So, I received a text from my brother Roger a few weeks back, after the Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Boston Celtics to move on to the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Bryan Price? It was strange to see his name come up. I live in Cincinnati, and my impression was there was nothing very remarkable about the guy. He seemed well-liked enough as manager of the Reds. He’d been their pitching coach during Dusty Baker’s tenure. It would have been tough, I’d imagined, to have improved upon the dismissed Baker’s record of having led the Reds to the playoffs in three of the previous four seasons. But in his year-plus at the helm, Price has displayed the reserved approach typical of the modern day major league manager.
A quick internet search revealed the transcript of the tirade the Cincinnati Reds manager had just directed at beat writer C. Trent Rosecrans. Oh. “Seventy seven expletives,” a string of invectives some had begun to rank among the all-time recorded sports meltdowns.
So what in the world was Price upset about? Apparently, it boiled down to the manager taking issue with beat writers sharing information that he feels could aid their opponents.
I wasn’t sure about what Roger was getting at. Channeling Lloyd Bentsen: I felt like I knew Lou Boudreau a little bit. I’d spent hours reading about his time with the Indians. Especially in the golden era of baseball, the post-World War II years. Roger, Bryan Price is no Lou Boudreau…
Curious, I thumbed through some of my old Russell Schneider books. Particularly, The Cleveland Indians Encyclopedia and Tribe Memories, The First Century1. There, the Lou Boudreau story again leapt back to life.
During the World War II years, the Tribe was a mess. The 1940 team had imploded. The “Cleveland Crybabies had earned public derision, on a national scale. Three years earlier, manager Oscar Vitt and his feisty, self-promoting manner had replaced the easygoing Steve O’Neill. The Indians had won quite a bit more than they’d lost under Vitt, but his frustration at finishing behind the New York Yankees exacerbated his penchant for throwing his players under the proverbial bus. Most of the team rebelled, and asked for his removal via a signed petition. The baseball press descended upon the Tribe, publicized the players’ complaints, and road trips began to feature the team as the target of catcalls, rotten produce and practical jokes.
Vitt’s replacement in 1941 was the second managerial stint for Wooster, Ohio native Roger Peckinpaugh. You guessed it: Peckinpaugh was the diametric opposite of Vitt, a smiling, easygoing favorite of both the players and the fans. Funny how that pendulum has swung, over the years, with sports managers and head coaches. Unfortunately, while the team started fast out of the gate, it soon stumbled and limped to the finish line. Peckinpaugh was removed as manager by Indians owner Alva Bradley, and was installed as the general manager.
The Cleveland Indians began being referred to as the “graveyard for managers.” Bradley became famous for saying, “We only hire the manager. The public fires him.”2
One of the younger players on the team was Lou Boudreau. The 24-year-old, third-year shortstop was brash enough to mail a letter to Bradley—but not so brash that he wasn’t instantly remorseful, thinking of ways he could keep the owner from reading it. The letter was Boudreau’s bid to become the Indians’ player-manager in 1942. Reflecting on the process later, Boudreau recalled enduring a grueling, two-hour interview before the Indians’ board of directors in a hotel near the stadium. The directors took turns posing scenarios before the candidate, asking him to describe how he would handle them. Of course, of particular concern was how he would handle players who were close to twice his age.
Boudreau was firm with his replies, and informed his interviewers that he had majored in physical education at the University of Illinois. He had always intended to pursue coaching. He also had been the captain of the Illini basketball team. He was confident he could handle the newspaper reporters who covered the Indians (radio coverage of the team was spotty, and there was no television coverage, of course).
The directors knew the managerial direction they’d taken during the prior few seasons hadn’t worked; perhaps they did need a younger man at the helm. They hired Boudreau at a salary of $25,000: $20,000 as a manager and $5,000 as a player3. A stipulation was that they were going to surround the young skipper with older coaches.
The new manager was actually more scared of facing the baseball reporters than he was of the directors. He holed up in his hotel room the night before the League Park press conference, rehearsing his statements. He knew they would ask if he could do both jobs well, at the same time.
There had been no speculation that Boudreau was even a candidate as manager. The reporters were stunned when Bradley asked them to welcome the new field boss- and the young shortstop walked into the room. Predictably, the references to ‘child abuse’ with the ‘boy manager’ were common, at first.
Of course, the directors spoke emphatically in support of Boudreau. One may have wondered if they’d asked so many questions at the interview because they needed to arm themselves with replies to reporters’ questions.
It was also of no surprise that in the wake of the Vitt fiasco, the players welcomed the leadership of their teammate. And Boudreau later confirmed that he learned key elements of managing by noting what Vitt had done and then doing the opposite. A key tenet of the Boudreau regime was respecting the players, and having a policy of complete honesty, both in public and in private.
About two weeks after Lou Boudreau was announced as the new manager of the Cleveland Indians, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Immediately, many major league players enlisted in the U.S. military. They were led by the best pitcher in the game, Tribe ace Bob Feller. Also, slugger Hal Trosky announced his retirement from baseball due to severe migraine headaches (thought by many to have been a result of the public vitriol he suffered over his leadership role in the Vitt rebellion). Boudreau was classified 4-F (ineligible for duty) due to ‘bad ankles.’
When spring training began, Boudreau did reveal his inexperience by treating the players like college kids. He posted positive slogans around the clubhouse that were intended to promote the team over the individual. Within hours, they were torn down and stained with tobacco juice.
There was also a notable misstep with the press. Very early in the spring, the manager called a meeting with the reporters covering the team. When they assembled, he asked them to show him their articles before having them published. This spoke volumes as to Boudreau’s naivete at the time. The reporters set him straight: they worked for the newspapers, not the Indians.
But the season began with high hopes. The infield was mostly intact, with Ray Mack at second base, Kenny Keltner at third and Boudreau at short. Roy Weatherly and Jeff Heath were holdovers in the outfield, and the starting pitching featured such notables as Jim Bagby Jr., Mel Harder, Harry Eisenstat, and Al Smith.
The opener was held at Briggs Stadium in Detroit, against the Tigers. Bagby started for the Tribe—although Boudreau later said he didn’t actually consider him an ‘ace’- and pitched a nice game. Boudreau stroked a double and a single, which were huge because reporters weren’t the only ones who questioned whether he could do justice to both jobs; the board of directors wanted to be assured as well. The Tribe staked Bagby a 1-0 lead in the first inning, but he fell behind 2-1 by the third. The Indians answered with one in the fourth, two in the seventh, and one in the eighth to go up by three. Bagby was in trouble in the ninth inning, allowing the first two batter to reach base, and Boudreau walked over from his shortstop position to talk to him. The pitcher wanted ‘the honor’ of getting himself out of trouble, but the manager decided to have reliever Joe Heving enter the game and close it out.4
The biggest hitting hero of that first game was Les Fleming, the rookie first baseman who’d taken over first base for Trosky that season. Fleming hit a single, a double, and a home run. Keltner also homered in the victory.
The Indians would lose their next three, before winning at home, 1-0. In attendance that day, providing a morale boost, was Bob Feller, who was on leave from the Navy. By early May, they boasted a team-record thirteen-game winning streak. At the All-Star game that year- played at the stadium, 62,000-plus watched a team from the American League defeat a group of major league players who were in the service- including Feller. The Tribe faded after the break, and finished in fourth place with a 75-79 record. Coincidentally, the same record as they’d posted in 1941.
But the first season with Lou Boudreau as the Indians’ manager had to be considered a success. He brought stability and consistency to the leadership of the team, and he continued to develop as a player. He hit .283, with 58 RBI.
His most noteworthy accomplishments would come later.