The Compelling Cooperstown Cases of Steinbrenner and Sweet Lou

This post is part of a series concerning the 2019 Today’s Game Era Committee ballot, covering executives, managers and long-retired players whose candidacies will be voted upon at the Winter Meetings in Las Vegas on December 9. Use the tool above to read the introduction and other installments. For an introduction to JAWS, see here. Several profiles in this series are adapted from work previously published at SI.com and Baseball Prospectus. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

2019 Today’s Game Candidate: Lou Piniella
Manager G W-L W-L% G>.500 Playoffs Pennants WS
Lou Piniella 3548 1835-1713 .517 122 7 1 1
AVG HOF Mgr 3648 1961-1687 .546 274 7 5 2.6
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Managerial averages computed by Cliff Corcoran based on 21 Hall of Famers inducted for 20th and 21st century managerial careers. See here.

Lou Piniella

“Sweet Lou” Piniella spent even more years managing in the majors (23, between 1986 and 2010) than he did playing the outfield (18, between 1964 and 1984). To both, he brought a flair for the dramatic and a fiery intensity — his dust-kicking, hat-stomping, base-throwing tirades became the stuff of legend — as well as tremendous baseball acumen. Like fellow Today’s Game candidate Davey Johnson, he won championships in both phases of his career, but his failure even to reach the World Series a second time as a manager cast a long shadow on every successive stop and could limit his chances for election.

A native of Tampa, Florida who was signed by the Indians as an amateur free agent in 1962, Piniella passed through the hands of the Senators, Orioles (for whom he played four games in 1964), Indians (again, with a brief 1968 cameo) and Pilots (in their lone spring training) before winning AL Rookie of the Year honors with the Royals in 1969. A high-average contact hitter who didn’t have a ton of patience or power (as his .291/.333/.409 line suggests), he was particularly potent as a lefty-masher on four pennant-winning Yankees teams, including their 1977 and 1978 championships.

He was also notoriously hot-tempered, known for breaking water coolers even before he arrived in the Bronx. “Yes, I had a bad temper,” Piniella said in 1974, his first spring as a Yankee. “I guess I was trying to succeed too much. I probably was trying to exceed my capabilities and was expecting perfection all the time. When I couldn’t reach it, I’d get mad at myself… Last year, they had a wire mesh screen around the water cooler at the new park in Kansas City so I couldn’t kick that one.”

As a left shoulder ailment limited Piniella’s playing time late in his career, he became the Yankees’ hitting coach in 1984, while still a reserve outfielder. By mid-June, he decided to retire as a player so as to take over first base coaching duties as well. In 1986, he became the team’s manager, that during an era when owner George Steinbrenner was eating managers for breakfast and lunch. Billy Martin, in his third of five stints managing the Yankees, had gone 91-64 in relief of Yogi Berra in 1985, as the Yankees finished second, but he was fired yet again, this time after a late-September brawl with pitcher Ed Whitson. Piniella’s Yankees won 90 games but finished second in 1986, 5.5 games behind the Red Sox, then slipped to fourth despite winning 89 games in 1987. When general manager Woody Woodward resigned following the season, Piniella spent half a year as the team’s GM before returning to the dugout in May, after Martin was canned yet again. Piniella himself was axed after the 1988 team finished with 85 wins. He had two years remaining on his contract, the first of which he spent in the Yankees’ TV booth.

Piniella returned to the dugout with the Reds, taking over as manager in November 1989 after Pete Rose received his lifetime ban for gambling. His first year was the most successful one of his managerial career. Driven by stars Barry Larkin and Eric Davis as well as the “Nasty Boys” bullpen of Norm Charlton, Rob Dibble, and Randy Myers, the Reds went 91-71, won the NL West (the Senior Circuit’s screwed-up geography somehow had both Cincinnati and Atlanta in the West and St. Louis and Chicago in the East) and the World Series, the last by sweeping the heavily favored A’s, the defending champions.

