Tiger managers have been a mixed bag of characters

Clockwise from top left: Detroit managers Del Baker, Jim Leyland, Hughie Jennings, Buddy Bell, Billy Martin, and Sparky Anderson.

Joe Schultz only sat in the manager’s chair for the Tigers for about a month, but he left an indelible mark on the job, mostly because of his unique command of the English language. Schultz had one favorite word, and it rhymed with”shuck,” and Ol’ Joe loved to get “f***” into every sentence in novel ways. As in “What the shitf*** is my shortstop doing?” or “Oh, f***shit, let’s just get in the clubhouse and pound some beer.”

Schultz was fired after a 14-14 record as Billy Martin’s short-term successor at the end of the 1973 season. He took his colorful tongue and love for beer and returned to his role as a base coach, safely guarded from the responsibility that comes with managing a professional baseball team.

Lloyd McClendon will embark on a similar tour as interim manager for the balance of the 2020 season, succeeding Ron Gardenhire, who stepped down due to health concerns this week. McClendon, a longtime coach in Detroit, becomes the 40th man to skipper the Tigers.

Of the 39 men to previously hold the job, many are forgettable, some are still remembered, and fans are still trying to forget a few of them (ahem, Brad Ausmus).

The first Detroit Tigers manager was George Stallings, a dapper southerner who was sort of the Chuck Daly of the early 20th century. Stallings wore a suit, tie, and hat in the dugout, and he was a stylish dresser. But his appearance belied his gritty determination, and he knew the game.

“Mr. Stallings knows more base ball than any man with whom I have ever come in contact during my connection with the game,” said Johnny Evers, who played for him later in Boston.

Stallings was in and out quickly in Detroit, but four managers spent at least eight years in the job, long enough to stamp the franchise with their personality. Two of them are in the Hall of Fame: Hughie Jennings and Sparky Anderson. The other two are Del Baker and Jim Leyland.

“I’m not smart enough to do anything else,” Sparky replied when a reporter asked him what he would have done if he didn’t get a job in baseball.

In 17 seasons in Detroit, Sparky delighted the media, tickled the fans, and frequently challenged his players. On one occasion, Sparky’s mouth got him into a situation with one of his players that he couldn’t handle. Once, before a game at Tiger Stadium, Anderson teased outfielder Kirk Gibson that he made a smart decision when he chose baseball over pro football. “You’re too soft for the NFL,” Sparky told him. Running wind sprints, Gibby told his manager to line up in a defensive back position and try to cover him. Sparky obliged and the much-younger Gibson charged at his manager, running right over the top of the grey-haired pixie. “He went tumbling, ass over head,” Gibson said later. When he finally got himself up from the grass, his cap and wits separated from his body, Sparky was shocked at Gibson’s veracity. “You’re crazy!” he shouted as he retreated to the dugout.

Jennings was charged with the task of massaging the ego of his young star Ty Cobb, who arrived in Detroit in 1905 and played for the manager for 14 seasons, winning 12 batting titles. Jennings had been a star player in the 19th century when he played for the famed old Baltimore Orioles. He became an expert at trick plays like cutting across the infield when running the bases (when the lone umpire wasn’t looking), or grabbing an opposing runners belt to slow him down. He guided Detroit to three straight pennants starting in 1907. Hughie served as his own third base coach, and he loved to hop on one foot and shout his patented “Eee-yah” when his offense was scoring runs.

Leyland did some dancing of his own, but he saved it for the clubhouse. When his Tigers won the pennant in 2006, and again six years later, “Smoky” showed off his footwork by performing the moonwalk during the clubhouse celebration. Safe to say, Joe Schultz couldn’t have done that.

One of the more interesting moments in Detroit managerial history happened in 1960 when the Tigers traded their manager to the Indians. Yep, that’s right, Detroit dealt disgruntled manager Jimmie Dykes to Cleveland in early August straight-up for the Tribe skipper, Joe “Flash” Gordon. Dykes, who posted a .506 record in less than two seasons, had a parting shot as he exited the Motor City, and he aimed it at Tigers president Bill DeWitt.

“Everything I wanted to do, he opposed it,” Dykes told reporters. “The player moves I wanted, he refused to complete. He also sent messengers down to the clubhouse telling me which players he wanted in the lineup. I was sick of it.”

The unusual trade of managers (still the only one in recorded history) didn’t change much. Gordon guided the Tigers to a sixth-place finish, which was where they were when DeWitt jettisoned Dykes. The Indians fired Dykes less than a year later, ending his managerial career. Gordon was dismissed by the Tigers after his two-month audition, never really getting a chance to warm the seat in the manager’s office.

The most controversial firing in Detroit history was probably the expulsion of Billy Martin, a man who was loathed by most of the Tigers and tolerated by only a few. Most Detroit players had to admit that Billy was a great manager, maybe the best in-game manager in team history. But Martin had a personality like a drunk wolverine.

In 1973, only one season after pushing his aging Detroit team to a division title, Martin saw his listless team mired far back in third place in August. During a game in Cleveland, Gaylord Perry was manhandling the Detroit lineup with his usual diet of sloppy, wet baseballs. As he watched the spitball artist mow down his hitters, Martin fumed in the dugout. Finally, he ordered his pitcher to throw at a Cleveland batter. When his pitcher missed, Martin ordered a new pitcher to throw the baseball at another Cleveland batter. Predictably, Martin was thumbed from the game, but in the clubhouse he sealed his fate when he bragged of his actions. The commissioner fined and suspended Martin for three games, but while he was serving his sentence, Martin told a reporter what he thought of baseball and the commissioner. Suffice to say, Billy was not delicate with his opinion. Detroit general manager Jim Campbell fired Martin for embarrassing the franchise.

