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Who was Miller Huggins? Why is he Significant?

By Steve Steinberg

"He was the manager who built the Yankee teams that started the bandwagon rolling for almost forty years, and it keeps on rolling."
Sportswriter Bill Corum, New York Journal-American,
(since 1925) January 1957

Miller Huggins (1878-1929) was the first successful leader of the New York Yankees (1918-29) and the first Yankee manager of Babe Ruth. 'Hug,' as he was affectionately known, led them to their first six pennants and three world championships, as he cemented the foundation of future Yankee greatness. Earlier he had a successful major league career for more than a decade (1904-1916) as a second baseman for the Cincinnati Reds and the St. Louis Cardinals and five years as manager of the Cardinals (1913-1917). He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1964.

He was diminutive fellow (not much over 5' and 120 pounds, though today's baseball books seem to make him bigger than he was) who overcame great odds to succeed as both a ballplayer and a manager. He was ridiculed and maligned through much of his career. When he finally began to receive the acclaim that was his due, he died suddenly, when he was 51 years old.

Miller Huggins built the foundation of New York Yankee greatness that dominated the 20th century like no other sports franchise.

When he took over the team in 1918, they were a sorry franchise with a losing tradition and a revolving door of managers (9 since 1908). He built and re-built championship teams for the Yankees, as they won the pennant for the first time ever in 1921 and won it again in 1922, '23, '26, '27, and '28. They also won the World Series three of those years (1923, '27, and '28). While he did indeed have money behind him, sports is rife with teams that failed despite spending a lot of money. His same Yankee owners had spent a small fortune on players the previous three years (1915-17), after they bought the club. Only one of those teams finished as high as Fourth Place.

In a world of big men, Miller Huggins showed that brains, savvy, and determination could beat brawn and raw talent. It may be hard to realize today, but baseball in the early 20th century was a rough and tumble game in which a small man did not have an easy time. Miller was ridiculed as a shrimp when he broke into the majors. When he was appointed manager of the Cardinals after the 1912 season, a common concern was that he'd have difficulty directing men bigger than he was. He was actually considerably smaller than the 5' 6 " and 140 pounds that is listed in current baseball databases.

He excelled by outthinking the opposition, by maximizing the advantages he did have, and by his sheer force of will. As a player, one example of the latter was the process by which he became a switch hitter. He decided to learn to hit left-handed (he was a 'righty'), so he'd be a step closer to first base. He went through an incredible, grueling training regimen to teach the muscles of the left side of his body a 'new way of life.' As a manager, one example of the former was his plan to win the 1923 World Series. The New York Giants had decisively beaten the Yankees in the World Series the previous year by keeping the New York sluggers off-balance with off-speed pitches. In 1923, he had his hitters looking for slow pitches, especially curves. The Yankees won that Series 4 games to 2, with a batting average almost 100 points higher than the previous two years.

One way he made his size into an advantage was by patiently working pitchers to frustration with walks, to get on base. He was known as the 'Waiter' for this reason, in an age in which the concept of on-base percentage really didn't exist. He led the league in walks 4 times. He also used his speed, stealing more than 25 bases 8 times in his career.

Miller Huggins had the vision to see the potential of Babe Ruth and the way that slugger would revolutionize the game. Miller Huggins was a man who embodied 'small ball'- he had little power and hit only nine home runs in his career. Yet he saw the possibilities in Ruth and adjusted his entire approach to the game long before any one else did. He urged the Yankee owners to acquire the Babe, if he became available, and the rest (with a few bumps along the way) is history.

Miller Huggins had a terrific ability to spot and evaluate talent. He rarely traded away players who starred elsewhere. Two rare exceptions were pitcher Urban Shocker (who went on to win 20 or more games 4 years in a row for the St. Louis Browns) and catcher Muddy Ruel (who starred on the 1924-25 pennant-winning Washington Senators). Miller acknowledged his mistake in both cases and went to great lengths to reacquire Shocker, which he did after the 1924 season.

He traded for players who turned out to be far more talented than was generally expected. Much has been made of the 'Curse of the Bambino,' that the Boston Red Sox made such a mistake in selling Ruth to the Yankees in 1920. But a careful read of Ruth's 1919 season (there are some excellent Ruth biographies still in print) indicate that his continued success (let alone greater achievements) was by no means a safe bet. Moreover, the Yankees acquired many talented pitchers from the Red Sox around that time, who were crucial for the New York pennants of the 1920s. While in retrospect those deals look terribly one-sided now, a close examination of them shows that they were considered quite equitable at the time (even in the Boston press).

When he spotted potential in a player, he stuck with that man for a long time. A good example is George Pipgras, a young pitcher he acquired from Boston in January 1923. In the next four years, George won only one game for the Yankees, as he spent a lot of time in the minors working on his control. He then won 10 games for the 1927 Yankees (his record was 10-3) and led the league in wins the next season with 24.

In the mid-1920s, when other teams were afraid or unwilling to trade with the Yankees, he was equally adept at identifying talent from the minors. His later pennant winners (1926-27-28) were built around men like Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, and Earle Combs. They all joined the Yankees before playing a major league game with any other team. All ended up in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Clearly, Miller Huggins had some help here: a savvy business manager in Ed Barrow, a great scouting team, led first by Bob Connery and then by Paul Krichell, and an owner in Col. Jacob Ruppert. Barrow joined the organization after the 1920 season. He had been the Red Sox field manager the prior three seasons and knew the Boston personnel quite well. Connery had been the Cardinals' scout (he had discovered Rogers Hornsby and signed the future superstar for only $500) and came over to the Yankees with Miller Huggins. Krichell was a former catcher with the St. Louis Browns, who went on to discover Yankee greats from Tony Lazzeri to Whitey Ford. Ruppert (who ran one of the nation's largest breweries) instinctively understood concepts like lines of authority and division of responsibility. He supported his manager, even in the tough times.

This leads to a further point, one of the keys to the Yankees' success:

Miller Huggins helped create and was an integral part of a model organization, which institutionalized a framework of future success. The Yankees were far ahead of their times in the 1920s, with this division of responsibility and mutual respect. The men did not interfere on each other's turf. Miller Huggins was the field general, and management supported him in his decisions, even when he triggered one of the biggest showdowns in baseball history.

Miller Huggins had the courage to tale on the game's greatest star, Babe Ruth, to solidify his position as leader of the Yankee team. Babe Ruth had been disregarding his manager and training rules for years. But 1925 was different. Both the Yankees and the Babe were having terrible seasons. Something had to be done. As long as one player had different rules (was given more leeway), the manager could never really establish his authority. In early September 1925, Miller Huggins fined Ruth $5,000 (an enormous amount of money in an era when the average ballplayer didn't make much more than that in a year) and suspended him indefinitely. The move helped the Babe refocus on baseball. While many people felt he was washed up, he had some of his finest seasons in the late 1920s. The move also helped Miller lead the Yankees to a stunning comeback the following year. After falling to 7th Place and 28 games out of First Place in 1925), the Yankees went on to win three straight pennants.

Miller Huggins had remarkable insight into human behavior and psychology. This skill enabled him to be a great leader. The closer one examines the man and his career, the more this strength emerges.

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