Casey Stengel was fond of saying that there were five guys on his team who liked him, and five who hated him, and that the key was keeping the players that hated him away from those who were undecided.
The best managers in the history of the Tigers were not always loved by their players, and in fact a few of them were despised, but all of the good ones had one thing in common: they commanded the clubhouse.
I’ve only been cheering on the Old English D in earnest since the mid-1970s. The first manager I remember was Ralph Houk, a pear-shaped man who wore glasses to write out his lineup card and enjoyed a good chew of tobacco. Ralph had one defining characteristic on the baseball diamond: he hated umpires. When he got rankled with them, which seemed often to this 7-year old, he liked to kick dirt on their pant legs. I didn’t even know that was allowed.
Here I select the nine best Detroit skippers in franchise history, even those I haven’t had the chance to see manage a game.
9. Bob Scheffing
So a lot of people probably don’t know who Bob Scheffing was. But he was a good baseball man, and given some better luck might have been one of baseball’s best managers.
A former catcher, Scheffing got his first chance to manage with the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League. He guided the Angels to the 1956 PCL championship, which earned him a promotion to the parent Cubs the following season. This was an era when the Cubs were really mediocre, but Scheffing goaded his roster on to the best seasons they had experienced in more than a decade. In three full years at the Cubs’ helm, Scheffing compiled a 208–254 (.450) record. In 1958 and 1959 his teams won 72 and 74 games respectively and finished tied for fifth place each season. That doesn’t sound like much, but the Cubs hadn’t had two seasons in a row with 70 wins since 1946. But even though his team was saddled with a terrible pitching staff and poor defense, the Cubs fired Scheffing after the ’59 season.
In 1961, the Tigers brought “Grumpy Bob” in to manage a team that hadn’t won more than 82 games since 1950. In his first year at the helm, Scheffing had the Tigers in first place into late July behind a powerful lineup that featured Al Kaline, Norm Cash, and Rocky Colavito. The Yankees finally caught Detroit, but Scheffing still won 101 games in his first season with Detroit. In 1962 the team won 85 games and sagged to fourth place, and when they got off to a slow start in ’63, the Tigers axed Scheffing.
But Scheffing deserved a better fate. Over the next few years under several managers, the Tigers continued to muddle along with 85 or so wins, slowly gaining new talent through their farm system. By 1967 they were poised to contend, and in 1968 they won it all. That could have been Scheffing’s team. He was a good manager, the type of manager who got a lot out of average teams. But he didn’t get the chance to work his way through adversity in Chicago or Detroit. He later served as general manager of the Mets, guiding the team to a pennant.
8. Mayo Smith
Let’s be honest: if you talk to members of the 1968 Tigers, none of them have glowing things to say about Mayo Smith. At that point in his career, Smith was a grizzled old company man, a baseball lifer stuck twenty years in the past. He seemed woefully out of place in the changing 1960s. Many members of the mound staff were convinced Smith didn’t know a thing about pitching.
Smith seemed like a guy who was born 45 years old. He seemed like the type of guy who would run outside his house on Halloween and yell at the kids to “Get out of my yard!!!” A player’s manager he was not.
But he won a World Series in 1968, primarily because he got out of the way and let a veteran team do their thing. But Mayo deserves some credit: of course it was he who decided to move his center fielder to shortstop for the World Series to get more offense into the lineup. It’s one of the gutsiest moves in baseball postseason history. He also shuttled several young pitchers in and out of the bullpen in ’68, though pitching coach Johnny Sain deserves most of the credit for the pitching success of that team.
Smith was gone as soon as the team struggled, because the front office knew what the players knew: that Mayo was a push-button manager who never cared to understand the modern p
7. Ralph Houk
Nine things about Ralph Houk:
- Houk served with Company I, 89th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron (Mechanized) of the 9th Armored Division in World War II, and saw action at Bastogne and the Battle of the Bulge. He was awarded the Silver Star with an Oak Leaf Cluster, the Bronze Star with an Oak Leaf Cluster and Purple Heart. He was a real war hero.
