August 23, 2014

Higher Education: The Chicago Cubs College of Coaches

November 5, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

An old proverb states that two heads are better than one. During the early part of the nineteen sixties, Cubs’ owner, Philip Wrigley took it a little further. He felt that eight heads were better than one. Wrigley decided to employ eight rotating managers. There would be four on the major league staff and four at the at the minor league level. Wrigley pointed out that in football; a cadre of specialized coaches was utilized to improve a team’s performance.

Since the 1946 season, when the Cubs won 82 games, they had not finish above .500. They had become the definition of “doormat” of the National League. The 1960 season was the straw that broke Wrigley’s back! That year their record was a worse than dismal 60-94!

The Cubs’ failures forced Wrigley to think “out of the box.” He called his new innovation, the “College of Coaches.” Popular was Wrigley’s concept of the collage of coaches was inspired by the business world. Philip Wrigley was best known for successfully continuing the business ventures started by his father William. Still Philip was an extremely successful, and ambitious businessman in his own right. For instance, he was a pioneer in commercial aviation; the early backer of what would become United Airlines. Philip also had his hands in both the banking and hotel industries. He continued his father’s success with the chewing gum business. Wrigley parlayed his interest in radio and television to advertise the family’s gum. Philip was a man of influence. He worked closely with the government and during World War II; Wrigley gum was included in army rations. In 1938, he hired Coleman R. Griffith, a pioneer in the field of sports psychology. So his “College of Coaches” was not his first innovation in the baseball world. The common belief is that Wrigley’s brainchild was inspired by the business world but was provoked the team’s dire history in the standings. Then others trace the idea to Elvin Tappe. Tappe was a favorite of Mr. Wrigley and the consummate organization man. Tappe served as a utility catcher, and coach. It was his suggestion to provide hitting, pitching and fielding instructors who would rotated around the minor league teams so to provide uniform instruction for developing players. El pointed out that he never intended his idea to be used at the major league level. The Cubs’ owner informed his employee that he was the owner and he could basically try anything he wanted.

Wrigley classified his idea as “business efficiency applied to baseball.” His definition for coaches participating in his concept “…as that position would be operated without a manager, as it is generally understood, that the eight man coaching staff would take turns directing the major league team and the same coaches would also rotate through the minor league system.” Mr. Wrigley also considered all the coaches to be equals and receive comparable salaries, $12 to 15K per season. The initial planned lineup of coaches was: Bobby Adams, Rip Collins, Harry Craft, Velvie Himsl, Charlie Grimm, Goldie Holt, Fred Martin, and Elvin Tappe. All the while, Wrigley felt, “Managers are expendable. I believe there should be relief manages just like relief pitchers.

The first year of the great experiment was 1961 and its roster featured four future Hall of Fame members: Richie Ashburn, Ernie Banks, Ron Santo and Billy Williams. It was a squad that also had good players like George Altman, Frank Thomas and Don Zimmer to compliment them. One of the downfalls of the new system was its lack of consistency. This was a complaint expressed by many of the Cubs players.

The most vocal critic was team captain Don Zimmer. Lou Boudreau managed the team in 1960 and after the season he was sent upstairs to the broadcast booth. For the last game of the 1961 season, he interviewed don Zimmer for his pre-game show. He asked his former player what he thought about Wrigley’s Collage of Coaches?

“Number one Lou, I don’t want to involve any of my teammates. Whatever I say here is coming from me…I thought it was the biggest farce in the world. It was a popularity contest.”

Zim went on to share an example. It seemed that in 1961, Vedie Himsl was the first head coach, Zimmer played for two weeks, and then they switched to Elvin Zappe and continued to play for another two weeks. Lou Klein who confided in him, “You’re the only guy in the infield that’s got any fire and this and that, followed el. I didn’t know what it was all about, so I went to the dugout to see where I was batting, and I wasn’t.”

Until his interview with Boudreau, Zimmer was on the protected list for the expansion draft. Afterwards he was suddenly exposed and selected by the New York Mets.

In his memoirs (Kiss it Goodbye: The Frank Thomas Story), Frank Thomas had a similar opinion. “They would each manage the team for a short period before rotating to the next guy. It sounded like a terrible idea right from the start, too many cooks in the kitchen, but I just decided not to worry about it until I saw it played when we go to spring training.” Frank felt that he was thought of as a player without a position. That the College of Coaches treated him as the forgotten player.” On May 9, 1961, the Cubs traded Thomas top the Milwaukee Braves. Then the Braves traded him to the New York Mets on November 28, 1961 for Gus Bell and cash. The Braves did not receive Bell until May 21, 1962.

Cuno Barragan, a back-up catcher concurred, “College of Coaches was the worst thing that ever happened. Baseball is managed by an individual who in his estimation plays the best nine players he thinks can win games with.”

Future Hall of Fame member, Lou Brock stated, “Fourteen chiefs is an awful lot of brass for just 25 Indians, only eight of who play every day anyhow.”

Catcher Dick Bertell referred to the system as “Horrible. We would go from a manager who would like to bunt and hit and run one week to a guy who didn’t do any of that the next week.” He also felt that the problem with the Cubs was Phil Wrigley.

Pitcher Dick Ellsworth, who finished with a record of 9-20 in 1962 believed that COC offered “No leadership and that lack of leadership was reflected in how we did on the field.”

At the end of the 1962 season, pitcher Don Cardwell went to John Holland and told him that he did not like the system. A week later, he was traded.

Ford Frick, the NL president stated, “My only concern is that may only concern is that he (meaning Wrigley) has nine men on the field.”

The final manager of Wrigley’s innovation was Charlie Metro. He was considered an “authoritarian.” Charlie had no major league experience but had managed the previous five seasons at the AAA level, most recently with the Denver Bears of the American Association. When the job was offered top Metro, he contacted his friend and former COC manager, Harry Craft to ask if he should take the job, which Craft replied, “Yeah Charlie, take it, you have to be exposed on the major league level. You’ll get some exposure and people will know whom you are. Down there in the minors they know you, but they aren’t familiar with you in the majors.”

One of things Wrigley asked Metro was whether he would rotate, which Charlie responded that he would but would not like it. So, it was decided that Metro would be the manager for the balance of the season, effectively ending the concept at the big league level. He managed the final 112 games of the collage.

When Metro took over, he admitted, “I’ll never win any popularity contest. Then went on to describe the team’s mediocre pitching as, “A car missing a wheel” and criticized some of Cubs players as ‘happy losers.’

Charlie did not endear himself to his players when he banned golf clubs from the clubhouse after learning that some of the players were playing golf the morning of games. Literally, he wanted to eliminate the country club atmosphere.

The Cubs had a great opportunity to secure a place in history by having the first African American manage the team. They did come close when, in a game that Metro was thrown out and was replaced by El Tappe, the third base coach at the time, had also been thrown out. Cubs’ players thought Buck O’Neil would become the next manager but Fred Martin was brought in from the bullpen. He was the team’s pitching coach. It had the awful smell of racism. This was pretty much confirmed when Charlie Grimm, a respected advisor to Wrigley, made it clear that O’Neil would never coach on the base paths, insinuating that is given the opportunity who steal someone’s job. (After retiring, O’Neil admitted that that not coaching on the bases was his greatest disappointment in baseball.)

1961: 64-90

• Vedie Himsl (10-21)
• Harry Craft (7-9)
• El Tappe (42-54)
• Lou Klein (5-6)

1962: 59-103

• El Tappe (4-16)
• Lou Klein (12-18)
• Charlie Metro (43-69)

In April 1963, Philip Wrigley gave up on his experiment.

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