Monday, December 7, 2009

The Quiet Man

Danny Murtaugh was a man of many hats. Best known as the Bucco skipper in 1960 when the Yankees went down to his underdog Pirate club, Murtaugh also was a slick infielder that put in nine years of MLB, leading the league in stolen bases in 1941 and all NL second basemen in putouts, assists and double plays in 1948.

As a boy in Chester, Pennsylvania, he would walk along the train tracks and pick up lumps of coal that fell from railroad cars to help heat his home. Physically, he was as tough as his background. He earned a football scholarship to Villanova, but didn't accept it because his family needed him near to make ends meet.

In fact, as a player, Murtaugh worked during the off season at McGovern's Men's Store on Market Street in Chester; being a big-leaguer never went to his head.

In 1937, at the age of 19, the St. Louis Cardinals signed him. He made his MLB debut with the Phillies in 1941. Murtaugh played nine seasons for Philadelphia (1941-43, 1946), the Boston Braves (1947) and the Pittsburgh Pirates (1948-51). We couldn't confirm it, but suppose he was in the service during 1944-45.

In '48, he had his best year. Not only did he lead second basemen in the field, but he hit .290 and posted career highs in RBI (71), runs (56), doubles (21), triples (5) and games played (146) to go with a 23 game hitting streak.

In 1950 he hit .294, a career-high, but his playing days were nearing their end. His last at-bat was in September of 1951. Murtaugh's career stat line was a modest .254/8/219 in 767 games.

He began managing in the Pirates' system in 1952. He led the New Orleans Pelicans and Charleston Senators before returning to the Pirates as a coach in 1956.

In August, 1957, he took the helm of the parent club from the crusty Bobby Bragan. He would hold the job for all or parts of 15 seasons with four different stints as boss (1957-64, 1967, 1970-71, 1973-76).

When Murtaugh took over the Pirates in the middle of the 1957 season, the franchise had a fractious racial divide between the white players and the handful of blacks on the squad - Roberto Clemente, Bennie Daniels, Gene Baker, Roman Mejias, and Jim Pendleton.

He quickly changed the clubhouse attitude, letting the team know that he was about winning, and didn't care if the players were white, black, or green. Murtaugh went 84-70 in his first full campaign as manager, and was selected as the Associated Press "Manager of the Year" in 1958.

The best was just around the corner. In 1960, the Pirates won the National League pennant with 95 victories before stunning the can't-lose Yankees in the World Series.

He was selected "Man of the Year" by Sport Magazine, The Sporting News "Manager of the Year," and the Associated Press "NL Manager of the Year" once more after sending Casey Stengel's Bronx Bombers packing.

One of the players he turned around was Billy Mazeroski, who was tortured by Bragan. He was always being pinch-hit for, and spent the game looking over his shoulder, waiting for the hook to come. That's not exactly the way to build a rookie's confidence.

But Murtaugh recognized a kindred spirit - Maz came from tough times in Ohio - and told him that he was the Pirates' everyday, every inning second baseman now.

Of course, it helped that the Irish skipper had carved out a career as a gloveman at second and appreciated a flash of leather, but that quiet boost was all Maz needed to launch his Hall of Fame career.

One guy that he didn't see eye-to-eye with was Clemente; Murtaugh though he was a jake, sitting out games with minor injuries he should be playing through. Clemente, in response, never trusted Murtaugh and thought he was undercutting him. But understanding for both would come soon enough.

The Pirates stumbled after that historic 1960 series, and Murtaugh resigned for health reasons after the 1964 season (he had an ulcer) and took a front-office job, scouting and evaluating players for GM Joe Brown.

Murtaugh was pressed into service once again as an interim manager when Harry Walker was fired during the 1967 season, finished up the year, and returned to his desk job. But hey, things never work out exactly as envisioned.

Murtaugh took over the Pirates for his third stint in 1970, succeeding Larry Shepard, whose tenure had been marked by squabbling in the locker room. The laid back skipper quickly calmed those troubled waters.

It also didn't hurt that as a talent evaluator, Murtaugh knew the team was loaded and about to go off. He lobbied Brown for the job, and got it after a check-up OK'ed him for dugout duty.

Murtaugh and Clemente reached a respectful if not buddy-buddy state of detente in 1970. Murtaugh knew Clemente was the leader of the clubhouse. He started to use him as a conduit, knowing that Clemente would pass along his words to the rest of the team.

And it was a dugout loaded with strong personalities - Pops, Dock Ellis, Richie Hebner...and they all took to Murtaugh. Race never became an issue; Murtaugh fielded the first all-black nine in MLB history in 1971, explaining they were the best players he had that day.

They were plenty good enough, as the Bucs whipped Earl Weaver's Orioles for the title. Murtaugh, a champ again, retired again (and again was chosen The Sporting News "Manager of the Year"), leaving the team to his hand-selected protege, Bill Virdon.

And hey, guess what happened again? Brown canned Virdon in September of 1973, and Murtaugh, this time reluctantly, returned to managing. He stayed through the 1976 season, when he and Brown announced their retirements during the final week of the season. There were no more Series crowns for Murtaugh, but he did win a pair of division titles.

And there would be no more managing ballgames from the tranquility of his rocking chair in his manager's lair. Murtaugh died in Chester of a stroke at the age of 59, two months after retiring. His number 40 was retired by the Pirates the next year.

In 12 full seasons as Pirates manager (overall, he served parts of 15 seasons from 1957-1976), Murtaugh led his team to nine winning records and five league/division titles (1960, 1970, 1971, 1974 and 1975).

He finished second all-time in Pirates history for wins by a manager with 1,115, only behind Fred Clarke's 1,602 (1900-1915), and compiled a .540 winning percentage.

His granddaughter has even written a book about him: "The Whistling Irishman: Danny Murtaugh Remembered," by Colleen Hroncich.

In his pair of World Series wins, he defeated two Hall of Fame managers in Casey Stengel (1960 New York Yankees) and Earl Weaver (1971 Baltimore Orioles). And that's the raison d'etre for todays post.

Daniel Edward Murtaugh was passed over again by the Veteran's Committee in Hall-of-Fame voting, it was announced this morning.

His stats are in line with the other 19 HOF managers - his win percentage and Series titles are middle-of-the pack, and his win total is a little light, but still better than a couple of other guys. So where's the love?

Some say it's because he's from a small market; other say it's because he was so laid back. Some say he didn't thump his own tub enough, and others claim he was no innovator or a great X & O's man. Maybe it's a generational thing.

Here's what we know. Baseball is a game of numbers - wins, losses, averages, championships, name it, baseball has a figure for it. And since Danny Murtaugh's numbers match up against the best, it stands to reason that he should be included with the best, right? Hey, maybe next year...Pittsburgh's eternal battle cry.


WilliamJPellas said...

Murtaugh's career record is significantly better than the numbers posted by Whitey Herzog, who was just voted into the Hall. Herzog's winning percentage was .532, Murtaugh's was .540. Herzog won 3 division titles with the Royals, and 3 NL pennants and a World Series with the Cardinals. Murtaugh won one fewer division title/pennant,but one more World Series. At worst, he is roughly equivalent to Herzog, though I still think he was a better manager.

A better example of the disrespect most of MLB has for the Pirates, I couldn't hope to find.

Ron Ieraci said...

I agree, Will - as you can no doubt tell, I'm a big fan of Murtaugh. And hey, maybe KJ could play SS for us; sure has the hops for it. He probably wouldn't be willing to give up his day job, though - Mayor of Sacramento.