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Billy Southworth’s career and many tragedies

Southworth, Hall of Fame manager, had an accomplished career and personal tragedies

Baseball Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony

According to the Cardinals website, the Cardinals have had 13 players manage for the Cardinals who eventually made the Hall of Fame. Of that list, seven players made it from their playing career, with six of them serving the duel roles of player-manager back when that was common (the exception is Red Schoendienst). Two others made the Hall of Fame as a manager not because of their work with the Cardinals (Bill McKechnie and Joe Torre) and one other made it from their work as a general manager (Branch Rickey).

That leaves three managers, two of which every Cardinals fan can name in their sleep, Whitey Herzog and Tony La Russa. Which is fair enough, since they’re both alive and managed fairly recently in the grand scheme of baseball’s history. The third guy a fair amount of you reading this probably know, but beyond this blog, I would be surprised if the average Cardinal fan can name him with no hints: Billy Southworth.

Southworth was elected to the Hall of Fame for managing the World War II era Cardinals, that period of time where the Cardinals won three World Series in five years. He had left for a more lucrative contract with the Boston Braves before that third World Series win and he would win one more NL Pennant with them before his career ended in 1951, but I’m guessing his Cardinals career is more to blame for his nod to the Hall. And yet it took until 2008, with a vote from the Veterans Committee, for him to get his due.

Southworth was born in Harvard, Nebraska in 1893, but his dad moved him and his family to a town near Columbus, Ohio before he turned 10 when the family experienced two droughts and a house fire. Sabr notes that he was possibly nicknamed Billy the Kid by none other than Buffalo Bill, who was evidently a family friend of the Southworths. Which means it’s entirely possible that Billy met Calamity Jane, Annie Oakley, or Pawnee Bill, all of whom performed with Buffalo Bill. It would have been when he was so young that he wouldn’t have remembered the experience, but still.

It took Billy quite a while to crack the majors. Originally a catcher, he switched to outfield after an arm injury by the time his professional career started. He made an appearance on the Cleveland Naps in 1913, but it was a defensive appearance with no plate appearances and he was sent back down. Shoeless Joe Jackson got hurt in the middle of 1915, and he got another shot replacing him, but ultimately batted .220 (with a .352 OBP!) so he was sent back down again.

He stayed in the minor leagues until the middle of 1918, when the minor leagues all folded on account of World War I. He took over for fellow future Hall of Fame manager Casey Stengel who had joined the war effort. Third time was the charm. In a life that was largely devoid of luck, he never did get his draft number called and took full advantage of the opportunity, batting .341 with a 155 OPS+ in 64 games played to end the season. He had at least a 105 OPS+ for the next five seasons, although a few were cut short by injuries.

The Pirates manager, Hugo Bezdek, was reportedly a tough manager to play for. For starters, by the time Southworth made the majors, Bezdek had 10 years as head coach of football teams - not baseball - and was in his just his second year as manager of a baseball team. He apparently ran his practices like a football practice, which possibly motivated how Southworth worked his teams in spring trainings in his future as a manager.

He was traded with two other players and $15,000 for future Hall of Famer Rabbit Maranville before the 1921 season. At the end of the 1923 season, he was again traded, this time to the New York Giants, and oddly enough he was traded for a package of players that included Casey Stengel. He fell apart with the Giants, posting two straight below average seasons with the bat and moving to CF to make room for another Hall of Famer Ross Youngs. Because apparently everyone this guy came into contact with was a Hall of Famer.

Whatever wasn’t working in his first two seasons with the Giants was solved by 1926. He hit for a 140 OPS+ in his first 36 games. Fortunately, John McGraw and him didn’t get along and also McGraw wanted a true centerfielder, so he was traded for not a Hall of Famer finally. Far from it. It was a trade that really, really backfired for McGraw. Heine Mueller, then 26, hit for a 69 OPS+ for the rest of the season. 33-year-old Southworth meanwhile barely got cooler, hitting for a 124 OPS+ in 99 games, then hitting .345 with a double, triple, and home run in the 1926 World Series. Cardinals won their first World Series and Southworth was a large reason why.

Southworth played one more season, and then was offered a player-manager gig in the minors from Sam Breadon in 1928, which he accepted. The season proved to be a tough one, though not because of baseball. In May, he came back home due to the stillbirth of twins. He also found out later in the season that his 12-year-old son had been shot in an accident, although his wound was minor. But the news scared the hell out of him. Despite this, he managed a Rochester Red Wings that made it to the Little World Series, although they did lose in that series. He also batted .361 in 124 games.

