P.K. Wrigley’s Mess: The Cubs’ College of Coaches

Wrigley Field was the site of a failed, if potentially prophetic, experiment. (via David Wilson)

My son, who is 11, likes to tell me about his ingenious plans to improve our lives in the future. Most of these plans involve inventing a thing and then leveraging the money and aplomb he receives for the thing into an attempt to take over the world. Lately, he’s even looked beyond our world into inventing a warp drive and conquering the galaxy. It is good to dream big, and so I do my best not to discourage his clearly horrifying plans, especially since they are so light on the details as to how, exactly, he plans to invent said warp drive or operating system or death robot.

I tell him I believe in him because I do. If not in his ability to enslave us all and install himself as our mostly benevolent ruler, then in him as a good and smart person who will find some way to make this world better once he dials back on the megalomania.

I think his is a natural impulse, though. Not the world domination part, but the part where he wants to innovate and be recognized for it. This world has problems and each of us wants to envision ourselves as part of the solution. The instinct is there. Few of us get the chance, however, and fewer still of those will succeed and be hailed as geniuses. Thankfully, of the infinite number of our failed attempts to innovate, born of good hearts and earnestness, almost none of them come to the public’s attention, where they would rightfully be ridiculed.

Philip K. Wrigley’s Cubs of the early 1960s were not so lucky. The failure of their well-intentioned innovation was very public, very foreseeable, and very memorable. Even today, when you mention the College of Coaches, baseball fans in the know will snicker. It was a disaster from the moment it was announced. And yet, in it we can see the kernel of an idea. An idea that was ahead of its time and that is a central tenet of franchises today. Indeed, the difference between it being an Quixotic effort and a success seems, looking back, to simultaneously be so very small, but also massive.

P.K. Wrigley had a lot of ideas, and many of them were pretty good. He was the driving force behind the All American Girls Professional Baseball League, for instance, and rejected the idea that broadcasting his team’s games on WGN would hurt his club’s attendance. As much as he enjoyed owning a baseball team, and felt obligated to keep doing so to honor his deceased father, who bought into the team in 1916, he also liked to run it as a business. He aggressively marketed the Cubs to the city of Chicago while doing little to improve the quality of the play on the field, and he was fairly militant about wringing as much profit out of the club as possible.

And, in running his club, he wanted the organization to closely mirror his chewing gum empire as well. As with an assembly line, he believed that certain pieces and people were interchangeable, and that standardization was important. He looked for ways to reduce inefficiency and to increase reliability. After all, no one cared how Juicy Fruit was made. They just cared that it tasted like Juicy Fruit when they opened it. Which is why, after a disappointing 1960 season where his Cubs finished .500 or worse for the 14th year in a row, and attendance dipped to just over 800,000, Wrigley was casting about for new ideas for how to make his team both cheaper and better.

One of the men he tapped was Elvin Tappe, a backup catcher and coach who was considered on the short list for the Cubs’ open managerial spot. Tappe was asked to help generate a new plan for the franchise, and to present his ideas to Wrigley. “My idea,” Tappe said, “was to hire eight guys. Four of them would be coaches in the major leagues. Four of them would be in the minor leagues.” These coaches would be chosen by the organization, rather than the manager, and would stay on even if Wrigley made a change at the helm. They would rotate between the majors and the minors, ensuring that a consistent philosophy was taught throughout to big leaguers and prospects alike. There would, in other words, be a “Cubs Way” that didn’t involve waiting ‘til next year.

Wrigley was excited by the idea. Perhaps a little too much. Taking the idea to a logical extreme, he called together his front office and asked them, “Do we need a manger?” When news leaked, he told reporters, “We’re just discussing things in general. We’re taking the whole works apart to see if it’s been necessary to do all the things we’ve done. Are we doing things with good reason—or only because these things have been done?”

