Saturday, July 30, 2016

The Curious Case of the Cubs College of Coaches

As the 2016 Chicago Cubs continue to charge furiously toward destiny, threatening to reverse more than a century of futility, now is a good time to look back at some of the team's history; to give modern fans a proper feel for the magnitude of the ineptness that has marked the franchise so they can fully appreciate the suffering and angst of older fans. One of the strangest episodes, and possibly the most revealing for those who don't believe in things like curses to explain a teams' perpetual failure, was the College of Coaches experiment.

The baseball world was stunned in January of 1961 when Chicago Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley announced that the club, in an unprecedented break from baseball tradition, would make their way through the coming season without a manager. Instead they would have a panel of coaches who would divide their time between the Cubs and their  minor league farm teams and would furthermore take turns acting as head coach. The plan was given the ostentatious name “the College of Coaches.”

Like all great ideas, and a lot of terrible ones as well, this was not a precipitous decision; the stage had been set for over a decade. So many managers had jumped on and off the Cubs' carousel that vertigo was an accepted hazard for Cub fans.

Hall of Famer Frankie Frisch managed the team from 1949 to 1951. He was an irascible fellow, chronically dyspeptic because none of his charges could play the game nearly as well as he had. When he managed to alienate virtually all of his players by belittling their ability and being a chronic ill-tempered grouch he was let go in mid-season 1951.

 Phil Cavaretta, a 35-year-old hometown hero, was then given the mantle. Cavaretta had been one of the franchise’s all-time best players, a key member of glory teams of the 1930s and early 1940s. A hard-charging, quick-tempered man who felt he could still play, he was nonetheless popular with his players and universally respected. Cavaretta’s fatal flaw was his preference for the truth. When he gave Wrigley an honest assessment of the team’s chances a few weeks before the opener of the 1954 season--that they didn’t have enough decent players to compete--he was summarily given the axe.

Wrigley then brought up Smiling Stan Hack, also a stalwart member of the glory teams, who had experienced a moderately successful three-year tenure at the helm of the Cubs’ AAA PCL team in Los Angeles. Hack lasted with the Cubs through the 1956 season, when he was shown the door with the public explanation that he had been too much of a nice guy to manage major league players.

Keeping to the time-honored owner play book, Wrigley replaced a nice guy with a tough guy. Disciplinarian Bob Scheffing was brought in and led the team to a slight improvement for three years. Scheffing’s mistake, apparently, was that he hadn’t clued his wife in on the expected decorum of the team and it’s owner. Scheffing was fired after the 1959 season and the rumor among the players was that his wife had said something at a team function, within earshot of Wrigley, about how poor the talent on the team was (this fact seemed to be apparent to everyone except Wrigley but no one was allowed to publicly state that the emperor had no clothes).

The year 1960 brought the Cubs management drama to new heights. Jolly Cholly Grimm, a good-timing oldster, generally credited with mismanaging the great Milwaukee Braves of Aaron, Mathews and Spahn out of a few pennants, took over. Grimm, as player-manager and later as just manager, had won pennants with the Cubs in 1932, 1935 and 1945--when the team contained an entire roster of legitimate major league ballplayers. After a 6-11 start in 1960, however, Wrigley traded Grimm to the broadcast booth for Lou Boudreau. A knowledgeable baseball man, generally credited as being a good manager, Boudreau could only forge a 54-83 record but was enthusiastic about the team’s future with newcomers Ron Santo and Billy Williams in the lineup. Unfortunately, Boudreau had the audacity to express his desire for the security of a two-year contract which was something Wrigley vehemently opposed on a matter of principle. They agreed amicably to part ways.

So if you’re keeping score at home, that’s six managers in ten years: four 7th place teams, two 8th (last) and zero first division finishes.

When an organization is either ridiculously successful or perennially unsuccessful, the cause is frequently found at the top and the Cubs were no different. Cubs owner P. K. Wrigley was, depending on who you talk to, either a benevolent, beloved old-school owner who deeply cared for his team or a blundering fool whose reliance on inept yes-men kept his team perpetually in the second division. While the actual truth may lie somewhere in between, the record of his teams speaks for itself.
P. K. took over a highly successful baseball franchise after the death of his father in 1932. Legend has it that his father extracted a death-bed promise from P.K., who had never taken much interest in the Cubs before, to look after his beloved team and keep it in the family. After the well-stocked team won pennants in 1935, 1938 and 1945, the team’s fortunes plummeted.

