A Brief History of Player Managers: The End Of An Era

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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.

As baseball entered the 1935 season, the flurry of player manager hirings the previous three seasons made any thoughts of non-field bosses becoming the dominant force in the industry seem like fiction. Five of the eight teams in the National League were led by player managers. Half of the eight American League teams were managed by player managers. Mickey Cochrane’s Detroit Tigers would face off against Charlie Grimm’s Chicago Cubs in the World Series. However, the end was only a generation a way.

Dugout Stability

As noted in part two, stability in the dugout was becoming a desired trait for managerial reigns. In 1935, Connie Mack was still in the midst of his astounding 50-year run in Philadelphia. Joe McCarthy had reached a decade in charge of in Chicago and New York. Rogers Hornsby was in his eleventh season as a field boss despite his itinerant career. Bucky Harris was beginning his twelfth season in charge. And as noted in part three, the player manager class of 1932-1934 would also go onto decades of service in the dugout.

That class, however, also included a couple of non-playing managers that would go onto extended managerial careers. Chuck Dressen began a four-year run as the manager for the Cincinnati Reds in 1934, but unable to pull the team above .500, he was dismissed in 1937. Dressen would jump back into the managerial fold with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1951, leading the team to three consecutive seasons with 96+ wins and a pair of World Series appearances. Dressen would move onto the Washington Senators for three seasons in 1955, and then would have a two-year run in Milwaukee (1960-61) and a four year run in Detroit starting in 1963.

Casey Stengel also started his managerial career in 1934, serving three seasons with the Brooklyn Dodgers but failing to break .500. He would move to Boston to serve as the skipper of the Bees/Braves from 1938-1943, failing to break .500 in all but his inaugural season. The New York Yankees hired Stengel in 1949, and Stengel led the Bronx Bombers to five consecutive World Championships before failing to win the AL Pennant in 1954 despite leading the Yanks to 103 wins. Four more pennants would follow (with another two World Series Championships) before the 1959 Yankees slumped to third place in the AL. Stengel would lead the Bombers to one additional World Series in 1960 before leaving his post. Stengel would move across town in 1962 to manage the expansion Mets, lasting three and a half seasons of growing pains and numerous losses.

The Slow Fade Out

With stability rising, the number of managerial changes per season dropped. The 1935 season saw only a single managerial change, with Steve O’Neill taking over the Cleveland Indians mid-season. O’Neill would last through the 1937 season with the Cleveland club, but would go on to a 14-year managerial career with the Detroit Tigers – bringing Michigan a world championship in 1945 – the Boston Red Sox, and the Philadelphia Phillies. The 1936 season saw no changes to the managerial thrones.

From 1935 through 1940, 14 managers made their debut in the dugout. Only three were still active players. Jim Bottomley went 21-56 after taking over the St. Louis Browns in 1937, his last season in the majors. Gabby Hartnett would take over for Charlie Grimm midway through 1938, leading the Cubs to the NL Pennant by going 44-27 down the stretch. And then, there was Leo Durocher. The Lip would begin his Hall of Fame managerial career as a player manager for the Brooklyn Dodgers, leading the team to the NL Pennant in 1941. Durocher played in a few games during the War Years of 1943 and 1945, but had largely became a non-field manager in the 1941 season, playing in only 18 games. Durocher would manage the Dodgers for nine seasons before being traded to the New York Giants, where he would win the 1951 Pennant and the 1954 World Series. After a decade away from the managerial role, Durocher would return with the Chicago Cubs, leading them for seven seasons beginning in 1966 before ending his career with the Houston Astros in 1973.

The War Years of 1941-1945 saw only nine managerial debuts, four of whom were dual threats. Luke Sewell began his decade-long career with the St. Louis Browns in 1941, and earned the player manager title by playing in six games in 1942. Sewell would bring the Browns an AL Pennant in 1944. Mel Ott filled both roles with the New York Giants in 1942, leading the team from the field during the War Years. Ott would continue in the dual role in 1946 and 1947, reducing his own playing time sharply, before leaving the field for good in 1948. Lou Boudreau was also given double duty in 1942 for the Cleveland Indians at the young age of 24. Boudreau would lead the Indians from the field for nine seasons, producing a world champion for Ohio in 1948. Boudreau lost the dual role as he moved to the Boston Red Sox in 1951, but regained it in 1952, as he played 4 games in his first season as Bosox field boss. It would be Boudreau’s final season on the field, but he would have six more seasons in the dugout for the Red Sox, the Kansas City Athletics and the Chicago Cubs. Ben Chapman was the final player manager installed during the war, taking over the Philadelphia Phillies midway through the 1945 season. Chapman, however, only played in 24 games for the Phillies that season and having a single appearance in the 1946 season, pitching 1 2/3 scoreless innings and reaching on an error in his only plate appearance on May 12. Chapman’s managerial career ended after the 1948 season.

