A Brief History Of Player Managers: The Greats Take The Reigns

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 professional baseball neared the golden anniversary of league baseball, stability was entering the lexicon of baseball. While professional teams moved or disbanded often in the 1800s, entering the 1920s, the 16 teams of the American and National Leagues had not made a move since the Baltimore Orioles became the New York Highlanders for the 1903 season. Stability was also making its way into the dugout. No longer were teams content with the shuffling in of new managers every season. Stalwarts like Connie Mack, John McGraw, Clark Griffith and Hughie Jennings all started as player managers, but then continued to manage after they left the playing field. The era of the player manager was slowly coming to an end – but not without one last blast from some of the greatest players of the era.

The Greats Take Over

Tris Speaker was named manager of the Cleveland Indians in the middle of the 1919 season, replacing manager Lee Fohl who had won 44 of the first 78 games the club had played. Speaker, however, managed to win 2/3rds of the games he managed the first season, leading the club to a second place finish. In his first full season, Speaker led the Indians to an AL pennant with 98 wins and the world championship, defeating the Brooklyn Robins five games to two. Unlike Nap Lajoie, Speaker’s directorship did not lead to poorer results for himself on the field. Speaker would lead the American League in doubles for four consecutive seasons starting in 1920, would lead the AL in OBP at .474 during the 1922 season and again in 1925 at .479, and would put up six successive seasons (from 1920-1925) with an OPS of .943 or higher, four times crossing the 1.000 barrier. Speaker’s managerial career ended after the 1926 season in the “Dutch Leonard Affair”, after leading the Indians to a world championship and three second place finishes.

Ty Cobb’s managerial career started in the 1921 season, lasting six season until he was also implicated in the Leonard Affair. While Cobb was never able to achieve the same success as Speaker – Cobb’s best finish was second place in 1923, 16 games behind the New York Yankees – he was able to bring the Detroit Tigers over .500 in all but his first season at the helm. Like Speaker, Cobb’s on-field performance was still excellent. In his first season at the helm, Cobb put up a .389/.452/.596 with 65 extra base hits. The next season, he batted .401, his third and final time to break the .400 barrier. And in 1925 at the age of 38, Cobb led the league in OPS with a 1.066.

The 1924 class of rookie managers had an impressive playing pedigree, with four of the five being inducted to the Hall of Fame as players. However, those four did not impress as managers. Ed Walsh went 1-2 in a brief stint for the Chicago White Sox. George Sisler and Eddie Collins would each last three seasons with little success; Sisler leading the St. Louis Browns to one season over .500 and Collins bringing the White Sox to two fifth place seasons in his two full seasons. Dave Bancroft managed the Boston Braves for four seasons, never leading the team to more than 70 wins in a season.

The lone exception, Bucky Harris, would lead his Washington Senators to a World Series championship in his first season and an AL pennant in his second. The young Harris managed the Senators for five seasons as a player manager before moving to the Detroit Tigers where he managed for five more seasons, allowing himself 23 plate appearances in 1929 and 1931. With his transition off the field of play complete, Harris would have an itinerant managerial career. After one season with the Boston Red Sox in 1934, Harris moved back to the Senators for eight seasons starting in 1935. Harris was unable to replicate his success in the capital city, leading the Sens to a single .500 season in his second term. After a brief exodus to Philadelphia in 1943, Harris was out of the big league managerial chair until re-emerging with the 1948 Yankees, where he led the team to a world championship. After a third place finish in 1948, Harris returned to the Senators for a third time and then ended his career with his second foray in Detroit. Harris would join his 1924 brethren in the Hall of Fame, being inducted as a manager in 1975.

Rogers Hornsby ascended to the role of manager in 1925 and, like Speaker and Harris, would quickly win a world championship, leading the St. Louis Cardinals to the 1926 title. However, various circumstances led Hornsby to different teams. In 1927, it was the New York Giants, where he also acted as interim manager for the health-afflicted John McGraw. In 1928, it was the Boston Braves where he was named manager a month into the season. From 1929 to 1932, it was the Chicago Cubs, where he was named manager at the end of 1930. Hornsby would return to the Cardinals as a part-time player in 1933, but was waived and signed by the cross-town Browns where he was immediately installed as player manager. In his five seasons with the Browns, Hornsby played in only 67 games while managing the Browns to five consecutive seasons under .450. Hornsby would make a comeback to the dugout during the 1952 and 1953 seasons for the Browns and Cincinnati Reds, but was unable to bring any success.

A Final Salvo

The era of active player managers was coming to a close as baseball entered the latter part of the 1920s. Joe McCarthy was brought up from the American Association’s Louisville Colonels to be the manager for the Chicago Cubs. McCarthy, who had never reached the Majors as a player, managed for the next 24 seasons, winning nine pennants and seven world championships with the Chicago Cubs, New York Yankees, and Boston Red Sox. Meanwhile, player managers hired the next season couldn’t make it past season two as Stuffy McInnis and Bob O’Farrell were not retained after their first season and Ray Schalk was replaced midway through his second season.

Former players were coming back into the game by way of the managerial chair. Burt Shotten returned to the dugout with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1928 for the first of his eleven seasons after leaving as a player in 1923. Walter Johnson would return to the Senators as their manager in 1929 and lead them to three 90-win seasons after pitching his final games in 1927. Billy Southworth would play in only 19 games for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1929 where he managed the first half of the season. Southworth would return to the Cardinals a decade later where he would bring two world championships to the team. Between 1926 and 1931, 18 managers were hired but only four were true player managers with two others, Lena Blackburne in 1929 and Gabby Street in 1931, gaining the status by playing themselves in a single game during the season.

