Rob Neyer, the author or co-author of six books about baseball, currently works as SB Nation’s national baseball editor. He lives in Portland, Oregon.
If he’d never done anything except discover Honus Wagner, Ed Barrow would hold an important place in the National Pastime’s grand history. No, he wouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame today—which of course he is—but still, an important place.
Barrow did so much more than discover Wagner, though. He’s in the Hall of Fame largely because he presided over a Yankees dynasty that won 14 American League pennants and 10 World Series in his 25 seasons as (de facto) general manager.
Most of the stories in this series have been about, or will be about, some seriously archival stuff. Now, I don’t think managers in the olden days were better or smarter than our recent legends. And I certainly could have written about Joe Torre’s willingness to use Mariano Rivera for more than an inning in October, or about Terry Francona or Joe Maddon or (dare I say it?) Ned Yost.
It would, I think, be impossible today. Practically speaking.
Can you imagine an Opening Day center fielder in the Major Leagues, just a few weeks later, giving up outfielding forever and becoming instead a pitcher? And what’s more, before long a star pitcher?
When Mel Ott was 17 years old, he batted .383.
In the Major Leagues.
Okay, so it was only 60 at-bats. Of his 23 hits, 21 were singles. He drew just one walk and drove in just four runs. Still . . . .383!
When Ott was 19 years old, he hit 18 home runs. No 19-year-old before Ott had ever hit more than four home runs in a season.
Here’s something that a lot of people probably don’t remember. Just as Mike Trout struggled as a 20-year-old rookie in 2011, Cal Ripken Jr. struggled as a 20-year-old rookie exactly 30 years earlier. Granted, we’re talking about only 40 plate appearances for Ripken (as opposed to 135 for Trout). But the future Hall of Famer (Ripken, that is) batted just .128 without a single extra-base hit in 1981.
When it happened in 1929, it was almost certainly the most unorthodox managerial move in World Series history (which stretched back to 1903).
The move might still deserve that label, nearly 90 years later.
It was so unorthodox—not only surprising, but practically indefensible without the benefit of hindsight—that we can rank it among the greatest managerial moves for just one reason: It worked so incredibly well.
Last year I read a story by ESPN.com’s Jerry Crasnick, with this headline:
Why managing is harder than ever
Within the actual story, Crasnick doesn’t make that argument, precisely. Anyway, his interviewees do most of the arguing. And they’re arguments I’ve seen before, here and there over the years.
As I sit in a coffee shop writing these words, almost exactly two months before Opening Day 2016, the all-time list of real Major Leaguers consists of . . . actually, I’m going to throw a qualifier in here, for a couple of reasons . . . the modern list of Major Leaguers—that is, Major League players since 1901, when the American League joined the National League as an acknowledged “major” league—consists of 16,725 players.*
As a baseball fan, I crave innovation. If it’s innovation that actually gains a real foothold in the sport, great. But baseball, at least on the field, has existed in approximately its current form since . . . oh, about 1920?
Or if you like, pick 1947. Or 1958. Pick any year.