McCarthy, Joseph Vincent ("Joe")
McCARTHY, Joseph Vincent ("Joe")
(b. 21 April 1887 in Philadelphia; d. 13 January 1978 in Buffalo, New York), the greatest manager in baseball history, he managed in two leagues and three teams (including the New York Yankees) for twenty-four years, during which his teams won 2,125 games for a winning percentage on .615; no team of his finished out of the first four in any league.
Joe McCarthy was born in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. His father died when he was three years old. As a teenager McCarthy worked in a silk mill for $6.50 a week. He broke a kneecap playing sandlot ball, but he was a good enough student and athlete to gain a scholarship to Niagara University, a Catholic college in Lewiston, New York. He left in 1906 after two years to join the Wilmington, Delaware, minor-league baseball team, the start of a twenty-year career in the high minors.
After playing for teams around the country, including Wilmington, Delaware; Franklin, Pennsylvania; and Indianapolis, Indiana; by 1913 McCarthy had become a player-manager for the Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, team in the International League, the highest of the minor leagues. He hit .325 that year to tie for the batting championship and led the league in doubles with 36. From Wilkes-Barre, McCarthy moved on to Toledo, Ohio, and then to Buffalo, New York, where he signed a contract to play with Brooklyn in the ill-fated Federal League which soon collapsed. Minor leaguers who had signed to play in the Federal League were prohibited from playing in the International League, so McCarthy went to the American Association team of Louisville, Kentucky.
Several years later, while working as a player-manager for Louisville, McCarthy had an epiphany of sorts when he criticized shortstop Jay Kirke for a high throw on a double play. Kirke took offense and questioned McCarthy's right to tell a .380 hitter how to play ball. Evidently recognizing his ability to correct and improve other players, McCarthy became the team's nonplaying manager. Under McCarthy's leadership, Louisville won two pennants and finished out of the first division only once. During this time he codified his ten baseball rules, which included: Don't argue with umpires since they aren't as perfect as you. Keep your head up and you won't have to let it hang. Don't ever quit.
While in Buffalo, McCarthy met the woman who would become his wife, Elizabeth ("Babe") Lakeman. She followed him to Louisville, where they married on 14 February 1921; they had no children.
In 1926 McCarthy was chosen by William Wrigley, the owner of the Chicago Cubs, as the new pilot for his team of comfortable last-place veterans. McCarthy could see that changes were needed, but the veterans were disdainful of the bush-league manager and resisted his authority. The Cubs had a quality pitcher named Grover Cleveland ("Pete") Alexander, whose talents were tempered by an oversized ego and a passion for alcohol. Despite Alexander's pitching brilliance, McCarthy put him on waivers and sent him to St. Louis since, as he saw it, Alex obeyed "Alex's rules" and not McCarthy's. This authoritarian streak earned McCarthy the derisive nickname "Marse Joe," likening him to a plantation overseer. McCarthy then brought in a little-known player by the name of Hack Wilson, a short, stocky, bearlike man with an unusual ability to hit a baseball often and far.
Like Alexander, Wilson had a weakness for alcohol. Fortunately, McCarthy had great empathy for players who drank, for he himself was a devotee of White Horse Scotch whiskey. He was always aware, however, of players who imbibed too generously or too often. Legend has it that McCarthy took Wilson aside and showed him two glasses, one with water and one with whiskey. He put a worm in the water glass and it wriggled vigorously. He then put the worm in the whiskey glass and it died quickly. He asked Wilson what that told him. Wilson replied that if he drank whiskey he would not get worms.
Alcohol counseling aside, McCarthy put together a solid team with great pitching, defense, and power hitting. In 1929 the Cubs won the National League pennant and faced Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics in the World Series. The Cubs lost four games to one, losing the final game in spite of an 8–0 lead in the late innings.
The loss made Cubs owner Wrigley, who desperately wanted a World Series championship, disenchanted and unforgiving. He had already been upset by McCarthy's refusal to field Frank "Lefty" O'Doul, whom Wrigley had purchased in 1926 for $15,000. McCarthy did not feel the need to bring O'Doul to the Cubs after spring training, and he went to the Phillies. Far from floundering, O'Doul hit .398 in 1929 and .383 the following year. Adding insult to injury, he then hit two home runs at the close of the season, denying the Cubs a pennant in 1930. Smarting over the loss of O'Doul, Wrigley hired William Veeck as general manager. Veeck engineered a deal to bring Rogers Hornsby, a hard-nosed, brash, demanding player with tremendous physical ability, to the Cubs in 1929. Hornsby had managed St. Louis to a championship, and McCarthy, who despised him, could see that his days as manager were numbered. The two took the Cubs to the World Series in 1929, but with four games left in the 1930 season, McCarthy resigned. Predictably, he was quickly replaced by Hornsby.
McCarthy's abilities as a manager may best be illustrated by one player's performance after he left the team. Hack Wilson had his greatest year in 1930, with 56 home runs, 191 runs batted in (RBI), and a slugging percentage of .723. Baseball writers named Wilson the National League's Most Valuable Player that year, and his 191 RBI still stand as the all-time record. But Wilson was never the same after 1930, the year McCarthy left. Wilson had great rapport with McCarthy, who understood his hitting technique and was always willing to "turn him loose"; under Hornsby, however, he was ordered to take pitches he felt he could hit. In Wilson's defense, the league had also introduced a less lively ball after 1930, which may have also contributed to his declining production.
