Diminished power of managers in baseball echoes Cubs’ early-’60s ‘college of … – Los Angeles Times
On Dec. 21, 1960, readers who turned to the sports section of the Chicago Daily Tribune found on its cover an usual baseball article.
Their beloved Cubs were taking a turn toward baseball analytics, only it wasn’t called that yet.
“The Cubs have installed an IBM system which gives instantaneous information on all players on National League rosters,” the article said. It was a brief mention in a story about an even bolder experiment by the club.
The banner headline: “CUBS TO USE 8 COACHES NEXT SEASON!”
Team owner Philip K. Wrigley had decided that using one manager was inefficient. Instead, he’d rotate his coaching staff throughout the season.
As the Dodgers prepare to hire a manager to preside over baseball’s most expensive roster, the game is undergoing its biggest shift in game management philosophy since what became known as the Cubs’ “College of Coaches.”
The analytical league Wrigley perhaps foresaw has blossomed. The Dodgers, whose front-office staff mushroomed last year with the addition of president of baseball operations Andrew Freidman and General Manager Farhan Zaidi, supplied Manager Don Mattingly with a wealth of information.
The power has shifted from the dugout to the front office. At the World Series last week, New York Mets Manager Terry Collins spoke about how even the training of minor league managers had changed. He raised a question: who is making the decisions?
“Lineups are being written for them,” Collins said. “This guy has to pitch today, at this amount. You can’t pinch-hit, because these guys have got to hit the whole game.
“They don’t manage any more.”
A modern manager, Collins noted, is expected to sacrifice some authority. How much still isn’t always clear.
Wrigley began probing the question after another dismal season. He’d been cultivating a analytics-style operation since 1938, when he began assembling the Cubs’ “Experimental Laboratories,” and the returns were just starting to come in.
(For example, the Cubs once offered a raise to a pitcher who had a record of 14-18 — because he had a 2.55 earned-run average, and Wrigley’s numbers crunchers told him run prevention was more important than record.)
By late 1960, Cubs employees were busy readying the new IBM system. Wrigley had grand plans.
“Instead of going fishing or hunting after the season ends, they’ll be in the office tabulating and working on a scientific system which we hope will be reflected in winning teams,” Wrigley said.
There was no time to waste: the Cubs hadn’t won a World Series in 52 years.
Wrigley saw one area particularly in need of disruption. Managers, Wrigley told reporters, were like “dictators.”
“Heavens,” Wrigley said, “we don’t need a dictator.”
Wrigley went with “head coaches,” who took turns running the team and rotated through the organization, even to the minor leagues.
At the time, Tommy Lasorda was a first-year scout for the Dodgers. The idea, he thought, echoing other traditionalists, had no chance.
“What are you going to do, have four chefs make the soup?” he said recently. “Every one of them would make it different.”
Wrigley considered it “business efficiency applied to baseball.”
It was a disaster almost immediately.
A month and a half into the 1961 season, the Cubs had gone through four head coaches — one for two stints — none with a winning record, and the players were frustrated. The team leaders, Don Zimmer and Richie Ashburn, called a meeting.
“Every time they named a new head coach, we had a different lineup,” Ashburn recalled to the Chicago Tribune. “The players started rooting for certain guys to be named head coach because each guy had his own favorites.”
The Cubs lost 90 games that season, and 103 the next.
Ned Colletti, the former Dodgers general manager and current senior advisor, was 7 years old, living in Chicago and experiencing his first baseball memories that first season. The problem, he said, was confusion.
“People were constantly asking, ‘Well, who’s in charge?'” Colletti said.
Fairly or not, similar questions surrounded Mattingly’s final season with the Dodgers, with one major difference: the Dodgers won 92 games.
After his departure, Mattingly was asked what role the increased front-office involvement had in his decision to leave. Mattingly said he felt “very comfortable” about the input he received.
“I think the information is really good,” Mattingly said. “Do I agree 100% on all of it? Uh, probably not.”
Freidman and Zaidi declined through a club spokesman to be interviewed for this story, but Colletti cautioned that the Cubs’ experiment bore little resemblance to the environment today.
“I think it’s a totally different dynamic,” he said. “If you were saying that a team in 2016 was going to have five different managers or head coaches going through it, then there might be reason to look at it closer.”
That’s unlikely. Even Wrigley learned his lesson.
By late 1965, when Wrigley picked Leo Durocher to manage the team, one quality stood out.
“The primary reason,” Wrigley said, “is that he’s a take-charge guy.”
Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand