Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Judge and the Coach in Dan Jennings' Rearview

The Miami Marlins' decision to name General Manager Dan Jennings as their new field managerwithout the word "interim" as a qualifier to his positionis both highly unusual and virtually unprecedented in the major leagues since before the Great Depression because he has absolutely zero experience managing, coaching, or even playing the game at a professional level. None. You have to go back to former-Judge Emil Fuchs, who happened to be owner of the Boston Braves, in 1929 and to first-rate college football coach Hugo Bezdek from 1917 to 1919 to find the last major league managers of any consequence without a players resume even in the minor leagues.

The Judge and The Coach in Dan Jennings' Rearview

Dan Jennings played college baseball, but has no professional experience in a baseball uniform at any level as either a player, coach, or manager. But he clearly loves the game and has made it his livelihood since the mid-1980s, evaluating talent as a scout and executive involved in player development. Jennings joined the Marlins front office in 2002 and was promoted to General Manager in 2013. He was largely responsible for putting together the team he is now managing. According to the Marlins' President of Baseball Operations, the strengths Jennings brings to the position, besides being intimately familiar with the skills and abilities of Miami's players, include his energy, ability to motivate, and being an inspirational leader.

Is that enough? Because, while much has been made with regard to recent new managers having no managing experience at any level, it has always been an implicit cardinal rule that major league managers have experience as at least having played professional baseball

Having played the game, even if never making it out of the minor leagues, is taken for granted as essential for any manager to establish credibility with his players. Otherwise they could not possibly understand the experience, which is founded on struggle and failure. Managers who never played at the major league level such as Hall of Fame skippers Joe McCarthy (15 years as a minor league infielder) and Earl Weaver (14 years as a minor league infielder) had the respect of their players in big league dugouts precisely because they had played the game professionally, knew first-hand how difficult it is to succeed, and had mastered the nuances of strategy and the ebb and flow of seasons.

Not counting Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner's one-day vanity stint as manager of his team at the very end of the 1977 season(the Braves lost their 101st game of the year, 6-2, under his managerial acumen)we must go back all the way to 1929 to find a manager with any appreciable time in the role who had never played professional baseball, let alone coached or managed. He was a much earlier Braves' owner, when the team was still in Boston, by name of Emil Fuchs. Emil Fuchs was better known as "Judge" Fuchs, because, well, that's what he wasan attorney who was a magistrate in New York City for four years in the 'teens, got close to John McGraw and became the New York Giants' lawyer, and who was persuaded by McGraw to put in a bid to buy the NL team in Boston before the 1923 season got under way.

After six years with the Braves getting progressively worse, Fuchs decided to take the top step of the dugout for himself. He had gone through four managers, all who had played the game, including star Hall of Fame shortstop Dave Bancroft and Rogers Hornsby, whose greatness as a player needs no introduction. The 1928 Braves had been terrible under the controversial Hornsby, who was traded to the Cubs after the season, giving Fuchs reason to believe he couldn't do any worse.

His one year at the helm did not go so well. The 1929 Braves did lose five fewer games, but finished dead last in the National League on the short side of 98 games, 10 games behind the seventh-place Reds and 43 games back of Joe McCarthy's Cubs, who benefited greatly from Hornsby's presence in the batting order. For whatever it's worth, Fuchs did enjoy being the manager when his team was at the top of the NL heap 13 games into the season, but thereafter was a disaster. For 1930, Fuchs hired a real manager to take over the Bravesa gentleman by name of Bill McKechnie, one of baseball's all-time great managers.

Before Fuchs, the last manager of any consequence to have not played, coached, or managed baseball at any professional level was Hugo Bezdek. 

Bezdek is historically remembered for being a great college football coach in the 1910s and 1920s. In 1917, while coaching the University of Oregon football team, Bezdek was also the West Coast scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates. After the Pirates started the season losing 40 of their first 60 games, Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss called upon Bezdek, with no prior professional baseball experience of any kind, to take over at Forbes Field. He didn't do that badly. After finishing up a dismal season, the Pirates were 65-60 in the World War I-shortened 1918 season and 71-68 in 1919 under Bezdek, finishing fourth both years. Once the baseball season was over, Bezdek also coached football both years at Penn State, about 135 miles east of Pittsburgh, before returning full-time to what he did bestcoaching college footballin 1920, remaining at Penn until 1930.

Baseball pundits have taken notice that teams in very recent years appear quite willing to take a chance on youngish guys who have not managed at any level before, observing that this indicates a change from thinking about managers as masterminds of game-situations in the dugout to thinking about how they handle the outside world as well as the dynamics of the clubhouse. That was true of Brad Ausmus, Robin Ventura, and Bryan Price when they became first-time major league managers last year, and Paul Molitor, Kevin Cash, and Craig Counsell this season. All except Price played in The Big Time, and Price pitched in the minor leagues. Should Dan Jennings be successful in the dugout, he might be at the forefront of a new paradigm for major league managers.

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