The Yost-ings of yesteryear

As I’m sure everyone reading this already knows, last week the Milwaukee Brewers fired manager Ned Yost, who was concluding his sixth season with the club. Managerial firings are common, even midseason ones. This particular one was stunning to many because it happened late in the year for a team in the thick of a race.

The Brewers had their reasons—this September was the latest in a Yostian tradition of late-season slumps and unfocused September play—but the circumstances remained odd. When teams fire a manager this late in the year, they’re not usually in the hunt for October.

While odd, such a firing isn’t unprecedented. As THT alum Dan Fox already noted in his blog, numerous postseason-bound squads have dumped their skipper in mid-stream. Most of those changes, however, either occurred early in the season and/or to teams struggling over .500.

This article takes a different approach at finding similar seasons. I’m not looking at how the year planned out, but at where the team stood when the move was made. In particular, I want to find times a team fired the field general in the second half of the year when they had a good record and/or were still in contention. Going over every instance is unnecessary. You can check the references and resources section for the ones I left out. Here are the most interesting and impressive ones, in other words, the most Yost-ian of all these firings.

The worst idea of all-time: 1910 Highlanders

George Stallings had the Highlander (soon to be known as the Yankees) in second place with a 78-59 record when he lost his job. Though they had no chance at the pennant, he had earned an extension, not a firing, for overseeing one of the most incredible transformations any club has ever seen.

In 1908, the Highlanders had been a laughingstock. They had talent, but they also a combustible clubhouse. Veteran manager Clark Griffith had quit in disgust, only to be replaced by infielder Kid Elberfeld, one of the team’s loudest malcontents. The team’s first baseman campaigned against the new manager, feeling he should have the job. Letting the inmate run the asylum had made a bad situation worse, and New York went an astonishingly bad 33-93 over the last five months.

Stallings replaced the failed Elberfeld as manager in 1909. Though canned, Elberfeld remained on the team. So did the first baseman, who continued to brood about his situation. Despite the circumstances, Stallings righted things. He always had a knack for getting the most out of his teams. In 1914, he would become a miracle worker taking an undertalented Boston Braves team to world championship.

He improved them by 23 wins in 1909 and had them on the verge of contention. So they fired him. You see, the first baseman had never stopped plotting. He had a good relationship with upper management and convinced them to fire Stallings and make him the manager.

The first baseman’s name? Hal Chase, AKA the most corrupt man in baseball history. It’s almost impossible to describe what a bad move this was. It’s like asking Typhoid Mary to run your kitchen, Steve Garvey to look after your teenage daughters, or Sarah Palin to serve as your vice presidential nominee. It’s a bad idea that gets worse the more you think of it.

The team predictably flopped and never returned to contention until Babe Ruth arrived.

Reaping what you sow: 1929 Pirates

Just two years after leading them to a pennant, Donie Bush lost his job despite piloting the club to a 67-51 mark, good for second place behind the Cubs. Like the 1910 Yankees, this firing had a fuse that had been set two years before.

In 1927, Bush had been involved in one of the greatest manager-player disputes of all time. He was convinced that star outfielder Kiki Cuyler was a loafer and flatly refused to play him down the stretch. Bush’s militancy seemed to pay off, and they won the pennant without Cuyler’s help. As a result, Pittsburgh sold Cuyler for pennies on the dollar to placate their manager. That’s where the worm turned for Bush.

Pittsburgh faltered to fourth in 1928, and after a strong start in 1929, fell behind the Cubs. Making the situation even more vexing, the Cubs were Cuyler’s new home. The supposed team cancer was hitting .360, leading the Cubs to the pennant. It highlighted how badly Bush had handled his clubhouse.

He had used the most drastic punishment possible on a player. In any circumstances, the harshest penalty should be used sparingly. Excessive punishment’s main accomplishment is to make the authority figure feel powerful rather than handle the particular problem. He didn’t want the headaches Cuyler caused without realizing a manager’s job is to put up with headaches.

