Cooperstown calling managers for next year

Well, today the Hall of Fame announces its latest Veterans Committee picks for induction. This is an especially interesting day for me, because the organization will announce what managers go in, and I just wrote a book on managers: Evaluating Baseball’s Managers.

This also allows for a classic bit of baseball fan role playing: What would I do if I had a vote? I’ll limit myself to only managers, as those are the guys in whom I’m most interested.

Let’s see, there are eight managers on the Hall of Fame ballot (technically, it’s nine, but Hank O’Day is on for his umpiring, not his brief and underwhelming managerial career). Really, all eight are pretty good candidates. How many/few a person votes for really says more about the voter and how much of a big/small Hall supporter one is.

Looking at the list, my personal pick for the best is Whitey Herzog. He had such a distinct offensive philosophy that people named it after him: Whiteyball. Herzog implemented his philosophy of steals, defense and strong bullpen pitching in two cities and had tremendous success in both places. Though he won only one world title, he took his team to the postseason a slew of times and lost two World Series that went the full seven games. As an added bonus, it’s worth noting he served as general manager for the Cardinals. There’s a reason that squad was more extreme than Kansas City in its Whiteyball tendencies. Combine general manager and managerial legacy, and he’s got a great case.

I’d also support Billy Martin, albeit with some reservations. In my book I said Martin was like a light bulb with too much voltage running through it. He’d make a team shine as brightly as possible, but then blow out spectacularly after a short while. He oversaw drastic improvements with every team he took over, but never lasted 450 games in any of his managerial stints. Sometimes, he clearly hurt a team’s long-term prospects, as was the case with the 1980-82 Oakland A’s, whose bevy of young arms blew out from his overwork.

Still, I’d support Martin. The goal of baseball is simple: Win the dang world title. Martin put his teams in the best positions to do that. Sure, it would only be for a year or two, but windows don’t stay open forever, Martin or no Martin. And once a title has been won, flags fly forever. Please note four of Martin’s five teams made the postseason. Only the Rangers fell short, and he took them to second place.

Saying all this, I’m aware of one knock on Martin’s record. You know those flags that fly forever? Well, only one Martin team won a world title, the 1977 Yankees. Given my defense of Martin, that’s a legitimate knock on him. For myself, while I don’t think the playoffs are entirely a crapshoot, there is something of a crapshoot element coming into play—and Martin’s teams made the postseason in five of his nine full seasons as manager. (Well, that’s including strike-shortened seasons as full seasons.)

It gets harder to pick who is the most deserving candidate after that. At the other extreme, the managers at the bottom are Steve O’Neill and Tom Kelly. It isn’t fair to say “at the bottom” because that implies they were lousy managers. They weren’t—they just weren’t as good as all the other ones on the list. They’re Hall of Very Good-ers.

O’Neill is actually part of the answer to a great trivia question. In all baseball history, only two men lasted longer than five seasons with a winning record in every campaign. One was Joe McCarthy. Who is the other? It’s O’Neill, who won more games than he lost in each of his 14 full and partial seasons with four different clubs. (Al Lopez just misses this rarefied air because of some losing interim reigns in the late 1960s.)

It’s rather fitting then, that when Red Sox manager Joe McCarthy retired from the job in mid-1950, Boston tabbed O’Neill as his replacement. Naturally, the team had a winning record.

Though O’Neill’s teams were always good, they were rarely more than good. His teams never won more than 92 games and only claimed one pennant. That’s especially noteworthy because managers often had a greater level of authority over the franchise than than they do now. In his book on managers, Bill James noted that general managers initially concerned themselves with developing players via the farm system and gave the manager authority over veterans. James figures it wasn’t until the mid-century, when O’Neill’s career ended, that the modern lines of authority were clearly established.

Also notable about O’Neill’s career was its brevity. He lasted 1,879 games—fewer than Bill Virdon. Admittedly, one Cooperstown skipper, Billy Southworth, possessed an even shorter career, but then again Southworth won a slew of pennants. O’Neill is a bit lacking in both quality and quantity.

Tom Kelly was also a very good manager, but I wouldn’t put him in Cooperstown. He was great with his sort of player—someone who hit for average and didn’t strike out—but at times had trouble with any other sort of player. When David Ortiz came up, Kelly wanted him to shorten his swing and hit like everyone else.

