Bo Don’t Know, Part I

The former Tigers President’s tenure did not go especially well. (via Anna Fox)

In 1989, the Detroit Tigers’ fall from baseball grace came swiftly. After 11 straight winning seasons, a World Series title in 1984, and a 98 win season in 1987, Detroit finished with a 59-103 record, 30 games behind the first-place Toronto Blue Jays in the American League East.

Years of bad drafts, injuries, and age finally caught up to the Tigers in 1989. After a series of drafts in the mid-1970s brought Lou Whitaker, Alan Trammell, Jack Morris, and Kirk Gibson to Tiger Stadium, the farm system had dried up. Only one of team’s first round picks from 1979-1986 made it to 10 career WAR—third baseman Glenn Wilson, who produced a whopping 13.1 WAR and lasted only two seasons in Detroit. The team’s two most productive players, by WAR, from the 1979-1986 drafts were pitcher John Smoltz and catcher Chris Hoiles, neither of whom ever played a single inning for the Tigers.

Eight of the nine starting hitters in the Tigers lineup were over the age of 30. Detroit’s top three starting pitchers — Frank Tanana, Doyle Alexander, and Jack Morris — were all in their mid-to-late 30s. Star shortstop Trammell had suffered a series of injuries that limited him to 121 games, a .243/.314/.334 batting line, and an 86 wRC+.

Detroit’s pitching staff bore the most responsibility for the team’s downfall. They allowed 817 runs, the most in the majors, ranked last in FIP, and second to last in WAR. Only Tanana produced an ERA+ over 100. Alexander — famously acquired for Smoltz — and Morris struggled, posting ERA+ of 87 and 79.

In January 1990, hope for the Tigers came in the form of a local sports hero: University of Michigan head football coach Bo Schembechler. Since arriving in Ann Arbor in 1969, Schembechler had resurrected the university’s storied football program. His 194 wins and 13 Big Ten Conference titles are the most in team history.

He was famous for his fierce devotion to the university. As athletic director, he fired men’s basketball coach Bill Frieder before the 1989 NCAA tournament for taking a job at Arizona State. He explained that “A Michigan man will coach Michigan, not an Arizona State man.” Under interim head coach Steve Fisher, the Wolverines won the NCAA championship. His fame garnered him invitations to speak before companies, community organizations, and alumni groups. Over the years, Schembechler became synonymous with Michigan football and the state itself.

For all his success, Schembechler never won a national title and his teams often wilted in the Rose Bowl. In 10 appearances, the Wolverines went 2-8. In response, Schembechler berated officials in the sidelines and attacked them in the press. He accused them of conspiring against him and Michigan. His critics attacked him as a whiny, arrogant bully.

Yet Tigers owner Tom Monaghan, who had made his fortune by founding Domino’s Pizza, believed that Schembechler was the right man to turn the Tigers around, just as he had done for Michigan football all those years before.

In the 1970s, Schembechler had given a motivational speech to Domino’s employees, and he and Monaghan quickly became friends. In 1982, when Schembechler was considering leaving Michigan for Texas A&M, Monaghan gave him a Domino’s franchise in Columbus, Ohio to entice him to stay. When Monaghan bought the Tigers in the early 1980s, Schembechler vouched for him in negotiations with then-owner John Fetzer. In 1989, Monagan gave Schembechler a seat on the six man board of directors for the Tigers and on the board of Domino’s.

On January 8, 1990, Monaghan announced that he had hired Schembechler as the new president of the Detroit Tigers and that Schembechler would have full control over the entire organization, including baseball operations. Monaghan and Schembechler had agreed to the deal in the fall, but waited for Schembechler to finish out the football season.

Schembechler displayed his typical brashness when asked whether he had the ability to run a professional baseball team. He told a reporter from a Canadian newspaper, “It’s not like I’m taking over the NASA space centre. I’ve managed a $20-million operation at Michigan. I know how to fill stadiums, I can work out television and radio contracts, and I can deal with personnel. I just don’t see it being a very tough transition.” He believed that his inexperience could help the Tigers: “I hope (baseball people) underestimate me. I’ll be happy to take advantage of them.”

