Will there ever be another player-manager?
In era of specialization, once-popular dual role would be tall task
The idea came almost as quickly as it left. It stemmed from a very small segment of the population, which understood the impact of Albert Pujols, witnessed the retirement of Tony La Russa, then used Twitter, Facebook, emails, comments sections, blogs and any other outlet obtainable to pose a wild idea.
How about making Albert Pujols the Cardinals' player-manager?
The thought probably never once crossed the mind of senior vice president and general manager John Mozeliak, who's now knee-deep in a managerial search that has taken him through six candidates vying for the St. Louis job. And even if it did, there would be almost no chance a player like Pujols would ever agree to such a task in his early 30s.
But it led to a broader question: Could such a thing ever happen again? Will there ever be another player-manager?
In a time when the game is more complex than ever -- when bullpen roles are incredibly intricate, sabermetrics dominate the landscape, scouting reports are exhaustive and, most important, the media coverage is so much deeper -- is it still possible for one person to serve the role as both a player and a manager?
White Sox general manager Ken Williams believes so. Not too long ago, reports surfaced that he had considered Paul Konerko as a player-manager -- before giving Robin Ventura his first managing gig on Oct. 6 -- but Williams stressed that it was never really a serious consideration, but more of a comparison between the way he used to view Ventura as a player to the way he views Konerko as a player now.
Regardless, Williams does believe a player-manager can still exist, even though there hasn't been one since Pete Rose 25 years ago, the dynamic of being a teammate and skipper would be difficult, and the media coverage -- especially in his city -- would be a whole new obstacle.
In the end, though, baseball is a game.
"You're not hiring somebody to run Apple," Williams said. "It's baseball. It's a leadership position, No. 1. The difficult part is the scrutiny; it's so much more than it used to be. But if it's any issue, it's not that a player can't [do both]. I think that's disrespecting what players have to offer and the intellectual side of the game that many of them have owned. The other peripheral things, even for a regular manager that can be a bit much. You add playing to having to answer questions, that can be overwhelming."
In Major League history, 221 men have served as player-manager, according to a list compiled by Baseball-Almanac.com. But 106 of them started out before the 20th century, and only six have done it in the past 50 years: Hank Bauer (1961), El Tappe (1962), Frank Robinson (1975-76), Joe Torre (1977), Don Kessinger (1979) and Pete Rose (1984-86).
There's a reason why there hasn't been a player-manager in a quarter-century.
"It's hard enough to be a player, and it's hard enough to be a manager," Kessinger said. "It's incredibly difficult to try to do both."
Ironically, it was Kessinger's short reign as player-manager for White Sox owner Bill Veeck -- one of the most outside-the-box thinkers of his time -- that led to La Russa getting his first crack at the big leagues more than 30 years ago.
Kessinger, who now owns his own real-estate company in Mississippi, was one of the slickest-fielding shortstops during a career that spanned from 1964-79. He made six All-Star teams, won two Gold Gloves and spent 12 of his 16 seasons as a member of a Cubs infield that mostly featured Ron Santo at third and Ernie Banks at first.
Two years after being acquired from the Cardinals in August 1977, Veeck approached Kessinger about being the White Sox's player-manager and Kessinger, somewhat begrudgingly, accepted. He wound up lasting all of four months, resigning in the beginning of August to make way for La Russa's promotion from Triple-A and ending his baseball career at age 37.
Kessinger's biggest challenge as a player-manager?
"It was hard for me to put myself in the lineup as much as I should have," he said. "I probably should've played more than I did. Coaches kept telling me, 'You need to play more.' But you never want your player -- I didn't -- thinking I was playing because I was the manager. That's something that I didn't handle very well."
Kessinger believes the task was more difficult than anything else he took on during that 1979 season -- and he was there for Disco Demolition Night, perhaps the worst promotional idea in baseball history.
But there were other challenges to the job.
Like the dynamic of being a player's teammate and manager; thinking about when to get a reliever warming up in the bullpen, or make a pitching change while in the middle of playing defense; trips to the mound, with umpires unsure whether Kessinger was visiting as shortstop or manager; giving bunt, steal and hit-and-run signs from the batter's box (something Pujols was doing during the World Series); and just the day-to-day grind of handling two jobs that are demanding enough as separate entities.
Kissinger did all that more than three decades ago. He can't see why someone would do it in this era.
"I don't know why you would ever want to do it now," Kessinger said. "I think there are a lot of great managers, and potentially great managers, out there. There's no need for it."
But there was plenty of need for it in baseball's earliest stages.
The game was nowhere near as complicated, people took on greater responsibilities at younger ages and it was simply cheaper to have one man perform two roles, so player-managers were the rule rather than the exception at the turn of the last century.
But as the game evolved and specialization increased, the player-manager began to die. There were more than 100 before 1900, 42 more by the start of 1920, 19 in the '20s, 18 in the '30s, 11 in the '40s, nine in the '50s and almost none thereafter.
Most of them filled the dual role toward the end of their careers, and for a short amount of time. Very few were like Lou Boudreau, the Hall of Fame shortstop who was a player-manager from 1942-52, winning a World Series while in that role with the Indians in 1948. In terms of guys who took on the role, especially after World War II, Boudreau was a rarity.
But he certainly wasn't among Hall of Fame player-managers.
Fifty-nine of the 221 who served as player-managers are enshrined in Cooperstown, including the likes of Robinson, Cap Anson, Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Christy Mathewson, Mel Ott, Tris Speaker, Honus Wagner and Cy Young. Also, three of the top five in managerial wins -- Connie Mack, John McGraw and Torre, the latter of whom was player-manager of the Mets for all of 18 days -- started off in that role.
Today, there are plenty of players -- like Konerko, Derek Jeter, Chipper Jones, Todd Helton, Orlando Hudson, Michael Young, Ivan Rodriguez and Torii Hunter -- who fit the persona of a player-manager, because they're knowledgeable, respected, accomplished and, well, aging.
Is there a chance somebody gets a shot again?
"I just don't see it happening," said Chris Jaffe, an expert on skippers who wrote the book "Evaluating Baseball's Managers." "It just seems like the trend these days is specialization."
"It's an individual kind of thing," Williams added. "Do I believe that there could be a player-manager? Why not? There has been in the past. What makes the present game different, other than the media experience? I think that would be the challenge."
Maybe somewhere, at some point, there will be one again.
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.