Evaluating Baseball's Managers
[Editor's Note: Chris Jaffe, writer for The Hardball Times, has written a new book, “Evaluating Baseball’s Managers.” The commentary below is the introductory essay to EBM’s Chapter 5, which is titled “Rise of the Fundamentalists, 1893-1919.”]
The importance of managers peaked at the turn of the century. They inhabited a specific period in the evolution of baseball between two crucial metamorphoses of the game. First, in the late nineteenth century, field generals like Gus Schmelz and Ned Hanlon caused the rise of the modern manager and the extinction of the old business manager. By placing a premium of the preparation of players before contests and handling strategy during them, the position of manager came into its own. A generation later, the rise of the front office diminished the manager’s position by serving as a rival power source within the franchise. Between these transformations, managerial power in the sport crested. Managers ascended into the ranks of ownership with greater frequency than at any other time in baseball history, as there were fewer steps between themselves and owners. Even those who did not own a share of the club frequently had considerable autonomy. When John McGraw became Giants manager, he told the owners which players to keep or remove from the roster, indicating who called the shots for that franchise. Not all managers wielded such authority in this era, and many held considerable power in the future, but they had their strongest opportunity to control the entire franchise at the turn of the century.
Managerial power also reached its zenith because coaching was more important in this period than any other. Old time baseball is often remembered as a glory era, when players dedicated themselves to the craft of the game in a way that modern players with their supposedly softer attitudes never could. Though this attitude is very frequent in the modern day, ideas that the old-timers were better, wiser, and more dedicated are as old as the game itself.
People look at John McGraw and his devotion to those precious fundamentals. He ordered his players come to the park to practice and work out for several hours every day, making the athletes perform precisely in accordance with his formidable will. Other managers, like Frank Chance, made a similar fervent push for sound ball. Chance’s Cubs had a well-earned reputation as the sharpest players in the league.
However, not only was the deadball era far from being the golden era of fundamentals, but the evidence used to make it seem like a Mecca of proper execution are the very facts that indicate otherwise. John McGraw did not want his players practicing constantly because they were so committed, but because those who earned a spot in major league baseball commonly displayed poor fundamentals. The book Crazy ‘08 by Cait Murphy provides an interesting window into baseball during the 1908 NL pennant race. Despite focusing on teams that diligently practiced their basics – McGraw’s Giants and Chance’s Cubs – examples of shoddy play litter the book. It was not a matter of errors; the gloves and conditions of the day made muffed grounders understandable. The problems went deeper. Virtually every game contained at least one boneheaded play that could not be blamed on the conditions. Flies landed between fielders. A base runner would be doubled off on a pop up. An outfielder would misplay a grounder for an inside-the-park home run. These plays still happen, but not nearly as often. If the Cubs and Giants played like that, imagine how the doormats played. There were also some extremely smart plays, but the floor for proper conduct was much lower in 1908.
It seems strange that teams that practiced so religiously played so poorly, but think for a second. Much of what is now received wisdom was still being worked out. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, players slowly began figuring out how to work together, or back each other up. For example, what should a catcher do when a base runner is caught in a run-down between first and second? Where should the shortstop go when the runner on first heads for third on a single to right? People are not born knowing the answers.
Look at it from the point of view of someone born in 1879 earning a roster slot in 1900. He grew up in a world where even the best players at the highest levels were still learning the core basics. It did not trickle down to Iowa’s cornfields or Pennsylvania’s coal mines overnight. Neither TV nor radio existed to teach him how the pros acted. Odds were very good he had never seen a big league game, and may not know anyone who has. Sandlot baseball has always been self-regulating, but there is usually at least some fundamental knowledge for kids to rely on. When he starts playing semipro ball, his manager was likely another player, probably under 30 years old himself. That man hopefully has some exposure to the basics being threshed out, but that was not guaranteed. Even if the skipper had basic knowledge of fundamentals, perhaps he cannot coach well. Depending on the club’s finances, he might be a business manager. If a kid could hit or possessed a strong arm, he would receive playing time, no matter how ignorant he was of fundamentals.
Thus you end up with the following story told by baseball historian Fred Stein. In 1897, a rawboned young buck called Honus Wagner began playing for the Louisville Colonels. His manager, a not yet 25-years-old Fred Clarke, told the kid to “lay one down” in his next at bat. Instead, Wagner hit a home run. Appreciative of the result but curious as to why the rookie ignored his instructions to bunt, Clarke asked Wagner what happened. Shamefacedly, the future Hall of Famer shortstop admitted he had never heard the phrase “lay one down” before. He had no idea what his manager was talking about. This was the situation Clarke, McGraw, and Chance contended with.
Fundamentals first have to be developed. Then they diffuse. Next, their instruction becomes institutionalized. Once the lessons become second nature to one generation, the next wave can be fully and immediately immersed in them. Nowadays, high schoolers are better versed in solid fundamentals than many big leaguers a century ago. After enough years and decades go by, fundamentals are so ingrained even Little Leaguers learn them, and you assume that everyone getting paid to play the game knows them by heart. Even a poor kid from the Dominican Republic has access to more knowledgeable adults and coaches than was the case for an 1890s Wisconsin farm boy.
This might oversell the point. At SABR’s annual convention in 2007, I heard Cait Murphy talk about what she learned from researching her book, and she was surprised at how advanced the level of play sometimes was. Examples of intelligent play existed – for instance the Cubs had worked out an impressive system of defensive signals amongst each other. However, such plays coincided with embarrassing miscues, as the floor for acceptable play was quite low. A wide discrepancy existed in the quality of fundamental ball played in these years. The more advanced examples of shrewd gamesmanship were often the result of major league managers instilling those values into their charges.
This explains why coaching fundamentals mattered so much for this generation of managers. The basic ideas of how to play had been worked out, now it was a time to diligently instruct them to the players. McGraw, Chance, and their ilk focused on the fundamentals because their players so sorely lacked knowledge that these pointers could significantly improve squads.
A century later, in his bestseller Moneyball, Michael Lewis introduced the phrase “market inefficiency” to baseball fans. He argued the 2002 A’s won 103 games despite a low payroll because they realized the baseball world undervalued the importance of on-base percentage. By exploiting this gap between reality and perception, A’s GM Billy Beane made his team a winner. A century earlier, the market inefficiency was fundamentals. The best managers, such as McGraw and Chance, were those who could transform raw clumps of talent into majestic creations. One should not underestimate how important sound play was back then. In the early twentieth century some teams made 100 fewer errors a year than their rivals. Combined with improved base running, solid mental play, and all those other little things, proper fundamentals were worth many wins.
Chris Jaffe is an instructor of history and a columnist for the The Hardball Times. He lives in Schaumburg, Illinois. For more information about Chris Jaffe and Evaluating Baseball’s Managers, visit the author’s website.