Cuyler ended up playing in four times as many World Series games as Bush managed.

The Chicago cha-cha-cha: 1930, 1932, 1938 Cubs

If the 1910 Highlander firing was the stupidest decision of all time, what the Cubs did in 1930 was a close second. They had Joseph McCarthy, the greatest manager of all time, calling their shots. They were the defending NL champs, and only 2.5 games out with four left to play. Their odds weren’t good, but they still had a chance.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Inexplicably, the Cubs got rid of him. Even worse, they replaced him with Rogers Hornsby. While a great hitter, he’s the game’s consummate hack manager. His greatest strength as manager was that he alienated teams so quickly that he couldn’t keep a job long enough to do any really serious long-lasting damage. It’s incredible how many opportunities he got to prove he shouldn’t be given these opportunities.

Hornsby combined a noxious personality, with disdain for players, and an indifference to coaching. His only success came in his first go-around as field general, when he led the Cards to their first pennant in 1926 while serving as player-manager. They were so impressed with his performance they traded him away that offseason. Please realize he was not only their manager, but also best hitter at the time.

The Cubs didn’t win it with him, and two years later belatedly realized the error of their ways, firing Hornsby midseason. They were 53-46, in second place, five behind the Pirates at the time. Under replacement Charlie Grimm, they went 37-18 down the stretch and won the pennant. They’re the first pennant winner to fire the manager in midseason. Alas, they were swept in October by the Yankees—managed by Joe McCarthy, of course.

Grimm had a bit of success, winning another pennant in 1935, but he still had his critics. In 1938, forces in the front office loudly called for his head. Grimm, not wanting to undergo that indignity, resigned as manager. At the time, the club was 45-36, had just finished a seen-game winning streak and was only 5.5 games out.

Grimm took another role with the franchise and supposedly helped his replacement, catcher Gabby Hartnett. Just like 1932, they blazed down the stretch and defeated the Pirates for the pennant. And again, just like 1932, they were swept in the World Series—by Joe McCarthy’s Yankees, again.

Into the setting sun: 1961 Braves

Chuck Dressen had hoped Milwaukee would be his return to glory. He’d won back-to-back pennants in Brooklyn and appeared poised for a Hall of Fame career. Instead, the team let him go when he wouldn’t sign a one-year contract. He scuffled with the dismal Senators for a spell before landing in Milwaukee.

The 1950s Braves had been a dynamo, winning pennants in 1957-8 and narrowly missing in 1956 and 1959. Dressen showed up in 1960 only to have the core start to age on him. They stayed in second place in 1960 but never really threatened.

The franchise apparently refused to believe the talent was weakening. Despite playing 71-58, good for third place, they fired him. They ended the year in fourth. They wouldn’t finish higher than fifth until the end of the decade.

One can guess what the front office mavens were thinking. Last time they fired a team in midseason, it really set a fire for the club. In 1956, after a middling 24-22 start, they canned Charlie Grimm—yup, the same Charlie Grimm involved in the Chicago drama. The team won the first 11 games under new manager Fred Haney and missed the pennant by only a game. Lightning rarely strikes twice, though.

Waiting in the wings: 1973 Pirates

Technically, this one doesn’t fit. The Pirates had a losing record, 67-69, when they fired manager Bill Virdon in 1973. Then again, this was the year the Mets won the division while barely playing .500. Losing record or not, the Pirates were in second place, only three games out. They’d been tied for first a few days before, but had dropped three of four, hurting their chances.

Virdon had an additional problem to contend with—there was someone else who could step in: Pittsburgh institution Danny Murtaugh. He had already managed the club thrice, and delivered world titles in 1960 and 1971. The only reason he had ever stopped managing them was because he had a bad heart, and the stress of the job was difficult for him.

Murtaugh briefly took them back into first place, but a late swoon combined with a Mets surge cost them. Murtaugh stayed on the job until his heart finally gave out three years late.