The Reds collapsed to just 74 wins in 1991, and while they rebounded to 90 in 1992, Piniella resigned at season’s end, just weeks after brawling with Dibble. His departure owed more to owner Marge Schott’s lack of support when Piniella was sued for defamation by umpire Gary Darling. Following the reversal of a home run call in a 1991 game, Piniella had claimed that Darling was biased; Schott refused to pay for a lawyer, forcing Piniella to do so out of his own pocket. The suit was eventually settled out of court and Piniella issued a statement of apology, retracting his comments and praising Darling and umpires in general. “But I got no backing,” he said of Schott, who by the time of his comments had been suspended for a year due to racially insensitive remarks. “It got in my craw. That was the big thing.”

Piniella wasn’t out of a job for long. In November 1992, he reunited with Woodward in Seattle, where the Mariners had finished with a winning record just once in 17 years. With young Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez, and later Alex Rodriguez, he oversaw the most successful stretch in franchise history. The Mariners finished above .500 in seven of his 10 seasons (1993-2002), making the playoffs four times (they’ve yet to return).

His 1995 team overcame a 12.5-game deficit to finish the lockout-abbreviated season tied with the Angels atop the AL West. The Mariners won the one-game tiebreaker, then beat the Yankees in a thrilling five-game Division Series that ended with Martinez bringing Griffey home with the winning run via The Double. The excitement of the moment helped generate the groundswell of support that secured the Mariners a new taxpayer-funded stadium within a week of the series’ end. Piniella won the first of his three Manager of the Year awards that year.

He took the Mariners back to the playoffs in 1997, 2000 (after Johnson and Griffey had been traded in advance of their free agency) and 2001 (after Rodriguez had departed via free agency). Fueled by the arrival of Ichiro Suzuki, the 2001 Mariners tied the major league record with 116 wins, and Piniella garnered his second Manager of the Year award. Yet his Mariners teams never advanced past the ALCS, falling at the hands of the Yankees in both 2000 and 2001. Often, they were limited by horrible bullpens, and Piniella made matters worse; the 1997-1999 units all finished with ERAs of 5.44 or above and totaled an AL-low 0.7 WAR over that span, squandering the last years of the Johnson/Griffey/Rodriguez nucleus.

After winning 93 games in 2002, Piniella, who still had one more year under contract, wanted to get home to Tampa to help care for his ailing mother. The Mariners obliged by trading him to the Devil Rays for two players. Though he guided the expansion team to its first 70-win season in 2004, the Devil Rays weren’t able to progress further, and he became frustrated by the team’s minimal payrolls. After agreeing to a buyout with one year remaining on his deal, he became the manager of the Cubs in October 2006, succeeding Dusty Baker.

With a cast led by Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano, and Carlos Zambrano (a man with an infamously hot temper of his own), Piniella guided the Cubs to back-to-back NL Central titles in 2007 and -08. He won his third Manager of the Year award in the latter year after leading the Cubs a league-high 97 wins, but in both of those seasons, Piniella’s squads were swept out of the Division Series. The Cubs declined to 83 wins in 2009, and in August 2010, with the health of his ailing mother again in mind, Piniella stepped down for the final time.

Because he managed for 21 full seasons plus two partial ones, Piniella ranks high in managerial counting stats. He’s 14th in games managed, third behind Gene Mauch and the still-active Bruce Bochy among skippers outside the Hall. Piniella is 16th in wins, trailing only Bochy, Mauch, and Baker among those not enshrined. He’s 13th in losses as well, with Mauch, Bochy and Jim Leyland the only unenshrined mangers ahead of him. Due in part to his time in Tampa Bay, he’s a modest 122 games above .500, 41st all-time; even if you wave off his time there (200-285, .412), he’d rank just 27th.

So the positives for Piniella’s case boil down to his longevity, a memorable run that legitimized major league baseball in Seattle, and one hell of a highlight reel for his tantrums. Those are offset by his lack of postseason success beyond 1990 — his teams won just three series in his final 18 full seasons — and a comparatively unexceptional winning percentage. Even if you exclude his lost-cause Devil Rays stint, his .533 would rank 30th among managers with at least 1,500 games.