- As a result of his war record, Houk was nicknamed “The Major” by his Yankee teammates.
- Houk spent eight years as the backup catcher for the Yankees, behind Yogi Berra. New York won the World Series in six of those years, though Ralph rarely played, seeing action in only 91 games in those eight seasons. He appeared in two World Series, with one hit.
- Even before his playing career ended, Ralph was serving as bullpen coach for the Yankees and earned an apprenticeship under Casey Stengel. He spent three years managing the Denver Bears, the Yankees top farm club, before coming back to The Bronx to be Stengel’s first base coach for three seasons. In 1961 he was elevated to replace Stengel as manager of the Yankees.
- Houk won the World Series in his first two seasons at the helm of the Yankees, in 1961 and 1962 with one of the most explosive offenses in baseball history. He won a third pennant in 1963, and remains one of only two managers to win a pennant in each of his first three seasons in the major leagues. (The other is lower on this list)
- After serving as general manager of the Yankees and winning another pennant, Houk returned to the bench to manage the Yankees for a second stint, which was less successful as the franchise dynasty came to an end. He managed Mickey Mantle’s final season, and he shepherded a new batch of young players onto the team, including Thurman Munson and Roy White.
- Houk managed the final game at the original Yankee Stadium, on September 30, 1973. His Yankees lost that game to the Detroit Tigers. The stadium was shuttered for two years to be renovated. That game ended a 35-year career for Houk with the Yankees, as he resigned in the off-season.
- He was named manager of the Detroit Tigers in October of 1973, and spent five seasons leading the team through a transition period. He guided several young talented players into the major leagues from the Detroit farm system, including Ron LeFlore, Steve Kemp, Mark Fidrych, Dave Rozema, Jason Thompson, Jack Morris, Lance Parrish, Alan Trammell, and Lou Whitaker. His leadership and development of young players was instrumental in rebuilding the franchise and preparing the Tigers for winning in the 1980s.
- Houk served in a similar role for the Red Sox from 1981 to 1984, when he managed a team that was rebuilding. He was the first big league manager for Wade Boggs and Roger Clemens, and two years after his retirement, the Red Sox won the pennant with a core of players who matured under Houk. In 20 seasons as a manager, Houk won more than 1,600 games and had a .514 winning percentage. He won two World Series and three pennants, and had 12 winning seasons.
6. Ty Cobb
It’s fashionable to say that superstar players make crappy managers. It’s often true, but more of a cliché or a platitude than truth. There have been several excellent players who went on to be great managers, coaches, or teachers of the game. There have also been great players who had terrible teams and never got the chance to prove their mettle as a manager in the big leagues. Ty Cobb was both of those: a great teacher (of hitting) and saddled with mediocre teams.
In six seasons as player-manager of “the Ty-gers,” Cobb had five winning seasons and won nearly 52 percent of his games. He had some of the worst pitchers in the American League at the time, and his lineup was outmanned by the Yankees of Babe Ruth. But Ty still drove his team to respectability, despite alienating most of his players.
Cobb was a difficult man: impatient and petty. But he knew how to teach hitting. In his six seasons at the helm in Detroit, he had 19 different players hit .300 for him, and in 1921 his team batted a record .316 for the season. He helped Harry Heilmann become a batting champion. He tutored young Charlie Gehringer, who grew into a great hitter and Hall of Famer. Cobb also revamped the swings of Bob Fothergill and Heinie Manush, the latter winning his only batting title while playing for “The Georgia Peach.”
Cobb was never going to get another chance to manage, not after the gambling scandal that helped end his career with Detroit. But he had the chops to be a winning manager, he just never got the horses to win the pennant race.
5. Billy Martin
His time was brief in Detroit, but like he did everywhere that he managed, Billy Martin was a winner in the Motor City. Martin guided the team in 1971, 1972, and part of the 1973 season. He won at a .549 clip for the Tigers, and in 1972 he pushed his veteran team to their last measure of success, capturing the franchise’s first division title and getting within one win of the World Series.