There were those who said P. K. Wrigley did not particularly care for the game of baseball and pointed to the fact that he had not been seen at a game in decades. Wrigley’s supporters--mostly newspapermen who seemed to be on some kind of dole and Ernie Banks--reported that he indeed attended many games, but did so incognito—mixing in with regular crowd. The fact that he was never actually spotted in the stands, which often were so sparsely populated that players knew each paying customer by name, lends credence to the first theory.

Wrigley spared no expense on the maintenance of his namesake ballfield, but he expected the team to turn a profit on its own without help from the deep pockets of the Wrigley Chewing Gum empire. The fact that he regularly mismanaged the team’s finances--missing out on opportunities to make bundles of money on radio and television rights, virtually giving away the franchise territory to Los Angeles, which he owned with his PCL club, to Walter O’Malley and the Dodgers and wasting thousands of dollars on young bonus players who never panned out—made this difficult at best.

Wrigley’s Cubs had some good players at times, such as future Hall of Famers Billy Williams, Ron Santo and Ernie Banks, but never enough. He cut corners on the scouting department and virtually ignored his farm system. He picked up well-past-their-prime former stars on the cheap and rushed youngsters into the fray too quickly--then dumped them just as quickly for another crop. While that strategy kept the payroll down, it did little to help field competitive teams.

Wrigley never totally jettisoned anyone from his employment rolls except for those who committed the ultimate crime of being disloyal (read: disagreeing with the top man). Anyone he fired, no matter for whatever level of incompetence, was kept within the organization in another role. The result was a system overloaded with unproductive, inefficient men with little aptitude for winning. There was no direction or honest leadership to be found anywhere within the organization.

Wrigley liked to view himself as a nonconformist among baseball men, and he was definitely that. He also proclaimed himself to be an innovator, yet it took him seven years to join in the biggest major league innovation of the 20th century—the integration of baseball. In doing so, he and his scouts passed over dozens of very good ballplayers who could have been had cheap and who could have helped his miserable team, merely because they had the wrong color skin.

Wrigley attempted to camouflage the horrendous lack of talent and organization with hokey ideas and flowery speech about the family experience of a trip to his beautiful ball park—but these tactics were little more effective than the layers of paint he regularly bestowed on the Wrigley Field bathroom walls.

Wrigley preferred to portray himself as media-shy, yet he himself was quoted in newspapers with more regularity than any of his players or staff and he frequently seemed to come up with ideas just for publicity sake. And so it was with great fanfare that a Wrigley-lead news conference introduced the grand plan for 1961. Wrigley even went so far as to release to the press a 21-page booklet explaining the team’s philosophy in detail, comparing it to modern business-management practices. He pronounced that after 14 consecutive years in the second division, he wanted to take full advantage of every possible means to improve the Cubs.

After losing Boudreau during the 1960 postseason, Wrigley had met with his top men to formulate a new strategy. Historians would later credit 32-year-old part-time backup catcher and coach Elvin Tappe, a Wrigley favorite, with the origins of the College of Coaches. While Tappe agreed that he had suggested a panel of coaches, for unified coaching throughout the system, he would go to his grave denying that he had anything to do with the lack of a manager and the rotating head coach part of the plan. That was all P.K.'s baby.

Wrigley had always detested the term “manager” for some reason. For years he had referred to his chief of baseball operations (called General Manager everywhere else) by every term other than General Manager. He went to great length to avoid the M-word. He told the press that he had looked up the word in the dictionary and the closest synonym was dictator. “We don’t need a dictator,” he explained.

“Since we’ve attempted just about everything else possible trying to improve our lot, I think the time has come to assemble the soldiers and sergeants before turning them over to a brand-new general.”
Wrigley stated that he had tried all kinds of personalities as manager for his team, “every type of manager from inspirational leader to slave driver,” and he had come to the conclusion that no single manager would work.

“Managers are expendable. I believe there should be relief managers just like relief pitchers.”
Wrigley announced that henceforth the word manager would be taboo under his new system. Coaches or supervisor would be the preferred verbiage.

Everyone on the executive team bought into the system and enthusiastically promoted it to the press. “We couldn’t hire a Durocher or Stanky, although they’re good baseball men,” said vice president John Holland. “We didn’t want the type of guy who wants it done his way or else. We needed harmony, men who can be overruled and not take it personally.”

