Here in Chicago the talk is Ryne Sandberg, Ryne Sandberg, Ryne Sandberg right now, and why not? The Cubs are awful and getting worse, and with Lou Piniella's abrupt retirement the public has been deprived of the grand non-sequiturs and occasional fitful furies that were, aside from the brilliance of rookie shortstop Starlin Castro and the free bicycle valet service at Wrigley Field, by far the best thing about the team. The prospect of a legend coming in next year to set things right has its charm.
If nothing else, Sandberg has earned his shot. Spending four years managing in Peoria, Knoxville and Des Moines, as he has done, shows desire, rather than the sense of entitlement that you might expect of a Hall of Famer who earned around $25 million in salary alone during his playing career. His teams have even done well. Sandberg may never have been an especially inspiring figure during his playing days, and the many interviews that he has given over the past few years may leave one with the suspicion that little rattles in his head past vague notions that things should be done the right way and that creating motion on the bases has some ill-defined connection to winning. But the Cubs could clearly do worse.
Whether they could do better, though, is the issue, and tied up in that is the question of what exactly you can expect from a manager who was a better player than anyone on his team. How can a man who hit an effortless .300 with 25 home runs and a Gold Glove every year for a decade possibly relate to that sad -- and normal -- player for whom every at-bat is a struggle? What can someone who wrung every bit of baseball talent out of himself have in common with, say, Alfonso Soriano? Is it even possible for someone like Sandberg to be a good manager?
In theory, nothing should be easier. "There is one indispensable quality of a baseball manager," Bill James once wrote. "The manager must be able to command the respect of his players. This is absolute; everything else is negotiable." No matter what you may have heard, the modern player has a real reverence for those who have achieved as Sandberg did, and he would have the respect of the clubhouse as soon as he entered it. Less clear is whether that respect would work to any particular end.
The perceived notion that Hall of Fame players tend not to be such strong managers is, in fact, true. It's actually nearly impossible to name such a player who went on to enjoy great dugout success. With an assist from Freddy Berowski of the Hall of Fame, I put together a list of all the modern Hall of Fame players who enjoyed distinct careers as managers. This list omits the likes of Ty Cobb, whose only managerial experience came during his playing career. It also leaves out players such as Mickey Cochrane, whose careers as managers were essentially extensions of their careers as player/managers. For the remaining cases I've broken out their won-loss record only during those parts of their careers in which they were working in a purely managerial role. In some cases this involves making slightly arbitrary distinctions with which the historically-minded might quibble, but the aim is to work up a list of men comparable to Sandberg. As you'll see, a clear pattern emerges.
• Hugh Duffy, 352-413, 1906, 1910-11, 1921-22: Duffy, who hit .440 with the Boston Beaneaters in 1894, was a respected baseball man for many years after the end of his playing career, but nothing much as a manager. His main chance came with the Chicago White Sox in 1910 and '11. In the first of those years he managed them to a 68-85 record that was at the time their worst ever and one that wouldn't be matched for more than a decade.
• Frank Chance, 178-259, 1913-1914, 1923: The Peerless Leader was something less than peerless when he couldn't count on penciling himself into the great Chicago Cubs lineups of the aughts. In three years with the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox he lost 90 twice and never finished above .500.
• Christy Mathewson, 164-176, 1916-1918: Matty hardly embarrassed himself with a gig managing the Reds just after his pitching career ended, but it's worth noting that Cincinnati won the World Series the year after he was fired, with the team ERA improving by a full quarter of a run.
• Johnny Evers, 92-127, 1921, 1924: One wouldn't quite say that Evers really ever had a fair chance as a manager -- in 1924, for example, he was the first and fourth of four White Sox skippers. But he did nothing much to distinguish himself.
• Walter Johnson, 529-432, 1929-1935: Still arguably the greatest pitcher of all time nearly a century after he played his last game, Johnson failed at nothing on the diamond, and that included managing. He took over a fairly mediocre Washington Senators club, reeled off 90 or more wins in three of his four seasons there, and then moved on to do respectable work with the Cleveland Indians.
• Max Carey, 146-161, 1932-1933: The 10-time stolen base king took over from Wilbert Robinson, who had managed the Brooklyn Dodgers for nearly two decades, and got results just as lousy as Robinson had toward the end of his run. To be fair, Casey Stengel got little more out of the same team than Carey did. This lot just wasn't all that good.
• Burleigh Grimes, 131-171, 1937-1938: When Carey left the Dodgers, Van Lingle Mungo was the best player on the team, and he still was when Grimes took over four years later. It would take Leo Durocher, Pee Wee Reese, Pete Resier and Co. to put on a show worth Brooklyn's while.
• Frankie Frisch, 743-796, 1938, 1940-46, 1949-1951: Frisch was a managerial genius in his days with the St. Louis Cardinals, when he had Frankie Frisch at second base, Joe Medwick in the outfield and the Dean brothers winning 50 games a year. When he moved on, first to Pittsburgh and then to Chicago, he was a lout. The famed fire of the Fordham Flash counted for only so much when his best player was Andy Pafko.