Which… well, that’s actually a really good question. It’s the kind of question a sabermatrician might have asked if he were alive and employed by a major league baseball team in 1960. It’s the kind of mindful inquiry that can actually lead to innovation and organizational improvement. It inspires thinking outside  the box and finding new ways to approach problems. It’s the kind of question that, frankly, a majority of front offices have asked themselves in the last decade or two, and decided to go in a more evidence-based direction.

The answer, objectively, was “no.” A baseball team wasn’t required to have a manager. And clearly having a manager hadn’t helped the Cubs in the past. So Wrigley decided to try something new by modifying Tappe’s original idea to fit his new vision of a managerless future. The job was too big for any one man, he decided, and stunk of despotism. “The word manager,” Wrigley told reporters, “I looked it up and the pure definition is ‘dictator.’” It wasn’t, as the Chicago Tribune helpfully pointed out the next day, but that did not dissuade the gum magnate.

On Jan. 13, 1961, he announced in a press release that the Cubs would not have a manager “as that position is generally understood.” Instead of a single man at the top, Wrigley’s plan was to rotate a few of his coaches through what would be a “head coach” position. When asked if he ran his own business this way, he replied, “I’ve always run the gum business this way. No man is indispensable. I’ve resigned twice myself. It’s like hiring a man to run a bulldozer. If the man gets sick that doesn’t mean the bulldozer has broken down. You simply have another driver step in.”

The results were predictably chaotic, especially since no one knew who the driver would be from day to day. During spring training, the coaches would try to find a consensus on the daily lineup, and would occasionally vote on it. Nobody even knew who would serve as the head coach on Opening Day until five days before the start of the season.

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In the end, Wrigley chose pitching coach Vedie Himsl to manage for the first two weeks of the season, not because he had earned the job but because he was “the oldest in point of consecutive service with the Cubs.” Himsl lasted 11 games at the helm, after which he left to go manage the Double-A team in San Antonio. Harry Craft replaced him for 12 games before Himsl came back for another 17. Then Tappe got to manage for two games (both wins) before being replaced by Craft again for four games. Tappe finally got a 78-game stretch in where he was in charge, but was replaced by Lou Klein for 11 games, and then finished out the final 16 games of the year.

In all, there were eight managerial changes involving four men in 1961. The following year was slightly more stable, with just two in-season managerial changes, but followed a similar plan.

In addition to being unsuccessful on the field, where the Cubs would lose 193 games in two years, the new policy was wildly unpopular in the clubhouse. Don Zimmer described the experience of playing for what wound up being nine coaches: “When you’ve got nine managers giving nine different bits of advice to one ball player, what do you expect? Those coaches are human beings with ambitions and differences like all of us. It is only natural that they had nine different approaches to baseball. I’ve seen one coach wagging Ron Santo at third to play deeper while another was motioning him to come in. I’ve heard them give that kid completely contrary sets of instructions and then chew him out because he could not follow both. He’s a great prospect, but they’re driving him crazy.”

The indecision extended, of course, to who would be playing on a given day. Zimmer reported that “It didn’t take me long to discover Elvin Tappe thought Don Zimmer could play baseball and that Lou Klein thought he couldn’t. It doesn’t matter who was right. What mattered was, all 25 players on the club roster knew this coach liked them and that coach didn’t.” It led to a severe morale problem.

Reliever Don Elston was even more blunt: “I don’t think you will talk to one ballplayer who played under that system that’s going to say anything different than it was very hurtful and it was a very bad situation. In 1961, it all went to hell…. Our concern as players was that not one of them [the coaches] helped one of the others. My impression was that whoever was the manager—or the head coach—was pretty much on his own. All they did was wait until it was their turn.”