One of the big ideas of the College of Coaches was continuity in the way the game was taught throughout the system. “If we bring a young pitcher up from San Antonio at mid-season, we won’t have to teach him how we work our pickoff play," said Charlie Grimm, a senior member of Wrigley’s inner circle. "He’ll know. It’ll be the same one he’s been using all season.” Bunt defense, curve balls and hitting approach would be taught the same way in Class A ball as in the majors--a very sane idea and something that teams such as the Dodgers and Cardinals had been doing for years.

But not content to merely stop with coaches teaching the same system, Wrigley insisted that the key tenant of the new plan was that there would be no manager. A rotating team of coaches would take turns being the "Head Coach." He did not offer, and apparently there was no set plan for, what the criteria would be for who the head coach would be on any given day and when a change would be made.

The College of Coaches for 1961 included Elvin Tappe, Harry Craft, Vedie Himsl, Rip Collins, Goldie Holt, Charlie Grimm, Verlon Walker and Bobby Adams. Most had been long-term members of the Cubs system at various levels.

The coaches were all supposed to have equal authority and equal importance. Each coach had a specialty such as pitching, hitting, first base, infield or outfield.  Four would always be with the Cubs, the other four would circulate through the farm system. During the season every coach would spend some time with the Cubs.

As with any novel idea that breaks with tradition, Wrigley’s project was met with skepticism. With almost a century of well-established practice patterns to back them up, critics opened fire mercilessly. The national press enjoyed much mirth at the Cubs’ expense. One wag suggested that “The Cubs have been playing without players for years. Now they’re going to try it without a manager.” The coaches were called "the enigmatic eight" and the team was labeled “the unmanagables." It was said that the reason the Cubs went with eight coaches is so there would be more room to spread out the blame for their inevitable failure. Rumors circulated that Wrigley was going to install a rotisserie at Wrigley Field to keep the revolving coaches hot.

One sports editor penned, “Not since the legendary Headless Horsemen of Sleepy Hollow has there been a decapitated phenomenon like the Chicago Cubs are going to present in major league baseball this season.”

Jim Murray, veteran writer for the L.A. Times, wrote, “The Cubs are less of a team than a comic-opera in baseball suits. They have more generals and less troops than a South American revolution. They come to a game like a bull to the plaza; the best they can hope is that someone doesn’t cut off their ears.”

And so it was in a state of nervous expectation that Chicagoland fans watched as the 1961 Cubs took the field.

Vedie Himsl, a labeled pitching expert, opened the season as head coach and lasted all of two weeks. April 23, after guiding the team to a 5-4 record, he was dispatched and found himself teaching pitching in Wenatchee, Washington, home of the Cubs Class B team.

Harry Craft, Lou Klein and Elvin Tappe then took their turns as the head man and Himsl returned later for another try. No reason was given as to why the other four did not get a chance as head coach. The results were somewhat underwhelming to say the least. The 1961 Chicago Cubs had five future Hall of Famers on their roster: Banks, who hit 29 home runs (his first season below 40 since 1956), Santo, who had 23 home runs and 83 RBIs, Williams, who hit 25 home runs and 86 RBIs, an aging Richie Ashburn who hit .257 in 109 games, and a young Lou Brock, who only appeared in a few games but would make a bigger splash in 1962, but won only 64 games and lost 90 and finished in 7th place (out of 8 teams). Himsl was 10-21, Craft 7-9, Tappe 42-54 and Klein 5-6.

Banks, the best all-around shortstop baseball had ever seen to that point, began experiencing severe knee problems in 1961. One coach moved him to left field for 23 games (an experiment that he detested privately, but publicly endured without complaint), another preferred to see him limping around at shortstop and another played him at first base, a position that would become his home the rest of his career.

George Altman had a great year with 27 home runs and 96 RBIs and a .303 average, but played four different positions and sometimes was not in the lineup at all as a few of the coaches did not apparently appreciate his talent or know where to play him. The team's top-winning pitcher, Don Cardwell, who won 15 games, commented to Holland at the end of the season that he didn't like the rotating coach system and he was traded, along with Altman in 1962.

In short, the College of Coaches was a disaster. Players, who had been skeptical at the start, rapidly learned that the system was killing the team. There was a tremendous void of leadership—in the dugout and in the clubhouse. Several of the coaches were good baseball men, but nobody, absolutely nobody, knew who was in charge. Because nobody was.

Confused players were told one thing by one coach and another by a different one; no one knew  who to listen to or believe. When the head coach changed, players did not know where they stood with the new guy—their status changed without explanation or cause. They never knew where they stood. One guy could like them, the next might put them on the bench or move them to a new position.