Ultimately, Schembechler viewed the Tigers job as a challenge worth taking on. He said, “What fun is it if you don’t take a chance? Here’s a guy who’s 60 but I don’t want to just lay around. I’ve got all kinds of ideas. They may not work, so I’m not going to present them and look like a fool.” Little did Schembechler know just how much of a fool he would become.

In his early dealings with the press, Schembechler filtered ideas about baseball through the lens of football. Football was Schembechler’s gospel and he one of its most ardent disciples. In a book about leadership, he wrote that “The fundamental values that worked for me coaching football work everywhere else, too — in business, in medicine, in law, in education. I know this because I’ve seen my players succeed in all those fields, using the same principles learned playing on our team.”

Schembechler, however, failed to recognize that a college football team and a professional baseball team were vastly different enterprises. As the head coach at Michigan, Schembechler had enjoyed near dictatorial power. He controlled every aspect of the program from the locker room to the practice field. He handpicked the players, coaches, and support staff. Everyone owed their success and livelihood to him. Those who challenged him, players or coaches alike, had to get on board or get out. Additionally, as the head coach, he was the face of Michigan football, a constant on the sidelines every Saturday in the fall and on television sets throughout the year.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

With the Tigers, however, Schembechler was one of several faces in the crowd. On the field, the Tigers had star players like Whitaker and Trammell. The locker room, meanwhile, was the player’s domain, not the team president’s. Manager Sparky Anderson had won three World Series titles, was in the midst of a Hall of Fame managing career, and had a say in roster construction. The Tigers front office was staffed with baseball lifers like general manager Bill Lajoie, who had built the 1984 championship team, and vice president of player personnel Joe McDonald, a former GM himself.

Instead of being the domineering head coach, Schembechler would have to mold the disparate parts of the organization into a harmonious whole. Throughout his first year on the job, Schembechler’s arrogance made a difficult job nearly impossible.

Only a month into his tenure, Schembechler had his first self-made public relations disaster. In early February 1990, he lobbied the Michigan state legislature to establish a scholarship program for college graduates that would require them to teach for a period of time in inner-city schools, especially in Detroit and Flint. These Michigan-educated graduates, Schembechler contented, would be much better than the current teachers who came from “some place down South or from some godforsaken places and schools that I’ve not heard of. And I want you to know that is not right.”

Schembechler’s racial dog-whistling brought swift condemnation. Josh Mack, a member of the Detroit Board of Education, demanded Schembechler apologize immediately. Mack wondered if “the Detroit Tigers were aware of Bo’s attitude and mentality when they hired him to represent them in Detroit and the rest of the world.” As Mack pointed out, “The quality of a teacher is not dictated by the geographic location in which he or she has been educated.” The story eventually blew over, but it was a harbinger of things to come.

During spring training, Schembechler set about instilling his football mentality in the Tigers players. While walking around the field during a stretching exercise, Schembechler chided minor league third baseman Tookie Spann for having the top of his uniform unbuttoned. Spann, a former football player himself who had chosen a career in professional baseball, resented Schembechler’s condescending attitude and micromanaging. As Spann explained, Schembechler, “was like a football coach.” Schembechler’s attitude towards the players and tendency towards micromanagement became an oft-cited complaint from anonymous players in newspaper articles throughout his tenure.

For his part, Schembechler, who had last played baseball in college, seemed to think little of baseball players. Throughout his career, he had derided baseball as a “sissy” sport. Michigan shortstop Barry Larkin recalled that Schembechler would come to games and yell “Larkin, you’re a sissy. You’re a big sissy. You’re hitting a ball that can’t hit back. Come on out (for football) and hit a man that can hit you back.” When he heard that a reporter was switching from football to baseball, he asked, “Why would you want to cover a sissy sport?”

Schembechler also grew angry about the players habits in the locker room and vented his feelings to the press. One day during the 1990 season, he chided the players for watching Wheel of Fortune in the clubhouse. Instead, Schembechler told the players they should be watching game film. Journalist Marty York saw the incident as proof of Schembechler’s football arrogance. As York wrote, “Game films are big in football. Teams spend a lot of time between games watching them. But football games are weekly. Baseball games are nightly, and baseball players believe relaxing between games is more important than being reminded of them.”

Schembechler never let go of the issue. In the offseason, Schembechler opined that “major league ballplayers could take many lessons from the collegians. It bothers him, for instance, to see ballplayers watching a game show on the clubhouse television before a game. He thinks they could spend their time better, perhaps studying videotapes of themselves the last time they faced the pitcher scheduled for that night.”

