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Bad Decisions: The College of Coaches
By all accounts, Philip K. Wrigley was a smart man. Though he inherited the gum manufacturing company that bears the family name from his father, along with ownership of the Chicago Cubs, he was a good, innovative leader for both organizations.
When World War II began, he had the company donate it’s entire output of Spearmint, Doublemint, and Juicy Fruit gum to the U.S. military, donated the steel for the planned light standards for Wrigley Field to the military (leaving the team to play exclusively in daylight for the next forty years), and simultaneously started the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League for women to play.
A firm believer in the power of advertising and the use of mass media to promote his products, Wrigley shocked other baseball owners by allowing Cubs games to be broadcast over the radio virtually for free. He continued the practice when the age of television dawned, broadcasting all home games and many road games over the air on WGN-TV, later seeing it evolve into a cable network that gave the Cubs a nationwide fanbase.
For the most part, he wasn’t involved in the day-to-day operations of the Cubs, allowing his general managers to run the team as they saw fit, so it was a bit shocking when this smart, hands-off owner decided in 1961 to impose a new idea on how the team would be managed.
Namely, with no manager at all.
After reaching the World Series in 1945, the franchise’s ninth trip to the Fall Classic in the prior 40 years, the Cubs fell to the bottom of the National League and stayed there. The didn’t have a winning record after 1946, and finished last four times despite having talents like Phil Cavarretta, Andy Pafko, Hank Sauer, Bob Rush, Sam Jones, Ernie Banks, George Altman, Ron Santo, Billy Williams, and an aging Richie Ashburn. They churned through six managers, none of them lasting more than three seasons after Charlie Grimm resigned in 1949.
The club was going nowhere, and Wrigley decided to step in. After getting some input from coach and backup catcher Elvin “El” Tappe, Wrigley decided that another of his innovations was in order. He decided to do away with the manager role altogether. In place of one manager would be a group of coaches from both the major and minor leagues, and they would rotate through the position of head coach. The concept became known as the “College of Coaches,” and it was an abject failure.
In some ways, the idea was ahead of its time. Two components of the plan remain in place on major league coaching staffs to this day. First is the idea to integrate the instruction of the minor leagues and major leagues. This part wasn’t unique, as Branch Rickey had implemented a version of this when he was the general manager of the Cardinals decades earlier. What was new was the coaches themselves moving up and down the major and minor league rosters with the players, giving them consistent voices and instruction at each stop. The second lasting idea was the specialization of coaches, with each member of the staff having been selected because of some kind of unique expertise in coaching hitting, pitching, or fielding.
Additionally, Wrigley should be credited with being the first owner to integrate his team’s coaching staff when he hired Buck O’Neil in 1962, the second year of the experiment, to be the first Black coach in major league history. O’Neil had been a key scout in finding and signing Banks, Altman, Williams and other Black players in the Cubs’ system, like Lou Brock. Having him on the major league staff provided these players more comfort at the big league level than they wold have encountered with an all-White staff.
So the foundation of the college of coaches idea wasn’t necessarily bad. What was bad was its execution.
The first problem was that none of the coaches had any successful experience as a major league manager. The only one with any big league managing experience was Harry Craft, who had managed the Kansas City Athletics to three straight seventh-place finishes in the 1950s. Though none of them would hold the title of “manager”, the duties of being a manager still had to be performed, and none of these guys had ever done it for a winning team in the big leagues.
The person with the most managing experience, and the most success in that role, was O’Neil, who had managed the Kansas City Monarchs for eight seasons, from 1948 to 1955. His teams had a combined .622 winning percentage, and won their division or made the playoff in six of those eight years, including two league championships. But the second problem with the experiment was that not all of the coaches were allowed to take a turn as head coach, and O’Neil was among those excluded from the role. (He also wasn’t allowed to coach on the field at first base or third base despite being wildly overqualified for either role.)
Four coaches got a shot at being head coach in 1961, and there was no rhyme or reason to when they filled the role. Vedie Himsl was head coach for the first eleven games and the team went 5 - 6. He was then replaced by Craft, who guided the team to a 4 - 8 record before Himsl took over again seventeen games and went 5 - 12. Then Tappe filled the role for two games, both of which the team won, only to have Craft replace him for the next four games, in which the Cubs went 3 - 1. Then it was handed back to Himsl, then back to Tappe again, he remained in the role for the next 79 games, which seemingly flew in the face of the whole coaching rotation concept. But the team still struggled, going 35 - 43 - 1 in that time, so Lou Klein got to be head coach for eleven games before the job went back to Tappe for the season’s final 16 games.
None of the head coaches had a winning record. The team went 64 - 90 with two ties. There was also no continuity in how they managed the team. Each brought their own preferred lineups, and pitching rotations, and substitution patterns, independent of the other coaches. This, too, flew in the face of the continuity of instruction that one of the intended goals of the experiment. In fact, many of the coaches didn’t even provide assistance to each other, as they didn’t want the others to succeed and claim the head job permanently.
The 1962 season saw an altered version of the experiment, as the head coach position was held by just three coached instead of four, and there were fewer transitions. Tappe managed for the first 20 games, handed off to Klein for the next 30 games, and then Charlie Metro took over the role and held it for the rest of the season. It still didn’t matter, as the team had the worst record in franchise history at 59 - 103.
The following year, though the role of manager still didn’t exist, Bob Kennedy was brought in and held the head coach role the entire season, guiding them to a pleasantly surprising 82 - 80 record. That pretty much killed the rotating head coach idea. Though Kennedy was never named manager, that’s essentially the role he filled until he was moved to the front office in the middle of the 1965 season. When Leo Durocher was hired after that season, he officially became the manager and the experiment was ended.
Credit should be given to Philip Wrigley for trying something new, and pieces of the the idea had some merit. Maybe a more coordinated effort that would have required continuity between the coaches would have been more successful. Maybe a true set rotation, in which each coach held the top job for ten games, or three series, or something else that would have been predictable for the players, would have had better results.
And maybe if Wrigley and the rest of the Cubs’ leadership had just hired experienced manager Buck O’Neil to lead the team, or at least included him in the rotation with the other coaches instead of limiting him to an instructing role, they would have realized that he was the right man for the job all along.
Instead, the “College of Coaches” was an embarrassment to the franchise, proving that maybe Phil Wrigley was smart to spend most of his time focused on the gum business.
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