A long-time reader and follower of bad sports teams writes to tell us that this baseball season marks the 50th anniversary of the “College of Coaches,” the experiment under which the Chicago Cubs were managed not by a manager, but by a rotating group of coaches:
The original “College” consisted of eight coaches. At a given time, four would work with the major league club while the other four rotated through the organization trying to teach a standard organization-wide style of playing the game.
In 1959, Cubs owner Phil Wrigley fired Bob Scheffing despite the fact that the team had improved in all three years of his tenure, going from 60 wins the year before he arrived to 74 wins in ’59. It’s never been clear why Wrigley fired Scheffing, but he did say that managers, like pitchers, need to be relieved at times. The problem with this analogy, of course, is that when a manager is “relieved” you can’t bring him back after four days rest for another go. Unless, that is, you have a “bullpen” full of coaches to slot in and out of the managerial role.
In 1960, the Cubs used the traditional manager set-up. Charlie Grimm ran the club for the first 17 disastrous games. Wrigley then fired Grimm and replaced him with Lou Boudreau, who had been broadcasting Cubs games.
During the ensuing off-season, Wrigley decided to go collegiate. In addition to being able to relieve managers without firing them, he wanted to improve the level of player instruction. In this, he was ahead of his time. Most teams of that era had only three coaches and some (like the 1957 Cubs) only had two. Nowadays, most teams have six coaches plus a manager. The 1961 Cubs could, at least in theory, profit from the wisdom of eight coaches over the course of a season. And minor leaguers would benefit from some of the same instruction.
However, these benefits could have been realized while still placing one manager in charge throughout. It was the rotating system of head coaches that rendered Wrigley’s plan hare-brained.
To make matters worse, this really was a college of COACHES. The original faculty consisted of Vedie Himsl, Elvin Tappe, Harry Craft, Bobby Adams, Goldie Holt, Verlon Walker, Rip Collins, and Charlie Grimm. Of this group, only Craft and Grimm had prior big league managerial experience, and Grimm, as noted, had been fired as the Cubs manager the previous season. Only Craft would subsequently manage any major league team outside the context of the College of Coaches.
Wrigley brought Lou Klein into the College later in 1961. He too had never managed in the majors and would never do so except as part of the College.
The 1961 Cubs rotated four different head coaches. Their records (as best as I can re-construct them) were as follows:
What did the players make of the “College”? Don Zimmer was scathing in his autobiography. He recalled that the faculty was divided on many issues, including whether Zimmer was the team’s best option at second base and whether second base was his proper position. Consequently, he says, he received mixed messages and his playing time fluctuated depending on who was in charge.
Zimmer became so frustrated that he blasted the system during a pre-game interview. He returned to the clubhouse expecting to be ripped by the staff. Instead, several coaches thanked him for his comments.
Cubs reliever Don Elston recalled that, like many a faculty, the College of Coaches was plagued by jealousy and lack of cooperation. “Not one of them helped the other. . .whoever was the manager (or the head coach) was pretty much on his own; all they did was wait their turn,” Elston said.
The team fared poorly, going 64-90. In defense of the experiment, though, this represented an improvement over the 60-94 record of the previous year. However, this slight improvement was probably the result of the presence in the line-up of Billy Williams and Ron Santo (for a full season). The 1961 club lost three more games than statistics tell us it should have, given the number of runs they scored and gave up.
The wheels really came off the cart in year two of Wrigley’s experiment. The 1962 Cubs, whose rotating head coaches were Tappe, Klein, and Charlie Metro (who banned players from shaving in the clubhouse after games), won only 59 games despite playing an extra eight games and having two expansion teams (including the horrendous New York Mets) to try and beat up on. The Cubs finished five games behind the expansion Houston club, managed by their former “professor,” Harry Craft.
Wrigley continued the College, at least in name, for the next three seasons. However, while the word “manager” wasn’t used, there was a single de facto manager, rather than rotating coaches, in charge of field operations throughout this period.
The best epitaph to the experiment is probably this statement by an anonymous Cub in 1962: “We need somebody to kick us in the rear: I’ve never seen morale so low on any club I’ve been on – majors or minors.”
Even Wrigley would eventually admit that the College failed to meet his primary goal of producing “standardization of play” because each coach had his own ideas of how to play the game. However, as writer Bob Neyer has suggested, some Cub fans consider Wrigley too modest. During this period, they thought they detected a distinct Cubs way of botching run-downs, missing cut-off men, and grounding into double plays.