After I posted my choices for the 10 best managers in Cubs history last week, some of you asked for the companion piece, about the worst managers in the history of the franchise. Since we are currently blessed with one of the best managers in the long history of the Cubs, I thought it would be useful to look back on where we’ve been.
A few stipulations, first: Because there have been just 60 men in the 140-year history of the Cubs who have led the team on the field, and five of them were only part of the College of Coaches (more on that later!), I thought it would be unfair to make this a “Top 10” list, as then you’re drifting into territory where some of those men might actually have done a decent job.
Second, this list is limited to men who managed the Cubs for at least one full season. That eliminates 11 managers who had the reins for less than one full year, although I’m going to give (dis)honorable mention to Preston Gomez, who managed the Cubs for 90 games in 1980. He seemed particularly clueless and after the team got off to a good 11-6 start, they went 27-46 and Gomez was fired just before a West Coast trip.
Finally, let’s stipulate that in some cases, a manager had a poor record simply because he wasn’t given any talent with which to compete.
This list is in order from “best of the worst” to “worst of the worst.”
5) Lee Elia
You know Elia well from his profane 1983 tirade after a tough loss to the Dodgers, in which he got upset that fans were booing. (It should be noted the Cubs were, at the time, 5-14.) I wrote about this game here almost four years ago (and there’s a link to Elia’s audio, reminder, NSFW!), and in that article there’s a note that Dallas Green nearly fired Elia right then, but decided to give him a second chance.
Elia eventually got himself canned later that year -- here’s what I wrote about that in the link above:
Elia did wind up getting fired later that year, for a different reason -- after Braves rookie Gerald Perry had come into Wrigley and led Atlanta to a three-game sweep by going 4-for-9 with a home run and six RBI, Elia was quoted as saying he had "never heard" of Perry.
That was the last straw for Green, who replaced him with Charlie Fox for the rest of the season. The Cubs finished two games worse than they had in 1982.
4) Dale Sveum
Sveum, to some extent, comes under the category of “didn’t have enough talent to win.” The Cubs had begun the rebuild that eventually resulted in the 2016 World Series championship, and Sveum had to use guys like Chris Volstad, Jason Berken, Justin Germano and Chris Rusin in the rotation.
He’s on this list because early in the 2013 season, when Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo were slumping, Sveum suggested that those players could benefit from a trip to Triple-A Iowa. Castro, who’d already had two All-Star seasons and entered 2013 with a lifetime BA of .297, and Rizzo, who was already seen by the front office as a cornerstone to the future.
Sveum just seemed particularly clueless as a manager. There are some men who become good coaches, then seem overwhelmed in the top job. Sveum had been a well-respected batting coach with the Brewers before coming to the Cubs, and returned to that position with the Royals after Theo Epstein fired him. He helped Kansas City to their World Series win in 2015. But as a manager? Not good.
3) Mike Quade
I’m sure some of you are surprised not to see Quade “higher” on this list, but oh, just you wait.
Quade had been praised for his work with young players as manager at Triple-A Iowa for four years from 2003-06, and was rewarded for that by being named third-base coach for the Cubs in 2007.
You know he probably did a good job in that position, because we rarely heard complaints about him while he was on the baseline.
When Lou Piniella abruptly announced his retirement in 2010, Quade was given the interim-manager job. This was somewhat of a surprise, as most thought that bench coach Alan Trammell, who had managerial experience, would get the nod. But Jim Hendry and Quade had a long history as friends, and Hendry likely just gave his buddy the reward.
An unexpected 24-13 finish to 2010 got Quade the full-time gig in 2011, and he was woefully unprepared. Usually men without managerial experience put at least a couple of experienced coaches on their staffs, but Quade filled his staff with mostly minor-league coaches or managers, and that showed in their lack of knowledge and preparation.
Quade’s high-schoolish addition of the “ee” sound after all his players’ names while discussing them in news conferences, and his incessant clapping, were only symptoms, but led to him being regarded as a lightweight. Theo & Co. fired him with a year left on his deal.
2) Jim Marshall
Marshall, who had been a coach under Whitey Lockman, was named manager when Lockman was fired midway through the 1974 season. In 1975, despite having a pretty good offense (the Cubs’ 712 runs were second in the National League), Marshall’s mishandling of the pitching staff helped the Cubs to an 87-loss year. (Granted, that part of that mishandling was due to lack of talent.)
