With Paul Molitor taking over the Twins, there will now be two Hall of Fame players managing in the big leagues (Ryne Sandberg is managing the Phillies). It’s a trend that is becoming more and more rare, a result of the fact that Hall of Famers now are more-or-less set for life. If they are managing or coaching, you can be sure it is for the love of the game and/or a want to pay it back by teaching the next generation.
Back before ballplayers were set for life with salaries, the Hall of Fame player managing was more common, often playing at the same time. Of the five initial members of the Hall of Fame (Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson), only Ruth had never managed a single game in the majors, and would until his death dream of doing so.
But, the question we have today is: of managers who are in the Hall of Fame primarily for their playing days, who was the best?
There are many ways of looking at it:
As far as total wins, it’s probably Fred Clarke. Fred Clarke was a great player of the 19th century and early 20th century for Louisville and Pittsburgh, and was elected in 1945 by the Old-Timers Committee. As a manager, he went 1602-1181 on his career.
However, there is one problem. While his primary position he was inducted as was left field, his managerial efforts also were a big reason. He was dubbed the first of the successful “boy-managers” on his plaque, and he was a player-manager at the age of 24! He was still playing when he managed the Pirates to four NL pennants and a World Series title in the 1900s. So, while technically he had the most wins for a manager who was inducted as a player, there is that caveat.
In fact, that caveat exists for a lot of managers who were players. Cap Anson, for example, while inducted as a 1B, was also heralded for his player-managing on his HoF plaque. Joe Cronin also had his managerial days mentioned, as did Hughie Jennings, Lou Boudreau and Frankie Frisch. Interestingly, the player-who-managed with the most wins who had no reference whatsoever to his managerial career on his plaque is… Frank Robinson.
Okay, but wins are one thing. What about the balance between wins and losses? Frank Robinson won 1065 games, to be sure, but he lost 1176.
Well, for qualifying managers (at least 320 games skippered), the manager who was a HoF player with the best winning percentage is Frank Chance, of the famous “Tinkers-To-Evers-To-Chance” poem. While he went in as a 1st basemen, his time as a manager was also very successful, as he had a .593 winning percentage and won four NL pennants and two World Series titles for the Cubs (it was a long time ago). However, like Clarke, Anson, and the like, his managerial career was prominent on his plaque. Mickey Cochrane, who also could qualify for his success as a manager, also had his managerial success noted on his plaque.
As far as I can tell, the player-who-managed with the best winning percentage with no reference whatsoever to his managerial career on his plaque is… King Kelly. Yes, King Kelly, the RF/C/3B who had a 16-year career in the 19th century. He is just barely eligible, because managed 330 games in his career, all as a player-manager. His .539 winning percentage puts him ahead of others such as Gabby Hartnett (.536), Eddie Collins (.521) the earlier-mentioned Cobb (.519) and Bob Lemon (.516). And before you ask, Yogi Berra (a .522 winning percentage) did have some of his managerial feats mentioned on his plaque (his 1964 AL pennant).
So, what does this mean? Does this mean that Molitor and Sandberg are doomed to be slightly-above-average-at-best managers?
Of course not. Hall of Fame players who became managers are a far too small sample size, for one, especially Hall of Fame players who become managers without first being player-managers. And, what’s more, it’s silly to think that how good a ballplayer is on the field can be directly translated into how they will be as a manager, especially when one considers that they are also at the mercy of the players that are provided to them.
Still, it is interesting. And now you know some of the best managers in history who were Hall of Fame ballplayers.