Will baseball ever see another player-manager?

Will baseball ever see another player-manager?
June 11, 2014, 1:15 pm
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The night he (Pete Rose) broke Ty Cobb’s hits record, he didn’t arrive at the ballpark wondering if he’d be in the lineup. He’s the guy who wrote it out.
Andrew Baggarly

Bruce Bochy retired from playing in 1987 and became the Padres' manager in 1995. (AP)

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SAN FRANCISCO – Matt Williams won three Gold Gloves, he made four All-Star teams and he spent 10 seasons rubbing his chin against his sleeve and striking a fearful home run pose in a Giants uniform.

He weighed something around 205 muscular pounds. 

Williams is back in San Francisco this week, for the first time as a major league manager. His Washington Nationals are atop the NL East and his players are raving about the environment he has created.

He still weighs something around 205 muscular pounds.

Williams is 48 and it’s been a decade since he last played in a major league game for the Arizona Diamondbacks, so throwing batting practice is the only way he’ll break a sweat between the lines. But Williams represents something of a shift in how baseball’s field bosses are being cultivated and hired.

Two years ago, three managers – the Rockies’ Walt Weiss, the White Sox’s Robin Ventura and the Cardinals’ Mike Matheny – were hired despite not having managed a single game in the professional ranks. (Their kids’ Little League and high school teams don’t count.)

Williams, although he has spent several years on Arizona’s big league coaching staff, had managed just five weeks as a fill-in at Double-A along with one season in the Arizona Fall League when the Nationals hired him.

This is all quite a change. Until very recently, managers had to work their way up the minor league ranks, just as players do.

Bruce Bochy spent his first year at short-season Spokane, then went to Riverside and High Desert and Double-A Wichita before the San Diego Padres gave him a spot on the major league coaching staff. Jim Leyland, an easy choice for the Hall of Fame, spent 10 years in the minors running clubs from Clinton to Montgomery to Lakeland to Evansville. Felipe Alou, a household name as a player, was a 12-year minor league skipper who only got his shot with Montreal as a 57-year-old. (Alou spent six years in West Palm Beach without a promotion from the A-ball club, a fact that spoke to the industry’s woeful minority hiring practices.)

But just as fashions come and go, so has baseball’s managerial breeding ground. Go back another generation and you’ll find that managers came from somewhere else entirely: right off the roster.

When you consider the novelty of a player-manager, you think of Pete Rose, who ran the Cincinnati Reds while still an active participant in 1984-86. The night he broke Ty Cobb’s hits record, he didn’t arrive at the ballpark wondering if he’d be in the lineup. He’s the guy who wrote it out.

But the player-manager wasn’t a novelty from the Dead Ball Era even through the Interbellum years. Incredibly, Cap Anson was a player-manager for 22 seasons. Ty Cobb managed the Tigers in his final six seasons as a player. You weren’t going to see Tinker-to-Evers-to a defensive replacement because first baseman Frank Chance was managing the Cubs when they won their last World Series in 1908. (He once suspended Tinker for using profanities. And Evers replaced Chance as manager in 1913).

Honus Wagner, Rogers Hornsby, Nap Lajoie, Cy Young, Christy Mathewson, Frankie Frisch, Joe Cronin, Mickey Cochrane, Bill Dickey – all Hall of Famers – were managers before their playing days were through. It must’ve been fun for the 1904 St. Louis Cardinals players to take orders from a field boss named Kid Nichols.

The Giants were a terrific example of how franchise greats would be phased out from the field to the dugout. Over a 16-year span in the 1930s and ‘40s, the New York Giants went 11 years with a player-manager: first Hall of Famer Bill Terry, then Hall of Famer Mel Ott.

It was Ott whom Leo Durocher directed his famous comment, “Nice guys finish last.” (Oh, and Durocher was a player-manager, too, for parts of five seasons, before the Lip confined himself to Brooklyn’s bench.)

The last great and successful player-manager was shortstop Lou Boudreau, who ran the Cleveland Indians from 1941-50 – he was promoted to manager when he was 25 years old -- and was the American League’s MVP in 1948 while leading the Tribe to their last World Series title.

You might have heard Boudreau’s name come up more often this season in articles and discussions about the rising prominence of defensive shifts in baseball. Boudreau was the first manager to employ one, against Ted Williams. For decades the stationing of the infielders to play a left-handed hitter to pull was known as “the Boudreau shift.”

But ever since baseball expanded to four divisions in 1962, the player-manager has gone the way of the Nash roadster. There have been just three aside from Rose: Frank Robinson with the Indians from 1975-76, Don Kessinger with the White Sox for four months in 1979 and Joe Torre for a grand total of 18 days before he hung up his cleats while managing the 1977 Mets. 

Torre had just two at-bats before he decided it was too much of a conflict to continue as a player. Kessinger was a part-timer as well, and later said he wished he had played himself more. He survived “Disco Demolition Night” but not a 46-60 record. When the White Sox fired him in August, a Triple-A manager named Tony La Russa was summoned to replace him.

Kessinger was the last AL player-manager. Oddly enough, it was the White Sox who almost brought back the trend. Then-GM Kenny Williams said before he selected Ventura in 2012, he gave serious consideration to hiring first baseman Paul Konerko as a player-manager. When the Rockies hired Walt Weiss, they also interviewed active player Jason Giambi.

The way this trend is shaping up, with less and less insistence on previous professional managing experience, there might be a player-skipper in baseball’s future once again.

Maybe if Don Mattingly gets himself run out of Los Angeles, the Dodgers can hire Matt Kemp. Let the inmates run the asylum. It can’t get much worse, can it?

That won’t happen, obviously. But whenever you see the start of a new trend or the revival of an old one, it always begins the same way.

As a novelty act.