Bill McKechnie: Manager for the Ages

Bill McKechnie: Only Manager to Take Three Different City Clubs to the World Series.

Hall of Fame baseball manager Bill McKechnie had a personality reputation that wore out all the most popular clichés on the subject. “Dull as dishwater” and “a man bearing all the excitement of watching paint dry” jump immediately to mind.

All the man did was quietly and quickly come in and take three different clubs to the World Series during the first half of the 20th century. He was never “the show” that a few of his more famous contemporaries were. Fiery guys like John McGraw and the umpire-baiting Leo Durocher may have been a lot more fun to watch. They just didn’t accomplish what Bill McKechnie did with three wholly different franchises.

As often happens, this great historical manager had not been a great player. Over an 11-season big league career played non-contiguously from 1907 to 1920, McKechnie the infielder batted .251 with only 8 home runs, but he went to school on all phases of baseball during that period and he impressed others with his quiet observations and suggestions for personal improvement. He apparently was one of those teachers who understood that a teacher has nothing to teach unless he has a student who is willing to listen. It became a characteristic of McKechnie’s that he surrounded himself with players with raw talent who would also listen to ways they could improve. Pitchers were the key to winning in McKechnie’s book and having pitchers who were willing to improve themselves and extend their innings of effective pitching were important to Manager Bill.

By the time that Bill McKechnie reached the Reds in 1938, the common wisdom in baseball had distilled to this simple straightforward advisory to pitching prospects joining his Reds clubs: “If you can’t pitch for McKechnie, you can’t pitch for anybody.”

Bill McKechnie managed the Pittsburgh Pirates for five seasons (1922-26), leading the club to the World Series championship in 1925 over the Washington Nationals. He next managed the St. Louis Cardinals for two seasons (1928-29). He quickly led the Cards to a National League pennant in 1928 before losing the World Series to the New York Yankees. McKechnie then spent eight seasons (1930-1937) managing the Boston Braves/Bees, a club that couldn’t win for anybody, before taking over for a final nine-year run (1938-46) as manager of the Cincinnati Reds. At Cincinnati, McKechnie would lead the Reds from the last place club they were in 1937 to the NL pennant in 1939 and then to another Series loss to the ’39 Yankees, a club that many consider as the greatest team of all time. McKechnie then returned  the Reds to the top in 1940 for a World Series victory over the Detroit Tigers, his second title in four tries at three spots.

McKechnie was a laid back, quiet fatherly type who quickly earned the trust of any player worth keeping. That trust was crucible to the art of him getting across his beliefs about the central role of pitching and what he expected from his staff. McKechnie had a simple philosophy about pitching: (1) No big league pitcher can get by with a fast ball alone. He believed that a pitcher has to develop a curve that he can control for strikes. (2) McKechnie forbade his pitchers from throwing sliders. He believed that all sliders did was hurt pitching arms and shorten pitching careers. (3) He wanted starters to build confidence and belief in their stuff – and their abilities to win. (4) He wanted his pitchers to develop the stamina to pitch a complete game, whenever possible. (5) McKechnie believed that pitching required constant intelligence to the job at hand and that anger in any form robbed a pitcher of his ability in that moment to work intelligently. No matter how well a pitcher was throwing, McKechnie would take his man out if he saw signs of anger on the mound. His pitchers understood that was going to happen too, if they had fits on the mound, and they adjusted to the idea of “don’t get mad; stay focused and give the next pitch your best shot.”

Pitchers on the Reds like Paul Derringer, Bucky Walters, and Johnny Vander Meer blossomed under McKechnie. Vander Meer, in fact, pitched his back-to-back no-no’s for the 1938 Reds. He also gave McKechnie credit for prolonging his career through the 1951 season due to changes he made in his pitching style under Bill’s guidance. The main change was that he gave up the more stressful sidearm delivery for a straight over the shoulder throw.

Bill McKechnie also managed the National League club in the 1940 and 1941 All Star Games.

Bill McKechnie’s record speaks for itself. Not counting a minor league starter job as a playing manager with Newark in 1915, he finished his major league managerial career with a mark of 1,842 wins and 1,678 losses.

“Deacon” Bill McKechnie received the nod into the Hall of Fame by the Veteran’s Committee in 1962. Three years later, on October 29, 1965, he passed away in Bradenton, Florida at the age of 79. He will be quietly missed and remembered forever by all people who choose to scratch the surface on the study of people who made the game of baseball the great national sport it became.

The baseball chain of cause and effect even reaches directly to Houston in the matter of Bill McKechnie. His Reds center fielder for five years (1938-42) was an eager-to-learn young fellow named Harry Craft, the same fatherly, good-listening first manager of the first ever major league club in Houston, the 1962 Houston Colt .45’s.  If there ever was a mystery as to who mentored Harry Craft into becoming the just- right-for-the-times manager he became for us in Houston back at the start, consider that question now resolved. And try to keep that very clear example in mind when you look around at what and who you are mentoring now in life by your own role model behavior. The chain of cause and effect is never-ending.

I’m just glad that Bill McKechnie and Harry Craft were part of our Houston baseball chain. And based upon what I’ve seen of him, so far, I kind of think that current Astros manager Brad Mills may be cut out of the same good quality spiritual cloth. Let’s just hope that Brad is now being provided with the kind of young talent that both needs to learn and knows how to listen to the wiser heads that are being made available to them.

Have a nice Saturday, everybody!

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5 Responses to “Bill McKechnie: Manager for the Ages”

  1. David Munger Says:

    Let Brad Mills get his style of players and implement his philosophy, and we will see a winner here again.

  2. Bill McCurdy Says:

    My “E”

    Originally I hit a brain-freeze and wrote that John Vender Meer pitched his back-to-back no-hiters in 1939 in spite of the fact that I have known since 1947 that the real date of that unique feat was 1938. Thanks to a gentle, but nudging reminder from my friend Tal Smith, President of the Houston Astros and a quick authority on Cincinnati baseball history, I’ve made the correction in the column.

    Thanks, Tal. This one rolled right through my ears.

  3. Bud Says:

    Great article on McKechnie. Growing up in the late 30’s and early 40’s my second favorite team was the Reds, especially the 1939-40 pennant winners with Bucky Walters, Paul Derringer, Junior Thompson, Ernie the Schnozz Lombardi, Frank McCormick, Bill Werber, etc. I still have my scrapbook with the 1940 World Series featured. Derringer outdueled Buck Newsom in game 7. Also remember the sad story of the suicide of Willard Hershberger in August of 1940, McKechnie was worried about him and was trying to counsel him but he slipped out of the clubhouse in Boston, went back to the hotel and cut his throat. The Reds wore black armbands the rest of the season and in the series. BK





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