Quiz time: Name 5 active major league players you think will be managers some day. There are undoubtedly some who could handle the job, but my guess is many won’t and a big reason why is money. Guys today make enough money to retire and simply walk away. It takes a serious love of the game to make the kind of money today’s players do and then manage after your playing career is over.
That wasn’t the case in 1972. According to this SABR article, the highest paid player in 1972 was Carl Yastrzemski. Yaz raked in $167,000 that year. Good money, especially at the time, but nothing compared to what players make today. In fact, the major league minimum for 2014 is $500,000 and the average salary in 2013 was just under $3.4 million.
As I began to put my set together, I noticed what seemed to be an extremely high number of players who later became managers. By my tally, 33 players in the 1972 Topps set later became managers at the big league level. Fast forward 25 years to the 1997 set. To this point, a grand total of five of the players in that set are/were big league managers. In fairness, the 1997 set only had 496 cards, but even if you make the mathematical adjustment AND round up, that still gives you just 9 managers. Times have changed.
Thirty-three future managers is enough to make a full team with a few September call ups, so let’s put a starting lineup together!
Catcher: Jeff Torborg
Torborg is our catcher based on historical significance. He caught three no-hitters, including a Sandy Koufax perfect game in 1965. He also caught a Bill Singer no-no in 1970 and was behind the plate for Nolan Ryan’s first no hitter in 1973. He’s also my all-time favorite player of Danish decent.
He began his managerial career in 1977 when he took over for Frank Robinson as skipper of the Cleveland Indians. Taking over for Robinson began a trend for Torborg. He managed the Indians, White Sox, Mets, Expos and Marlins from 1977 through 2003. In each of those stops, he took over for someone who had a card in the 1972 Topps set. Coincidence? Yea, probably.
First Base: Cecil Cooper
There were lots of good choices at first base. I could have gone with Don Baylor, Frank Howard, or Tony Perez, but I chose Cecil Cooper because I always felt bad for the guy. Simply stated, Cooper suffered the misfortune of having his best season at the wrong time.
Cooper was a heckuva hitter and in 1980 he had a career season. He hit .352 and led the American League with 122 RBI but no one noticed. That’s because in his career year, Cecil Cooper hit .352 and lost the batting title by 38 points. George Brett hit .390 and led the Royals to the World Series. Cooper was an afterthought. So much of a afterthought that his season line of .352-24-122 AND a gold Glove earned him 5th place in the MVP voting. Fifth! Not even one first place vote.
After he retired as a player, Cooper finally got a shot to manage in the big leagues with Houston but didn’t have a lot of success, going 171-170 in one full season and parts of two others.
Second Base: Tony LaRussa
LaRussa was not a standout player and earns the starting nod based strictly on his managerial record. LaRussa hit just .199 in 132 games over six years with the A’s, Braves & Cubs. The 1972 card was his last as a player. He retired after playing one game for the Cubs in 1973 where he pinch ran for Ron Santo and scored on a bases loaded walk from Mike Marshall.
He did turn into a half-decent manager, however. He took over the White Sox in 1979 at the age of 34 and won a division title with them in 1983. He also pulled off a rare feat by managing both the White Sox and the A’s in the same season (1986.)
Oakland is where his managerial star began to rise. He lead the A’s to the World Series in three consecutive seasons (1998-1990) and won the famous 1989 earthquake series.
In 1996, he moved on to St. Louis where he won seven division titles and two more World Series championships. Like him or not, the guy was a great manager and won more than 2,700 games and three World Series championships.
Shortstop: Larry Bowa
Full Disclosure: Larry Bowa is the starting shortstop on this team in large part due to personal bias. He was one of my favorite players growing up and I chose him over several other deserving candidates, including Maury Wills, Bill Russell and Jim Fregosi for no reason other than the fact that I like the guy.
Bowa is often described as a good field-no hit shortstop, thought I’m not entirely sure that’s fair. He finished his career with a .260 batting average and did hit .305 in 1975 in an era where you didn’t expect offense from your shortstop. What you expected was exactly what Bowa gave you: a solid glove. He finished his career with a .980 fielding percentage; 15 points higher than the league average over that time. He won a Gold Glove in 1972 and again in 1978.
I have two enduring in person memories of Bowa as a player. As a young Phillies fan, I would ask my parents to take me to see them play the Reds each summer. On August 28th 1977, Bowa and the Phils were at beautiful Riverfront Stadium to face the Reds. Bowa hit a ground ball to Rick Auerbach at 2nd base and was called out on a very close play at first. Bowa flew off the handle and got tossed. I flew off the handle and cried. I remember my Mom and two guys sitting near us trying to comfort me to no avail.
Three years later, I went with a friend to see Bowa and the Phils play the Reds in the glorious season of 1980. My friend and I were walking around the outer concourse when we heard the P.A. announcer say Bowa was up, so I ran up the ramp to see him hit against Cincinnati starter Tom Seaver. Bowa hit a ball between left fielder Dave Collins and center fielder Sam Mejias, who ran into each other and collapsed to the turf. Right fielder Hector Cruz had to come over to field the ball and Bowa easily had himself an inside the park home run. Seeing that in person somewhat made up for “The Great Ejection of ’77.”
Bowa retired after the 1985 season and took the helm of the San Diego Padres in 1987 after leading their AAA team to a championship the previous year. That didn’t work out too well. He later managed the Phillies and also served as a coach for the Phillies, Angels, Mariners, Yankees & Dodgers. He returns home in 2014 to serve as a Phillies coach under Ryne Sandberg.
3rd Base: Joe Torre
Torre is a slam dunk starter because he excelled as both a player and a manager. Notice how sweaty he is in his photo. That’s probably because he spent the entire 1971 season destroying National League pitching. Torre hit .363 for the Cardinals that year and drove in 137 runs, which earned him National League MVP honors. He would finish his playing career with more than 2,300 hits, an MVP award and nine all-star appearances.
Torre began his managerial career in 1977 with the Mets and later managed the Braves & Cardinals.
Behind MVP Dale Murphy, Torre’s Atlanta Braves won the division title in 1982, but they were swept by the Cardinals in the NLCS. He finished his tenure in Atlanta with a second place finish in ’83 and 3rd in ’84 before moving to St. Louis. After being fired in mid-season by the Cardinals in 1995, Torre owned a .471 winning percentage in just under 1,900 career games.
That’s when the Yankees called and things began to turn around. After selling George Steinbrenner on his skills as a manager, Torre had some work to do in the eyes of the New York media.
As it turned out, Torre did OK, winning ten division titles, six pennants and four World Series championships. In 29 years, managing five teams, Torre won 2300+ games and was just elected to the Hall of Fame along with LaRussa.
Our infield is all set. Next week, we’ll take a look at the outfield, DH and pitching. Thanks so much for reading!