“I have no complaint with the job he did on the field,” Campbell said. “From foul line to foul line he did a darn good job.” Many Detroit players rejoiced, notably Norm Cash and Jim Northrup, who despised Martin’s autocratic demeanor. Within a few years, Billy was in New York with the Yankees, where he became a frequent punching bag for their ownership.

One of the most entertaining things a manager can do is get tossed from a game. It doesn’t happen much anymore, but years ago, getting thrown out of a game was a chance for a manager to perform for the crowd. One of the most theatrical was Ralph Houk, who managed the Tigers from 1974 through 1978.

Houk looked like a grandpa, but beneath his genteel exterior was a boiling furnace of emotion. A former Marine officer in World War II, Houk was tough and feared no one, especially not little men in blue suits who called balls and strikes. When the Detroit skipper came out to argue a call he often put on a fantastic show. Houk was famous for waving his arms and screaming. But his signature move was the kick. He loved to kick dirt on the plate or the base or even the umpire’s shoes and pant legs. Ralph also didn’t seem to like wearing a “lid,” because he also loved to toss or destroy his cap. Here’s a photo of him going at it without a cap and in mid-kick:

Houk was ejected 11 times while managing the Tigers, which is an impressive number in only five years, but far from the record for most ejections by a Detroit manager. The mark is held by Leyland, who was asked to leave 30 times, four more than Sparky in half as many years.

Gardenhire will be remembered for his professionalism and kindness as a manager in Detroit, even during difficult seasons. But one of the most beloved Detroit managers is one many current fans probably don’t know much about.

Al Kaline’s first manager was Fred Hurchinson, a former pitcher known for his toughness. “Hutch” was a player-manager his first two seasons, so respected that he was offered the managerial job while he was still pitching for the team. In 1953, his first full season, Hutchinson improved the Tigers from last place to sixth. The following season they crept up to fifth. His players respected “The Bear,” as Hutchinson was known.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better first manager,” Kaline said years later. “Hutch put his arm around me, and he showed me how to be a professional. He helped me become a man.

“The one thing he demanded was a 100 percent effort, no alibi-ing at all. He was a guy who didn’t like to be embarrassed, and maybe that one word might be what he really stood for. He wanted his teams to be competitive and not embarrass themselves when they play.”

Sadly, years later, a few years after managing Cincinnati to a pennant, Hutchinson died after a battle with cancer. His fierce public struggle with the disease proved to be inspirational, so much so that the “Hutch Award” was created to celebrate his heroism in the face of adversity.

The Tigers have had great players manage the team (Ty Cobb, Mickey Cochrane, Buddy Bell, and Alan Trammell for example). But only Cochrane among them produced a pennant. In fact, a revered Detroit player is probably best served to stay clear of the manager’s chair. Why ruin a great reputation?

Others have been relative unknowns, like the mild-mannered Les Moss, who was hired before the 1979 season. Moss was a former catcher and a longtime coach and manager in the Detroit farm system. He paid his dues to get the top job in Detroit, but he proved to be too small of a personality to keep it for long. In June, the team brushed him aside when Sparky became available. It was a wise decision: five years later Anderson elevated the team to world champion status.

When Frank Navin owned the Tigers, he liked to look out from a window in his office atop the ballpark and keep an eye on his team. That sort of scrutiny never sat well with Cobb or others who managed for the old man. Later owners learned it was better to keep a distance. When media mogul John Fetzer became managing partner in the early 1960s, he ushered in an era of calm and steady leadership. It paid off with two world titles, the final one coming only months after he sold the team to pizza baron Tom Monaghan, who wasn’t as skilled at staying out of the headlines, though he never fired a manager.

There’s an old baseball saying: “Managers are hired to be fired.” It happens to be true. Only a handful of Detroit managers left on their own terms. That group now includes Gardenhire. No manager ever made a batter exit than Leyland, who retired shortly after the 2013 season, having led Detroit to three consecutive division titles and two pennants in eight seasons. Most fans would rate Leyland with Anderson, Jennings, and Cochrane among the best managers to ever wear the Old English D.

Even Sparky met a bad fate. In 1995 when MLB owners unveiled a plan to use “replacement players” as a way to break the players’ union, the veteran Detroit skipper balked. “That’s not baseball and I won’t manage games using those players,” Sparky said. His principled stand, which looks even better 25 years later, cost Anderson. The players and owners made peace and replacements were never used, but Anderson was a lame duck. He managed one final season and was quickly ushered out the door. Still a relatively young man at 61, Sparky was never offered another paying job in baseball. For protecting the integrity of the game, the third-winningest manager in history was blackballed from baseball.

What does it take to be a manager? It depends on who you ask. Some people think a great manager is worth several wins each season, and others aren’t so sure. One Detroit skipper was realistic about it. Del Baker managed the Tigers three times on an interim basis in the 1930s, trading in his coaching duties for a few stints in the big chair. Finally, in 1939 he was hired for a full season. The team finished in fifth place, but the following year Baker guided Detroit to the pennant. If you asked Baker, he wasn’t sure how much he had to do with the team’s fortunes.

“I can’t go in there and pitch for the pitchers, and I can’t go in there and hit for the hitters,” Baker told reporters in the spring after winning the flag. “I’m just a guy who is sitting in the dugout with the other fellows, trying to figure out how we can get in the World Series. If that makes you a big-league manager, I am a big-league manager.”

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