The coaches were noted to become territorial and defensive, suspicious of undermining by others. Players noticed that some coaches did absolutely nothing to help the current head coach, but merely watched until their turn came. Others openly stabbed their fellow coaches in the back. Rather than everyone working within the same system and philosophy, there was no cohesiveness. And no one knew how or why or when the head coaching job would change hands.
The lack of leadership was especially evident when the team was on the road. There were whispers among the media that players lacked discipline and that led to too many after-hours shenanigans (evidenced by the 40-37 home and 24-53 road records in 1961). There was no one man to lay down the lay to keep players straight. "Nobody is going to want to be the tough guy who cracks the whip and becomes unpopular,” said an unnamed former manager in a September, 1961 Sporting News article entitled “Bruins’ Teddy-Bear Road Act Traced to Slipshod Discipline.”

There was a lot of private griping among players, who were unanimous in their disenchantment with the system, but few dared speak out in public. Everyone was unhappy, but no one complained. The reason no one complained was P. K. Wrigley's well-known policy of tolerating no negative comments from his ranks. The one player who openly disagreed with the plan was fireplug second baseman Don Zimmer. On a radio interview with Lou Boudreau, Zimmer said that the system was especially damaging young players, like Santo, who were getting too much conflicting advice. Zimmer, previously on the protected list for the upcoming expansion draft, was suddenly made available and soon found himself a member of the New York Mets. The other players took the clue and kept quiet.

Years later, players offered their truthful views and reasons why the system failed. Richie Ashburn told Jerome Holtzman, “Players started rooting for certain guys to be named head coach because each guy had his own favorites.”

Pitcher Dick Ellsworth said, “Players griped that there was no leadership in the dugout. . .  I became really disenchanted when it didn’t work. . . it became counterproductive because of the jealousy among the coaches and not much cohesiveness.”

Ed Bouchee said, “They had the ballplayers all screw up because nobody knew what was going on.”

Bob Buhl added, "Each had a different idea and the ballplayers were lost. Everyone was unhappy.”

Relief ace Don Elston summarized, “I don’t think you will talk to one ballplayer who played under that system that’s going to say anything different than it was very hurtful, and it was a very bad situation. In 1961, it all went to hell, no question about it.”

Undaunted, Wrigley plunged ahead for 1962. He added Charlie Metro to the head coach mix. The abrasive Metro, who had managed at AAA several years, but had no major league experience, alienated players with quick-trigger tirades and petty rules like no shaving in the clubhouse and showed an annoying tendency for open hostilities with both players and his fellow coaches. In addition to Metro, Tappe and Klein were also head coaches in 1962.

Also added to the coaching staff in 1962 were Freddie Martin and Buck O'Neil, giving the Cubs a total of six coaches with the team and five in the farm system at any one time. The hiring of O'Neil was accompanied by headlines such as "Cubs Sign Negro as Coach." O'Neil became the first African American to coach on a major league team and his signing could have truly made Wrigley an innovator. But once again, Wrigley dropped the ball and it turned into another sad episode for the Cubs.

O'Neil, who had been a legendary manager for the Negro Leagues' Kansas City Monarchs, had been a Cubs scout since 1956. He was universally respected for his baseball knowledge and, with his enthusiasm, deep bass voice, and tremendous presence, was a natural leader of men. When he was added to the coaching staff, O'Neil thought he would get a chance to manage some day. "I soon found out there was no chance of that happening," he later wrote.

Lest there be any confusion on the elephant in the room, O'Neil's hiring was accompanied by the following official pronouncement: "Buck O'Neil will serve in the capacity of an instructor and as such will not be considered a potential head coach or manager under the club's rotation plan." O'Neil, the man with more professional managerial experience than anyone else on the staff other than Grimm, was the only one to have that stipulation. Why? The answer to the question is obvious; and disappointing.

"O'Neil should've gotten an opportunity to manage that year because of the fact that he was the best manager of the group," George Altman said later. "He had experience and knowledge and all the players took to him. Everybody loved Buck."

O'Neil, who was with the club in the spring as an instructor, had experienced some tension from Charlie Grimm, a man of questionable racial views who had memorably publicly referred to a young Henry Aaron by the racially-insulting term "Stepin Fetchit" when he managed the Braves. Grimm seemed sore that O'Neil's coached team always beat Grimm's in scrimmages. "But that was because he took all the white players and gave me all the blacks," O'Neil later wrote. "He could have beat me if he had Brock, Banks, Altman and Williams."