The Cubs lost 87 games again in 1976 and Marshall was fired and replaced by Herman Franks.
He got one more managerial position, with the Athletics in 1979. That didn’t work out any better — the A’s lost 108 games that year, third-most in franchise history and most since 1917.
Marshall, though, continued his baseball career. In 1996 he joined the Diamondbacks in an advisory position and two years ago, while a senior advisor, received the “Legends of Scouting” award, given by the Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation.
Yet another man who had a long career in baseball, but who probably shouldn’t have been managing.
1) The College of Coaches
This was one of the worst ideas in the history of baseball, and that is not hyperbole.
You know the nuts and bolts of this. The Cubs had lost 94 games in 1960, tying the franchise record (the equivalent of a 99-loss season in a 162-game schedule), and owner P.K. Wrigley decided he had to do something. This idea was decided upon after meetings involving Wrigley, his son Bill (who would eventually sell the team), and team vice presidents Charlie Grimm and Clarence “Pants” Rowland. It should be noted that by 1960, Rowland was 81 years old and had last managed in 1918.
I think you can see where this is going. This Hardball Times article from 2015 gives a good summary of how the College of Coaches came about and its many problems. And this 1986 retrospective in the Tribune sums up the issues players had:
From May 21-28, the Cubs lost seven in a row. May 29 was a travel day. Pittsburgh was the first stop on a four-city trip. After the club arrived in Pittsburgh, Richie Ashburn and Don Zimmer, the team elders who had been openly critical of the rotation, told their teammates to report to the clubhouse early the next morning for a meeting. Players only. No coaches.
The meeting was necessary, Ashburn recalled, because the players were confused and sulking. “Every time they named a new head coach, we had a different lineup,” said Ashburn, now a broadcaster for the Philadelphia Phillies. “The players started rooting for certain guys to be named head coach because each guy had his own favorites.”
Remarkably, the Cubs won their next six games under three different head coaches, their longest winning streak in four years. Dick Ellsworth (with help from [Don] Elston) and Don Cardwell won the May 30 double-header against the Pirates. Himsl was then replaced by Tappe, who directed a two-game sweep over the Phillies. [Harry] Craft took over in Cincinnati and presided over the final two victories. There were now different head coaches for every series. [Vedie] Himsl returned for his third and last term on June 5 for a four-game series against the Cardinals. The Cardinals swept the series.
When the Cubs returned home on June 8, an open date, general manager John Holland summoned Ashburn to his office.
“He raised hell and chewed me out,” Ashburn recalled. “He said we had no business barring the coaches. I said, `John, we`ve been playing better ball,` and he said the meeting had nothing to do with it. He said if I ever did it again, I`d be fined $500, and that was a lot of money in those days.” It was [El] Tappe again on June 9, for another four-game series, this one against Milwaukee. Don Biebel, the Cubs` publicity man, announced that Craft would be succeeding Tappe on June 14, when the Dodgers arrived for a two-game series. But 24 hours before the Dodgers came in, Biebel had another announcement, a terse press release:
“The rotation of the coaches into the head coaching position has been temporarily suspended.”
The Cubs lost “only” 90 games in 1961, a four-game improvement, so the College was maintained in 1962. It certainly didn’t help Ron Santo, who had posted a fine year in 1961, his first full season (.282/.364/.479, 23 HR, 4.6 bWAR). He regressed in 1962 to .227/.302/.358 — and that didn’t get him benched. He played in all 162 games, scoring just 44 runs. That’s almost impossible to do.
Wrigley’s solution? He hired an “athletic director.” And someone from completely outside baseball, former Air Force Col. Robert Whitlow. At one point, according to the Hardball Times article, he considered making Whitlow manager — or head coach, it simply wasn’t clear — but eventually settled on making Bob Kennedy, who’d managed the team’s top minor-league affiliate the previous two seasons, manager. Or “head coach” — the title wasn’t really clear, but the rotating system had ended.
It helped Santo, or so it seemed: He rebounded in 1963 to hit .297/.339/.481 with 25 home runs and 5.3 bWAR. He had his first All-Star selection and finished eighth in MVP voting. The Cubs briefly contended under Kennedy in 1963 before finishing 82-80, their only winning season between 1946 and 1967.
The College of Coaches was permanently laid to rest on October 24, 1965, when Leo Durocher was hired, and in his introductory news conference, said, “If no announcement has been made about what my title is, I'm making it here and now. I'm the manager. I'm not a head coach. I'm the manager.”