That’s two yes votes and two no votes from me. The others I go back and forth on. I wouldn’t personally vote for any of them, but I wouldn’t be upset by their inductions either.

Danny Murtaugh, hired to run the Pirates four different times, is an ultimate borderliner. Bruce Markusen made a case for him here at THT last week, and it’s a good one. He won two world titles, possessed a career .540 winning percentage, went to the postseason five times and was always highly regarded within the game.

I have only one problem with his candidacy: career length. Look, I know I sound like a broken record as it’s the third time I’ve brought it up, but it’s still worth noting. Every 20th century Hall of Fame skipper except Billy Southworth lasted at least 2,400 games.

A comparative study on an unwritten rule of baseball.

That seems fairly reasonable, too. It’s about 15 seasons worth of games. It’s difficult for a player to make it with fewer than 15 years. Should it really be easier for a manager? I think managers are underrated as a whole, but I think it’s difficult for them to mean as much to a squad over 15 years as a star player does. A player usually has to be really good if Cooperstown calls despite a less than 15-year career.

I just can’t get behind Murtaugh for that reason. It’s tragic in some ways. His career was short not because he lacked talent, but because he had a weak heart. That’s why the Pirates kept pulling him out of the dugout time and again. They never fired him from the organization, just reassigned him to less stressful posts. Still, he didn’t have it.

Martin also falls under 2,400 games and Herzog just barely flies over it, but I can accept them because they both have a little something special. With Martin it was the unprecedented ability to improve a team immediately upon arrival. With Herzog it was also serving as general manager.

I go back and forth on Davey Johnson more than anyone else. He was a terrific manager. In the dozen times he ran a team for the entire campaign, his squad posted a winning percentage 11 times. They weren’t just sneaking over the .500 marker either—all 11 came in first or second place in their division with a winning record exceeding .530

Johnson’s career resembled Martin’s in two ways: His teams generally improved upon his arrival and he kept getting fired. He wasn’t as extreme as Martin in either tendency, but there is a similarity. The Mets, Reds, Orioles and Dodgers all fired Johnson—and only the Mets gave him a considerable stretch managing them.

For example, Johnson ran the Orioles for only two seasons. They hadn’t made the postseason in the previous dozen seasons, and hadn’t experienced back-to-back Octobers since the mid-1970s. The Orioles fired him anyway and haven’t returned to the postseason since. Something similar happened in Cincinnati.

I think Johnson had the ability and talent to be a Hall of Fame manager, but I’m not sure he actually had the Cooperstown career. His career was just a bit too short; it was actually a bit shorter (by 29 games) than that of Murtaugh. If I couldn’t support Murtaugh, I don’t see how I can support Johnson. In my mind, they’re largely yoked together; if one goes in, the other should. Both are legitimate candidates, but neither is overwhelmingly qualified. I have no problem with either going in, but wouldn’t personally vote for them. They are the borderline as far as I’m concerned.

That leaves Mauch and Grimm.

Mauch is an interesting case. He was widely hailed as a great manager when he worked, and from my own research he was great at nuances such as platoon advantage and double plays. However, he’s famous as having the longest career for a manager who never won a pennant, and didn’t even have a winning record.

I don’t blame him for not having a winning record. He was asked to run a series of under-talented teams. I do have serious problems with his not winning a pennant. While his teams by and large weren’t the best, he did have some quality squads, and they never quite got over the hump. If I had a ballot, I wouldn’t feel good about putting him in or leaving him out. Ultimately, though, I can’t give him the game’s highest honor.

An easy joke can be made about Grimm: He won three pennants with the Cubs, so he must have been brilliant! That said, no one at the time considered him brilliant. Yet his record is impressive. He not only won three pennants with the Cubs, but he did it at a time when—as noted already—managers had a bit more control over their rosters than they do now. Grimm also oversaw a youth movement with the Milwaukee Braves, in which virtually every young player under his care developed about as well as could have been hoped.

My own feeling is that Grimm’s managerial career just falls short. He either needed to last a little longer in the profession or have a bit more success when he lasted. He had 95 percent of a Cooperstown managerial career, but that isn’t quite enough.

Ultimately, the only managers I’d only vote for are Herzog and Martin, but the only ones I have a serious problem with are O’Neill and Kelly. It’s a solid ballot.

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