So what you had was a system that generated confusion and featured a leadership vacuum as a central tenet. It naturally led to back stabbing and failure. After the slow-moving car accident that was 1961 and 1962, Wrigley tried a new tack. He added Robert Whitlow, a former Air Force colonel and athletic director of the Air Force Academy, to be the Cubs’ new “athletic director.” Whitlow had dropped by the Wrigley company to visit the owner’s nephew and wound up having lunch with the head honcho himself, who came away very impressed, “because of his physique, which [Wrigley] believed would be a psychological factor in keeping the Cubs on a steady course. He [Whitlow] has a size [6’5”, 230 lbs] that commands respect.” Whitlow would be charged with making “sure our basic plan of play is followed to the letter from the minors up to Wrigley Field.”

Whitlow figured that the best plan would be for him to coach, but he was eventually talked into giving the job to Bob Kennedy. Instead, Whitlow would make sure that basic plan of play was followed to the letter by suiting up in spring training in an official Cubs uniform (the number of the back: one) and both leading calisthenics and shagging fly balls with his team.

The madness finally stopped after 1965, when Leo Durocher was brought in to restore some sanity and dignity to the proceedings, and preside over above-.500 finishes in six of the next seven campaigns. He was very clear to point out when he was hired that, “If no announcement has been made of what my title is, I’m making it here and now. I’m the manager. I’m not a head coach. I’m the manager.” And thus ended the experiment.

So, yes, the College of Coaches was an absolute debacle. It should never have happened. But Wrigley’s college didn’t fail because of all the professors he hired. It failed because he neglected to hire a president. For all he tried to impose stability, the Cubs’ owner created a central power vacuum left that group rudderless and prone to infighting. And the constant movement of coaches around the organization confused his players even more than it confused the fans and the media. Finally, when he wised up and put a man in charge of administering his college, he chose a clown.

But his core idea? To stabilize instruction and create a “Cubs Way” that would live beyond any one manager? That idea has merit. And how do we know? Because Tappe and Wrigley’s vision, not of a good team every couple of years, but of a synchronized organization, all rowing in the same direction and in step philosophically on into the foreseeable future, is what virtually every franchise in 2017 is trying to achieve. It makes me wonder what ideas we’re laughing about today that are going to shape our lives 50 years from now. And it reminds me that I should probably spend more time with my son, so he gives me a cushy job when he winds up ruling us all.

References and Resources

  • Rob Neyer, Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Blunders
  • Chicago Tribune, “Who’ll Boss the Cubs,” Apr 9 1961
  • Chicago Tribune, “Cubs Ask: Do We Even Need a Manager?” Nov 23, 1960
  • Chicago Tribune, “No Manager For Cubs in ‘61”
  • Chicago Tribune, “College of Coaches Got Failing Grade From Whitlow,” Feb 20, 1994
  • Chicago Tribune, “Zimmer Says Cubs Spirit Hit,” Oct 17, 1961

Mike Bates co-founded The Platoon Advantage, and has written for many other baseball websites, including NotGraphs (rest in peace) and The Score. Currently, he writes for Baseball Prospectus and co-hosts the podcast This Week In Baseball History. His favorite word is paradigm. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBatesSBN.
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Superb writing and an excellent story! I was eleven or so when word came out on the Cubs’ college of coaches, and as a bright lad it struck me as a worthy endeavor. After all, the Cubs had so little talent outside of Ernie Banks, what could it hurt? And as the experiment ground on and on, it became apparent to all that no degree of management or coaching would make up for a lack of talent. The presence of that new team in New York (which had no one near Ernie’s calibre) hammered that message home. As Casey Stengel… Read more »

Dennis Bedard
Dennis Bedard

Billy Williams?


My response was a memory piece. I had not heard of Williams when word of the Cubs’ plan for a College of Coaches appeared in the Shreveport Times. Billy W had a fine rookie season (just researched it) hitting around .285 with perhaps 25 HR. NL hitting was better then and Roberto Clemente won the Batting Title with .351 and Vada Pinson was a distant .327. Twenty or so guys in the NL had more HR than Billy. And yo, I am and was a Braves fan and as such paid little attention to rookies on weak teams. Furthermore, Bill… Read more »