One final salvo would be fired in favor of player managers. Between 1932 and 1934, ten of the 16 managers hired were player managers. While Marty McManus was dismissed after two seasons and Lew Fonseca only lasted three, the other eight had long and productive careers on the field and in the dugout. Pie Traynor took over the Pittsburgh Pirates partway through the 1934 season and would manage the team for six seasons. Traynor reduced his play to only 57 games in the 1935 season before essentially retiring from the field, playing himself in an additional five games in 1937. Traynor would lead the Pirates to four consecutive seasons of 84 or more wins in his first four full seasons as manager, but a 68-85 record in 1939 would be his last season as a manager. Mickey Cochrane led the Detroit Tigers to the American League Pennant in his first managerial season in 1934 and followed up that debut with a world championship in his second season. He would lead the team (while uninjured) to second place finishes in 1936 and 1937 before retiring as a player. However, a 47-51 record in his first season off the field in 1938 saw Cochran dismissed from the job.

The other six managers hired between 1932 and 1934 all had managerial careers of nine years or longer. Bill Terry spent a decade as the New York Giants manager, replacing John McGraw in 1932. In Terry’s first five full seasons at the helm, the Giants won 90 or more games in each season, winning a world championship in 1933 and a pair of NL Pennants in 1936 and 1937. Terry would retire from the playing field after the 1937 season but would lead the team for another four seasons with decreasing results, going 74-79 in 1941. Jimmie Wilson would lead the Philadelphia Phillies as player manager for five seasons from 1934-1938, losing at least 89 games each season. Despite his poor record, the Chicago Cubs would hire him as their manager in the 1941 season. Wilson would do slightly better in his 3+ seasons for the Cubs, but ended his managerial career never garnering a winning season.

And then there were the four stalwarts. Joe Cronin spent 15 seasons in the dugout, first for the Washington Senators where he won an AL Pennant in his first season of 1933 and then for 13 years at the helm of the Boston Red Sox after being traded in 1935. As player manager, Cronin would lead the Bosox to six consecutive seasons of 80 or more wins between 1937 and 1942 before the war effort decimated the Red Sox lineup. Cronin would retire from the field after the 1945 season and would lead the re-bolstered Sox lineup to 104 wins and the AL Pennant in 1946. Cronin retired from field management after the 1947 season, moving to the Red Sox front office in 1948 before becoming President of the American League in 1959.

Frankie Frisch became player manager of the St. Louis Cardinals for the last third of the 1933 season and was able to bring the World Series trophy back to St. Louis in 1934. Leading the team on the field, Frisch led the Cardinals to four consecutive seasons over 80 wins. Like Cochrane, Frisch’s retirement from the field in 1938 led his team to a disappointing year and he was dismissed after going 63-72. Frisch would rejoin the managerial fraternity in 1940 with the Pittsburgh Pirates, leading the team to five finishes over .500 in his seven seasons there. He would return to the dugout once more for the Chicago Cubs in 1949, but his three seasons in the Windy City were lacking as Frankie went 64-89 in 1950, his only full season with the Cubs.

Charlie Grimm spent the first five of his 19-year managerial career as an on-field participant with the Chicago Cubs. Grimm went 37-18 after taking over for Rogers Hornsby in 1932, leading the Cubs to the NL Pennant. Grimm would lead the Cubs to five consecutive seasons of 86 wins or more between 1933 and 1937, including a 100-win season and another NL Pennant in 1935. Grimm would retire from playing after the 1936 season and was dismissed as the Cubs manager for the first time midway through the 1938 season. Grimm was reinstalled as manager for the Cubs in 1944, leading the team until being dismissed for a second time in 1949. His second stint was not as successful as his first, but Grimm did garner another World Series appearance for the Cubs in 1945. Grimm would return to the dugout with the Boston Braves in their final season in 1952, moving with them to Milwaukee where he led the team to 92, 89, and 85 wins in the first three seasons in Wisconsin. Grimm was dismissed after starting the 1956 season 24-22. He would get one last managerial shot with the Cubs, going 6-11 at the beginning of the 1960 season.

Jimmy Dykes took over for the Chicago White Sox during the 1934 season after Lew Fonseca started the season 4-11. Dykes was little better that season, but would lead the White Sox to three seasons of 80+ wins in the next five season while managing from the field. Retiring from playing after the 1939 season, Dykes would lead the White Sox through the beginning of the 1946 season before being dismissed, never leading the White Sox to higher than a 3rd place finish in his 13 season tenure on the South Side. Dykes would return to the dugout with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1951 where he would manage for three seasons, with a 79-75 season in 1952 being sandwiched by a pair of losing seasons. Dykes would move onto Baltimore for the return of the Orioles in 1954, leading the former Browns to 100 losses. It would be Dykes final full season at the helm of a single team… but he would return to managing for the Cincinnati Reds for 41 games in 1958 and moving onto the Tigers for the final 137 games of 1959. He managed 96 games for the Tigers in 1960 before being traded for fellow manager Joe Gordon, finishing the final 58 games of the Cleveland Indians season. Dykes would manage all but the final game of the 1961 season in Cleveland before his career came to an end.

With the final flurry mustered, the curtain was about to be drawn on the era of the player manager. In our next article, we’ll look at the end of the player manager streak.

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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