Is Charlie Brown the Worst Manager Ever?

Charlie Brown has had a lot of rainy days.

Charlie Brown has had a lot of rainy days.

Baseball has been around for a century and a half now, and yet we still struggle to define what makes a good or bad manager. We know that Tony La Russa is up there, and we know that Maury Wills is slightly below him. But beyond that, a leader’s virtues are measured by the number of wins he accrues, subtracting the number we expected of him at the end of March. If we’re feeling studious, we might go the extra step of comparing that total to the team’s Pythagorean win expectancy. That’s it. Otherwise, a manager is good if he looks like a manager and didn’t do something that lost the game the night before.

By those standards, the worst manager of all time may very well be one of its longest-tenured: a young round-headed boy by the name of Charlie Brown. Only Connie Mack held the reins longer than Brown, who was first seen running his nameless franchise in 1953 and continued until 2000. Over that time span he lost hundreds of games, often by hundreds of runs, in a demonstration of stubborn, idiotic courage.

It’s easy to glance at the record (2-K, where K is a really big number) and title Charlie Brown the worst manager of all time. But given a life of shoddy treatment, it only seems fair that we examine his legacy a little more closely and attempt that difficult task of discerning exactly how much of his team’s pathetic record can be attributed to his leadership.

It turns out to be no simple task. Despite his worldwide fame and his sizable career, finding detailed records of Brown’s managerial handiwork is an archaeological nightmare. No fewer than 17,897 records exist detailing his life and times, and yet recaps and statistics are rare, and even live footage is limited to choppy, anecdotal evidence.

Without box scores, we can’t measure Brown based on Pythag, and without statistics, we can’t even try to measure the team’s performance against its WAR, as Adam Darowski once suggested. We don’t even have an idea of the league’s playing environment, given that we know less about Brown’s rivals than even his own team. (It would seem, based on the pitches he’s seen to swing through, that most pitchers can throw harder than the batters can handle.) We can only broadly guess at Brown’s skills or habits as a tactician based on what little we know. Please consider the following science inexact.

But first, to understand Charlie Brown, we must understand what he is working with. His baseball team is comprised of the following players:

C: Schroeder
1B: Sherman
2B: Linus
SS: Snoopy
3B: Pig Pen/5
OF: Lucy/Violet/Frieda/Patty (not Peppermint, the other one)
SP: Charlie Brown

Of these, only the two middle infielders can be considered clearly above replacement level, with the corner infielders being enigmatic. The outfield is a disaster. It’s obvious that simple talent is responsible for a sizable portion of the team’s record. But how much?

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A manager’s influence can be divided into two realms: in-game tactics and outside-game strategy. The former is what fans generally tend to focus on, because it’s what they see. Clubhouse chemistry is filtered through the media, meetings take place behind closed doors, but everyone can see the safety squeeze that got the potentially-tying run caught in an inning-ending rundown. As we’ll see, with Brown, this is almost the opposite of the truth.

If we can’t discern whether Charlie Brown is a good tactician based on statistics, all we can do is examine the anecdotal evidence to see if he’s a progressive one. Several years ago, Scott McKinney set forth seven principles for the modern sabermetric manager. We’ll compare, slightly out of order.

(Mostly) stop trading bases for outs and Better base stealing: Brown appears to be a conservative manager in both respects. We have no documented evidence of either he or his teammates performing bunts or stealing bases. True, both are technically illegal in the traditional fashion based on Little League rules, but both can also be circumvented. Bunts can be replaced with Baltimore Chops, an easier trick to pull against the slowballs of child pitchers, and bases can still be stolen after the ball has crossed the plate. It’s perhaps surprising that a team so hobbled offensively wouldn’t turn to the productive out to create runs, but other than Snoopy, it’s hard to believe that anyone on the team is a threat on the basepaths. Still, in a common fount for overmanaging, Brown seems to be able to resist temptation, a check mark in his favor.

