October 31, 2014

Billy The Kid

March 15, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

People talk about coaching trees in other sports, but I don’t hear much about managerial trees.  Leonard Koppett and Bill James did touch on the subject in their seminal books on managers.  By the way, there is a new book on managers that just came out.  It’s by a longtime friend of mine named Chris Jaffe.  I read most of it as he prepared it and it is outstanding.

This past week we celebrated Billy Southworth’s birthday.  Southworth was just elected to the Hall of Fame a couple of years back, but he isn’t all that well known.  Nevertheless, he led an interesting life.  I wrote about him for a book on Boston baseball in 1948, but some of the more interesting tidbits were left out.  His daughter told me that he grew up with Eddie Rickenbacker.  The World War I ace was tight with one of his brothers.  His older brother killed the last passenger pigeon in the wild.  And as a kid on the Nebraska plains, his family knew Buffalo Bill Cody.  Cody may have nicknamed young Southworth “Billy the Kid” after William Bonney.  As far as I know this is the only connection between baseball and the mythical West.  (Roger Kahn claims that Jesse James and Hoss Radbourn were buds, but I never saw any other evidence of this).  Do people still know who Buffalo Bill is or has he slipped out of our memory?  He started as a rider on the Pony Express and later in life starred in his Wild West show.  Introduced the world to sharp-shooting Annie Oakley.  Annie Oakley is archaic baseball jargon for a free pass; either to a game or to first base.  But I digress.

Billy’s son, also named Billy, was also a baseball player.  Never made it to the majors, but he was an MVP of the International League.  He was one of the first athletes to enlist in the military during World War II.  He became a pilot in the Army Air Corps, flew enough missions over Europe to get rotated home, only to die in a crash right after takeoff from LaGuardia.  One of his navigators was a guy named Jon Schueler.  Schueler borrowed Southworth Jr.’s diary and never gave it back.  The parts of it that I read reminded me of Catch-22.   At the time he wanted to become a writer.  But he wound up becoming a painter instead and hung out with folks like Mark Rothko.  The New York School was the name hung on that clique.  I can’t say that I’m a huge fan of Abstract Expressionism.  I am one of those philistines who got a chuckle out of Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word.

Southworth went on to a baseball career.  Started with Cleveland then moved on to Pittsburgh, the Boston Braves, the Giants, and the Cardinals.  He played for John McGraw and Hugo Bezdek, among other people.  McGraw was an inspiration on how to handle players for Billy.  He would go on to do the opposite.  McGraw was a hard-ass.  Billy wasn’t.  Bezdek was actually a football coach that the Pirates brought in.  But he did sprout a few branches off of his managerial tree.  Deacon McKechnie and Southworth were the most prominent examples.  His training methods may have been an inspiration for Southworth’s regimented spring camps during his managerial career.  McGraw had tough camps, too, but Bezdek’s players looked forward to the games because they were easier than the practices.  Another player who was a teammate of Southworth’s during his career was a failed dental student.  Casey Stengel was his name.  He and Southworth were like brothers from another mother.  If you took each of their best years, you might have the best managerial career ever.  Both liked to platoon.  Both were born west of the Mississippi less than three years apart back when it was still The West.  Both were outfielders and Bill James list each as the other’s most similar player.

Southworth was an influence on Earl Weaver, who second-guessed him as a teenager in the stands of Sportsman’s Park.  In fact, there were a number of future managers from the Saint Louis area who were around for Southworth’s teams.  Whitey Herzog and Dick Williams are two others.  (But Whitey was a Yankee fan; a front-runner.)  Players he managed that later became managers themselves include Del Crandall, Alvin Dark, Jim Elliot, Roy Hartsfield, Tommy Holmes, Lou Klein, Marty Marion, Gene Mauch, Terry Moore, Eddie Stanky, and Harry “the Hat” Walker.  I’m not sure how much of an influence Southworth was on Dark and Stanky.  They did not get along.

Stengel was not the Casey At The Bat.  That was a fictitious Casey who only existed in the mind of Ernest Thayer.  Thayer was a newspaperman for William Randolph Hearst.  Ernest had a nephew name Scofield Thayer who was an art collector and publisher.  At Harvard, he chummed with E.E. Cummings.  “Buffalo Bill’s/ defunct” is a poem by him that you may’ve read in high school.

Stengel was a more ardent disciple of McGraw; especially how he handled the press.  And he had some managerial bloodlines, too.  Another New York School, if you will, was in session in the Bronx.  Ralph Houk descended from him, as did Darrell Johnson, Hank Bauer, and Yogi Berra.  But his #1 fan was Billy Martin.  Billy Martin got his start managing the Twins, but he reached my consciousness with his stint with the Yankees.  Steinbrenner hired him.  Martin begat Lou Piniella and probably helped in the inspire Mike Hargrove’s managing methods.

Like his predecessor Mike Burke, Steinbrenner makes a good connector because he ran in so many circles: political philanthropy, horse racing (like Bill Veeck, he ran a racetrack.  Unlike him, he also raised and raced thoroughbreds), Broadway, shipbuilding- he knew everyone from Howie Spira to John DeLorean.  Big Stein had his own ideas about running a team.  During his twenties, he coached college football for a few Big Ten teams.  He was an assistant under Woody Hayes at Ohio State and Lou Saban at Northwestern.  This may explain his “win every game” mentality.  You only play a few games in football.  But, as Earl Weaver said, “This isn’t football; we do this every day.”  Steinbrenner named Saban president of the Yanks in the early 1980s.  After Northwestern, but before the Bronx, Lou went on to coach a number of college and pro teams; including the Buffalo Bills.

Jon Daly has been a SABR member since 2001.  He has written several biographies for SABR that have appeared online or in books, including ones on Billy Southworth and Jim Willoughby.  His writing has also appeared online at websites such as Baseball Think Factory and The Hardball Times. Jon is also the sole contributor to the blog Designated Sitter (http://designatedsitter.blogspot.com/) He Tweets @designatedsittr

Comments

One Response to “Billy The Kid”
  1. Dave Johnson says:

    “As far as I know this is the only connection between baseball and the mythical West.”

    Zane Grey, popular writer of Western pulp fiction, was a slugging pitcher for the University of Pennsylvania, class of 1896.

    http://www.upenn.edu/pennnews/current/record/120309.html

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