Ultimately, Piniella’s case as a Hall of Fame manager rests more on longevity — which fellow candidates Johnson and Manuel lack – than it does sustained success. As I wrote when he stepped down in 2010, “In a world where [Whitey] Herzog and [Dick] Williams — two innovators who won multiple pennants, and made the playoffs more frequently without benefit of the wild card — needed a quarter of a century to gain election via the Veterans Committee, I just don’t see how Piniella has got enough to get into Cooperstown.”

George Steinbrenner

Often a bully and sometimes a buffoon, George Michael Steinbrenner III was unequivocally “The Boss,” and occasionally as unhinged as the British monarch with whom he shared both a name and a numeral. A football player at Williams College and an assistant coach at Northwestern and Purdue, he fully subscribed to Vince Lombardi’s “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” ethos, often failing to understand that running a baseball team on a daily basis required a more subtle touch and a deeper reserve of patience than his gridiron sensibility could muster.

Nonetheless, aside from Connie Mack and Walter O’Malley, no other owner in the history of baseball was as influential or successful over such a long period. Beyond O’Malley, who uprooted the Dodgers from Brooklyn, none provided his critics and detractors with more ammunition, or unified so many in their hatred. Steinbrenner spent much of his tenure as a cartoon villain, and was suspended from baseball by commissioners not once, but twice. Yet even in absentia, he had the foresight to embrace the dawn of the free agent era, and for all of his tyrannical meddling — hiring and firing 21 managers in his first 20 years, and burning through general managers at a similarly absurd clip — he stayed out of the way of what his baseball men built in his absences long enough to preside over four pennant winners and two world champions from 1976-1981, and six more pennants and four world champs from 1996-2003, adding one final championship in 2009, the year before his death.

And for all of his notorious bluster, Steinbrenner was a big softy at heart, quick to put the Yankees name behind charitable causes and to give players and other people in his organization second (and third, and fourth…) chances, just as he had received. In the end, he was the benevolent despot who restored the luster to the Yankees franchise, turning it into the most valuable property in professional sports at the time of his death, with an estimated worth of $1.6 billion. Now run by son Hal, its estimated worth has climbed to $4 billion as of March 2018 (both figures according to Forbes).

A shipbuliding magnate from Cleveland, Steinbrenner got his first taste of professional sports ownership with the Cleveland Pipers of the short-lived American Basketball League from 1960 to 1962; the league folded midway through its second season. He resurfaced in the world of sports when he led a group of investors that purchased the dilapidated Yankees — who hadn’t appeared in a World Series since 1964, or won since 1962 — from CBS in 1973 for about $10 million, $3.2 million less than CBS had paid in 1964. Initially, Steinbrenner pledged to keep his nose out of the team’s business, saying, “We plan absentee ownership as far as running the Yankees is concerned.” Soon enough, however, he was crowding out his fellow investors, starting with team president Mike Burke, who had run the Yankees during the CBS era and negotiated with the City of New York to renovate Yankee Stadium. “Nothing is more limited than being a limited partner of George,” minority owner John McMullen would later say.

Steinbrenner quickly ran afoul of baseball, pleading guilty in August 1974 to charges of making illegal contributions to Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign and of obstructing justice. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn suspended him for two years (later reduced to 15 months), during which time he exerted his influence via the direction of Gabe Paul, who, while still general manager of the Indians, had initially paired Steinbrenner and Burke. Desperate to restore glory to the franchise, Steinbrenner embraced the era of free agency, signing A’s ace Catfish Hunter to a five year, $3.35 million deal in December 1974, when A’s owner Charlie O. Finley failed to make an annuity payment in a timely fashion. He followed that by adding superstar slugger Reggie Jackson, Hunter’s ex-teammate, in November 1976 on a five-year, $3 million deal after arbitrator Peter Seitz’s landmark Messersmith-McNally decision kicked off the free agency era in earnest, and a year later added Goose Gossage via a six-year, $2.7 5 million deal — that despite the presence of reliever Sparky Lyle, who weeks earlier had won the AL Cy Young award.