In July 1990, Tigers starter Jack Morris instigated and Schembechler exacerbated the second PR disaster of his presidency. On July 18, before a home game against the Chicago White Sox, Jennifer Frey, a recent Harvard graduate and Detroit Free Press intern, approached Morris to ask him about the big news of the day. Arbiter George Nicolau had ruled that major league owners had violated the league’s labor agreement by forming a databank to compare contract offers to free agents and drive down players’ salaries (known as the Collusion III case). Morris had become a spokesman for the players efforts against the league after he found himself rebuffed by numerous teams as a free agent in 1987 and forced to resign with Detroit.

When Frey tried to speak with Morris, who was wearing long underwear as he had on other occasions when Frey was present, replied, “I don’t talk to people when I’m naked, especially women, unless they’re on top of me or I’m on top of them.”

Frey reported the incident to her bosses, prompting Neal Shine, the publisher of the Free Press, to write to Schembechler express his dismay at Morris’s behavior. Shine acknowledged the “special camaraderie of sports locker rooms” but he also felt that Morris’s comments “went far beyond rudeness.”

Schembechler’s response to Shine reeked of sexism and condescension. He acknowledged the substance of Morris’s remarks, but blamed the entire incident on Frey. Schembechler complained that she “watched men from 20 to 65 years of age undress and dress for more than half an hour without asking questions.” He also charged Free Press sports editor Dave Robinson with a “lack of common sense in sending a female college intern in a men’s clubhouse.”

Not content to attack Frey and Robinson, Schembechler also claimed that the incident “was a scam orchestrated by you people to create a story.”

Schembechler ended his letter by chiding the publisher for failing to recognize the inviolability of the locker room. He wrote that “no female member of my family would be inside a men’s locker room regardless of their job description. Since you most likely never competed in the athletic arena, understanding the sanctity and privacy of the locker room is impossible.”

Fellow members of the press quickly condemned Morris and Schembechler for their chauvinism. As Dave McKenna relayed in his obituary for Frey, the staff of the Detroit Free Press rallied behind her. M.L. Elrick, a fellow intern and future Pulitzer prize winner, remembered how the Free Press staff posted Schembechler’s letter on the newsroom wall, which he described as “caveman shit.” Sports Illustrated’s Craig Neff wrote that “Many of the barriers facing women sportswriters have fallen but at least two have not. They are named Jack Morris and Bo Schembechler.”

Frey’s story soon became part of a larger scandal regarding players mistreatment of female reporters. About a month later, several members of New England Patriots’ including tight end Zeke Mowatt came out of the showers naked, approached Boston Herald reporter Lisa Olson and dared her to touch their genitals. After the incident, Patriots owner Victor Kiam supported his players and described Olson as a “classic bitch.”

Legally, the issue of female reporters in locker rooms had been settled after the 1977 World Series, when Melissa Ludtke sued commissioner Bowie Kuhn after the New York Yankees denied her access to the clubhouse. Yet plenty of players and coaches, like Morris and Schembechler, were still fighting a rear-guard action against the ability of female journalists to do their jobs without being subject to harassment.

After the Frey incident, Schembechler boasted of his increasing confidence in his ability to run baseball operations. In August 1990, he told a reporter, “Take this the right way, but I know more about what it takes to put a team together and compete than a lot of other guys who have the same title that I have. So therefore, I’m going to be into baseball probably more than any other president.”

The self-inflicted scandals masked the Tigers’ return to respectability. They finished the 1990 season with a 79-83 record. The twenty game improvement stemmed mostly from the team’s offense. Alan Trammell, returning from injury, played one of the best seasons of his career. In 146 games, he hit .304/.377/.449 resulting in a 131 wRC+, played stellar defense, and was second on the team in WAR.

Newly signed first baseman Cecil Fielder led the team with 6.5 WAR. Fielder, who had spent a season in Japan, after playing for the Blue Jays and losing a first base competition to Fred McGriff, produced a .277/.377/.592 batting line while hitting 51 home runs, good for a 165 wRC+.