The sports reporter Warren Brown, who covered the Cubs and liked McCarthy, let him know that Colonel Jake Ruppert, owner of the New York Yankees, was looking for a new manager. McCarthy, hired in 1931, spent the next fifteen years improving the record he began with Chicago. He became the most successful manager in baseball history, with a winning percentage of .615. McCarthy led the Yankees to seven World Series, including four straight from 1936 to 1939, finished second seven times, and never finished out of the first division.
Where Wrigley had publicly doubted McCarthy's ability to bring a championship to Chicago, Ruppert made no secret of his confidence that McCarthy would take the Yankees to World Series glory. This did not sit well with Babe Ruth, who wanted the manager's job and cared little for an upstart from the National League. Always pragmatic, however, McCarthy was able to work with Ruth, whom he also disliked, and even used Ruth to get retribution against the Cubs in the 1932 World Series, which the Yankees swept in four games.
The Yankees won their last World Series under McCarthy in 1943, beating the Cardinals four games to one. In that series, McCarthy relied on a hunch that an ailing, journeyman pitcher Marius Russo might be useful. Russo pitched a brilliant victory in the fourth game to give the Yankees a three-games-to-one advantage. This intuitive choice of pitchers in a critical game would come back to haunt McCarthy when, as manager of the Boston Red Sox in 1948, he passed over his ace pitchers for the first playoff for the American League pennant in baseball history, and chose another journeyman, Denny Galehouse, to face Lou Boudreau's Cleveland Indians. The Indians won the playoff due to the efforts of player-manager Boudreau, who went four for four, and Cleveland went on to win the series.
Ruppert died in 1939, and the team changed hands. McCarthy did not get along with the new Yankees owner Larry MacPhail, and was let go in midseason of 1946 after finishing third and fourth in 1944 and 1945. After a hiatus in 1947, the Boston Red Sox hired McCarthy, perhaps to cast off the "curse of the Bambino," which held that Boston's sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees doomed the Red Sox to perpetual frustration in pursuit of a World Series win. Their devastating loss in the 1946 series had left Red Sox management and fans in poor spirits. McCarthy took the team to the playoffs in 1948, but lost to Cleveland. The Red Sox finished second again in 1949 in a tense down-to-the-wire race with the Yankees. In 1950 McCarthy was replaced in midseason once again; this time he chose to return to Buffalo, New York, and his sixty-one-acre homestead that he called "Yankee Farm."
Joe McCarthy was a man born to the game of baseball, even though he never played a major league game himself, one of the greatest managers in the long history of the great American game. He changed the way teams were developed, using utility players to supplement regular position players. McCarthy believed in using virtually his entire pitching staff as starters and staying with his starter as long as his team had a chance to come back. He exploited the use of relief pitchers to great advantage. McCarthy had an uncanny belief that there were ball players who could be nurtured into major leaguers, and showed it by developing talent in players who were not regulars on their former teams. A disciplinarian who never lost touch with his players, McCarthy nevertheless held biases against players who dared criticize his judgment or take any loss lightly.
McCarthy was held in high regard even by players who did not like him. The great relief pitcher Joe Page despised him, but called McCarthy the best manager he had ever played for. Joe DiMaggio said he had learned something from McCarthy every day. Gabby Hartnett, his catcher with the Cubs, saw him as a baseball genius. McCarthy's coach and good friend "Birdie" Tebbetts never ceased to admire his talent. For his own part, McCarthy was more than capable of caustic and witty remarks, including an observation he made when a player was stealing home with one out: "It is proof of reincarnation. No one could get that stupid in one lifetime." When asked by reporters whether he would be able to get along with the tempestuous Ted Williams, McCarthy replied, "a manager that can't get along with a .400 hitter is a fool."
In 1957 the veterans committee of the National Baseball Hall of Fame elected McCarthy to join the greats of the game, many of whom he had managed while with the Cubs, the Yankees, and the Red Sox. The Yankees granted him a standing invitation to come to Florida during spring training, but McCarthy lived in contented retirement on his farm until his death from pneumonia on 13 January 1978. (He had broken a hip the previous summer and had been hospitalized since November.) McCarthy is buried next to his wife in Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Tonawanda, New York, a suburb of Buffalo.
There is no full-length biography of McCarthy, though the reading "around" his career both enlightens and provides the perspective of his time. Ed Hurley, Managing To Win (1976), is a study of seven managers. David Halberstam, Summer of ' 49 (1989), is a fine telling of the McCarthy years with the Boston Red Sox and their intense rivalry with the Yankees. An internal view of that rivalry and the McCarthy years can be found in Dom DiMaggio with Bill Gilbert, Real Grass, Real Heroes: Baseball's Historic 1941 Season (1990). Peter Golenbock, Wrigleyville: A Magical History Tour of the Chicago Cubs (1996), is a valuable study of the Cubs McCarthy years and the personalities associated with that team. Bill James, The Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers: From 1870 to Today (1997), is an invaluable source for contrasting and comparing baseball managers and for its statistical information and editorial assessments. Howard Siner, Sweet Seasons: Baseball's Top Teams Since 1920 (1988), and David Anderson, PennantRaces: Baseball at Its Bes t (1997), provide much personal material relating to pennant races in which McCarthy was involved, including the tense races in 1948 between the Red Sox and the Cleveland Indians, and the McCarthy Red Sox versus the Stengel Yankees in 1949. Obituaries are in the New York Times (14 Jan. 1978), and the Buffalo Evening News (15 and 17 Jan. 1978).
Jack J. Cardoso