One troubling contradiction surfaces. Brown in particular committed one of the worst TOOTBLANs of all time on August 20, 1973, getting picked off second after needlessly leading off, robbing Snoopy of the chance to break Babe Ruth’s home run record before Hank Aaron. The play betrays a lack of awareness that could be seen as an indictment on Brown’s entire career, as the essay will prove.

Increased use of platoons and Optimized lineups: Given that he has an eleven-man roster to work with, there’s not much Charlie Brown can do in terms of platooning or pinch-hitting. Only the rarely-seen “5” is on the bench, sometimes spelling Pig Pen at third. Most of the neighborhood’s better athletes, including Peppermint Patty, Jose Peterson, and Roy, all play for other teams. Still, even with the lack of options at his disposal, there’s evidence Brown isn’t optimizing his limited resources.

Three Generations of “Mr. Cub”
Cavarretta, Hack, and Banks were the faces of the franchise.

Without box scores, it’s difficult to assess Brown’s lineup construction, but we do have some clues, one being the frequency with which Brown himself steps up to the plate with the game on the line and his performance under these situations. Given that Snoopy and Linus are superior hitters, and that even Lucy can hit the ball hard in a Dayan Viciedo kind of way, we are led to assume that Brown is intentionally slotting himself in at the top of the lineup, where he would see the most plate appearances.

As Tango/Lichtman/Dolphin revealed in The Book, a team’s best hitters should be in the one, two, and four holes. Perhaps Brown is unselfishly slotting himself at the less attractive third spot, but it’s difficult to believe that lesser stars like Sherman and Pig Pen wouldn’t be better served getting those twenty extra plate appearances each year.

In terms of pinch-hitting, we have zero data regarding 5’s abilities as a hitter, let alone after the usual deduction of the pinch-hitting role. But he can’t be any worse than Brown, who is perhaps the least clutch hitter who ever lived, constantly striking out when his team needs him most.

It’s been established that clutch hitting is mostly noise at the major league level, where athletes have been hardened and honed over bus rides and minor league cheeseburger dinners, but it’s far more likely to see a kid rattled by pressure situations. There’s nothing wrong with this: I certainly feel that same pressure in my beer league softball games, and we’re all human. But Charlie Brown the manager has to recognize the shortcomings of Charlie Brown the hitter, and he is blind to them. It is an unfortunate mark against him.

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Lastly, though McKinney doesn’t mention shifts (his article was published before the trend made a major comeback), we can tuck it into his final rule: Improve decision making processes on who plays where and when. Defensively, the team is horrendous, particularly in the outfield, where the girls (Lucy, Frieda, Patty, and Violet) rotate. Their defensive positioning is often suboptimal, with Lucy and Patty often standing near each other to chat and leaving poor Frieda to cover half the field.

Not that it matters much; none of them can catch a fly ball, making their position of choice an unfortunate one. Given that Brown is an extreme flyball pitcher (well, an extreme line drive pitcher, really, but with the remainder hit in the air rather than on the ground), the defensive setup looks as dangerous as the current Padres outfield in Petco, if not slightly worse.

We don’t see Pig Pen and Sherman make plays often, so it’s hard to say what they bring defensively. The defensive spectrum is different in Little League anyway: having a first baseman who can catch, and ensure the easiest outs, is no small matter. Still, even if Pig Pen was immobilized by his own dirt at the hot corner, it’s unquestionable that Linus’s talents are wasted at the keystone. Having often displayed a propensity for catching the most difficult pop flies, he belongs in center, and it’s a damning fact that Brown fails to put him there. But as we’ll see, Linus is a major problem for Brown in general.

Finally, we look at pitching, and what we find is that Brown has the slowest hook in managerial history. After a few years behind the dish early in his career, Brown took over primary duties on the mound for his team and put up the sort of lines that would make Dee P. Gordon cringe. And yet despite losing games by the dozens, and by dozens of runs, Brown never sees fit to make a change. It would be easy enough to chalk this up as necessity, and perhaps envy the al dente arm that can hold up so many pitches each season, if not for this:

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Sustaining a rare injury, the team is forced to move Linus to the mound, and the improvement is immediate. Like a Super Schumaker, Linus turns out to be a phenom, and the team’s turnaround is dramatic. Brown can only watch from the bench while Linus pitches his team to an unimaginable plurality of victories. But when Brown heals, Linus is moved back to second, and the team reverts.

