Mayo Smith was a hands-off skipper who made gutsy decisions that often worked

Mayo Smith on his 1967 Topps card.

Printed some 50 years ago, the 1967 Topps set remains beautiful for its simplicity. Featuring little in the way of graphic design or border art, the cards allow the photography to breathe, with the imagery taking up the majority of the space on the front of the card. In presenting a minimalist design, Topps gives us the basics: the player’s (or manager’s) name in basic black typeface at the top of the card, the team name in large block letters at the bottom, and a facsimile autograph in between. It’s a Jack Webb/Dragnet approach to baseball cards—just the facts, ma’am—allowing us to appreciate the photography on the card first and foremost.

Among the 1967 Topps selections, Mayo Smith’s manager card ranks as one of the most unusual. It’s not that it’s out of the ordinary for Topps to show managers on their own cards; that was something that Topps did regularly throughout the 1960s and into the seventies and eighties. The strangeness of the card involves the airbrushing of Smith’s cap, along with the surreal quality to the blue background of the card.

After the 1966 season, the Tigers announced the hiring of Smith. Due to the lateness of the move, Topps did not have a chance to photograph Smith wearing his new Detroit Tigers colors. So Topps took an existing photograph of Smith and airbrushed solid colors onto the cap, so as to avoid showing us the logo from his earlier team (either the Philadelphia Phillies or Cincinnati Reds). Again, that’s not really the unusual feature here. In most cases of caps being airbrushed, Topps simply used one color for the cap. For some reason, Topps has given the Smith cap a two-tone treatment: blue for the crown of the cap and green for the bill of the cap. I’m not sure why Topps opted for two distinct colors. The Tigers didn’t use two-tone caps in the 1960s; they always used the same color for both parts of the caps. Additionally, it seems odd that Topps used a light blue and a green for the airbrushing of the caps. Neither of those colors matched the traditional dark blue (which appears almost black) used by the Tigers in the 1960s. For so many reasons, that airbrushed cap is way, way off, making it look weird, but interesting nonetheless.

Then there is the issue of the background. In the 1960s, Topps took a lot of photographs during spring training, giving us the traditional sky blue background with plenty of sun and few clouds. Every once in a while, Topps might use a dugout as the backdrop. But the Smith card does not look like either a natural sky blue background or a dugout wall. Instead, the background is a bright blue—too bright for the sky and nothing like the drab colors of dugout walls in the 1960s. In actuality, the background blue appears to be airbrushed, too, as if it applied with a bright Crayola or magic marker. Why would Topps airbrush the background to a card? Honestly, I have no idea. It simply adds to the bizarre look of an offbeat card.

Mayo Smith was neither offbeat nor bizarre, but simply straightforward in his approach to managing. The Tigers announced his hiring on October 3, 1966, the news drawing questions from the team’s fan base. Who exactly was Mayo Smith? He hadn’t managed for eight seasons, having worked previously in Cincinnati and Philadelphia, but had never finished above .500, bringing with him an undistinguished resume. Prior to that, he had played all of one season as a major league outfielder, and that coming in 1945, during a time when the big league ranks were depleted by World War II.

While Smith was something of an unknown at the time of his hiring, it didn’t take long for him to make his mark with the Tigers. In one of his first public moves, he announced the decision to move Dick McAuliffe from shortstop to second base. He installed Ray Oyler as the new starting shortstop. The twin moves immediately made the Tigers better defensively at both of the middle infield positions.

Smith also made an effort to open the lines of communications with his players. During the winter, he telephoned several of the Tigers’ key players, including Bill Freehan and Al Kaline. Smith wanted to introduce himself to his new charges, but also wanted to make them aware of what he expected of them come spring training.

Smith’s approach seemed to work—right from the start. In 1967, the Tigers opened the season by winning 17 and losing seven, to take an early lead in the pennant race. Smith kept the Tigers in the race throughout the summer. He rarely lost his temper, instead remaining calm and even-keeled, no matter the travails of the moment. He also chose not to call team meetings, instead allowing the players to settle any dissension developing within the ranks.

Becoming part of a wild, four-team race, the Tigers remained in contention until the final day, when a loss in the nightcap of a doubleheader with the California Angels eliminated them from the pennant race. But the season had been anything but a failure, as Smith guided the team to a three-game improvement over the 1966 finish.

The 1967 season turned out to be a tune-up for the success of 1968. Smith reported to spring training with a more serious tone, perhaps realizing that this version of the Tigers had the talent and the experience needed to win the pennant, even if most preseason prognostications placed the team in second or third place. Smith made a few adjustments that spring, one of which involved first base. At the outset of the season, he decided to platoon Norm Cash, who had struggled against left-handed pitching. In so doing, he created an avenue for Mickey Stanley to play first base against left-handed pitching, while alleviating a logjam in the outfield, where the Tigers had four quality outfielders for three spots.

