the helm. He was hired as the manager of the Baltimore Orioles in 1964, leading the team for five seasons, including a World Series win in 1966.

Elvin “El”  Tappe “managed” for parts of two seasons under the Chicago Cubs baffling eight-man College of Coaches in 1961 and 1962. With no manager, the coaches each took different positions at different times during the season. While the utility catcher did not play in any games during the 1961 season (where he was credited with a 42-54 record in three different stints as “head coach”), Tappe played in 26 games for the Cubs in 1962, some of which coincided with his 20 games as the Dean of the College. Tappe’s final game as manager ended the role of player manager for nearly a decade and a half.

A Historic First

Acquired in a waiver trade by the Cleveland Indians in September of 1974, Frank Robinson was installed as manager of the club for the 1975 season after the club fired Ken Aspromonte. The installation of the two-time MVP was historic for reasons other than being the first player manager in over a dozen seasons – Robinson also broke the color barrier, becoming the first African-American manager.

Like the majority of player managers since 1950, Robinson reduced his playing time severely in order to dedicate time to managing. After playing in 144 games during the 1974 season, Robinson participated in only 49 games in 1975, all as either a designated hitter or a pinch hitter. Robinson would hit nine home runs during the 1975 season while leading the Indians to a 79-80 record. Robinson would further reduce his playing time in his final on-field season of 1976, participating in 36 games and only starting 15. Robinson would lead the Indians to an 81-78 record in his second year as the Cleveland chieftain, but was dismissed the next season after the team started 26-31. Robinson would go on to manage four seasons in San Francisco, four in Baltimore and five with the organization that was the Montreal/San Juan Expos and became the Washington Nationals.

Another former MVP was elevated to player manager when Joe Torre was promoted to the head of the New York Mets in the middle of the 1977 season, after they had struggled to a 15-30 record under Joe Frazier. Torre didn’t set the world afire in his first chance at managing, producing a  49-68 record the rest of the year. The pressures of managing soon convinced Torre to leave the field: his final professional at bat, a flyball out in the bottom of the ninth on June 17, came less than three weeks after taking over in the dugout. Torre would lead the Mets through the 1981 season, never producing a winning season in Queens.

Despite the poor output in New York, Torre was installed as the manager of the Atlanta Braves for the 1982 season, leading the team to the NL West title. He would procure a second-place showing the following year, but was shown the door after dipping below .500 in 1984. Torre would be out of the major-league managerial ranks for the rest of the 80s, returning to the manager’s perch with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1990. He would have a 21-season run in the majors, leading the Cardinals for six, the New York Yankees for a dozen – including four World Championships, six AL Pennants and 10 AL East Titles – and three with the Los Angeles Dodgers, procuring a pair of NL West Titles.

With the idea of player managers seemingly back in vogue, the Chicago White Sox became the third team in a five-year period to look towards the field. Shortstop Don Kessinger was hired as manager for the 1979 season after the White Sox lost 90 games under a pair of managers in 1978. Like Torre and Robinson, Kessinger also cut back on his play. After starting 124 games for the White Sox in 1978, Kessinger started only 37 games during his 106-game managerial stint. Kessinger was replaced as manager by Tony La Russa after losing his seventh consecutive game on August 1. His final game on the field was the previous night, coming in to play shortstop in the 9th inning of a loss against the Yankees.

The Pete Rose Enigma

Pete Rose became the 247th and, thus far, final, player manager, when he was installed as manager of the Cincinnati Reds upon being traded from Montreal on August 15, 1984. Rose inherited the team from Vern Rapp, who had gone 51-70; under Rose, the team finished the season with a 19-22 record. However, being a good manager was not the only topic on Rose’s agenda: he also had a record to chase. Charlie Hustle was reborn back home in Cincinnati, banging out 35 hits in 26 games played for the Reds in 1984 as he edged closer to Ty Cobb’s career hit record.