This draws us into a dark recess of Brown’s psyche, the root of his failing. So often in his extracurricular pursuits, we identify with Brown as the hopeless and yet hopeful everyman, whose virtues are seen not in success but in his reaction to defeat. Yet that ordinary nobility becomes twisted when we see the lengths to which Brown will go to wallow in it, bringing down his team on himself. The virtuous Linus feels guilt at taking Brown’s role, and off-camera, this guilt seems to get the best of him. But based on the evidence we have at hand, keeping Linus at second is either an indifference to winning or a disturbing display of selfishness. Either way, it’s an unforgivable managerial sin.

In considering managers, fans tend to overemphasize their on-field role, because that’s what they see. Of course, this is exactly where they’re least vital. The occasional run thrown away by bad tactics is far outweighed by the day-to-day training, preparation and repair work that are all part of a manager’s job. Interactions with the general manager are classified information; closed-door meetings naturally take place behind closed doors. But with Charlie Brown, it’s much the opposite: we’re given far more access to his interactions with the ballclub on the practice field than we are during the game.

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Brown might charitably be called a “player’s manager,” though this is perhaps not by choice. His personality doesn’t seem to align well with leadership roles: he is plagued by self-doubt, courts moderation to the point of being called wishy-washy, and doesn’t wield a particularly overwhelming charisma. He’s a psychiatrist’s nightmare: he internalizes the pain of losing in the exact opposite fashion one would expect. Often he laments how thankless the job is. And yet it’s Manager of the Year, not MVP, that he covets, and he’s the first to the field – even before the snow melts – and the last kid out of the rainstorm. He is driven, although it’s hard to tell by what.

Certainly, it’s not fellowship. Brown’s teammates treat him at best with disregard and more often with outright disdain. His seemingly innocent efforts to drill the team on fundamentals, sorely lacking, regularly are met with outright mutiny. Given the number of dropped fly balls, Brown’s failure to incentivize practice hurts the team badly. At such a low level, one could argue that this is the single most important aspect of a manager’s job: development. But the team does not develop. Is it the players, or is it the coach?

Many of a big league manager’s off-field tasks are inapplicable in our case: Brown does not have to work with a general manager, has no say over transactions, rarely deals with injury or training staffs, and never has to explain his losses to the media.

One criticism that might be drawn is the fact that we never see him preparing his players for their particular opponents, working with Schroeder regarding which pitches will fool which hitters or how the outfield should shade in different situations. “Back up!” is the extent of his master plan, though not a bad one. But it’s difficult to imagine Brown being able to build up any real scouting database anyway, with no extra bench help to collect the information. Besides, given his team, perhaps “back up” is all that’s necessary.

Occasionally, when Brown is sick or absent, the team wins in his absence, but we’re not really told why. However, we get an extended look at a hot-tempered, Weaverian Snoopy coaching the team, and the team fails to respond to him, either. Patty has better luck in her one brief stint, but this is as much for the talent (including herself) that she brings on with her.

Brown’s case is an extreme version of Gene Mauch, a manager’s purgatory: forced to run the same bad ballclub with its same lousy players, over and over, for 50 years. At some point you’d expect desperation to force a change in Charlie’s style, but that’s simply one of his foibles: a good-spirited resistance to change or improvement. How can we criticize the manager for failing to change when his team is similarly static? Is he not simply a product of his environment?

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What’s perhaps strangest of all is that, despite his complete lack of support, his grip on the job never falters. Brown must be doing something right, because not even hundred-run losses can drive his crew to mutiny. Managing is tough, but not so tough that someone as naturally bossy as Lucy can’t dream of running the show. And yet she never whispers about it.

The team does literally quit on him occasionally – and he occasionally quits on them. You expect some friction in every 50-year relationship. Perhaps the team has settled into its natural state of defeat, with players and managers happy to blame and be blamed, respectfully. Or perhaps they’ve settled in a natural state, and  a better manager might be able to create a winning culture and the happy chemistry that goes along with it.

