Seven Strange Manager Changes in Tigers History

Ledt to right: Billy Martin was fired by the Detroit Tigers under a cloud during the 1973 season; Joe Gordon was traded to Detroit in 1960 in the only major league trade involving managers; and Sparky Anderson reneged on a deal to manage another team and accepted the Detroit job in 1979.

The Tigers’ search for a new manager was a relatively typical transition: the last manager was pronounced a lame duck before the season ended, and with the team rebuilding, new manager Ron Gardenhire won’t be under any immediate pressure to win. Not all of the Tigers’ changes at the helm have been this peaceful. Here are the strangest managerial changes in Tigers history.

1903: Win Mercer commits suicide

Win Mercer was a dashing 28-year-old pitcher for the Tigers in 1902. Mercer reportedly caused a riot on Ladies Day in 1897 while with Washington, when a mob of smitten women attacked an umpire who ejected him. The Tigers named Mercer their player-manager for 1903, but in the offseason he was found dead in a San Francisco hotel room with a tube of gas in his mouth. Some reports said Mercer left a suicide note warning of the dangers of gambling and women. The more reliable accounts say he had grown despondent over chronic pulmonary disease. The Tigers turned to Ed Barrow. His brief career in Detroit was undistinguished, but Barrow would go on to manage Babe Ruth in Boston and then build a dynasty as general manager of the Yankees in the 1920s, and he ended up the Hall of Fame.

1926: Ty Cobb ousted by Ban Johnson

After six seasons as player-manager of the Tigers, Ty Cobb announced his retirement from baseball in November of 1926. Soon it emerged that both Cobb and the Indians’ Tris Speaker, who also unexpectedly resigned, had been pushed out by American League president Ban Johnson due to secret allegations of game-fixing in 1919. The charges came from former Tiger Dutch Leonard, who had clashed with Cobb, and sounded serious but proved inconclusive. Commissioner Kenesaw Landis, desperate to close the matter (and to spite Johnson), eventually reinstated both players. Cobb joined the Philadelphia Athletics for two more seasons before retiring on his own terms. The Tigers hired George Moriarty, a former Tiger who had been working as an umpire. After two seasons Moriarty returned to umpiring. He worked the 1935 World Series, where he punished the Cubs for hurling anti-Semitic slurs at Hank Greenberg.

1933: Tigers choose Mickey Cochrane over Babe Ruth

When Babe Ruth asked to manage the Yankees, owner Jacob Ruppert reportedly replied, “You can’t manage yourself, Ruth. How do you expect to manage others?” The Tigers, looking to boost lagging attendance during the Great Depression, were willing to give the Babe a chance. But Tigers owner Frank Navin eventually soured on Ruth’s demands and his lack of communication due to offseason travel. Navin moved on to Mickey Cochrane, the fiery catcher on the Athletics, whose intensity in the dugout and know-how behind the plate proved to be just what the Tigers needed to make it to the World Series, which they did in each of Mickey’s first two seasons at the helm. In 1935, it was Cochrane who came bounding down the third base line to score the winning run on Goose Goslin’s championship-winning walkoff single.

1960: Tigers and Indians trade managers

Cleveland general manager Frank “Trader” Lane would trade anything that wasn’t bolted to the floor—even his manager. In the middle of the 1960 season he traded skipper Joe Gordon for his Tigers’ counterpart, Jimmy Dykes. The trade had little impact on either team; both were in the middle of the pack of the American League, and that’s where they both finished. Gordon was gone from the Tigers after the season.

1966: Charlie Dressen dies of a heart attack

Best known as the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers team that surrendered a 12 1/2 game lead and the “Shot Heard Around The World” to the Giants in 1951, Dressen jump-started the Tigers in 1963, inheriting and polishing young stars such as Willie Horton, Denny McLain, and Bill Freehan. But in 1965 a spring training heart attack kept him out of the dugout until May. He had a second heart attack a year later, and died in August. He was replaced by Bob Swift, but after just two months Swift was sidelined by lung cancer and replaced by acting manager Frank Skaff. Mayo Smith would take over in 1967 and lead the Tigers to a championship in 1968, but he was never as beloved by fans and players as Dressen was.   

1973: Billy Martin fired for bragging about spitballs

When you hired Billy Martin as your manager you could count on two things: he would get the most out of your team, and he would give you headaches. The Tigers got both, squeaking out a division title in 1972 and enduring constant off-the-field drama. After an August game against the Indians, Martin announced to the press that he ordered his pitchers to throw spitballs when he thought Gaylord Perry was using his signature pitch against the Tigers. Martin was suspended by the American League and then the Tigers sent him packing. Still, Martin’s Tigers tenure was relatively tranquil compared to what lay in store for him with the Yankees. The Tigers promoted Joe Schultz to acting manager to finish the season. Schultz was a colorful figure whose claim to fame was managing the expansion Seattle Pilots, as immortalized by Jim Bouton’s book Ball Four.

1979: Sparky Anderson chooses Tigers over the Cubs

When the Cubs hired Joe Maddon as their manager in 2015, just one year after bringing in Rick Renteria, everyone (even the Cubs) agreed it was both unfair to Renteria and also the right thing to do. When you have an unexpected chance to upgrade to a proven winner, you do it. This is what the Tigers decided in 1979. Les Moss was two months into his first season at the helm of the Tigers when GM Jim Campbell found out that Sparky Anderson, recently deposed from the Reds, might be available. Anderson later revealed he had a handshake deal to take over the Cubs in 1980, but he recalled that Campbell came highly recommended by former Tigers manager Ralph Houk, and he changed his plans. The abrupt removal of Moss was unjust, but it was also absolutely the best thing for the Tigers. Anderson led the team to dominance in the 1980s, including a wire-to-wire championship season in 1984. The Cubs, meanwhile, would have to wait until Maddon came along to win their long-awaited title.

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About Nathan Bierma

Nathan Bierma is a freelance writer, web designer, and educational technologist living in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is on Twitter at @nbierma.