In 1929, Southworth was the youngest manager in the NL, taking over an NL pennant team. He swapped with fellow Hall of Fame manager Bill McKechnie, because the Cardinals just couldn’t make up their minds about the manager, with Southworth being the fourth manager in four years. After a poor July, he was swapped with McKechnie again. He won the International League title, and then did so again for the next two seasons. This was during a period of time where the Cardinals invented the farm system so he was just ridiculously stacked with talent.

In 1932, his wife had never seriously recovered from the tragedy just four years prior and got sick. The Cardinals fired Southworth at the end of the year, both because they wanted a player-manager who was cheaper, and because he was drinking heavily at this point. By the fall, his wife died of a cerebral hemorrhage and that is far too much tragedy to experience for just about anybody, much less a man who was not even 40 yet. He was hired by the Giants, but was fired before spring training was over, and drinking is thought to be the reasoning.

Southworth got his drinking under control, got a job outside of baseball as a cottonseed oil salesman, and married again in early 1934. He asked Rickey for another chance, and Rickey gave him a job managing a Class B team. His daughter Carol was also born in 1935. He worked his way through the Cardinals farm system, finding himself back in Rochester by the 1939 season. When the Cardinals started the 1940 season 15-29, he was back with the Cardinals as manager after 11 years. They went 69-40 the rest of the way.

The biggest influence on Southworth as a manager was not Bedzek, but John McGraw. Southworth didn’t get along with McGraw and didn’t like him, so he took the opposite approach that McGraw took. He communicated with his players and players would be willing to come to him with problems that had nothing to do with baseball. He also brought back platooning, which had gone out of style since his playing days.

In 1941, the Cardinals finished 2nd in the NL, but Southworth was named Manager of the Year by the Sporting News, because they played better than expectations and suffered some injuries. The Cardinals won the 1942 World Series, and over the next few years lost players to World War II service. This is where the revolutionary farm system really came in handy as the Cardinals had an endless reserve of players to replace the departing players. They lost in the 1943 World Series and then won in 1944.

Prior the 1945 season, his son, Billy Southworth Jr., crashed into Flushing Bay, New York on a training flight from Florida. His son was the first professional player to enlist, a year before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and had completed 25 bombing missions in 1942 and 1943. But it was when he led flight training in 1945 that he died. Making matters worse, his son’s body wasn’t actually found until August 3, which was six months after the crash. Whenever Southworth managed a team that went to New York, he would visit a park near the crash site and “drink and drink and drink” according to Normie Roy.

After the 1945 season, the Braves offered a contract that the Cardinals weren’t simply not willing to match. He was paid 3 years, $100,000 to switch allegiances to the Boston Braves. He ended up taking to them to the World Series in his third season with them in 1948, but by the middle of 1949, there was widespread clubhouse dissent and he left the team in August, because the top brass felt he was on the brink of a nervous breakdown. He got a clean bill of health for 1950, returned despite players voting for him to not receive a full share of the 4th place pay (overruled by the commissioner). They disappointed in 1951, and he resigned early in 1952’s season.

Bill James has a theory why Southworth’s style, so effective during the war years, proved ineffective after. You can’t blame a lack of winning, because the Braves did plenty of that. James argues that the postwar growth of cities, new methods of transportation, night baseball, and the questioning over whether employers had the right to exercise authority over its employees 24/7 all conspired to undermine managers such as Southworth and Joe McCarthy. Basically, it seems like Southworth had a firm grip on players’ social lives, which just didn’t fly after the war like it did before.

It’s hard to judge managers, but it appears the Hall of Fame nod was well-deserved. While a strong farm system obviously was the main culprit, having that much change from year to year could have led the Cardinals in a different direction, but they kept winning despite players leaving for the war. Also reading between the lines, but if players later had a problem with his 24/7 authority, it worked magically with a whole bunch of rookies and young players earlier in the decade. And he became famous for platooning as well, which shows he had some managerial strategy. And man I’m glad he has a great case, because I did not want to argue against a guy who lost three of kids and his first wife.

Most of this is brand new information to me - the personal details on Southworth at least - so I hope I can shed light on the third Cardinal manager to make the Hall who didn’t get in for other reasons.