Friday, June 26, 2020

Flashback, June 1950: Ex-Yankee Skipper Joe McCarthy Manages Last Game for Bosox

Seventy years ago this week, the great career of Joe McCarthy—the first manager to win pennants in both the National and American Leagues—came to a sad, but not entirely unforeseen, end. The former skipper of the New York Yankees, who for the last 2½ years had been expected to repeat his success with the Bronx Bombers’ deeply talented rivals, the Boston Red Sox, had resigned after a disastrous stretch of games in which the Bosox fell 9½ games out of first place.

With coach Steve O’Neill replacing him for a few games after a crushing loss on June 18, McCarthy had emerged to announce he was stepping down. The official reason—ill health—would have sounded familiar to Yankee fans, as he had provided a similar factor for ending his tenure in New York.

But front-office personnel with the Yankees would have felt a sense of déjà vu when they heard a rumor about what led to his “ill health”: mounting frustration in this quiet but ferociously competitive manager that he could no longer summon the magic that had once led the Yankees to seven World Series championships from 1932 to 1943. In May 1946, that inner turmoil, along with a deteriorating relationship with team president Larry MacPhail, led him to drink more heavily, then resign. 

The same dynamic appeared to have recurred when he went to Boston. Despite two straight 96-win seasons in which the Red Sox missed the World Series by a single game (first through a one-game playoff loss to the Cleveland Indians, then the next year in the final weekend to the rival Yankees), Beantown sportswriters had taken to second-guessing his decisions. 

Then, with the Red Sox losing nine of 10 games in mid-June to the St. Louis Browns, the Cleveland Indians, and the Detroit Tigers, the sniping intensified. 

In later years, the question hanging over McCarthy’s departure was if he had truly chosen to go himself or if the decision had been precipitated by general manager Joe Cronin and team owner Tom Yawkey.

At age 63, McCarthy would never manage another game, and the loss of two straight positions due to “ill health” may have led some to wonder how much longer he might live. 

But, back at his farm in the Buffalo area and free from stress, McCarthy stopped drinking heavily and his health improved. He not only was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1967 but survived for another 20 years after that, dying at last at age 90.

The passage of time provided better perspective not only on how much McCarthy had accomplished in Boston (no Red Sox team would finish even as high as second place until the pennant-winning squad of 1967), but throughout his career. 

He had raised the performance of three different ball clubs: the Chicago Cubs (a team he took to the World Series in 1929), the Yankees and the Red Sox. Players came to appreciate his tough-but-fair manner. 

On the one hand, “Marse Joe” (a nickname bestowed on him while in Chicago) was a perfectionist who insisted on seriousness and professionalism on and off the field (players were to report for breakfast each morning), endlessly stressed fundamentals and demanded the utmost from each player, starting with his famous “Ten Commandments of Baseball. (The Ninth “Commandment”: “Do not find too much fault with the umpires. You cannot expect them to be as perfect as you are.”) 

On the other hand, he earned the undying gratitude of players by never criticizing them in front of the press.

Joe DiMaggio observed, “Never a day went by that you didn’t learn something from McCarthy.” McCarthy's career winning percentages of .615 in the regular season and .698 in the postseason remain the gold standard among managers. 

Baseball historian Bill James put it succinctly: “I believe that Joe McCarthy was the greatest manager in baseball history.”

No comments: