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Was Branch Rickey, manager, underrated?

We all know about his time as general manager, but not necessarily as manager.

Dizzy Dean, Branch Rickey, Frankie Frisch Cardinals 1934
Branch Rickey with Dizzy Dean and Frankie Frisch

Tomorrow on this date, 102 years ago, Branch Rickey was announced as the Cardinals new team manager. In the context of Cardinals history, this isn’t necessarily a momentous date. The more momentous date was when he came over to the Cardinals from the St. Louis Browns, because the Browns owner hated Rickey. A new ownership group convinced Phil Ball to let Rickey out of his contract to come to the Cardinals as a team president and his role was essentially that of a general manager, although that wasn’t his title.

His contributions as a general manager are massive, in fact he was the first modern general manager in baseball history. About a month before he became manager, Rickey and the Cardinals bought a share of a Texas baseball team to begin planning for what became the farm system, the aftereffects which allowed the Cardinals to stay successful for far longer than his tenure lasted.

But his accomplishments as a general manager are well-documented at this point. When I saw that he was officially hired as the manager in addition to his GM duties, it occurred to me that I know very little about him as a manager. His GM accomplishments far, far overshadowed whatever he did at manager. And he was only manager to save salary for a team in debt.

In 1919, in his first season as manager, the team stunk. The 1919 Cardinals went 54-83 and finished 7th in the National League. It was an improvement of three wins from the 1918 team, so in one sense he didn’t have much to work with. The 1920 team however saw a big leap forward. 1920 was the season Rogers Hornsby became Rogers Hornsby and not just a great player. But still, he went from a 6.7 bWAR player to a 9.6 bWAR one, so that’s not a 20 win difference.

1920 also saw the debut of Jesse Haines, future (extremely undeserving) Hall of Famer. They jumped even more forward in 1921 with a record of 87-66. The Cardinals record kind of stalled at this point, going down to 85-69 and then 79-74 in 1923. The team declined further to 65-89 in 1924. He was fired early in the 1925 season after going 13-25. Overall, Rickey went 458-485 in his managerial career as a Cardinal for a .486 winning percentage.

So it’s understandable why Rickey’s reputation as a manager was middling. It did not help matters that Rogers Hornsby took over the 1925 team in the middle of the season, and despite a 13-25 start, led the Cardinals to a winning record. Just barely but a 65-89 and then 13-25 record turning into 64-51 record tends not to look too great. He also did not have a particularly great record with the Browns, lasting just two years with a 139-179 record.

However, this is incredibly unfair, especially with what we know about managers now. For instance, the Brows before Rickey went 197-405 in the four seasons prior to him becoming manager. Yes he entered the fray at the tail end of the 1912 season and in the previous three seasons, they lost over 100 games. They avoided another 100 loss season in 1912 in part because Rickey went 5-6 in the last 11 games of the year, being four losses away from a fourth straight 100 loss season.

When Rickey left, the Browns went 79-75. But after that, they won under 60 games for the next two seasons. Rickey’s replacement at manager was fired himself in the middle of the 1918 season, lasting just over two seasons. There’s pretty good evidence Rickey just had nothing to work with under the Browns.

Hard to use that excuse with the Cardinals admittedly. Well, except that was absolutely true at first. The Cardinals were an absurdly schizophrenic team in the 1910s. Starting in 1911, they won 75, 63, 51, 81, 72, 60, 82, and finally 51 games prior to Rickey’s arrival. Watching the Cardinals as a fan must have been like rolling dice. You never knew what number you’d get.

So when he became manager, and the team improved its record for its first three years, and then had a succession of winning records for three straight years, it was certainly a departure from the past. What happened in 1924? Well, there’s a set of numbers you should know about that 1924 season that may help: 76-78. What is that you say? Well that’s the Cardinals pythagorean record that year. They won 11 less games that year than their pythag. They went 16-26 in one run games. And his pythag makes him look less bad, although not great for his first 38 games of 1925: 17-22.

You sort of have to read between the lines on what Rickey would have been like as a manager, because the sources I could find essentially ignored it or at least chalked up his seven year run with the Cardinals as “middling.” Again, I get it. He has a rather extensive biography and his managing career coincided with the creation of the farm system, so naturally it’s going to get the short shift.

Now what I could find did not specify when he made these changes, but given these changes appear to be when he was manager, it’s probably a decent guess that they happened while he was here, although he may have come up with the idea while managing the Browns. He came up with sandpits to teach players to slide, he had a set of strings to help define the strike zone to help pitchers with their control, and he came up with a batting tee to help batters hone their swings. All changes that seem fairly obvious now, but were new at the time.

With the Browns, and presumably also the Cardinals, he hired someone to sit behind home plate and keep track of how many bases a player made for himself and his teammates. Sounds like a weird combination of total bases and RBIs. The accusation against Rickey when he was fired by the Browns was that he was too intellectual with his players and he clashed with Cardinals manager Miller Huggins over Rickey’s “theoretical” approach. Different language, but feels like I’ve heard these arguments before.

So was his reputation fair? Well, that’s a matter of opinion. The Cardinals won the World Series in 1926 under Hornsby, then had a different manager every single year from 1927 to 1930. 1929 had three different managers and had the worst record, but they won at least 90 games in every other season. Also, something I did not know was that that 1926 team only won 89 games. I knew they were heavy underdogs but I thought it was just because of how absurd the Yankees were at the time, not also because the Cardinals were a pretty weak World Series team.

In any case, I think it’s fair for a reevaluation of Rickey as a manager. We know that a change in manager tends to produce an instant spark to a team. We don’t necessarily know why, but it exists. We know Rickey was capable of having a team that won around 89 wins (with an 87 win season). And unless the Cards magically hit gold on every manager after Hornsby, they probably would have been that good under just about any manager.

So it depends on how much you want to punish Rickey for what came after. Is four managers in four years all being more successful than you an indictment on your own managing? Or is it the sign of an improved team that just so happened to occur in an inconvenient way for your managing legacy? These are unanswerable questions, but given the way we argue manager impact now and that Rickey was almost certainly on the cutting edge of managers in the early 1920s, I kind of think he got fired at an unlucky time.

But then again, who knows what happens? Maybe without that firing, the Cardinals don’t have that change in performance teams can have with new managers and maybe everything after sort of cascaded into the best case in a way that may not have happened if the team remained stagnant at manager.

Ironically, Rickey thought he was being ruined when he was fired as manager. Rickey thought about quitting because he was humiliated, but decided to stay on as general manager because his talents there were undeniable to owner Sam Breadon. And if he had decided to quit, he may have become a footnote to baseball history. He was at that point, not tremendously successful, and the farm system model had not borne fruit quite yet.

He would have been in the history books sure. But without staying on, he wouldn’t have been in a position to see his farm system succeed wildly and then get hired by the Brooklyn Dodgers where he made history by signing Jackie Robinson. If he quit after getting fired as manager, we might know who he is, but do you know any other Cardinals general managers before Walt Jocketty? Who was the guy who replaced Branch Rickey?

(The answer by the way is technically nobody. William Walsingham Jr was owner Sam Breadon’s nephew and was the club’s chief of baseball operations. He, Breadon, and the Cardinals chief scout combined to be GM in 1943. Walsingham got the GM title officially in 1946.)

So, was Branch Rickey an underrated manager? I think yes. Was he a good one? That’s a much more difficult question.