He’ll be back: 1973 Tigers

How can you have a list like this and not include at least one Billy Martin firing? There are so many to choose from, but let’s stick with the first time he lost his job in midseason.

The year before, Martin had led Detroit to the division title, the team’s first postseason appearance since the heyday of Denny McLain. For much of 1973, it looked like they would repeat, as they were in first place as late as August 14.

They were a typical Billy Martin team, though. A little Martin could go a long way, but a lot of Martin only went a little way. They floundered in the second half of August, which combined with a Baltimore surge and Boston rise, put them in third place, 7.5 games out.

They played .500 down the stretch under Joe Schulz, and wouldn’t return to contention until Sparky Anderson showed up nearly a decade later. Given Martin’s nature, firing him was probably a sound idea, but they didn’t have much else going for them.

Winning despite you, not because of you: 1983 Phillies

This is the only time in baseball history a team already in first place fired the manager in the second half of the year. While true, some qualifiers should be noted. First, it was ever so barely in the second half. The Phillies had played 86 games, including one no-decision.

Second, they had as shaky a hold on the top slot as one could imagine. They were tied for first with the Cards, with the Pirates were a half-game back. Heck, the fourth place Expos were only a game back, and even the fifth place Cubs were in striking distance, 4.5 behind.

They had a 43-42 record, about as bad as you could expect a first place team to have. Worse still, they had dropped four of their last five games. All arrows pointed down for manager Pat Corrales.

He was in enough trouble, frankly. They year before had been his introduction to the City of Brotherly Love. He guided the club to second place. That would be swell for many places, but not the town that once booed Santa Claus. They had won five division titles in the six preceding years, all with managers they never thought much of.

Out the door Corrales went. Proving the critics right, the team went nuts, going 47-30 the rest of the way, skating to a division title, and winning the fourth pennant in franchise history.

Conclusion (sorta)

An interesting theme emerges in these firings. Many of these teams fall into one of two categories: squads that knew exactly what they were doing, or those that truly had no clue. Some of the worst firings of all time made the above list, while other squads won pennants.

There’s no reason to think any of this means anything for Ned Yost and the Milwaukee Brewers. This is primarily intended as a series of interesting stories, not predictive analysis. Still, teams don’t fire a manager this late in productive seasons unless they are very sure they are making the right move. You really find out a lot about a person’s judgment when he makes such a high-stakes gamble. Let’s see if Doug Melvin knows what he’s doing.

References & Resources
Other times a manager with a winning record left in the second half: Steve O’Neill on the 1954 Phillies (40-37), Jack McKeon on the 1975 Royals (50-46), Billy Martin on the 1978 Yankees (52-42), John McNamara on the 1988 Red Sox (43-42), George Bamberger on the 1980 Brewers (47-45), Yogi Berra on the 1975 Mets (56-53), Herman Franks on the 1979 Cubs (78-77), Joe Gordon got traded (!) by the 1960 Indians (49-46), Lee Fohl with the 1919 Indians (44-34), Gabby Street with the 1933 Cards (46-45), Don Zimmer on the 1980 Red Sox (82-73), Bobby Valentine on the 1992 Rangers (45-41), and Dick Williams twice: with the 1969 Red Sox (82-71) and 1981 Expos (44-37).

Plus, some men left without getting fired necessarily. Walter Alston retired with the 1976 Dodgers, Fred Hutchinson was dying on the 1964 Reds, and Paul Richards twice left a successful franchise – the 1954 White Sox and 1961 Orioles – to find a new project. Christy Mathewson went off to war in 1918 after managing the Reds to a 61-57 start.

Over the last year I’ve looked at numerous books dealing with managers, so where I got all this info blurs together. The most important sources for this article include: The Bill James Guide to Managers by Bill James, The Man in the Dugout by Leonard Koppett, and A Biographical Dictionary of Major League Baseball Managers by John C. Skipper.

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