Is Charlie Brown a terrible manager? Yes. He’s no great tactician and no great leader, and his team’s record would make the Cleveland Spiders grateful. His blindness toward his own lack of talent, and the fact that he allows himself to overshadow Linus, his second-best player, are nearly villainous. He provides zero inspiration and often loses crucial games single-handedly. There’s no question he loves the game and works hard, but his refusal to innovate or even to mix things up is criminal on a losing ballclub. He really does deserve the criticism so often lobbed at him by his players.

And yet, Brown’s team is embodied by the same virtue that distinguished Brown himself: the ability to get back up. No matter how bad things get, they keep playing baseball. He is, in a way, his team’s effigy: he draws out the sins of his players and bands them together in their opposition. The fact that Lucy, Patty, Violet and Frieda keep jogging out to that outfield, keep chasing after home run balls with no fence to stop them, is a minor miracle in itself. They complain about losing, but they seem happy to continue doing it. As someone who spent several seasons managing a bar-league softball team, I can attest to this: getting nine adults to show up at a baseball field at a given time is no small task, and Brown does it with eight-year-olds, every summer, for 50 years. It’s not nothing. It’s actually kind of amazing, in a way.

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References & Resources


Patrick Dubuque is a wastrel and a general layabout. Many of the sites he has written for are now dead. Follow him on Twitter @euqubud.
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Thibault
Guest
Thibault

Excellent overall assessment. This doesn’t affect your conclusions – in fact, it strengthens them – but Charlie Brown also lost a game by attempting to steal home on May 16, 1960, and Linus and Snoopy are shown to be an effective double play combination (despite the paucity of ground balls Brown induces) on August 5, 1962. This series went into much more detail on statistics, though unfortunately the author never went past 1970: http://wezen-ball.com/2010-articles/calculating-charlie-browns-wins-losses-a-other-stats-introduction.html

yahmule
Guest
yahmule

Brown’s biggest failings were clearly as a GM. That was the kind of roster only a die hard Joe Shlabotnik fan could have assembled. I think Peppermint Patty would have had a Kelly Leak type impact on that roster, but she made Chuck very uncomfortable by liking him so he never recruited her.

Stephen
Guest
Stephen

First off, really enjoyed this article. I probably know way too much about Peanuts, which will probably be evidenced below. Charlie Brown did try on several occasions to upgrade his roster. Originally, Peppermint Patty and Jose Peterson (A boy from her neighborhood who hit .640 in New Mexico and .850 in North Dakota) were going to join “Chuck’s” team, but after a week they determined that the team was awful and they’d go make a team in their neighborhood (Also suggesting to Chuck that his team take up shuffleboard). She probably would have brought Franklin (Sometimes shown on Charlie Brown’s… Read more »

Joel
Guest
Joel

Good analysis.

Charlie Brown does hit a couple of game-winning home runs in the early 90s, though I think we later find out that the opposing pitcher let him do it because she liked him (it was a new character, not Peppermint Patty).

Joel
Guest
Joel

Oh yeah, I just remembered there’s one storyline (I think in the 70s) when Charlie Brown runs away from home and ends up managing a team of really small kids. And he has some success there.

Yehoshua Friedman
Guest
Yehoshua Friedman

Love this piece! It’s creative.

Chris
Guest

I may have enjoyed this too much…

Dee P. Gordon
Guest
Dee P. Gordon

Good grief!

ajnrules
Guest

Another sign that Charlie Brown is not optimally utilizing his defense: Lucy is clearly better suited to play the infield

TJB
Guest
TJB

How about the park factors? Charlie Brown’s home park floods on several occasions and for awhile the grounds crew appropriated left field to grow crops, the infield to grow vegetables and the pitcher’s mound to plant a tree:
http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x206n7b_it-s-arbor-day-charlie-brown_shortfilms

Paul G.
Guest
Paul G.

