Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Leonard Koppett received overdue recognition earlier this month with his induction into the writers’ wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Born in Moscow in 1923, Koppett immigrated to the U.S. as a youngster, and his family settled one block from Yankee Stadium. Koppett started on the baseball beat in 1948 for New York’s Herald Tribune, went on to write for the New York Times, and penned an insightful column for The Sporting News in its glory days.
In 1967, Koppett wrote A Thinking Man’s Guide to Baseball, light years ahead of anything previously published for its grasp of the game on and off the field. It was the precursor to the statistical studies begun in earnest a decade later, leavened with inside knowledge from decades on the beat in more innocent times, when players, team officials, and owners spent hours together speaking frankly. Had he never written another word, Koppett had qualified for Cooperstown.
But there would be more. In the early ’70s, Koppett originated the Times‘ West Coast sports-correspondent post, and within a decade, he became the editor, not the sports editor, of the New York Times Corp.’s Peninsula Times Tribune in Palo Alto. Since retiring from that job, he has returned to baseball writing, and hasn’t lost a step. Last year, he published an updated (and politically corrected) version of his earlier masterpiece, The New Thinking Fan’s Guide to Baseball.
This year, Koppett fills a major gap in the baseball bibliography with The Man in the Dugout. This highly perceptive, encyclopedic work traces baseball field managing from the 1840s to the modern day. The book is divided into biographical chapters detailing the accomplishments of virtually every significant manager in major-league history. But what makes the book valuable rather than simply voluminous is Koppett’s keen eye and subtle mind. His theories about managing and managers—which reduces Thomas Boswell’s “From Little Napoleons to Tall Tacticians” essay to rambling drivel—give the book unity and utility.
Koppett begins with the unoriginal premise that modern managers grow on trees—family trees. But Koppett documents the theory, and grafts the branches onto trunks—he terms them “creators”—not obvious to shallow observers. Naturally, John McGraw and Connie Mack are two redwoods in the forest.
McGraw was present at the creation of most modern offensive tactics as a member of the 1890s Baltimore Orioles (that team’s emblem graces aisle seats at Camden Yards) under manager Ned Hanlon. McGraw believed strategy, conditioning, fast feet, and quick minds decided games. For that reason, no one was angrier about the end of the deadball era. With home runs more frequent, McGraw’s careful scheming, built on three decades of experience, could be undone in a single swing by some big ape like Babe Ruth. McGraw adjusted to the changed game—he even tried to buy Ruth—and enjoyed his greatest success in the early years of the big-bang era. McGraw’s own disrespect for Hanlon taught him the need for absolute authority. As manager of the New York Giants, McGraw was a ruthless manipulator, demanding hatred of the enemy and controlling every aspect of play. The Little Napoleon reigned unquestionably supreme on the field, and, given the organizational structures of early century teams, off it as well.
Mack went McGraw one step better, actually owning the Philadelphia Athletics for 50 years. McGraw’s opposite in demeanor, Mack contributed defensive innovations, including pitch selection, to the tree and mastered the arts of patience and education.
Koppett’s third creator is Branch Rickey, who managed on the field unsuccessfully for 10 years before moving on to a fabled front-office career. It was from the general manager’s seat that Rickey changed the role of the field manager by transforming the team into an organization. And in that organization, everyone would be drilled in the scientifically determined right way to play and groomed to fill their major-league roles. In the systematized game, managers became less concerned with scouting and teaching, concentrating far more on putting players into appropriate roles. Managers also had to learn to work within the system. The organization did the basic research, and the manager crafted the product.
From those pioneers, Koppett traces the evolution of the craft through a generation of developers—including Joe McCarthy, Bill McKechnie, and Casey Stengel—to modern times. Koppett explains the game through the eyes of these managers, most of whom he covered, and adds his own solid analysis. Koppett is one of the rarely gifted observers who has mastered the game from the press box to the same extent as the participants, and grasped its fundamental contradiction: You must focus on the big picture of the long season, but most games are decided by minutiae. He also observes that managing is an exercise in human relations as well as baseball smarts, and recognizes that there’s an almost inevitable generation gap built into manager-player relationships. In Koppett’s skilled hands, this potentially risky material turns into solid information.
Nearly every recognizable manager, from Walter Alston to Don Zimmer, Rickey-men both, is profiled in exquisite detail. Koppett’s contributions on Stengel, Leo Durocher, and Billy Martin, for example, are marvelously informative, although they may be superfluous. Koppett also lavishes overdue attention on key figures such as Gene Mauch, Alvin Dark, and Ralph Houk who have gotten lost in the sweep of history despite long and influential careers. Koppett the reporter/analyst offers observations other writers, and sometimes the managers themselves, missed. In a brilliant chapter on Earl Weaver, Koppett postulates that Weaver’s fabled index cards were not decision-making tools, but sales props. Weaver—pay attention, John Oates—drew his own conclusions, based on the standard managerial mix of memory, impression, and hunch, then used suitable statistics to sell his conclusions to players, who demanded explanations for the manager’s actions.
The Man in the Dugout doesn’t pretend to determine the best manager in baseball history, but Koppett’s enlightening, elevating, and entertaining discussions demonstrate why baseball is the best game.