Hall of Fame manager Casey Stengel said the secret to being a successful manager was keeping the five guys who hate you away from the four who haven’t made up their minds yet.
In his tenure as manager of the Detroit Tigers, Jim Leyland never had five guys to worry about. He was a well-respected manager who deftly navigated the line between “player’s manager” and “disciplinarian.” In a Leyland clubhouse there was never any doubt who was in charge, but he didn’t use a heavy hand, and his players gave their all for him.
Leyland was more than an old school baseball lifer. He had a soft, playful side too. Smoky was known to do the moonwalk when the mood struck him, like when the team won a division title. He also loved the clubhouse meal table, and his post-game interviews were frequently conducted with potato salad in his cheeks. Yummy.
There’s probably never been a more emotional man to occupy the manager’s chair in Detroit. Leyland is a crier, he wears his emotions on his potato salad-stained sleeves. Whether it was a game-winning hit, a no-hitter, or an interview about his father, Jimmy Leyland could be counted on to squirt some tears. It wasn’t as squirmy as it sounds: at least our skipper cared!
Idiosyncrasies aside, Leyland built a career record matched by few managers in his era. He guided the Tigers out of the abyss and into pennant contention for years. In his first season as manager, his calm, steady hand helped the team to 96 wins and a shocking pennant. He later won three division titles and added another American League flag.
Is Jim Leyland a Hall of Fame manager? Next fall the Eras Committee will have an opportunity to nominate Leyland to the ballot. Did he do enough to deserve a place in Cooperstown?
Leyland never won a World Series in Detroit, missing his best chance in 2013 when he had a loaded team but fell to the Red Sox in a grueling six-game League Championship Series. He managed his final game in that series, and in the off-season, exhausted after an emotional season and his fourth postseason loss in Detroit, he stepped down and accepted a special adviser position. Still, he won 700 games in Detroit and those three straight division titles. He’s one of only three Tiger managers to win multiple pennants, along with Hughie Jennings and Mickey Cochrane, both of whom are in the Hall of Fame.
Many Tiger fans are still stinging from the team’s failure to win a World Series in the Leyland Era. The club boasted several generational stars: Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, and Max Scherzer are all going to hoist a Hall of Fame plaque some day. Under Leyland, his player’s won three MVP awards, two Cy Young Awards, and both a pitching and batting Triple Crown. It was the best time to be a Tiger fan, but still no title came.
That absence of a championship in Detroit might taint his image in the Motor City, but Leyland has the credentials. In 1997 he skippered the Marlins to the World Series title, becoming the first wild card team to capture a championship. In a stint with the Pirates, Leyland led his club to three consecutive division titles. He and Tony La Russa (Hall of Famer) are the only managers to finish in first place for three straight division titles with two different teams.
Speaking of exclusive company, Leyland is one of 26 managers to win three pennants. Thus far, 21 of those managers are in the Hall of Fame. Besides Leyland, the other four not in Cooperstown are Bruce Bochy, Terry Francona, Charlie Grimm, and Ralph Houk. Bochy just retired, Francona is active, and both will be elected one day. Fact is: if a manager wins three pennants, he usually gets into the Hall of Fame.
Then there’s the all-time winning list. Leyland won 1,769 games in his 22 years as a manager, which ranks 17th all-time. Of the 16 managers in front of him, 12 are in Cooperstown, and Bochy will be.
But there reasons to question Smoky’s Hall of Fame case. In those 22 seasons, Leyland had 12 winning years and ten losing seasons. His career mark is only .504, barely above break-even. Among the 24 managers to win at least 1,500 games, Leyland’s winning percentage ranks 20th.
Leyland’s hit-and-run stay in Colorado should be mentioned. In 1999, Leyland came out of his first retirement to take the managerial job of the Rockies. His team finished in last place and he promptly bolted Denver. It was a strange, sudden exit. He resurfaced seven years later when Dave Dombrowski hooked him as a replacement for the popular (but unsuccessful) Alan Trammell. The team won 16 games in April and 35 of their first 49 games to flip the “rebuild” script on its’ head. That October his team won seven straight games in the playoffs, which ended up being a curse. The resulting layoff before the World Series probably left the Tigers a bit stagnant.
Leyland took three teams to the postseason, he has all those wins, three pennants, and a reputation as a great leader. Following his retirement from Major League Baseball, he came back in 2017 to manage Team USA to a tournament victory in the World Baseball Classic. He’s the only manager to win a World Series and that international tournament.
Do you think Jim Leyland is a Hall of Famer? Let me know in the comments below, or on the Vintage Detroit Facebook page.