Gene MauchAugust 24, 2009
In Leo Durocher’s Nice Guys Finish Last, which I just finished tearing through this morning, Durocher concludes by bemoaning the state of the modern game. The gist: Players aren’t what they used to be, and managers no longer have the authority to tell them what to do. (Durocher’s highly entertaining and historically rich autobiography, often cited as among the best baseball books ever published, first came out in 1975, the same year this team card came to me via a pair of scissors and some cardboard packaging for a product whose identity is lost to me now. Was it the back of a cereal box? That’s my guess, but I can’t be sure.)
Durocher had managed his last major league game, for the Houston Astros, just a couple years earlier, bringing to a close a career in the big leagues that stretched all the way back to his time as a young benchwarming infielder under legendary Yankees manager Miller Huggins. During his time, Durocher had seen practically everything that mattered first-hand, from Murderer’s Row to the Gashouse Gang to the end of the color line in baseball to the Shot Heard Round the World to the Miracle Mets to the Astrodome, and (like most old-timers of any era) he didn’t like where things were heading. The last of the many epic off-field clashes Durocher describes in his book came when he ran afoul of Marvin Miller, head of the players’ union. Durocher saw the increasing power of the player in baseball as detrimental to the authority of the manager. “They’ve got a union,” he says at one point, ruefully, “headed by Marvin Miller, and they’re carting their money away in bushel baskets. You can’t tell them what to do.” (p. 410)
Before hanging it up for good, Durocher found a way to win wherever he went, even with the Astros, who finished a few games over .500 in his year and a half with them. He had started his managerial career by turning around the Brooklyn Dodgers, who had been stumbling for a couple decades before he brought them an NL crown in 1941. From there he went to the New York Giants and in 1951 led them to the most famous pennant in the history of the sport; in 1954 the team won another pennant and the World Series. Later, he took over a moribund Cubs franchise in the mid-1960s and made the team into a contender by 1969, albeit one that suffered a famous total collapse.
When you see a managerial record like Durocher’s or like that of the 1970s manager most often compared to Durocher, Billy Martin, victory at every stop, you have to conclude that a manager can make a difference with a team. They can’t turn water into wine (Durocher himself asserts on more than one occasion that without good players a manager is nowhere), but if they are good at what they do they can squeeze out a few extra wins that another manager might not have been able to.
But what about the record of someone like Gene Mauch?
Mauch came up as a player under Durocher, one of many Durocher proteges (during Mauch’s most famous—or infamous—season, 1964, the Phillies manager was one of nine former Durocher players managing in the majors), and he employed many of the “small ball” tactics Durocher lauded.
These tactics didn’t allow him to avoid a legacy of presiding over crushing losses. His 1964 Phillies blew a huge lead to just miss out on the pennant; his 1982 California Angels lost to the Brewers in the playoffs after grabbing a 2-0 lead in the best of 5 series; and his 1986 Angels squandered a 3 games to 1 lead in the playoffs to the Red Sox. His lifetime record is 135 games below .500. His day in the spotlight never came.
I don’t know much about the effectiveness of his managing style, but I know that he was always held up at as among the game’s greatest tacticians. His sterling reputation may have benefited from his having a highly visible managerial style. I really don’t know if all the bunting and hitting and running added up to more wins than he would have gotten if he’d just sat around waiting for the three-run homer. But I wonder if there’s some hidden benefit from having a more dynamic Mauchian approach to things. Instead of waiting around for the gods to smile on you, you are reaching out and trying to grab the game by the throat. This might have a positive psychological effect on a team. I believe I saw a similar dynamic occur with the 2005 Chicago White Sox. That team won the World Series by hitting home runs, getting excellent starting pitching, and playing good defense. Maybe if the team’s celebrated use of “small ball” didn’t quantifiably enhance these other more important factors, it at least gave the team a sense that they were always on the attack, not a bad mental state to be in while playing a sport wracked, as Gene Mauch could tell you if he were still around, with failure, uncertainty, and interminable waiting.