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manager longevity

sparky anderson passed away this week. it sounded like the end was ugly for him - he went into hospice care for dementia the day before his death was announced. anyone who has experience with a loved one who ends up with serious dementia or alzheimers knows how sad it is to see a body outlive a mind.

for me, being of a certain age, sparky was a craggy face on an old set of Topps baseball cards (he was a Tiger, then). it's funny to me that anderson, whose temper was so infamous it gave him his "name." had a smile that was warm and grandfatherly, a smile that drew you in immediately. not being a detroit fan, i never had a reason to become familiar with him before his retirement. stll, it's funny to me that a man whose obituary can't wait to introduce his temper till the second paragraph smiled so much. look at the pictures of him from his managing years. he's smiling in almost every one.

also, the dude was old before he was even old. check out this picture from 1976 -- 34 years ago for those of you too tired/hungover to do math on a saturday morning. he was 76 when he died this week.

it's simply too tempting not to contrast him with our own resident veteran manager. tony's smiles are few and far between, usually involving him holding a dog. yet our dour manager is almost infamous for not blowing up at umpires and the like -- and here, i can't resist posting what remains a favorite Onion piece on famous manager tantrums. in amongst jim leyland siccing a pack of ravenous wolves on an umpire and earl weaver blowing a manager's jaw off with a shotgun, comes this:

1990: During his younger, more wild days, Athletics head coach Tony La Russa steps out from the dugout, tells the umpire, "that was not a very good call," and then steps back into the dugout.

a dour, non-confrontational thinker v. a smiling, fiery feeler? yes, the classic baseball narrative tells us who to favor there.

one of the more striking features of a pretty astonishing summary of anderson's life in baseball was this -- when anderson retired in 1995, he was the third winningest manager in history. today, he is the sixth. so, in 15 years, three managers won 2190+ games, after three managers won as many games in the previous 100-odd years. 

so, the question for today is: why did it suddenly become possible for tony la russa, bobby cox, and joe torre to win 2200 games and more in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, when it had been so challenging before?

other generational discrepancies have more obvious answers, like the sudden spike in people hitting 500 career HR or better (strength training, small parks, steroids). but why would it suddenly become easier to win a lot of games? after all, by the nature of a sport with no ties -- well, absent assists from bud selig -- in every game, one manager wins and one manager loses. unlike home runs, there are the same number of wins in a season, right?

well, no -- i suppose one factor could be the expansion of the seasons to 162 games, which took place in 1961 (AL)and 1962 (NL). the two leagues had various and changing season lengths prior to those years. the leagues mostly held 154-game seasons in the twentieth century, although a few seasons were as short as 140. in the very early days in the nineteenth century, seasons as short as 60 or 70 games were played. realistically, though, for twentieth century managers, you're looking at adding maybe 5 wins a season on average for playing in the modern era versus the 154-game schedule that predominated before the Mercury missions.

for instance, tommy lasorda managed the same number of seasons (21) as notorious baseball villain cap anson. since anson managed in the late nineteenth century, lasorda ended up 800 more games and 300 more wins than anson, even though anson had much more success (.576) compared to lasorda (.526).

it's not just the number of games played per season - it's the number of seasons managed. i count 33 managers who began managing between 1901 and 1961 who managed at least 10 years in the majors. i count 37 who began managing from 1962 through 2000 who managed at least 10 years in the majors. it's no mystery that the secret to amassing enormous win totals is continuing to manage. you really have to win just enough games not to get fired - or own your own team, like connie mack, who managed for an absurd fifty-three years. sorting the managerial records by number of wins produces very similar results to sorting by number of seasons managed. it's a lot better to be a .500 manager for 20 years that a .600 manager for 15, if you want to establish yourself on the managerial wins list.

it's also well worth noting that there are more teams and, hence, more managers to manage games. to test this out, let's see the proportions of managers from each era. of the 31 managers who have managed exactly five seasons, seven began managing in 1962 or later. of the top 31 managers by numbers of season, twelve began managing in 1962 or later. so, there's some effect there from having more team, and some other effect going on.

another factor in managers lasting for moreseasons could be Lipitor - well, not literally Lipitor, but modern medicine. a simple fact is that if you get Ejected by the Big Umpire, and end up watching the rest of the game from the Clubhouse in the Sky, you stop collecting wins.

another factor could be that managers have begun managing at younger and younger ages -- i am not going to go back and try to figure everybody's age at time of hiring, but intuitively, this strikes me as wrong. if anything, it should run in reverse -- the player-manager was a staple of early ball, and it has largely died out, pete rose notwithstanding. while you do see younger managers in the modern era - sparky anderson began in his thirties - a penchant for letting guys still in their playing years manage should lead to young managers as a general rule. that said, most player managers did not make it very far. their managing days rarely long survived the end of their playing days.

the player manager thing makes me wonder about another change in baseball: have we accepted more the idea that a manager is a useful and important part of the club? that good managers are "geniuses" that we need to hold onto? the prominence of the player-manager in earlier days suggests more that managers were an after-thought, that managing was something anyone could do, sort of like playing second base. i think another major factor is the acceptance of the professional manager as holding an important place at the heart of the club.

whether in fact that piece of conventional wisdom contains any actual wisdom is an open question.