With the possible exception of being a NFL head coach, there is no more stressful or difficult job in sports then managing a professional baseball team. Lou Pinella said that with the exception of being President of the United States, managing a big league club was the most stressful job but that’s nuts. Yes, there’s a lot of pressure but you get paid a lot of money and if you screw up, no one’s gonna die.
Anyway, as a big league skipper you’re responsible for all facets of the game from hitting, to pitching to defense. During the course of an average game, a manager generally has to make at least twelve decisions that could realistically go either way.
A few thoughts about this list; it’s not strictly based on wins, pennants and World Series titles because all teams aren’t created equal. It’s much harder to win with a small market team that doesn’t have a large payroll then on a team that has an owner that’s willing to spend whatever it takes to win.
Point number two, this list only goes back to the late sixties. It was a lot easier to manage a team before free agency. Players had to listen to you, or they’d be buried and you were in no danger of losing your star players except to injury. No offense to the relatives of Casey Stengel but with all that Yankee talent, it would be awfully hard to screw it up. The manager in the modern era has to have people skills to relate to their players which is not so easy when most players have guaranteed contracts and make significantly more then you do. So, with that out of the way, here are the best managers in baseball history from 1967 on:
10. Jim Leyland: 3 pennants, 1 World Series title
Jim Leyland was a minor league lifer as a player but really came into his own as a manager. His first job was as the skipper for the Pittsburgh Pirates where he peacefully co-existed with Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla and Andy Van Slyke and managed to win three division titles. Sure, he left to manage the Marlins but it was hard to blame him because the Pirates front office just couldn’t compete with the big spenders.
In Florida, that wasn’t a problem as Marlins owner Wayne Huzienga was willing to spent whatever it took and in 1997 he did and the team won a title. 1998 was a different story because Huzienga basically had a fire sale of all his good players and the team dropped to a record of 54 and 108. Ouch. After a brief stop in Colorado, Leyland took a bunch of years off before re-emerging to manage the Tigers in 2006 and he nearly won it all again by nabbing two pennants in 2006 and 2012 before retiring in 2013. Plus all his players have nothing but good things to say about him which is really awesome when you consider that Leyland is famous for speaking his mind.
9. Tommy Lasorda: 4 pennants, 2 World Series titles
Tommy Lasorda was a throw back, managing one team for his entire 21 year managing career. He was loud, boisterous and loved the spotlight, making him the perfect manager for Los Angeles. Best of all, he knew how to motivate people. In 1972, when he was managing the Dodgers AAA team, he had all his regulars write letters to their major league counterparts telling them how they were going to take their jobs.
Lasorda won his first World Series title in 1981 over a good Yankees team and his second one in 1988 over a very good Oakland A’s team that the Dodgers had no business beating. Sure, he’s been accused of being a big phony and a front runner but, again, that made him the perfect manager for L.A.
8. Whitey Herzog: 3 pennants, 1 World Series title
Whitey Herzog was a manager who relied on pitching, speed and defense to win because he mostly managed on Astroturf. With the Royals he won three straight division titles, losing each time in the playoffs to a slightly better Yankees teams. In 1981, he took over the St. Louis Cardinals and lead them to a title in 1982 where he was ahead of his time by placing a premium on players with a high on-base percentage. Basically, it was “moneyball” before the term existed.
If there is one criticism of “The White Rat” it’s that he sometimes let personality influence decisions. Exhibit A was the trading of Keith Hernandez to the divisional rival, New York Mets because he didn’t get along with Hernandez. He was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2010.
7. Billy Martin: 2 pennants, 1 World Series title
Billy Martin was an expert at getting the most out of his ability as a player and a manager. His first two managerial stops in Minnesota and Detroit saw him take below average teams to division titles. He was well on his way to doing this with the Texas Rangers until one of his coaches, Frank Lucchesi, started saying bad things about Martin to the front office. Then, in 1975, Billy Martin got the only job he really wanted; managing the New York Yankees.
In all, Billy Martin managed the Yankees on five different occasions, winning two pennants and one World Series but provided New York sports fans with several lifetimes worth of headlines. His run-ins with Reggie Jackson and George Steinbrenner were the stuff of legend. In between Yankee stints, Billy managed his hometown Oakland A’s, winning them a division title in 1981. Sure, if you hire Billy Martin, he’ll eventually burn out your pitching staff and implode but he’ll also win a lot of ball games.
6. Earl Weaver: 4 pennants, 1 World Series title
Another throwback who managed his entire career with one team. What is, perhaps, most impressive is that in seventeen years he only had one losing season and that was during his final one in 1986. He was the anti-moneyball manager in that his strategy was built around the three run homer. In 1970, his Orioles won 108 games with four twenty game winners on route to winning the World Series.
Fair or not, what the “Earl of Baltimore” was most famous for was his numerous run-ins with umpires. In fact, he pioneered the move of turning his cap around so it wouldn’t accidentally brush an umpire and get him ejected. Earl, was a man of integrity. So, if there was a call he disagreed with, he would call it a horse s**t call but not call the umpire himself horse s**t. Apparently, there’s a difference.
