Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Babe's Ambitions and Superstar Players as Managers in the Roaring 'Twenties

Babe Ruth's now-97 year old daughter, Julia Ruth Stevens, reminds us that The Bambino was disappointed and embittered by not being given the opportunity to manage in the big leagues. With contemporary great players the likes of Speaker, Cobb, Sisler, Collins, and Hornsby all becoming player-managers, the Babe's aspiration to manage at the same time he was bashing home runs was not an unrealistic expectation.

The Babe's Ambitions and Superstar Players as Managers in The Roaring 'Twenties 

In a recent New York Times article on the Babe's daughter  participating in the century anniversary of St. Petersburg as the site of the first spring training by a major league team in Florida,, she is quoted as saying, "He really thought he deserved to manage. Daddy knew baseball.  He always felt he would be a better manager than Joe McCarthy.  He always talked about that."

While still in the prime of his career, but with the end horizon in view, the Babe aspired to replace Yankee manager Miller Huggins as a player-manager, both well before as well as immediately after chronic ill health cost Huggins his life as the 1929 season came to a close.  Ruth, however, while certainly a blessing in the Yankee line-up, had been a cursed thorn in Huggins' butt. The defining celebrity of the Roaring 'Twenties, a star with unprecedented magnitude, Ruth had few inhibitions about doing whatever he wanted, team discipline be damned; was a constant challenge to manage; and persistently undermined Huggins' authority in the clubhouse, either deliberately or by the example of his actions.  His behavioral history undermined any prospect of his managing the Yankees in the Jacob Ruppert regime, although Ruppert was not prepared to part with the Babe's ruthian clouts.  Anyway, after one year with former Yankee pitching star Bob Shawkey at the helm, Ruppert turned to Joe McCarthy as manager, and it was McCarthy whose teams consolidated the greatness of the forever Yankee dynasty.  Ruth remained with the Bronx Bombers through the 1934 season, making little effort to hide his disdain for Marse Joe, the man who would arguably become the greatest manager in history.

By the time of Huggins' tragic death, Ruth had seen most of the biggest-name big-name players in baseball, besides himself, become player-managers:
  • Tris Speaker, the Cleveland Indians' outstanding center fielder, was 31 and probably the best player in the game at the time he was named manager of the Tribe in mid-July 1919.  The next year, in his first full season in charge, Speaker guided the Indians to their first American League pennant, and the World Series to boot. Speaker was one of the earliest proponents of platooning, using a lefty-righty starting line-up split at both outfield positions he himself did not play (which was center field) when the Indians won their pennant in 1920, and during the World Series he used a platoon at first base.  Unproven accusations that he had conspired to fix the outcome of a baseball game in 1919 forced Speaker to step down as manager after the 1926 season.
  • Ty Cobb, the Babe's rival at the time for the sobriquet, "best player in baseball history," and who fueled the fires of their "rivalry" by his disdain for the power game, became player-manager of the Detroit Tigers in 1921 at the age of 34.  With a weaker team, Cobb was less successful than Speaker as a player-manager; his Tigers were in realistic contention for a pennant only once--in 1924, when they were tied for first as late as August 10 before losing four of five to the eventual World Series champion Washington Nationals doomed their prospects.  Cobb was caught up in the same gambling investigation as Speaker and had to give up his managerial reins after the 1926 season.  Both Cobb and Speaker continued on as players for two more years, with different teams.
  • The St. Louis Browns named their star first baseman, 31-year old George Sisler, player-manager in 1924.  Sisler managed the Browns for three years and continued on for another year as just a player after being relieved of his managerial responsibilities.  The Browns were a bad team, but Sisler acknowledged that he had not been ready to be a manager.
  • Second baseman Eddie Collins, although 37 years old, was still one of the best players in the game and widely acclaimed as a brilliant baseball mind when he became player-manager of the Chicago White Sox toward the end of the 1924 season.  He managed a White Sox team desperately trying to recover from being torn apart by the Black Sox scandal for two full seasons before being let go as both manager and player.
  • And then there was Rogers Hornsby, who deserves a paragraph (make that two) of his own.  
Hornsby was 29 and in the midst of his second Triple Crown season in four years, playing second base, when the St. Louis Cardinals made him player-manager early in the 1925 season, freeing up Branch Rickey to devote full time to his general manager responsibilities.  The next year, Hornsby managed the Cardinals to their first first-ever NL title in a tight pennant race decided by two games, and to a stunning World Series triumph over the Yankees in which "Rajah" got to tag out the Babe himself on an attempted steal for the final out of the Fall Classic.  Good feelings quickly dissipated, however, and rather than meet Hornsby's demands for a new three-year contract, the Cardinals traded him to the Giants for second baseman Frankie Frisch. After a year in New York playing for John McGraw, Hornsby was traded to the Boston Braves where he was player-manager  in 1928, but the next year found him in Chicago, where he replaced McCarthy as manager in the final days of the 1930 season.

An undeniably great player, Hornsby was an antagonistic man--definitely not a people person--who alienated his players (and bosses) everywhere he managed.  Hornsby wanted his players to emulate how he did things to prepare for games; he was easily frustrated and quick to anger when players didn't meet his expectations; he was unable to get players to buy into his leadership because he displayed no particular wisdom; he was insulting, crude, and disrespectful.  The Cubs' ownership should have been alert to Hornsby's leadership shortcomings, if for no other reason than because of how he did his deliberate best in 1930 to undermine McCarthy, who had managed the team to the NL pennant in 1929.  Rogers Hornsby within two years of being named player-manager was let go and replaced as manager by first baseman Charlie Grimm in the heat of the 1932 pennant race.  Grimm led the Cubs to the World Series, where they ran into . . . the Babe, and his famous "called shot" of a home run.  

Babe Ruth almost certainly would have regarded being named manager as a validation of his own greatness. To not be named manager when the opening presented itself--as it did with Huggins' death--might well have been perceived by the Babe as disrespectful of his place in the baseball pantheon.  He certainly believed he would have been a successful manager, perhaps even a great manager--especially if he got to manage a team as loaded with talent as the New York Yankees.  (Ironically, 1930 would have been a less than auspicious year for Ruth to break in as a manager, let alone a player-manager, because the Philadelphia Athletics were a much better team than the Yankees and in the midst of three straight pennants.)

As time ran out on Ruth's career in the 1930s, the Babe was certainly aware (and envious) of other star players becoming managers--Bill Terry (Giants, 1931), Grimm (Cubs,1932), Frisch (Cardinals, 1933), and Pie Traynor (Pirates, 1934) in the National League; Joe Cronin (Nationals, 1933) and Mickey Cochrane (Tigers, 1934) in the American League.  Ruth went to the Boston Braves in 1935 believing that he was in line to soon become their manager.  That was not to be.  Nor was it to be in Brooklyn, where he coached in 1938, but come 1939 the Dodgers' new manager was active shortstop Leo Durocher--a former Yankee teammate of the Babe's--not Ruth.  Said Mrs. Julia Ruth Stevens when explaining the sadness that overtook the Babe after he retired as a player: "Daddy really wanted to manage."

See also an earlier post, "Player-Managers in the 20th Century:  A Cursory History":

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