Under manager Billy Martin, the Yankees won the pennant in 1976 but were swept in the World Series by the Big Red Machine. They beat the Dodgers the following year, with Jackson, “Mr. October,” tying the series record with five homers, three in the Game Six clincher. Amid so much turmoil that the team became known as “The Bronx Zoo” (not coincidentally the title of Lyle’s diary of that season), they repeated again in 1978, overcoming a 14-game mid-July deficit behind the Red Sox (whom they would beat in a Game 163 play-in) and a blowup between Martin and Jackson that led to the skipper’s dismissal after he said of the superstar and the owner: “The two men deserve each other. One’s a born liar, the other’s convicted.”

Fueled by more free agent signings, particularly those of Tommy John and Dave Winfield, the Yankees won the 1981 AL pennant, but lost a rematch with the the Dodgers. During the World Series, Steinbrenner injured his hand in what he claimed was a scuffle with two Dodger fans in the hotel elevator. Yet no police report was ever filed, no culprits ever found. Hmmm… As the Dodgers clinched in the Bronx, Steinbrenner issued a gauche public apology for his team’s performance, and a promise that plans to build a champion for 1982 would begin immediately.

Those plans did not come to fruition, as Steinbrenner’s profligate spending and meddling led to the team’s downfall. Prospects were swapped for over-the-hill veterans who flourished elsewhere while the Yankees, despite winning 89 games or more four times from 1983-1987, with a high of 97 in 1985, failed to win another AL East flag for more than a decade. After souring on Winfield (whom he nicknamed “Mr. May”), Steinbrenner tried to escape his 10-year contract by hiring a shady small-time gambler, Howard Spira, to dig up dirt. When commissioner Fay Vincent learned of the plot in 1990, he banned Steinbrenner from baseball for life, just over a year after President Ronald Reagan had pardoned Steinbrenner for his Nixon-era transgressions.

The ban didn’t last; Vincent reinstated Steinbrenner as of March 1, 1993, just before being ousted by the other owners. While he remained as feared as ever, Steinbrenner stayed out of the way of what general manager Gene Michael — whom he had already hired and fired as manager and GM in the early 1980s — had done during his absence. Michael curbed the team’s tendency to swap prospects, sowing the seeds of the forthcoming dynasty by astute drafting and amateur free agent signings such as “the Core Four” of Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Derek Jeter, and Jorge Posada, not to mention a brilliant deal that sent Roberto Kelly to Cincinnati for Paul O’Neill and freed up center field for Bernie Williams. He also hired Buck Showalter to manage the club. Showalter’s four-season tenure ran through 1995, when the Yankees reached and were ultimately eliminated from their first postseason appearance in 14 years — at the hands of Piniella’s Mariners — was the longest on Steinbrenner’s watch thus far.

Michael was shifted into an advisory role after 1995, while Showalter departed. Steinbrenner hired Bob Watson as GM, and Watson’s choice as manager was Joe Torre, a former National League MVP who in 14 seasons of managing the Mets, Braves, and Cardinals had won just one division title and produced a .470 winning percentage. The tabloids derided the choice of “Clueless Joe,” but Torre was more than up to the task of managing both the team and the Boss. The Yankees beat the Braves in the 1996 World Series, kicking off a 12-year run that included 10 division titles, six pennants, and four championships, earning him a spot in Cooperstown in 2014.

Steinbrenner’s persona as a benevolent despot emerged during this time in the form of his repeated lampooning on Seinfeld, with series creator Larry David giving voice to the owner’s long and often petty diatribes. His soft, paternalistic side revealed itself in the multiple second chances given to Steve Howe, Dwight Gooden, and Darryl Strawberry, all of whom had battled substance abuse problems. While attaching the Yankees’ name to charities, he bristled at the thought that they should include his competitors. “I would sooner send $1 million to save the whales than send it to the Pittsburgh Pirates” he told his fellow owners.