5. Joe Torre: 6 pennants, 4 World Series titles
Joe Torre is far and away the best player on this list having accumulated 2,342 career hits and a .297 batting average but where he truly blossomed was as a big league manager starting with some horrible Mets teams in the late seventies. He moved to the Atlanta Braves in 1982 and snagged a division title before moving to the Cardinals in 1990.
In 1996, he began his tenure managing the New York Yankees and it was one of the most successful managerial stints in that club’s rich history, winning four World Series. Yes, he did have great players in Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens, Tino Martinez and more, but even the best Rolls Royce needs a driver. What is most remarkable is that he never got on George Steinbrenner‘s bad side. All things must come to an end and in 2008 Torre left to manage the Dodgers, winning two division titles in his three years in Los Angeles.
Joe Torre is the only man to have managed three out of the four most successful teams in Major League history with the Cardinals, Yankees and Dodgers. The only one missing is the Red Sox but it’s a safe bet that’ll never happen.
4. Dick Williams: 4 pennants, 2 World Series titles
What can you say about a manager whose autobiography is title “No More Mr. Nice Guy?” You say the guy’s a winner, which is exactly what Dick Williams was.
Believe it or not, there was a time when the Red Sox’s didn’t win pennants or World Series. Dick Williams won Boston’s first pennant in over twenty years in 1967. Then he went on to manage the Oakland A’s with Charlie Finley as his boss. Not only did Williams win two World Series but he didn’t kill Finley which may be the more impressive accomplishment. Dick Williams is also one of the few people in sports who actually put his money where his mouth is. In 1974, he was so fed up with Finley’s shenanigans that he quit. And even though Finley continued to send Williams checks, Williams refused to cash them because he felt he would be compromising his integrity.
In 1982, Williams took over the San Diego Padres, one of the most putrid teams in big league history. By 1984, Williams led them to a pennant. The franchise’s highest finish up until that point was fourth. Williams was forced out in 1986 and his last stop in his managing career was with the lowly Seattle Mariners. While he couldn’t pull off another miracle, he did make the M’s competitive for the first time in their history. In 2008, Dick Williams was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Yes, the man was tough but all the best players he managed loved the guy and that says it all.
3. Sparky Anderson: 5 pennants, 3 World Series titles
Sparky Anderson was the first manager to win World Series titles in both leagues, getting there first with “the Big Red Machine” in ’75 and ’76 and adding a title with the Detroit Tigers in ’84. His nickname was “Captain Hook” because the second a pitcher got into trouble, Sparky would go to the bullpen.
Sparky was also known to heap praise on players who didn’t quite earn it. For instance, he said of Chris Pittaro, “Chris Pittaro is the best rookie I’ve had in 15 years.” Dave Concepcion and Don Gullett might beg to differ. Sparky also said, “Mike Laga will make you forget about every power hitter that ever lived.” Not exactly but we’ll cut him some slack because he went into the Hall of Fame in 2000 and appeared on an episode of “WKRP In Cincinnati.”
2. Bobby Cox: 5 pennants, 1 World Series title
Bobby Cox lead the Toronto Blue Jays to their first division title in 1985 but he was just getting started. It was as general manager and then manager of the Atlanta Braves where he truly left his mark. As the GM, he was responsible for drafting Chipper Jones, Tom Glavine and Dave Justice. After three years of watching Russ Nixon stink up the joint, Cox fired him and named himself manager. It was a good decision.
He holds the record for being thrown out of games at 161. Most times when this happened, it was so he could prevent his players from being tossed. Some people quibble that Cox only won one World Series but his teams appeared in five and if a few calls went the other way, Bobby Cox easily could’ve won 3 titles. Bobby Cox also has the honor of being unanimously elected into the Hall of Fame by the Veteran’s Committee in 2013.
1. Tony La Russa: 6 pennants, 3 World Series titles
Tony La Russa is the only lawyer on this list and he famously said, “I decided I’d rather ride the buses in the minor leagues than practice law for a living.” It’s a decision that paid off in 1979 when he got the opportunity to manage the White Sox. The team did win a division title in 1983 but that was only La Russa’s first trip of many to the post season.
In 1986, Tony La Russa was named manager of the Oakland A’s. He molded those teams into a juggernaut and won four division titles, two pennants and one World Series when the A’s swept the San Francisco Giants in the earthquake series in 1989. In 1996, La Russa decided it was time for a new challenge when accepted the job to manage the St. Louis Cardinals. He found the National League to his liking by winning 7 division titles, 3 pennants and 2 more World Series before retiring in 2011.
Tony La Russa was known as a superb in-game technician and was also elected unanimously into the Hall of Fame by the Veteran’s Committee in 2013. If that’s not enough, La Russa is active in animal rescue, is a vegetarian and personal friends with Bruce Springsteen and Bruce Hornsby.
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