In my book, among the more aimless discussions in sports is the eternal debate about how important a manager is to the success or failure of a baseball team. People who otherwise seem to know their stuff argue there are teams so good that they can manage themselves, or so bad that Moses Himself couldn’t lead them to the Promised Land. The argument might have vague merit if it were not ultimately irresolvable.
When he skippered the Yankees—from 1929 to 1946 — Joe McCarthy was widely derided as “a push-button manager,” the argument of a great many holding that teams successively anchored by the likes of Ruth, Gehrig, and DiMaggio supplemented by all-stars up and down the roster could have been successfully directed to the loftiest eminence by a mindless zombie on automatic pilot.
Hardly one of the game’s sunnier personalities, McCarthy never succeeded in fully refuting that notion even after he came to Boston to manage a team loaded with superstars and failed miserably. If McCarthy had little to do with the success of the Yankees, how could he have been fully responsible for the failure of the Red Sox? The inherent contradiction has never been satisfactorily explained.
Is a manager absolutely no better or worse than his talent? The textbook historical example is Connie Mack, the near mythological spellbinder of the ancient Philadelphia Athletics, long gone near six decades now.
There was never a greater manager than the old man (he appears to have always been “old”) when he had Lefty Grove, Rube Walberg, and Moose Earnshaw for stoppers in a lineup built around Mickey Cochrane, Al Simmons, and Jimmie Foxx (1929-1931). But when he was required to sink or swim with a rotation of George Caster, Harry Kelley, Edgar Smith, and Bud Thomas—losers of 72 games all by themselves in the A’s dismal season of 1937 -- the loveable old goat didn’t look quite so brilliant. Connie was wise to the game’s ebb and flow if ever a man was.
So, too, was Casey Stengel. In the even more familiar example of what a difference one’s wherewithal can make if your trade is managing baseball teams, Casey went from losing 57 games with the Yankees in 1960 to losing 120 games with the Mets in 1961 without having had a frontal lobotomy during the intervening off-season.
But these are extreme examples featuring legendary characters. In the near infinite give and take of season after season, the precise impact of a manager—any manager—on a team’s performance is vastly more difficult to calibrate. Even in this era of near ludicrous statistical obsessions, with the mathematical wizards of SABR armed with their logarithms squeezing the subject dry in their intense scrutiny of the virtually infinitesimal, no one has even dared try.
Moreover, a baseball season is like no other in terms of its length, detail, and sociological complexity. There’s an intensity about baseball life that’s very different from that of other games. A great baseball manager must be master of rather more than what unfolds daily in the box score. What statistics might measure all that?
So we are reduced to generalities and here’s one you should be able to live with, though it’s hardly profound. A strong team can be sabotaged by a weak manager, or at least held back from fulfilling its true potential. Red Sox history pulsates with stunning examples; only the most dramatic being the seasons of 1975, 1986, and 2003. In all three instances, wishy-washy managers who lost their bearings at crucial moments made the all-important difference in what on all three occasions concluded in monumental frustration.
Obviously, the flip side of the same thesis also obtains: A very strong manager can goad a team that’s not much more than decent well beyond its legitimate potential, even accomplishing something impossibly grand. It happens. But not very often. You can count the truly spectacular examples on your fingers and you should be forever thankful that arguably the very best one blossomed in your own backyard in that glorious summer of 1967.
Obviously, all of this thinking got churned up again the other day with the passing at the age of 82 of Richard Hirschfield ‘Dick’ Williams, principal architect of what is still so quaintly remembered as the Red Sox “Impossible Dream.”
There is no taking anything away from that team’s inspired band of warriors, incomparably led by Carl Yastrzemski and Jim Lonborg. No ballplayer ever assumed more of his team’s burden than did Yaz that summer, nor have the Red Sox ever featured a more gallant pitcher than Gentleman Jim; at least not this side of Smokey Joe Wood. Equally heroic, in his way, was Dick O’Connell, the sly fox of a general manager, who first had to drag the franchise—kicking and screaming—into the 20th century, before proceeding to build a champion. They all were superb.
But it was Dick Williams who brought it all together. It was Williams who seized the bit and braved the gauntlet and held the line and by the sheer force of a tenacious spirit and a daring much beyond the bounds of mere arrogance simply refused to allow them to lose. There was something classical about it and the joy of having watched it unfold remains undiminished 44 years later.
Williams was totally the difference. It was a good young team, clearly on the rise. But at the start of the season it was only the sixth best team in a ten-team league. Within three to four months, Williams bullied, berated, coaxed, and conned them into what amounted to a baseball metamorphosis. And if he’d had just one gasp left in his thoroughly wiped-out pitching staff, he would have beaten the decidedly stronger Cardinals in the World Series, thus finishing off the masterpiece that would have set beyond dispute the utter certainty that Dick Williams’s performance in 1967 was the finest single-season display of managing a baseball team in the game’s history.
How many wins was Williams worth that season? In terms of the bottom line, the number may as well have been infinite. In the many eulogies written about Williams it’s been stressed again and again that “maybe” they wouldn’t have won without him. Balderdash! There is no bloody way they would have won without him.
That it should all come crashing down with much nastiness just two years later was one of the more ludicrous incongruities of Tom Yawkey’s checkered ownership. Admittedly, Williams’s arrogance was a factor. He had a deep-seated contempt for authority, strong hang-ups about class-distinctions, a gift for sarcasm, and a fierce temper often stoked by a fondness for scotch. He was surely not above rattling the old man’s cage. But Yawkey’s own hang-ups played a greater role, and he had less of an excuse. It was bloody stupid, even by Uncle Tom’s quite minimal standards.
Williams always blamed Haywood Sullivan for stirring the pot and poisoning Yawkey against him. As for O’Connell, he was appalled. I think he never quite forgave Yawkey, or Haywood, either, for that matter. The tensions that engulfed the team after Yawkey died in ‘76 first sprouted with the messy cashiering of Dick Williams. Fenway’s palace intrigues then in vogue were the stuff of legend. By comparison, Louis XIV’s Court at Versailles was a romper room.
But then it would become the determined policy of Dick Williams to wear out his welcome wherever he went. He never did learn how to suffer fools gladly, especially if they happened to own baseball teams. He specialized in burning his bridges; even, I suspect, delighting in so doing, for which he paid the inevitable price. Far and away the best manager of his times, he should have been elected to the Hall of Fame 10 years earlier than he finally got the call, only three years before he checked out.
I liked him, although he was not an easy guy to like. He was an open book, defiantly so. He looked you in the eye and never minced his words. There was no guile in Dick Williams. Such chaps are rare. More and more so, I fear.