Rose would lead the Reds on a 20 game turn-around in 1985, with Cincinnati rising to second place in the NL West and Rose earning himself Manager of the Year honors. Unlike his immediate player manager predecessors, Rose installed himself as a fixture in the starting lineup, starting 110 games at first base. Rose picked up 107 more hits in his pursuit of Cobb and put up his best OBP (.395) since 1979 thanks to 86 walks. However, he was the ultimate singles hitter at this point in his career, picking up only 16 extra base hits on the year and producing a paltry .319 slugging percentage, an ugly number for a first baseman and .151 lower than Tony Perez, Cincinnati’s other first baseman.

Rose would lead the Reds to another second-place finish in the NL West in 1986, but Rose’s pursuit of Ty Cobb overshadowed the team’s performance. Once again installing himself as starting first baseman, the 45-year-old Rose batted a miniscule .219/.316/.270 in 72 games. Rose retired from the playing field after striking out against Goose Gossage as a pinch hitter in the bottom of the 8th in a 9-5 loss to the San Diego Padres on August 17. With Rose keeping himself off the field, the Reds would finish on a 30-15 run to end the season.

Rose would lead the Reds to a third consecutive second place finish in the NL West in 1987, but it was only another late run that kept the Reds above .500. Cincinnati stood at 64-68 as September began, but Rose led the expanded roster to a 20-10 record down the stretch. A fourth successive second place finish was in the offing for the 1988 season, with another frantic finish of 21-10 putting the Reds within seven games of the AL West champion LA Dodgers, but Rose himself may have again been the difference.  After he was suspended for 30 days by National League President A. Bartlett Giamatti due to an ugly on-field incident with umpire Dave Pallone, the Reds would go 12-15 under interim manager Tommy Helms.

It would not be the last meeting between Giamatti and Rose. A black cloud of gambling allegations followed Rose through the 1989 season, but the team was sitting at 61-66 on August 24, 12 games back of the AL West leader and ready for the annual September run. The hammer came down that day, as Baseball Commissioner Giamatti announced Rose’s banishment from the game of baseball due to gambling on baseball games. The Reds, understandably, would flounder the rest of the way, going 14-21 to finish 12 games under .500. The next year, under new manager Lou Piniella, the Reds would finally win the NL West (with a 91-71 record), the NL Pennant (defeating the Pittsburgh Pirates) and the World Championship (defeating the Oakland A’s).

The Future

In the thirty years since Pete Rose laid down his bat for the last time, it seems almost impossible for a major league team to tap an active player to be their field manager. After all, with the exception of Pete Rose, every player manager since 1950 severely restricted his own on-field duties. Given the daily stresses of managing – daily press conference, working with coaches, players, trainers and staff, communicating with the front office – it is hard to believe anyone would want to add playing to the agenda.

The Toronto Blue Jays considered signing  Paul Molitor to be player manager for the 1998 season before choosing Tim Johnson as the field boss. Molitor would re-sign with the Twins for his final playing season, batting .281/.335/.382 for Minnesota. Barry Larkin was intrigued by the idea of becoming player manager at the dawn of the 21st century, although whether the Cincinnati front office ever considered the idea is unknown. Chicago White Sox GM Ken Williams did consider Paul Konerko to replace Ozzie Guillen in 2011. However, Williams also was able to put forth a cogent argument against the idea:

It was considered long enough for me to realize that Paul is a very cerebral person, and he would probably drive himself nuts right now playing and managing at the same time. But that’s the kind of respect I have for him that, yeah, I did consider it. Then, I thought, ‘I think I would rather him be focused more on hitting third or fourth in the lineup and driving in 100 runs, rather than trying to worry about 25 other guys in addition to it.’ We are trying to win.

Will there be another player manager in Major League Baseball? The idea still is intriguing enough that general managers have considered it over the past 30 years. But they are also well aware of the difficulties both managers and players have dealing with one job, let alone the combined endeavor. It seems nearly impossible to conceive that the age of the player manager could return. Then again, a century ago, it seemed just as impossible to conceive of a time without a player manager in charge.

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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