There’s an old baseball axiom that great players don’t make good coaches or managers.
It’s usually true.
Many wonderfully talented ballplayers have stunk it up when it came to showing others what to do. Ted Williams was a very mediocre manager, and an even less effective hitting coach. Babe Ruth was briefly a coach for the Brooklyn Dodgers, but the front office held his coaching skills in such low regard that he was never given any form of responsibility. His chief duties were to walk out to home plate with the lineup card before games and tip his cap. Hall of Famers Ted Lyons, Jimmie Foxx, Joe DiMaggio, and Reggie Jackson were given shots at mentoring young players in various roles, without much success. In recent years, star players like Buddy Bell and Detroit’s own Alan Trammell have posted sad records as big league managers.
But a handful of baseball’s greatest players found success instructing others in the fine arts of the game. A few weeks ago, the Kansas City Royals hired George Brett, the greatest player in the history of their franchise, to take over as their hitting coach in mid-season. The Hall of Famer with three batting titles to his credit has done a marvelous job helping the young KC hitters so far in the short-term.
Back in the 1920s, when Ty Cobb was managing the Detroit Tigers there was no such thing as a “hitting coach.” Cobb wasn’t just managing the Tigs from 1921 to 1926, he was also the team’s center fielder. Team owners loved to grab a “two-fer” and pay one of their stars to pull double duty. Cobb’s tenure as Tiger skipper was marred by three factors:
- He was never given an adequate pitching staff to work with and his personal dislike of pitchers made it difficult for him to deal with them.
- The quality of his team’s defense was very subpar.
- The Yankees were launching a dynasty behind Babe Ruth, who was transforming the game from one of one-run games to one where home runs were being hit regularly.
But there was a job that Cobb took a shining to: teaching hitting. At that, Cobb was a maestro. “In all honesty, I could teach hitting,” Cobb wrote in his autobiography.
When Cobb assumed the role of player/manager in 1921, he was determined to drive his team to the pennant. He wasn’t sure if he’d have the arms he needed on his pitching staff, but he knew his offense would score runs. He was certain that he could boost the production of every man on his club. He was pretty much correct, and he wasn’t afraid to tinker with even his best batters. One of them was Harry Heilmann, the Tigers right fielder who had a line drive swing.
“When I broke in, [Cobb] and Harry Heilmann were having a helluva race for the batting title,” infielder Fred Haney recalled, “and suddenly Harry went into a month-long slump. Ty had Harry off in the corner of the park every day for hours before each game trying to figure out ways to break him out of that slump. Well, Ty was a tremendous batting instructor, and he pulled Harry out of it.
Heilmann hit .394 and edged Cobb for the batting crown, Ty ending the season at .389. Most impressively, mediocre hitters like Haney (.352 as a rookie under Cobb), Johnny Bassler (.310 under Cobb), and Larry Woodall (.351 in his first two seasons under Ty’s tutelage). In fact, practically every Tiger batter saw his average and power increase under Cobb. During his six seasons as Detroit’s manager, Ty’s Tigers batted .323, .318, .310, .308, .310, and .299 (excluding pitcher batting). His batter’s won four batting titles (three for Heilmann and one for Heinie Manush).
“[He] was a master at getting you to work hard on your swing,” Manush said years later. “I came away from my years in Detroit with a more intelligent idea of how to hit a baseball.” Manush hit .330 in four seasons under Cobb, and as a left-handed hitter he tried to emulate Ty’s picture perfect stroke.
Despite never being able to deliver the pennant he wanted as manager of the Tigers, Cobb earned respect throughout the league for his skills as a manager and coach. Philadelphia owner/manager Connie Mack, long an admirer of Cobb’s, was especially impressed.
“Ty was a great coach. I doubt if his equal has ever lived,” Mack said years later, “He did as well, with the material they gave him, as anybody could have done. So why call him a bad manager?. . . Ty never had a good pitching staff. His outfield was bad defensively, and his infield was worse. As a fielding combination, the Tigers were like an old sieve. But how those boys could hit and score runs? Ty coached them and he kept them on their toes.”
A green young ballplayer arrived in Detroit in 1926 and found himself playing his first big league season with Cobb as his skipper and hitting mentor. Charlie Gehringer later admitted that Cobb didn’t speak much to him, but that was somewhat by design.
“He told me to never let anyone change my swing,” Gehringer said. Cobb recognized that Gehringer had a great approach and was gifted naturally, he gave the young infielder very little instruction, other than to show him how to bunt the ball down the third base line. Gehringer went on to win a batting title and earn a place of his own in Cooperstown.
Even though Cobb was saddled with guiding the Tigers as their manager and giving batting tips to his charges, he didn’t neglect his own play. In his late 30s, Cobb’s body wasn’t as nimble as it once had been and he toned down his daring baserunning play, but he still swung a dangerous piece of hickory. In ’21, Ty hit .389, he batted .401 the next season, and followed with marks of .340, .338, .378, and .339. Twice he topped the 200-hit mark. He still liked to get in on the Detroit hit parade, and his effect on his ballplayers was never forgotten.
“[Cobb was] unquestionably, the greatest ball player who ever lived – by far,” Heilmann told reporters in 1939. “And he would have been a great banker, an outstanding industrialist, a famous general, or a potent figure in any field he chose. No other man I’ve ever known had Ty Cobb’s frenzy for excellence, his self-discipline of his tremendous application. I call him the best friend I ever had in baseball.”
He was Heilmann’s best hitting coach too, and the greatest the Tigers ever had.