The Tigers pitching, however, continued to disappoint as Morris, the ostensible ace, threw 249.2 innings while producing an 89 ERA+ and 4.10 FIP. Frank Tanana pitched even worse. In 176.1 innings, he had a 75 ERA+ and 4.63 FIP. While the offense scored 750 runs, third most in the majors, the pitching staff gave every single run back plus four more. Detroit finished third in the AL East, nine games behind first place Boston.

While the Tigers improved on the field, Schembechler endured a rough first year in charge. His problems were wholly of his own making, resulting from his misogyny and arrogance. Fans in Detroit had given him a long runway thanks to his stint at Michigan. But when Schembechler took on an institution as formidable as himself—Tigers radio broadcaster Ernie Harwell—their patience quickly wore out.

Part II to follow…

References and Resources

  • FanGraphs
  • Baseball-Reference
  • Harry Atkins, Associated Press, “Untitled,” February 17, 1991.
  • Jeff Holyfield, Associated Press, “Untitled,” February 6, 1990.
  • Rick Hummel, St. Louis Post Dispatch, “PAGNOZZI, DIPINO RETURN TO SCENE, SAY THERE WAS NO CRIME,” August 26, 1990.
  • Howard Kurtz, Washington Post, “Herald Calls Foul on Patriots; Locker-Room Nudity Ires Female Writer,” September 26, 1990.
  • Joe LaPointe, New York Times, “Surveying a New Playing Field to Conquer,” February 7, 1990.
  • Hal McCoy, Cox News Service, “Bo was tough on players and writers,” November 17, 2006.
  • Matt McHale, The Orange County Register, “Technology could define future moves; Medical staff, not the manager, could dictate switch in pitchers,” April 29, 1990.
  • Dave McKenna, Deadspin, “The Writer Who Was Too Strong to Live.”
  • Jack Nagler, The Globe and Mail, “Tiger job no problem for ex-guru of football,” January 29, 1990.
  • Craig Neff, Sports Illustrated, “Scorecard,” August 20, 1990.
  • Buster Olney, San Diego Union-Tribune, “This Padres prospect didn’t like Bo’s peeps,” June 22, 1992.
  • Bo Schembechler and John U. Bacon, Bo’s Lasting Lessons: The Legendary Coach Teaches the Timeless Fundamentals of Leadership (New York: Business Plus, 2007).
  • Richard Shook, United Press International, “Commentary,” January 8, 1990.
  • Richard Shook, United Press International, “Schembechler named Tigers president,” January 8, 1990.
  • Marty York, The Globe and Mail, “Schembechler’s efforts changing Tigers’ stripes,” January 30, 1991.

Chris Bouton is a historian turned jury research analyst.
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5 years ago

To whichever editor wrote the sub-headline: I think you meant “sordid” not “sorted”?

5 years ago
Reply to  docgooden85

Beat me to the punch – I came here for the exact same thing.

5 years ago

When I saw this article I thought, ‘Oh yeah! I remember that. Recall that it ended quickly and poorly.’ Thank you very much for Part I, and I’m looking forward to Part II! 🙂

5 years ago

Awesome story Chris! Can’t wait for #2!

Dennis Bedard
5 years ago

As with many THT articles, this one raises more questions than it answers. That is, why do so many successful college coaches run into a wall of mediocrity once they take their turn at the professional level? Off the top of my head, I can think of Nick Saban, Steve Spurrier, John McKay, and John Robinson. I am old so Tommy Prothro comes to mind too. Even success stories like Jimmie Johnson’s are sprinkled with disasters after he pushed Don Shula out in Miami, Pete Carroll is the exception as someone who was successful at both ventures. With this in mind, one wonders what in the world made anyone think that Schembechler could not only pull it off but do so by traversing different sports? From a coaching/managing perspective, baseball and football are as dissimilar as chess and rugby. Maybe it was the desire for a hometown hero to pack Tiger Stadium and create some local buzz but the endeavor was laughable in hindsight. I think another cause of this fallacy is that grown men and women successful in business automatically think that the motivational aspects of coaching football apply to their own businesses and will pay oodles of cash to listen to a hothead who yells at 19 year old kids on a Saturday afternoon tell them that the same rules apply to selling cars or breakfast cereal. Sorry, but it just ain’t so.

5 years ago

Nice to be reminded Jack Morris’s grace, charm, civility, and dignity were as great as his pitching.