Is Sandberg the answer as Cubs manager? History says no
Ryne Sandberg is gaining support to replace Lou Piniella, who retired abruptly
Sandberg is in his fourth year as a manager in the Cubs' minor league system
Hall of Fame players have historically not been successful as big league managers
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.
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