Baseball has statistics for almost everything except a player’s leadership ability. That’s something usually determined by the players themselves and the comments they make about each other. Bob Scheffing was the manager of the Los Angeles Angels in 1956 but second baseman Gene Mauch was “the cat’s meow on the field,” according to Eddie Haas, a 20-year-old outfielder at the time. “He told everybody where to go, what to do.”
Mauch was player-manager for the Atlanta Crackers in the Southern Association in 1953 before moving to L.A. in 1954. By 1956, he was well on his way to becoming known as the “Little General,” the nickname he earned managing 26 years in the big leagues. “His ambition was to become a major-league manager,” said Johnny Goryl, who played 12 games for the ’56 Angels. “Everybody knew that.”
“Mauch had a big impression on me as a kid,” Haas said. “Some of the things I didn’t understand until I got older. Once I played another four or five years and, especially when I started managing, I reflected back on some of the things that he just harped on. They were very helpful.”
Catcher Jim Fanning played with the Angels in 1955 and part of the 1956 season. “Gene knew everything. He had the greatest retentive memory of anybody I have ever been around – anybody. He never took a note. He never forgot anything.”
Roy Smalley, a shortstop for the Chicago Cubs in the early 1950s and Mauch’s brother-in-law, once quipped he never heard Gene say he was a genius but he never heard him deny it either. “No, I wasn’t,” Mauch said of the genius thing, “but I knew how to play and so did the rest of them.”
Five players, including Mauch, managed in the majors. Catcher Elvin Tappe guided the Cubs’ misguided College of Coaches experiment in 1961-62; Goryl was a coach for the Minnesota Twins in 1980 when he succeeded Mauch as manager; Haas managed the Atlanta Braves in 1985; Fanning led the Montreal Expos in 1982 and parts of two other seasons.
Fanning established the scouting bureau that major league teams still use today and he was the Expos’ first general manager, hiring Mauch to manage the expansion team in 1969. “I had a lot of admiration for Gene. He was a great aid to Bob,” Fanning said, recalling their time together with Scheffing in L.A.
Dwight “Red” Adams, one of the ’56 Angels veteran pitchers, became a highly-respected pitching coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers, credited by Hall of Fame pitchers Tommy John and Don Sutton for their success. Third baseman George Freese managed 12 seasons in the lower minors for the Cubs, San Diego Padres and the Dodgers.
Lorenzo “Piper” Davis, the only African-American on the team, was player-manager of the Birmingham Black Barons in 1948 when they won the Negro American League title with a 16-year-old named Willie Mays playing centerfield. “In so many ways Piper was the most important person in my early baseball years,” Mays wrote in his autobiography, Say Hey.
In addition to batting .316 as a super-sub and pinch-hitter, the 39-year-old Piper was a catalyst, spending much of his time in the bullpen warming up the team’s young pitchers and giving them the benefit of the wisdom he gained from playing in the Negro Leagues. “Piper knew his role and he played it well,” said outfielder Bob Speake.
“Bob was a handler of men, not ball players,” Speake explained. “Bob appreciated Gene’s baseball wisdom and leadership ability on the field. And he just let it go, let it develop so that Gene could help younger ball players and also be part of that winning tradition. Bob had the knack of sitting back and letting you do your thing.”
“He let us be as creative as we wanted to be and he had great trust in us,” Mauch said. “After all the years I managed, I learned it’s far more important that the players know that the manager respects them than it is for them to respect the manager. Scheffing was a helluva manager – the best manager I ever played for.”
Mauch ranks 12th among big league managers in victories with 1,902 – three less than Casey Stengel, the legendary Yankees manager who managed in 10 World Series. He should be in the Hall of Fame with Stengel but, unfortunately, he is most remembered for his near misses with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1964 and California Angels in 1982 and 1986.
With 12 games to play in 1964, the Phillies lost 10 straight games to blow a six-and-a-half game lead. In 1982, the Angels blew a 2-0 game lead against the Milwaukee Brewers in the best-of-five championship playoff series. The Angels were one strike away from the World Series in 1986 when the Red Sox rallied to three consecutive wins and the American League championship. “If it’s true you learn from adversity, then I must be the smartest SOB in the world,” Mauch said.
What is often overlooked is Mauch transformed bad teams into pennant contenders. Under his leadership, the Phillies went from last-place in 1960 to second in 1964. The Expos went from 52 to 73 wins their first two years under Mauch. The Twins improved by nine games his first season as manager in 1976, and he guided the Angels to a division title in 1982, after they finished last the year before.
“He knew what it took to make a player better,” said Goryl, who followed Mauch as manager of the Twins. “It was unfortunate what happened to him in Philadelphia but he always believed in going with the horses that made the club good. That’s what he lived by and that’s how he managed.”
George “Sparky” Anderson succeeded Mauch at second base for the Angels in 1957. Tommy Lasorda was a pitcher for the ’57 Angels. Both are Hall of Fame managers. “I got good players, stayed out of the way, let ‘em win a lot, and then just hung around for 26 years,” Sparky said on being inducted.
One can only wonder how many championships Mauch would’ve won with players like Anderson had in Cincinnati and Detroit and Lasorda with the Dodgers.
Near the end of the ’56 Angels’ title run, Mauch was sold to the Boston Red Sox. Scheffing went on to manage the Cubs for three years (1957-59). “If I had known I was going to manage the Cubs, we would have never sold him to the Red Sox,” Scheffing said. “I’d have held onto him as a player, coach or something.”
A statement like that is a pretty good measure of Mauch as a leader.
The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ. The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:
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