A recent New York Times item mentioned that Pete Rose in 1986 was the last player-manager in big league baseball, "a position once fairly common." In fact, the Depression Years were the last time major league baseball embraced the concept of player-managers to any significant extent. This Baseball Historical Insight tracks the historical arc of player-managers in the 20th century, with a focus on the 1930s.
Player-Managers in the 20th Century: A Cursory History
Tyler Kepner, the New York Times' national baseball columnist, wrote as the middle story in his weekly "Extra Bases" feature, published Sunday August 25, that it has been 27 years since there has been a player-manager in major league baseball, but suggested "it seems possible that in the right situation, a player could serve both roles," especially since "hiring trends have favored younger managers with recent playing experience."
The last sustained "right situation" for there to be player-managers was during the Great Depression. With the economy in crisis, it made financial sense--especially for contending teams with higher payrolls--to pay an established player something extra to manage than to hire someone else as manager who would demand a competitive wage. The 1930s were in fact the last hurrah of the player-manager, and no other decade saw as many star players named manager of their teams. They included Hall of Famers second baseman Rogers Hornsby (who had already had two turns as a player-manager) taking over the Cubs in 1931; Giants' first baseman Bill Terry replacing The Great McGraw in 1932; shortstop Joe Cronin being named manager of the Nationals in 1933 and then the Red Sox in 1935; second baseman Frankie Frisch taking over the Cardinals in 1933; catcher Mickey Cochrane, the Tigers, and third baseman Pie Traynor, the Pirates in 1934; and catcher Gabby Hartnett, the Cubs, in 1938. Other notables who became player-managers in the 1930s included first baseman Charlie Grimm (Cubs, 1932); third baseman Jimmy Dykes (White Sox, 1934); and shortstop Leo Durocher (Dodgers, 1939).
It is telling of the times that from 1932 to 1938, eight of the fourteen teams to play in the World Series were led by player-managers--Grimm's 1932 Cubs; Terry's Giants and Cronin's Nationals in 1933; the Frisch Cardinals and Cochrane Tigers in 1934; Cochrane's Tigers again in 1935; Terry's Giants again in 1936; and the 1938 Cubs after Hartnett replaced Grimm. Actually, every pennant-winner during those years except for the Yankees, managed by veteran professional manager Joe McCarthy, was led by either a player-manager or a manager first hired when he was a regular in the starting line-up but who had just hung up his spikes (Grimm of the 1935 Cubs and Terry of the 1937 Giants). Of the 42 teams that made the World Series from 1911 to 1931, by contrast, only five (the 1912 Red Sox, 1920 Indians, 1924 and 1925 Nationals, and 1926 Cardinals) were led by player-managers. And since 1938, there has been only one team to make it to the Fall Classic with a player-manager at the helm--the 1948 Indians, whose manager, shortstop Lou Boudreau, had an epic playing season that made him the American League MVP.
Until the Depression, however, the two leagues had not been in sync when it came to player-managers--particularly star players as managers--since the first decade of the 20th century. Dating back to Jimmy Collins, Clark Griffith, Fielder Jones, and Napoleon Lajoie in that first decade, the American League more so than the National bought into the star-player-as-manager paradigm of player-managers. This was particularly true in the 1920s when the Indians from 1919 to 1926 (center fielder Tris Speaker), the Tigers from 1921 to 1926 (center fielder Ty Cobb), the Browns from 1924 to 1926 (first baseman George Sisler), and the White Sox in 1925 and 1926 (second baseman Eddie Collins) were managed by star players who were still among the best players in major league baseball. Nationals' second baseman Bucky Harris was the AL's only player-manager for at least two years who was not a star player, but he was an acknowledged leader on the field and a popular player in Washington. Speaker and Cobb were their league's most compelling player-managers because they had been and still were such great ball players. Cronin and Cochrane certainly fit that mold when they were named player-managers in the 1930s.
In contrast to the AL, until the Great Depression presented a strong economic argument for doing so, the National League had had very few player-managers--still less, star players as managers--with any longevity since Pirates' left fielder Fred Clarke and the Cubs' first baseman Frank Chance excelled as both players still in their prime and managers, each winning four pennants in their dual roles between 1901 and 1910. Beginning in the 'teens, instead of turning to star players on their teams to find new managers, National League franchises were ahead of AL teams in embracing baseball professionals who had long experience in the game and were renowned for their mastery of the many nuances of the game. This paradigm shift away from the star player as manager led to the National League producing some of the best managers in the first half of the 20th century--most notably George Stallings, Pat Moran, Bill McKechnie, and Mr. McCarthy (who, lest we forget, made his reputation as manager of the Cubs from 1926 to 1930, before he became Master of the Universe with the Yankees)--all of whom got their opportunity to manage after their playing days were over and none of whom were close to being star players. In the 1920s, only five NL players were made manager of their teams, and twice that player was the great second baseman Rogers Hornsby (who became manager of the Cardinals in 1925 and manager of the Braves in 1928). Hornsby's managerial manner was stressful for all concerned, however, and his longest stint as a player-manager was a year-and-a-half in St. Louis. Until the 1930s, Dave Bancroft from 1924 to 1927, by which time he was no longer an elite player, was the only National League player-manager to remain a regular in the starting line-up on the team he managed for as many as four years after Fred Clarke had retired as a player in 1911.
Once the exigencies of the Great Depression were nearing an end, player-managers became not only less prevalent but nearly an extinct species. Thereafter, each league would have only one player-manager of consequence--meaning he was still a star player for most of the years he was also his team's manager. They were Lou Boudreau, who managed the Cleveland Indians while playing shortstop from 1942 to 1950 (including leading the Indians to a pennant and their last World Series triumph on 1948), and Mel Ott, who managed the New York Giants while playing regularly in right field from 1942 to 1945. The few who became player-managers after them were all near the end of their playing days and did not impress as player-managers. The three most recent were Frank Robinson (who started himself as a designated hitter in only 52 games as player-manager of the Indians in 1975 and 1976); Joe Torre (who appeared in only three games after he took over as player-manager of the Mets in 1977, all as a pinch hitter); and Pete Rose (who started himself at first base in 194 of the 365 games he managed as a player-manager in Cincinnati from 1984 to 1986). Robinson and Torre went on to long careers as dugout-only managers, and Rose probably would have, too, were it not for his gambling addiction.
As an aside, Kepner notes in his article that Rose, pinch hitting, struck out in his final appearance as a player; it seems uncharacteristic that a pugnacious competitor like Pete Rose would allow his last major league at bat to be a strikeout, especially when there were still 45 games to be played in the 1986 season.