Whatever the merits and meaning of the Red Sox latest meltdown—as yet not fully determined—it is already clear that the merry contretemps featuring the alleged “mutiny” of certain roster malcontents who’ve become disenchanted with manager Bobby Valentine should be seen as very much in this historically inscrutable team’s richest tradition.
“Rebelling against the manager?” … “Undermining authority?” … “Ratting out one another?” … “Stars brown-nosing the owner?” … “‘Managers being devoured in the cross-currents of palace intrigues?”
Why, it’s all there in black and white raging through the annals of your beloved Fenway boys of summer, old sport. In the interests of time and space we’ll confine this review to the modern-era, beginning right after WWII.
But before getting into all that, let me make this much clear right here and now. You will hear apologists and other doting lackeys of Red Sox Nation argue that this stuff happens on all teams. WRONG!
Yes, it happens—at least every blue moon or so—on every team in every sport. But not with the consistency that it happens here. Not with the levels of venom and malice achieved here. Not with the epic carnage that has been produced here. No formal records are kept on the subject. You won’t find corroborative evidence in the Elias database. But I’ll vehemently argue no team in any game has a record for such colossal ragtime faintly comparable to what’s been etched by your Boston Red Sox. PERIOD!
Here’s the rundown:
1950: After Joe Cronin’s ascension as GM to the right hand of owner Tom Yawkey, Yankees’ legend Joe McCarthy took command in 1948 and botched two golden pennant-opportunities before getting released from his suffering mid-way through the 1950 season. McCarthy is old, tired, and losing a terrible battle with alcohol in his time here, but it’s the grumbling of his players that finishes him off. On the train ride home from New York—after they’d blown the ’49 pennant—derisive players humiliate McCarthy. It would have been merciful if they’d fired him as he got off that train.
1954: Hired after the post-war flops to orchestrate a massive overhaul featuring kids from the farm system, Lou Boudreau is systematically under-mined by veteran players enabled by Yawkey’s front-office cronies. As an outsider, Boudreau probably never had the trust of Yawkey and Cronin. Moreover, they had a true-blue buddy waiting in the wings: Pinky Higgins.
Late ’50s: Yawkey’s penchant for cronyism abets the problem, which at its height produces wonderful farces like the front-office clashes of Higgins with Bucky Harris and Billy Jurges. Inevitably, the players and even some baseball writers get drawn into the circus. But aging resident demigod Ted Williams remains aloof. Interestingly, Williams never allows his fondness for Yawkey to influence his loyalty to his managers.
1963: Evolving new-age star Carl Yastrzemski is suspected of undermining manager Johnny Pesky with what are described as “back-stairs visits” to the owners’ inner sanctum. I’ve never been convinced young Yaz bore as much malice as was charged, while long suspecting the malevolent Higgins had much more to do with Pesky’s managerial demise. But clearly old Johnny believed Carl was guilty. It’s a burden Yaz still bears.
1966: Promising young team’s developing stars (not including Yaz) rebel against Billy Herman’s traditional ways. But that has nothing to do with Dick O’Connell’s determination to dump Herman. Dick has a new guy in mind.
1969: That new guy, Dick Williams, runs afoul of his troops and their hyper-indulgent owner and gets fired only two years after orchestrating the greatest story in the team’s history. Certainly, many players disliked Williams, with some even having reasonable reasons. But Yawkey should never have listened to them. He was dead wrong.
1976: Mere months after leading the lads to the allegedly greatest World Series of the age, Darrell Johnson loses his team’s respect and gets canned. But it remains difficult to defend Darrell.
Late ’70s: Rebellious team clique called “the Buffalo Heads,” led by class clown, Bill (Spaceman) Lee, dedicate themselves to the destruction of Don Zimmer. They don’t succeed, per se, but unquestionably grease the skids for Zimmie’s eventual demise. They were dead wrong.
1988: Just months after leading them to that World Series classic against the Mets, John McNamara gets de-legitimized by his players in ways eerily similar to Johnson’s experience 12 years earlier. If neither was another Earl Weaver, their stories were no less examples of the inmates taking over the asylum once again.
1991: History repeats itself ingloriously. After two trips to the playoffs and the weaving of his celebrated “magic,” Joe Morgan loses favor with owner Jean Yawkey, who chooses instead to listen to several of her most favorite players.
2001: Insurrection in the player’s ranks, inspired by but not confined to the infamous Carl Everett, lays waste to Jimy Williams. Hilariously brief Joe Kerrigan era promptly follows.
2011: Terry Francona reign, the second longest in team history, ends in a monumental fiasco with players’ quirks glibly tolerated by ownership and outright insubordination playing major roles.
2012: Actually, the Bobby Valentine era began to melt down even before it had really begun, which may be some sort of record.
Valentine, of course, could yet survive. We seek not to bury him here. No one but a few stray fools claims it’s all his fault. The melodrama still plays out as this is written and so far he has handled himself reasonably in the midst of the firestorm swirling about him. You had to particularly like his blunt and unequivocal assertion that this contretemps has not been created by the media even as some dim-witted members of said local media were saying it was. One assumes they do so in a pathetic attempt to ingratiate themselves with the owners who, aside from CEO Lucchino, are AWOL in this messy business. And would someone please advise principal owner John Henry that he can spare us any more pious press releases presumably crafted by his resident super-flack, Dr. Whatshisname. The search for goats in this story yields no end to candidates. If the media didn’t create this mess, that doesn’t mean the media won’t enjoy it.
Historically, the classic example of a team rebelling against its manager did not star our Red Sox but rather the historically tame (relatively) Cleveland Indians. In 1940, the Tribe had a fine team starring Kennie Keltner, Lou Boudreau, Hal Trosky, Jeff Heath, and that incomparable fireballer, Bobby Feller, who was a mere 27-11 that year. They were leading the league despite constant friction with their manager, a cranky baseball lifer named Ossie Vitt with whom they’d been feuding three years, when the situation finally exploded in June of 1940.
Quite beside themselves, the players demanded a showdown with owner Alva Bradley. Here’s how the conversation went between the players and the owner as detailed by Feller in his fine 1947 autobiography:
“We tried to paint the picture with Bradley, as we saw it. He makes everybody nervous, someone said. He pops off too much to newspapermen, said another. He showboats too much was a third comment. He flies into rages in the dugout during games, somebody added. He tears us down to other teams, chipped in another.”
Through it all, Feller wrote, “Bradley sat there, shifting his gaze as we spoke.” But in the end, he did nothing. The next day, the story broke. Someone had squealed and there were scalding headlines. “It was June 13,” Feller writes “Paris had fallen to the Nazi Germans the very same day the Indians rose against their manager.” Which of course, he points out, only made them seem more ridiculous. Within a week they were the laughingstock of the league to be branded “Cry-Babies” forevermore. Vitt remained their manager as they lost the pennant to the Tigers, by one game.
One can imagine this Red Sox scenario ending up in roughly the same way. Of course we won’t know for sure until one of them lets the cat out of the bag, maybe years from now. Frankly, I can wait.