Only in baseball do the head coaches of the sport – the managers – still wear uniforms. It’s a throwback to the days when managers also served as players.
In the 19th century almost every team had a player/manager. Even as late as the 1940s, many teams hired star players to lead their teams. The Detroit Tigers first World Series championship team was led by catcher Mickey Cochrane. Superstar Ty Cobb managed the club from his position in center field for nearly a decade with mixed results.
Not since Pete Rose played and managed the Cincinnati Reds in the 1980s has baseball seen a player/manager. Like Cobb, Rose was a great player and a legend in the city where he played/managed. Like Cobb, was a controversial figure who for various reasons never reached the success as a manager that he had as a player.
With the millions of dollars invested in players, the increased focus on specialization, and the goldfish bowlattention paid to every move on the field, it’s unlikely that a team would hire a player/manager today. But in Cobb’s day it was believed that star players were uniquely qualified to lead their team to victory. Owners also saw it as a way to get more out of their highest paid employee.
Initially, Cobb was not interested in being a manager. When owner Frank J. Navin offered him the job in November of 192o, Cobb declined. But eventually, Navin wore Cobb down, largely by challenging his competitive spirit. Cobb’s friend and on-the-field rival Tris Speaker had handled both roles for the Cleveland Indians in 1920, leading that club to their first World Series title. Having accomplished practically everything else on the diamond, Cobb wanted to duplicate Speaker’s success.
Unfortunately, Ty was inheriting a 7th place club that was long in the tooth. Five of the eight everyday players were past their 30th birthday, and with an unproven pitching staff, it seemed certain that Cobb would be making the long walk from center field to the mound frequently. Sure enough, he did, as Tiger pitchers surrendered more hits than any other team but one in 1921. Still, the Tigers improved by 10 games in Ty’s first season at the helm. They improved the next three seasons as well, peaking at 86 wins in 1924 with a team stocked with .300 hitters. In fact, Cobb’s greatest skill was tutoring hitters.
“In all honesty, I could teach hitting, ” Cobb boasted in his autobiography.
Harry Heilmann, Heinie Manush, Bob Fothergill, Charlie Gehringer, and Lu Blue all blossomed under Cobb’s reign. Heilmann won three batting titles during Cobb’s tenure as Detroit manager, and Manush one another. In addition, Cobb himself finished second in the batting race in 1921 (to Heilmann) and 1922, and fourth in 1925 (again trailing Heilmann). In 1921, Cobb’s Tigers batted .316 as a team, a record that is still unmatched.
Cobb’s “Ty-gers” (as the newspapers frequently referred to them) were hell on opposing pitchers. They scored more than 900 runs in 1921 and 1925, finishing at or near the top of the league in offense every season that Cobb was manager. In 1925 the team got off to a particularly incredible start with the sticks. As late as the second week of June, the top three hitters in the American League were all Tigers: Heilmann and Cobb were both batting over .400, and left fielder Al “Red” Wingo was third with a mark over .360.
Yet the Tigers never won a pennant with Cobb serving as player/manager, largely because of the poor pitching staffs he was strapped with. But a portion of the blame was probably due to Cobb’s irascible demeanor. As Gehringer recalled later, playing for Cobb required a tip-toe act around their superstar skipper. Moody and impatient, Cobb treated his charges the way he had been handled when he first arrived in the big leagues as a green teenager. Young players were meant to be seen and not heard. Veteran players were threatened and pitted against each other, or worse yet, ignored. Pitchers, with very few exceptions, were treated with disdain.
Cobb’s tenure as manager ended with a thud. Embroiled in a gambling scandal (as Rose would be 60 years later), Cobb exited Detroit with a cloud over him. Within a few months Connie Mack, the genial owner/manager of the Philadelphia A’s, had convinced “The Peach” to put his name on a contract to play outfield for his team. Cobb spent two seasons with the A’s, still swinging a mean bat in his 23rd and 24th seasons in the majors.
Though Cobb never found the glory he hoped for as a manager, he proved to be one of the most colorful and controversial figures to ever fill out a lineup card.