In his long career in baseball, Bob Scheffing performed many jobs. He was a catcher, a minor league manager, a coach and manager in the big leagues, a scout, a general manager, even a broadcaster. He is also remembered for being the only manager to win 100 games in a season and never finish in first place, and for a lopsided trade he made while serving as GM of the New York Mets.
For all the variety he displayed in the National Pastime, Scheffing’s most important job came in the mid-1940s when he spent 37 months in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Scheffing missed three full seasons (from the age of 29-31) while in the service.
A tall, muscular kid from Missouri, Scheffing was trapped for almost six years in the Cardinals organization, back when St. Louis had a huge minor league system stocked with prospects. Eventually he was freed and selected by the Cubs in the Rule 5 draft in 1940. Seven of Scheffing’s eight big league seasons as a player were spent with the Cubs, where he served primarily as a backup catcher. He was a moderate defensive player, but he had a good bat. In 1948 he hit .300 in 102 games when he formed a good platoon arrangement with young catcher Rube Walker.
Scheffing hit .263 in more than 500 games in the majors, and was a great contact hitter – he whiffed only 127 times. A devout Catholic, Scheffing was often seen in the on-deck circle at Wrigley Field kissing a cross he wore around his neck. He claimed the cross had saved him many times while in the war.
After retiring at the age 37, Scheffing worked as a coach for the woeful St. Louis Browns in 1952 and 1953 under former minor league teammate Marty Marion. He was back in a Cubs uniform in 1954 and 1955 as a coach on the staff of Stan Hack. He spent a few years managing in the minors, was at the helm of the Cubs for nearly three seasons, and coached some more, before landing the managerial job with the Tigers in 1961.
A very serious man, Scheffing earned the nickname “Grumpy”, but in his first season with the Bengals he had little to be grumpy about. Leading a team with a slugging lineup that included Al Kaline, Rocky Colavito, and Norm Cash, Schef took the Tigers to 101 wins, tying the mark for the most in franchise history. Unfortunately, the Nee York Yankees caught the Tigs in late July and eventually won the pennant by eight games as they captured 109 victories. Detroit finished a disappointing 4th in 1962, and when their record stood at a meager 24-36 on June 16 in 1963, Scheffing was fired.
But rather than be run out of town, “Grumpy” was hired to team with Ernie Harwell in the Tigers broadcast booth in 1964. In 1965 he was hired to work in the New York Mets front office, and five years later he was their general manager. It was in that role that Scheffing made a huge contribution to baseball history in 1971 when he pulled the trigger on a deal that shipped fireballer Nolan Ryan to the California Angels for third baseman Jim Fregosi. At the time, Fregosi was an All-Star who filled a dire need for the Mets at the hot corner, while Ryan was a pitcher whose fastball was untamed. Of course, Ryan went on to throw seven no-hitters and win 295 games after the trade, while Fregosi flopped. Scheffing was still GM in ’73 when the Mets won their second pennant, but he retired a year later.
Bob Scheffing, a war veteran, former catcher, and the only big league skipper to win 100 games one season and never finish in first place, died at the age of 72 in 1985.