Nothing irritates fans more than when they watch their team bring in a pitcher who promptly serves up a walk. There’s something about seeing a professional pitcher toss four pitches out of the strike zone that angers spectators. It doesn’t seem that hard to throw a pitch over the plate. But even though it might rankle fans to watch their team issue walk after walk, it doesn’t cause them health issues. That was not the case with George Stallings, the Detroit Tigers very first manager and a remarkable man who made a name for himself in the game of baseball for several reasons.
In 1899, when Detroit was in the Western League, they turned to Stallings, a 33-year old who had never quite made it as a ballplayer. For a few years prior, Stallings had made somewhat of a name for himself managing college teams and lower-level minor league clubs in the south. When the Tigs were welcomed into the AL in ’01, Stallings went with them. Perhaps his most famous trait as manager was his habit of scooting himself nervously back and forth on the bench. He wore out more than a few seat pants with that nervous maneuver.
Stallings was born in Augusta, Georgia, just a few years after the end of the Civil War. That didn’t stop him from continuing the battle between the south and the north for his entire life. Stallings was a proud southerner who possessed what they called in the 19th century “a colorful tongue.” Armed with a sharp wit and a chip on his shoulder, Stallings was a rascal who didn’t suffer fools lightly. In his ballplaying days, which didn’t amount to much more than a few games in the big leagues because of his anemic hitting, Stallings never shied away from a confrontation. In one sandlot game in Georgia, “young Georgie” slid hard into third base only to be greeted by a much older man who slapped a tag across Stallings’ chin. Though he was at a disadvantage of roughly 60 pounds, Stallings sprung at the older man and wrapped his limbs around his body until separated by surprised teammates.
Like another manager who came many years later – Earl Weaver – behind Stallings’ fiery attitude was an analytical mind. Stallings never met a rulebook he couldn’t skirt around, an umpire he didn’t want to intimidate, or a ballpark he couldn’t bend to his own will. His favorite trick with the Tigers in that first season of 1901 was to shape the ground around home plate to help his hitters be able to slap the ball on a hard surface and send a shot over the head of opposing fielders. He also monkeyed with the placement of bases, lengthening the basepath just a smidge when playing against teams with speedy runners. His shenanigans largely went unnoticed, and they didn’t really help the Tigers much – they finished in the middle of the pack in runs scored and in 3rd place overall. At the end of the season, Stallings was fired. Some believed he was axed because of his ongoing feud with league president Ban Johnson, an autocratic man who ruled the new league like his own fiefdom.
Whatever his problems with Johnson, Stallings was back in the AL a few years later at the helm of the New York Highlanders (precursor to the Yankees). He skippered them in 1909 and 1910, before one of his players, Hal Chase, helped by Johnson, angled for the managerial job and got it. George slipped back down to Georgia once again, but he didn’t stay there long. In 1913, the owner of the Boston Braves asked Stallings to revive his struggling team. Saddled with a bunch of unproven players, “Gentleman George” came in and cleaned house. The next year, in 1914, his club was plodding along, several games under .500 and well out of first place, but then they caught fire and went 52-14 to finish the season and win the National League pennant. Without many overpowering players in his lineup, Stallings utilized several platoon arrangements with the Braves, and is credited as the first major league manager to use the platoon. Guided by their confident manager, the Braves swept the heavily-favored Philadelphia A’s (much to Johnson’s chagrin) to win the World Series. The team was forever known as “The Miracle Braves” and Stallings was suddenly the most famous baseball manager in the game.
Stallings retired from the majors a few years after World War I, but continued to stay involved in baseball. In the 1920s he teamed with a business partner to bring pro baseball to Montreal, and is considered one of the pioneers of baseball in Canada.
When he was 61 years old, Stallings suffered a heart attack and was lying on a hospital bed when his doctor asked him why he felt he had such a bad ticker. Stallings reportedly replied, “Those damned bases on balls, Doc, those goddam bases on balls!”