With the Yankees restored to the top of the heap, Steinbrenner withstood the temptation to sell the team (at various times, Donald Trump and Cablevision both expressed interest) or move it to the suburbs or Manhattan’s West Side. Whatever the legerdemain it took to build the $1.5 billion “House That Ruthlessness Built” next door to “The House That Ruth Built,” he ultimately understood that the Bronx was a key part of the Yankees’ brand, as was the big-dollar spending that brought in free agents Mike Mussina, Jason Giambi, Mark Teixeira, and CC Sabathia, and led to trades for Alex Rodriguez, Roger Clemens, and Kevin Brown. Though he chafed at the credit that Torre and GM Brian Cashman, who took the reins in 1998 at the tender age of 30 after rising through the front office ranks, received, and retained a semi-anonymous cabal of Tampa advisors who often undercut the Bronx brass, he finally ceded control of daily operations to sons Hal and Hank in late 2007. That chain of events, which was followed by Torre’s departure when the team was eliminated from the playoffs, led to Steinbrenner receding from the public eye.

Ultimately, the indomitable owner’s legacy is a mixed and complicated one. Neither a saint nor a pure font of evil, he understood that nothing drove financial success the way winning did. He won more often than any owner of his era, and rebuilt the Yankees into the most valuable property in baseball. For all of his transgressions, you can’t even begin to tell the story of a substantial stretch of baseball history without him. Unlike the eight other candidates I’ve reviewed on the Today’s Game ballot thus far, he’d have my vote. But as he came nowhere close to election with either the 2010 Veterans Committee or the 2017 Today’s Game ballots, he’s hardly a lock this time around.

We hoped you liked reading The Compelling Cooperstown Cases of Steinbrenner and Sweet Lou by Jay Jaffe!

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Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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sadtrombone
Member
sadtrombone

Yeah, I don’t really see Lou Piniella as a Hall of Famer. We’re not talking about a guy who (as far as I remember) had a lasting influence on how the game was played. We’re not talking about Earl Weaver or Whitey Herzog here.

I don’t really have an issue with Steinbrenner in the Hall of Fame, in the same way that I kind of think Bo Jackson should be in the Hall of Fame. How can you have a baseball museum without him? But it does seem a little strange that he would be inducted on the Today’s Game ballot, when he was literally absent from the game at the beginning of it and played a very much reduced role in everything once he returned.

emh1969
Member
emh1969

Yeah, I’m really confused as to how Pinella has a “compelling case” whereas Davey Johnson “comes up sort”. Sure Pinella has more career wins but Johnson has a far better winning percentage and was considered to be the better manager. Not sure either of them belongs but I’d definitely take Johnson over Pinella.

sadtrombone
Member
sadtrombone

I think the manager slots are tough to evaluate. I think everyone agrees that if you win as many games as Sparky Anderson or Bobby Cox that you’re in. Beyond that threshold, I think you have to have a lasting influence on the way the game was played. Herzog and Weaver definitely qualify. I don’t think Piniella really does that.

Interestingly, Davey Johnson has the highest winning % among managers with 1,000 wins who is not on the HoF. I do not remember much about him, beyond the fact that he managed a bunch of really successful teams. Did he do anything aside from (obviously) win a lot of games?

emh1969
Member
emh1969

He was ahead of the curve in terms of incorporating analytics, dating back to his playing days. He has a degree in math and taught himself computer programming so he could crunch numbers. In many ways, he was the first “SABR manager”.

sadtrombone
Member
sadtrombone

Interesting! I just googled a little bit more about him and apparently he really took notes when he was with Earl Weaver, who was the guy who I always considered the “first one.” Sounds like that at the minimum, Johnson took it to the next level, and that’s enough for me.

Johnston
Member
Johnston

Weaver was the first one; Johnson was a disciple.

emh1969
Member
emh1969

Guess it depends on how you define “SABR manager”> Weaver was well-known for his use of date but I don’t think there was any analysis involved. Johnson, it seems, actually analyzed data in an attempt to make better decisions.

BTW, in 2013, Bill James wrote an article in which he developed a point system for determining HOF managers. The five criteria he used were: 1) winning games, 2) winning a high percentage of games, 3) winning championships, 4) winnings World Series, 5) winning more games than expected. His conclusion was that only 1 of the current 30 managers had a HOF resume: Davey Johnson.

Johnston
Member
Johnston

Emh, you need to read Weaver’s book. He analyzed.