Mayo Smith deserves to be remembered for what he did – and didn’t do – as a Tigers’ manager

Mayo Smith managed the Detroit Tigers from 1967 to 1970, winning the pennant and World Series in 1968.

Mayo Smith managed the Detroit Tigers from 1967 through 1970, winning the pennant and World Series in 1968.

The jury remains sequestered on the case of Brad Ausmus. Based solely on his regular season performance, Ausmus did credible work in guiding the Detroit Tigers to another Central Division title. His postseason effort was another story. Thoroughly schooled by Baltimore’s Buck Showalter, Ausmus looked all too much like a rookie manager wading his way through his first postseason trial. Ausmus handled his suspect bullpen poorly, exacerbating Detroit’s biggest weakness in a three-game sweep at the hands of the Orioles.

In some ways, the jury remains out on Mayo Smith, too, even though it’s been over 40 years since he managed his last game and 37 years since his death. Opinions on Smith seem to vary widely, depending on whom you consult for an opinion. Some remember Smith as a manager who was far too passive, who seemed to fall asleep on the bench, figuratively if not literally. Others recall him as an underrated manager who simply let his players play, allowing their talents to come to the forefront.

As is usually the case, the truth can probably be found somewhere in the middle of those two assessments. What is not disputable is the impact that Smith has had on Tigers history. Other than Sparky Anderson, he is the most recent manager to lead the Tigers to a world championship. He is also one of the few managers in history who has motivated his followers to form an international fan club, the Mayo Smith Society, which continues to sing his praises.

Smith took command of the Tigers shortly after the 1966 season, which may have been the most tragic year in the team’s history. Two Tigers managers died that year, Chuck Dressen succumbing to cardiac arrest and Bob Swift losing his battle with lung cancer. In an effort to stabilize the managerial chair, GM Jim Campbell offered the position to two prominent skippers, Al Lopez and Bill Rigney. Both turned Campbell down. So Campbell turned to a third choice, the relatively low-profile Smith, who had managed for a few years in Philadelphia and Cincinnati, albeit without much sustained success.

Smith took over a Tigers team that had not only been racked by tragedy, but saddled with underachieving. The consensus of scouts placed the Tigers’ talent level at the upper reaches of the American League, but the team had placed no higher than third over the last five years. Smith immediately put his stamp on the team by naming a new set of coaches. The group included Johnny Sain, who was given the assignment of leading the pitchers. Even if he did nothing else, the hiring of Sain, arguably the greatest pitching coach in baseball history, ranked as pure genius.

The new manager also decided to help his pitchers by changing the team’s defensive alignment. He shifted his starting shortstop, All-Star Dick McAuliffe, to second base, where his range and throwing arm both proved to be better fits. In McAuliffe’s place, Smith turned to Ray Oyler, an excellent fielder who had struggled to hit even .200 at the major league level. Some skeptics questioned Smith’s decision to tinker with an All-Star like McAuliffe, but the dual moves improved the Tigers defensively at two key infield positions.

The Tigers responded to Smith almost immediately. They began the 1967 season by winning 26 of their first 40 games, establishing themselves as contenders in a balanced American League. The Tigers also endured their share of slumps and losing streaks that summer, but through it all, Smith remained calm and even-keel. His style worked, as the Tigers remained in contention throughout the summer of fall. The Tigers finished the season in strong fashion, going 17-10 during the stretch run, before ultimately losing the pennant to the Boston Red Sox by one game on the final day of the season. But no one could blame Smith, whose level-headed temperament drew the admiration of players and team beat writers alike.

The second-place finish in 1967 turned out to be an excellent tune-up for the 1968 season. The Tigers played well all summer, establishing themselves as the team to beat before finally pulling away from the pack in September. Smith endured controversies along the way, including a celebrated feud with starter Joe Sparma and a nasty hissing match with American League president Joe Cronin over the suspension of McAuliffe, but those incidents represented only minor hurdles. Knowing that he had a team filled with talented and accomplished veterans, Smith spared the whip, let his players play, and mostly ignored the controversial comments that sometimes came from his stars, especially Denny McLain.