The Tigers responded to Smith by running away with the American League race. On September 17, the Tigers clinched the pennant, setting the stage for Smith’s debut in the postseason.

During the season, Kaline had missed significant time with a broken arm. Upon his return, the Tigers once again had four good outfielders for only three positions. At the tail-end of the regular season, Smith experimented with Stanley as his shortstop, replacing the light-hitting Oyler. Convinced that the athletic Stanley could handle the position, Smith made the veteran outfielder his starting shortstop for all seven games of the World Series. In so doing, Smith created room for Willie Horton, Jim Northrup, and Al Kaline to play every day, deepening the Tigers’ lineup against the vaunted pitching of the St. Louis Cardinals.

Smith also rode the hot hand of Mickey Lolich, allowing his ace left-hander to make three starts in the Series. Lolich won them all, including the climactic Game Seven. With Denny McLain suffering from arm fatigue, Smith realized that he needed to extract as many innings as possible from Lolich, who pitched in games two, five, and seven. The strategy worked to perfection.

Not only did the Tigers win it all in ‘68, but Smith earned Manager of the Year honors from The Sporting News. The Tigers, feeling appreciative, rewarded Smith with a two-year contract, which was rare for managers of that time.

Aside from the Lolich and Stanley decisions, Smith preferred a hands-off approach to managing. As former Tigers reliever Jon Warden puts it, Smith would not have succeeded with a number of teams, but he proved the perfect fit for Detroit. “[He] was not a good manager [in general], [but] he was a great manager for that team because he just sort of left us alone,” says Warden. “We had a very veteran team, and he just let us play—and he made some bodaciously crazy moves, and they all would work out.”

They certainly did in 1968. By 1969, some of the Mayo magic had worn off, in part because the Tigers suffered through the hangover that followed the celebration of the previous fall’s World Series. Several Tigers held out of the early days of spring training, as they attempted to negotiate improved contracts with general manager Jim Campbell. Denny McLain’s arm problems persisted, while the core of the veteran Tigers began to show its age. In addition, some degree of complacency set into the clubhouse.

Then came the controversy of August, when the Tigers fired popular pitching coach Johnny Sain. Smith and Sain had clashed for much of the season, with each man trying to stake claim to control of the pitching staff. Finally, by midsummer Sain complained publicly about the situation to the team’s beat writers. Tigers management, which was conservative and intolerant of the airing of criticism, resented Sain for his public flogging of Smith and fired the respected pitching coach. That decision only caused more resentment between the pitchers (who loved Sain) and their manager.

In spite of all the difficulties, the Tigers performed decently for Smith in 1969, but nowhere near the level they needed to win the newly formed American League East. The following year, the roof caved in on Smith. Major problems began in spring training, lowlighted by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn’s decision to suspend McLain for his ties to the gambling world. To make matters worse, Freehan’s published book, a diary of the 1970 season, created controversy within the clubhouse while putting Smith directly in the crosshairs of criticism. Among other points of contention, Freehan accused Smith of applying one set of rules for McLain, and one set for the rest of the team.

Wracked by interpersonal tensions and an aging roster, the Tigers flopped under Smith, who drew criticism for being too lax with the team and failing to instill a sense of discipline on a crumbling clubhouse. By season’s end, it was obvious that the team needed a change. Campbell fired the laidback Smith and replaced him with a polar opposite in the fiery Billy Martin.

To the surprise of some, Smith never managed again. At one point, it was speculated that Charlie Finley offered him a chance to manage the Oakland A’s, but that rumor was never confirmed. Smith did do some scouting for the Baltimore Orioles in the early 1970s, but he opted to retire from the game rather than pursue fulltime work with one of the clubs. Smith didn’t need the money; he had already amassed a small fortune thanks to some wise real estate investments.

Once retired, Smith enjoyed a quiet life in Lake Worth, Florida. Sadly, his retirement did not last as long as it should have. In November of 1977, he suffered a stroke and fell into a coma. Two days later, Smith died. He was only 62.

Perhaps because he died so young, Smith has become somewhat of a forgotten figure. Such a fate is not very fair for a man who compiled the kind of record that he did. Given the kind of team that he had, a team of veterans who needed to be left alone, Smith performed his job well. He generally trusted his players to act like men, and when he tinkered with the club, his decisions usually worked out well. Over the span of four seasons with Detroit, he had three winning campaigns, including the season in which he piloted perhaps the most beloved team in Tigers history to a world championship.

For a manager, and a quality man like Mayo Smith, that’s a very respectable epitaph to have.

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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.