The end of World War II saw an upheaval in the dugout, with seven managers making their debuts in 1946, two of whom were active players. Bill Dickey lasted 105 games in the role with the New York Yankees, his final season in the league. Ted Lyons was installed as field boss for the Chicago White Sox a month into the season, and would retire from pitching in May. Lyons would lead the the White Sox through the 1948 season. Thirteen more managers made their debuts between 1947-1950, with only two being active players. Billy Herman led the Pittsburgh Pirates as player manager in 1947, retiring from the field in early August. Herman was not retained as the field boss for the 1948 season, returning to the managerial post in 1964 with the Boston Red Sox. Bucky Walters would take over the reigns of the Cincinnati Reds in 1948, a season where he pitched in seven games. He would continue as manager for the Reds the following season, going 61-90 and finishing just out of the basement.

The End of An Era

One final push of player managers would usher out the era. During the 1951-52 seasons, eight new managers made their dugout debuts. Five also played on the field during their managerial reigns. But the difficulty of the dual roles was evident. Tommy Holmes took over the Boston Braves as player manager during the 1951 season, going 48-47. Holmes eschewed the playing field during the start of the 1952 season, going 13-22 as the manager before being replaced by Charlie Grimm. Holmes would return to the field with the Brooklyn Dodgers later in the 1952 season, his final major league season.

Marty Marion spent his first season in the dugout in 1951 off the field with the St. Louis Cardinals, leading the Cardinals to a 81-73 season. Marion would return to the field the next season with the St. Louis Browns, playing in 67 games for the Browns while taking over the managerial reins from Rogers Hornsby. Marion would spend the 1953 season managing the Browns, playing himself in only three games. Marion would lose 100 games that season and was dismissed. He would manage parts of three seasons for the Chicago White Sox beginning in 1954.

Fred Hutchison would forge a twelve-season managerial career, winning an NL Pennant with Cincinnati in 1961. His career started in 1952 while still a pitcher for the Detroit Tigers, taking over for Red Rolfe after Detroit lost 49 of the first 72 games of the season. Hutchison would pitch in only 12 games for the Tigers in 1952 and only three games in 1953 before retiring from the field to concentrate on managing.

Eddie Stanky’s eight-season managerial career also started as player boss in 1952 for the St. Louis Cardinals. Stanky reduced his playing time from the 145 games he played in 1951 to 53 games in 1952 and to only 17 in 1953, his final season as a player.

Phil Cavarretta took over the Cubs to end the 1951 season, and would lead them from the field for the next two seasons. He, too, would focus mostly on the managerial aspect, reducing his play to 41 games in 1952 and to 27 pinch-hitting appearances in 1953. His dismissal from the managerial tasks after the 1953 season saw him return to the field for the White Sox the next season, batting .316/.417/.411 in 71 games.

Eddie Joost would continue the lineage of player managers into the 1954 season, taking over the Philadelphia Athletics when Jimmy Dykes was dismissed after the 1953 season. Joost was the best batsman for the A’s that season, putting up a line of .362/.474/.489, but playing himself in only 19 games for the 103-loss team. Like Holmes and Cavarretta, Joost would continue as a player after his managerial career ended after the single season, playing 55 games for the Red Sox in 1955.

At the start of the 1955 season, for the first time in the history of league play, not a single active player was also a team manager. But the St. Louis Cardinals continued the lineage for one more season, promoting Harry “The Hat” Walker to the role of manager after dismissing Eddie Stanky 36 games into the season. Harry, who had last made a field appearance in 1951, inserted himself into eleven games during the season while leading the team to a seventh place finish. It would be his only managerial season in St. Louis, but he would enjoy eight more years in the dugout with the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Houston Astros starting in 1965.

The 1956 season again started with no players managing in the Major Leagues, but unlike 1955, no managers inserted themselves into the lineup to continue the streak. From 1871 until 1955, one could always find at least one player manager for a professional baseball club. But the streak ended with a whimper – Harry Walker grounding out to first base in a mid-August game of no consequence. The era of the Player Manager was over. In our concluding article on player managers, we’ll look at the final seven players who tried to bring it back.

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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