Under orders from above, O'Neil coached from the dugout but was not allowed on the field during games. July 15, 1962 head coach Metro was ejected from a game and Tappe, the third base coach, took over. When Tappe was later ejected, Klein, who had moved to third base coach, stepped up. Rather than have O'Neil, the obvious choice, coach third base the rest of the game, pitching coach Martin was called in from the bullpen and O'Neil remained in the dugout. "Not going out there that day was one of the few disappointments I've had in more than 60 years in baseball," the eternally optimistic O'Neil sadly wrote years later. O'Neil would later understand that the Cubs had no plan to ever give him a chance to move out of the dugout and he went back to scouting.

The 1962 team fared even worse than the year before: 59-103 for a 9th place after two expansion teams were added. Even more embarrassing, they trailed the first-year Houston Colt 45s (and their single manager, 1961 temporary Cub head coach Harry Craft)  who were 64-96.

Before the 1963 season, after two years of failure, P. K. Wrigley struck again. He hired former Air Force Colonel Robert Whitlow to run the team. Whitlow's working title was Athletic Director of the Chicago Cubs and Associated Cubs. Whitlow, 43, was a recently retired West Point graduate who had no baseball experience whatsoever. The story that accompanied his hiring was that he had stopped by the Wrigley Building to visit an old friend, a nephew of P.K.'s, and had somehow met the big guy and talked himself into a job. Unbelievable.

Wrigley announced that, as Athletic Director, Whitlow would have complete control of the organization, at both the major league and minor league levels, thus centralizing the control of the team. He would be responsible for assigning the coaches  and picking the head coach. 

An unimaginative man with a likable smile, Whitlow announced in the preseason, “We’re going to win a few, lose a few and there will be some games rained out.” He also told reporters he thought the Cubs had a chance to “take all the marbles.” To which a sour-graping Charlie Metro, no longer employed by the Cubs, said to the press, “Is it marbles they’re playing?”

Whitlow told reporters that he had been reading up on stamina tests and quick-energy release foods and would make appropriate training changes to help the team fare better in those interminable summer day games. He also said that positive thinking only would be tolerated for the organization and the word “fear” would be struck from the organization’s vocabulary.

Players quickly became annoyed by the inexperienced Whitlow and his attempts to run the team like a bunch of college kids or military recruits. They especially resented the calisthenics in formation during spring training led by the Colonel himself, in uniform.

Without much fanfare, the formal College of Coaches was dying an expected and appropriate death. With Athletic Director Whitlow on board, Wrigley decided to stick with one man, Bob Kennedy, as head coach all season in 1963. Not surprisingly, the Cubs finished the year with their highest mark in years, 82-80, their first finish over .500 in a decade. In 1964, they slipped to 76-86 and 8th place and panic once again reined. Whitlow resigned in January of 1965, saying that he was never taken seriously by baseball men around the league. Really?

Late in the 1965 season Kennedy was replaced by Lou Klein and the free fall continued to 72-90.

The final legacy of the College of Coaches is, to put it politely, not good. The two-year record of 123-193 for the pure rotating head coaches system, in 1961 and 1962, speaks for itself. Fans had to watch helplessly as the team and its owner were ridiculed. Young players like Lou Brock and George Altman, were especially affected. Brock, a speedster who stole 24 bases in 1963, the most on the Cubs since 1930, was continually mixed up by coaches who wanted him to run, those who wanted him to hit for power, and those who wanted both. Confused, he struggled with consistency and was tragically undervalued by the organization. He eventually became a Hall of Famer and won three pennants and two World Series titles--after he was shipped to St. Louis in one of the worst trades in baseball history.

At the conclusion of the 1965 season, Wrigley finally seemed to understand the fallacy of his ways. He totally reversed course and hired a pleasant gentleman named Leo to be the sole leader on the field for his team. Good times but, alas, more heartbreaks also, were on the way.


  1. Great article. I remember the debacle as a teenager but not the names of the coaching staff. I also enjoyed the great names like Don Cardwell, George Altman, and Dick Ellsworth.

  2. Wrigley had an interesting concept. This might be a good year to implement it for the U.S. presidency.

  3. Really enjoyed the feature on the Cubs College of Coaches. Will never forget seeing sweet swingin' Billy Williams(from Mobile's large Hall of Fame contingent)take batting practice at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium as a youngster. My Dad would say, "Try to swing like that, son."

  4. Thanks.
    I imagine a lot of guys said, "Try to swing like that," after watching Billy Williams. One of the sweetest swings in history. And a classy guy, too.