• Ted Lyons, 185-245, 1946-1948: Having been a White Sox for a quarter-century at that point, Lyons was as reasonable a pick as any to take over the club in 1946. Sad to say, under the management of the great Sunday pitcher who retired the year he won an ERA crown, they went from 80 to 101 losses, and picked up 10 wins the year after he left.
• Lou Boudreau, 434-575, 1952-1957, 1960: Like Frisch, Boudreau's managerial chops seem to have been tightly correlated to his ability to write himself into the lineup. In Cleveland, he won a World Series; in Boston, he became the first manager ever to run up a losing record with Ted Williams on his team, and then he went on to disastrous stints in Kansas City and Chicago.
• Rogers Hornsby, 113-135, 1952-1953: At a remove of 60 years it's difficult to understand why a team would hire as manager a man famous for having urinated on his teammates in the shower, and it wasn't just one team that did it. Bill Veeck hired Hornsby to manage the St. Louis Browns in 1952, only to have to fire him after a player rebellion; incomprehensibly, the Reds hired him weeks later, only to fire him with barely a week left in the season the next year. None of these teams, unsurprisingly, bettered sixth place in the standings.
• Joe Gordon, 305-308, 1958-1961, 1969: Gordon was actually a bit better than his record might have you think. In his first gig, he took an Indians team that had been devastated by the end of Bob Lemon's career and Herb Score's tragic injury and guided them to an 89-win season in 1959, despite a notable lack of talent. That was the one clear shot he ever had at managing an even moderately decent team, and his record is dragged down by his final year, spent with the Kansas City Royals in their first year. Even then, 93 losses isn't terrible for an expansion team.
• Yogi Berra, 484-444, 1964, 1972-74, 1984-85: Berra is one of the few who looks good here, and he did win two pennants. Still, given that he was Yogi Berra, it says something about how his acumen was perceived at the time that despite being Yogi Berra, and despite having won, he really only had one decently long stint as a manager.
• Billy Herman, 128-182, 1964-1966: Stop me if you've heard this one: A long-time Cub, a slugging second baseman no less, is hauled out years after his playing days are over to whip the unruly youths into shape. This tale didn't turn out well: In three years as a manager, Herman never won more than 64 games. One lesson this exercise has taught me is that the Red Sox should never, ever hire some Hall of Famer to manage them.
• Luke Appling, 10-30, 1967: The greatest White Sox of them all can hardly be said to have had a real career, having taken over the last quarter of the season for Alvin Dark after one of his many firings. Still, even for the Kansas City Athletics of the 1960s, 10-30 was pretty bad.
• Ted Williams, 273-364, 1969-1972: Williams provided perhaps the most infamous example of a great player's utter inability to relate to lesser players. What advice can such a man possibly provide his lessers? One imagines him counseling some flustered benchwarmer, "Just do like I do and read the commissioner's signature on the ball to tell how it will break, son."
• Bob Lemon, 430-403, 1970-72, 1977-79, 1981-82: Do you know what to make of Bob Lemon? I don't. In 1971 he manages a Royals team to 85 wins two years after it opens shop as a major league franchise; in 1977 he takes a perennially yawn-inducing White Sox club to 90 wins. In both cases he's gone the year after the miracle season. Then he goes to the Yankees, where he wins two pennants and a World Series in four years with Billy Martin's team while managing a grand total of 172 games. Worse jobs have been done.
• Frank Robinson, 905-1018, 1977, 1981-84, 1988-91, 2002-06: I'm not going to say anything bad about Frank Robinson, and not just because there's nothing bad to be said about him. I'm afraid of him. Still, while "failure" would be too strong a word for the first African-American manager in major league history, most of his career was spent in what they used to call the second division. Few men manage nearly as long as he did without ever winning more than 87 games.
• Larry Doby, 37-50, 1978: Doby took over for Lemon as White Sox manager in the second half of the 1978 season, and that was that. The most interesting thing about this may have been that both men formerly played for Sox owner Bill Veeck when he owned the Indians. The man was loyal.
• Tony Perez, 74-84, 1993, 2001: Fired less than a third of the way into his first season as manager with the Reds, Perez's only other chance came in a caretaker role with the 2001 Florida Marlins. He did just fine, and considering that he ended up being replaced by Jeff Torborg, the Fish likely would have done well to just let him keep the job. Such was not to be.
Overall, this is a pretty dire set of precedents, though one notes that Joe Torre, who could and maybe should have been elected to Cooperstown just for his playing career, hasn't been too bad in the dugout. As worrisome as the failure rate among these men is their scarcity -- it has been more than 30 years since a Hall of Fame player started a significant managerial career. It would be nice to see a legend come in and set things right on the North Side next year. But count me as skeptical that it's going to actually happen.