It’s really not his fault. Charlie Brown is essentially cursed to play baseball. He is very much the Sisyphus of the diamond, dutifully pushing that boulder to the top of the hill, only for it to roll back down. The only differences are (a) Chuck is well-meaning, eager, genuinely good, but utterly incompetent while Sisyphus is ancient Greek mythology’s answer to a ultra-effective supervillain, (b) Sisyphus gets the satisfaction but also repeated tedium of almost getting the boulder to the top of the hill before rolling down while Chuck probably gets an endless variety of cartoonish failures (pushes it for… Read more »

Marc Schneider
Guest
Marc Schneider

When Snoopy was going after the Babe’s record in the last game, the first pitch went over his head and through his cap. Perhaps pitchers refused to pitch to Snoopy because they didn’t like the idea of a canine breaking Ruth’s record, a la Hank Greenberg. Bob Feller might well have done that.

Dave
Guest
Dave

Shermy, not Sherman.

Steve Caimano
Guest
Steve Caimano

Patrick,

This is great writing.

That is all.

87 Cards
Guest
87 Cards

Charlie won a game http://peanuts.wikia.com/wiki/Charlie_Brown%27s_baseball_team

This, in my ranking, puts him ahead of Larry “Moose” Stubing 0-8 finishing out the season as chief of the 1988 Angels. Moose also put up a 0-5 with four strikeouts as a Angels’ player in 1967.

Mixed feelings for me though—Moose was my favorite manager that ever came to town to manage my hometown El Paso Diablos.

Phillies113
Guest
Phillies113

“After a few years behind the dish early in his career, Brown took over primary duties on the mound for his team and put up the sort of lines that would make Dee P. Gordon cringe.”

This reference made me so happy.

Andy
Guest
Andy

Charlie Brown is not only probably the worst manager in history, but probably the worst player in history, too. Let me try to estimate his WAR. A team composed entirely of replacement players wins about 30% of its games, or about 48 in a 162 game season. Since Brown’s teams lose basically every game they play, we can say his team WAR is – 48. How much of that is his fault? Snoopy almost broke Hank Aaron’s record, so I think we can give him 8 WAR easily. Linus is a very good player, let’s give him 4 WAR. So… Read more »

Paul G.
Guest
Paul G.

How do we calculate Charlie’s defense into this? Chuck appears to have mastered the “almost naked” defense technique where every line drive through the mound strips him bare of his clothing. I suspect that the discarded duds slow down the screamers allowing his crack middle infield pairing to turn a lot of hits into outs, not to mention greatly reducing interruptions of Lucy’s latest philosophical discussions. That’s got to be worth, what, half a win? Honestly, we may have the new inefficiency here. Just don’t tell Bartolo Colon or at least encourage him to buy distracting boxers. Very distracting boxers.… Read more »

Corey
Guest
Corey

This is a really good point, the article was very critical of Brown’s decision to play Linus at 2B, but if Linus and Snoopy are an excellent double play combo, and all those line drives are getting slowed down by Charlie Brown’s clothes, then suddenly this makes a lot more strategic sense.

Jenstrom
Guest
Jenstrom

Love to see this type of writing. Reminds me of NotGraphs.

#KeepNotGraphs

Chris
Guest
Chris

Another psychiatric factor possibly at play here is Charlie Brown’s tendency toward exhibitionism. Are we really supposed to believe that his shirt, shoes, and socks are “knocked off” by every line drive that comes his way?

George Robinson
Guest
George Robinson

Delightful. I’m only sorry that my mom isn’t around to read this. She was a diehard Peanuts fan and a lifelong supporter of the New York Yankees, perhaps even more ferocious in her love of the Bombers than George Steinbrenner.

Marc Schneider
Guest
Marc Schneider

Let’s not ignore Charlie Brown’s crush on the Little Red Haired Girl, which may have been an off-field distraction. It wouldn’t be the first time that ballplayers had problems with women; just see Eddie Waitkus and Roy Hobbs. It’s probably hard to pitch if you are thinking about the Little Red Haired Girl constantly. Perhaps Brown needed to see a sports psychologist-it worked for John Smoltz.