The Five Greatest Managers in Detroit Tigers History

Jim Leyland, Sparky Anderson, Hughie Jennings, Mickey Cochrane, and Del Baker.

Jim Leyland, Sparky Anderson, Hughie Jennings, Mickey Cochrane, and Del Baker.

A manager often gets too much credit for the success of a team, but the really good ones can make the one or two game difference between first and second place. The bad ones often overmanage and do more harm than good.

Some managers are too insufferable and wear out their welcome (Billy Martin), others see their teams quit on them (Ty Cobb, Mayo Smith, and Buddy Bell). Some are too inexperienced (Les Moss), while others see the game sort of pass them by (Bucky Harris and Hughie Jennings).

Some managers even leave due to health reasons or death (Mickey Cochrane, Charlie Dressen, Bob Swift). Other managers are very useful for stretches of time for specific reasons (Ralph Houk to work with young players and get through growing pains), while other managers are polarizing and get criticism for the things they fail to accomplish (Jim Leyland). The five managers below are the best in Tiger history.

#5. Del Baker (1933, 1936, 1937, 1938-1942)

Baker was a team-first sort of guy who came in and handled the club several times from his coaching role. He also managed the team to the pennant in 1940, though they lost to the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series. Baker filled in for long stretches in the 1936 and 1937 seasons when Mickey Cochrane was out with health problems. Baker had a .540 winning percentage in parts of eight seasons with Detroit. He ranks ahead of Steve O’Neill (who won about 100 more games and had a slightly higher win percentage) because I knock O’Neill down since he managed the team during World War II when the league was watered down.

#4. Jim Leyland (2006-2013)

It’s no coincidence that the losing ended when Leyland arrived on the scene in Detroit in 2006. The Tigers surprised everyone by winning the pennant that season in a magical year that included a walkoff pennant-winning homer by Magglio Ordonez at Comerica Park. It’s not off base to say that ever since that home run, the Tigers have been relevant and exciting to watch. Leyland never won the whole shebang in Motown, but he won three straight division titles and guided the Tigers to the postseason four times in eight seasons. He ranks third all-time in victories among Tigers’ managers with 700. His .540 winning percentage ranks third among Detroit skippers of five or more seasons, behind only Mickey Cochrane and Steve O’Neill.

#3. Hughie Jennings (1907-1920)

The first of the three Hall of Famers on this list. Jennings won pennants in each of his first three seasons as a Tiger manager, in 1907, 1908, and 1909. With talents like Ty Cobb, Sam Crawford, Donie Bush, Davy Jones, and Bobby Veach in his lineups, Jennings posted winning records in 10 of his 14 seasons at the helm in Detroit. He was also skilled at juggling his pitching staff which often turned over during his reign. His 1915 team won 100 games but finished in second place. Jennings drew on his experience as a player with the 19th century Baltimore Orioles, teaching his Tigers to play an aggressive offensive game that featured daring basepath maneuvers. He had a .538 winning percentage with Detroit. Cobb succeeded him as manager.

#2. Mickey Cochrane (1934-1938)

This was the man who taught the Tigers how to be champions. Cochrane arrived from the A’s in 1934 as a player/manager, manning the catching duties as well as skippering the team. The Tigers immediately won the AL pennant in Mickey’s first season and captured the title in 1935. A nearly fatal beaning in 1936 effectively ended his playing career, and he missed stretches of time as a manager as well. Eventually he was forced to leave the game due to the injury, but his contributions to the Tigers can never be overstated.

#1. Sparky Anderson (1979-1996)

When he arrived mid-season in 1979, Sparky told the press that he would have a championship team in Detroit within five years. He also famously said, “It’s my way or the highway.” Given free reign by GM Jim Campbell, Sparky weeded out the players he didn’t feel were up the task or who didn’t fit in his clubhouse. As a result, All-Stars Rusty Staub, Jason Thompson, Ron LeFlore, and Steve Kemp were all sent packing. Those moves seemed curious to many at the time, but Sparky proved his prognostication correct: in five years (1984) his Tigers roared the World Series title, leading wire to wire in one oif the most dominant seasons by a club in baseball history. Sparky was a superb handler of men and the media. He was also an underrated in-game manager. He wasn’t too proud to adjust his tactics based on his weapons: in Cincinnati where he had oft-injured starting pitchers, he was famous for his reliance on his bullpen. In Detroit he frequently led the league in complete games with workhorses like Jack Morris and Dan Petry. He wasn’t the most astute judge of young prospects (remember Chris Pittaro and Mike Laga?) but he worked well with his bench and role players. He was instrumental in the development and maturity of the young players that the Detroit farm system churned out in the late 1970s: Morris, Petry, Lance Parrish, Kirk Gibson, Dave Rozema, Tom Brookens, and more. He became the first manager to win a World Series in each league and one of the few to win more than 2,000 games.

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