But Martin wore out his welcome with his heavy-handed, hard-drinking, controversial ways. That stuff didn’t fly with conservative general manager Jim Campbell, and even with all the wins, Campbell axed Martin late in the ’73 season after Billy ordered one of his pitchers to throw at an opposing batter.
4. Hughie Jennings
The first great Detroit manager for the American League team, Jennings was a fascinating character, a product of his time as a star for the Baltimore Orioles of the 1890s. Jennings preferred to pressure the defense with bunting, the hit-and-run, the squeeze play, and stealing bases. That was the perfect style to exploit the talents of young Ty Cobb, who won the batting title in each of Hughie’s first three years as skipper of the Tigers.
Jennings goaded the Tigers to the pennant in each of his first three years on the bench, a feat later equaled only by Ralph Houk. The Tigers lost the World Series each fall, outmatched by the National League champion, but Hughie’s success was still noteworthy. After that early success, Jennings never got the Tigers back to the Fall Classic, falling behind the A’s, Red Sox, and White Sox, who dominated the league in the 1910s.
Known for coaching third base and yelling his famous battle cry “Eeeeeey-hah” to spur on his offense, Jennings managed and won more games for Detroit than any manager, until Sparky Anderson surpassed him many years later. Hughie is one of two Hall of Fame managers to lead the team.
3. Jim Leyland
It really doesn’t matter that Leyland never delivered the championship to Mike Ilitch, because his legacy is secure in Detroit. Without Leyland, Tiger baseball would have probably continued to limp along mired in a dreadful era of losing and embarrassment. His team won two pennants and three division titles in Motown as Detroit became a yearly contender for the flag in the AL. For that reason, and his other accomplishments elsewhere, Leyland is a strong candidate for the Hall of Fame.
Leyland understood three things that made him a brilliant manager: (1) players win games, (2) players need to understand their roles and trust their manager, and (3) managers must have control of the clubhouse.
There was never any question as to who was in charge when Leyland commanded the Tigers. He took a mildly talented young team in 2006 and drove them to more than 90 wins and the pennant, basically because he convinced them they were good enough to compete. He mollified the egos of superstars and understood how to use role players. He was a genius at controlling his roster, the best the Tigers probably ever had, even better than his hero Sparky Anderson, who sometimes played favorites and buried young players.
2. Mickey Cochrane
Yes, Mickey only managed 600 games in the regular season for Detroit, but he won two pennants and the first championship in team history in 1935. It’s not an exaggeration to say that without Cochrane, Detroit would not and could not have won the World Series. He was the final and most important piece of the puzzle. He was the driving force that pushed the team to the top of the AL standings, vaulting past the vaunted Yankees. He was a talented evaluator of pitchers, and an All-Star catcher too.
“When [Mickey] took over, we started to play like a winning team,” first baseman Hank Greenberg said.
A nearly-fatal beaning halted Mickey’s playing and managerial career, or he may have won more pennants from the bench.
1. Sparky Anderson
Who else could it be? For 17 seasons, Sparky was the alpha male in the Detroit clubhouse. He inherited several good young players when he arrived in Detroit, but he also shaped his roster into winners and weeded out the bad guys. He was a master at squeezing every ounce of energy and talent out of utility players, taking Dave Bergman, Tom Brookens, and Johnny Grubb to new heights as valuable pieces on a Detroit championship team. Sparky doesn’t get enough credit for the way he maneuvered his pitching staffs, and he may have created more bullpen aces than any manager of his or any other era.
Though he ended up being unceremoniously run out of Detroit (and MLB) before he was ready to be done, Sparky remains the standard bearer for managers or head coaches in Detroit. He knew how to win, how to use every man on his team, and how to handle the media. He was also a generous, kind man who gave a lot to Detroit. His 1,331 eins are the most in Tiger history.