Though he had drawn some criticism for “undermanaging,” Smith decided to make a major strategic change in the days leading up to the World Series. After the Tigers clinched the pennant in mid-September, Smith opted to alter his starting lineup. He removed the light-hitting Oyler, shifting his most athletic player, Mickey Stanley, from center field to shortstop. The move not only improved the Tigers’ offensive capability at shortstop, but it allowed Smith to play his three most dangerous hitting outfielders—Willie Horton, Jim Northrup, and Al Kaline—at the same time.

The move produced mixed results in the World Series. Stanley committed two errors at shortstop, but the lineup alteration ensured that Kaline, who had missed a good portion of the regular season with a broken arm, would be in the lineup every day against the Cardinals. Kaline responded by hitting .379 with two home runs, emerging as a crucial factor in the Tigers’ winning the Series, four games to three. All things considered, the Stanley-to-shortstop decision turned out acceptably for the Tigers, who rewarded Smith with a world championship.

The victory over the Cardinals represented the peak of Smith’s career. In 1969, the Tigers fell off, succumbing to what Smith regarded as “fat cat” syndrome. He sensed trouble from the beginning of spring training, as Tigers players complained about their contracts, believing that they deserved bigger raises after a World Series win. Smith also made a foolish mistake by cutting off communications with Sain and eventually firing his talented pitching guru, a move that infuriated many of the Tigers pitchers, especially McLain. As a whole, the Tigers played decently for Smith, winning 90 games, but it was a far cry from their dominant performance of 1968.

In 1970, the bottom fell out on Smith and the Tigers. Bill Freehan’s tell-all book (Behind the Mask) caused divisions within the clubhouse, McLain drew three different suspensions, and Horton tore ligaments in his ankle. Freehan put the capper to a hellish season by undergoing spinal surgery. The Tigers finished under .500 at 79-83, prompting Campbell to make a managerial change. He fired the placid Smith, replacing him with his diametrical opposite in the fiery Billy Martin.

Now unemployed, smith spent most of the 1971 season resting at home, until Oakland owner Charlie Finley called him and asked him to compile a detailed scouting report of the Orioles, whom the A’s would face in the American League playoffs. That turned out to be Smith’s last job in baseball.

Smith settled into retirement, enjoying a peaceful life with his wife in Florida. Then, in November of 1977, while dining out at a restaurant, Smith suffered a massive stroke. He never recovered, dying shortly thereafter. Though he looked quite a bit older, he was only 62.

As the result of Smith’s early death, he became something of a lost figure in Tigers history. In 1983, a man named Dale Petroskey decided to change that legacy by founding the Mayo Smith Society, featuring a group of diehard Tigers fans. Petroskey, who would later become the president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, felt that it was appropriate to honor someone like Smith, who had become a forgotten figure despite leading the Tigers to the world championship only 15 years earlier.

Each year since 2004, the Society has made news by handing out its “King Tiger Award,” given to a Tiger player for both on and off-the-field contributions. The award puts Smith’s name in the news each fall, which only seems fair given how easy it has been to overlook his accomplishments.

So, all these years later, what should we make of Smith’s legacy? Obviously, he was not a Hall of Famer, not a truly great manager in the mold of a Sparky Anderson or a Bucky Harris. But he was hardly a buffoon either, not by any stretch of the imagination. In retrospect, Smith turned out to be the right manager for the Tigers at the right time. In four seasons as manager, he guided the team to three finishes well above .500. With his calming influence and steady hand, Smith took a team of underachievers and set them on a World Series course. In crafting a world championship team, he showed that sometimes the best course of action is a hands-off approach, particularly with a team of veterans.

Perhaps the words of Jon Warden, who pitched for the Tigers in 1968, offer the best perspective on the late Tigers manager. “Mayo Smith was not a good manager, but he was a great manager for that team because he just sort of left us alone; we had a very veteran team, and he just let us play. And he made some bodaciously crazy moves [like the Mickey Stanley decision], and they all would work out.”

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About Bruce Markusen

Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY. He is the author of seven books on baseball.