- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 14, 2009

So a Washington baseball club has fired its manager. What else is new?

Including both versions of the Senators plus the Nationals, Manny Acta is the 22nd man to depart the dugout hereabouts, most with their tails between their legs.

Exactly three said goodbye with winning records - Clark Griffith, Walter Johnson, Joe Cronin - and it might not be a coincidence that all are in the Hall of Fame. Anybody who wins in Washington deserves a plaque somewhere.

Yet even those three left with their images besmirched. Griffith had endured four losing seasons in five years when he took off his uniform and risked his life savings to become the Senators’ owner in 1921.

Johnson, Griff’s favorite player and possibly the greatest pitcher of all time, was let go gently after the 1932 season because he was considered too easygoing. Cronin, his successor, won a pennant in 1933 but finished seventh in 1934 before being traded to the Red Sox.

Even Bucky Harris, the so-called Boy Wonder who led the Senators to pennants in 1924 and 1925, finished as a loser in the nation’s capital. Hired by Griffith three times, Bucky was neither a boy nor a wonder the last two. His lifetime record for 18 seasons in these parts: 1,336-1,416.

Fellow Cooperstown residents Connie Mack and Casey Stengel provide the best evidence that managerial skills mean nothing if you don’t have the players. In addition to winning nine pennants, Mack finished last 17 times in half a century wagging his scorecard from the dugout on behalf of the Philadelphia Athletics. If not for Stengel’s 10 flags in 12 seasons with the lordly Yankees, Ol’ Case would be remembered as a clownish loser with the Dodgers, Braves and Mets.

Smarts, you see, guarantee nothing. Gene Mauch is considered one of the best managers in recent horsehide history, yet over 26 seasons with four franchises he won exactly zero pennants.

An obscure Senators manager named Joe Kuhel reiterated this fact most eloquently when he was bounced after a last-place finish in 1949.

“You can’t make chicken salad out of chicken feathers,” Joe insisted for public consumption. Some listeners that day swore he used a word pithier and more pungent than “feathers.”

Managing a ballclub in Washington has somewhat less security than, say, serving in the House. True, those pols have to run every two years, but a lot of Senators skippers barely lasted that long.

One-year jobholders included Jim Manning (1901), George McBride (1921), Clyde Milan (1922), Donie Bush (1923) and, with the expansion Senators, Jim Lemon (1968).

Six others had a two-year cup of coffee: Tom Loftus (1902-03), Jake Stahl (1905-06), Jimmy McAleer (1910-11), Cronin (1933-34), Kuhel (1948-49) and Chuck Dressen (1955-56, plus a handful of games in 1957).

Up the parkway, with the exception of Earl Weaver’s first tenure (four pennants in 14 1/2 seasons), the Orioles haven’t fared much better. Two imperious owners treated their managers with shocking disrespect in Charmless City.

Joe Altobelli won a World Series for the O’s in 1983 after succeeding Weaver. A year later, when the team fell on hard times, he was described by Edward Bennett Williams as “Cementhead.”

Some years later, Peter Angelos went EBW one better in the “you don’t get no respect” department when, if memory serves, he notified Johnny Oates of his dismissal by fax in 1994. The late Oates, one of the game’s gentler souls and nicer people, never got over that.

The Lerners didn’t do much better after the 2006 season when they announced that Acta would replace Frank Robinson and then left the Hall of Fame slugger twisting slowly, slowly in the wind before deciding not to employ him in another role. You can fire somebody without demeaning him - the usual explanation is “We’ve decided to go in a different direction” - but apparently this cliche has not filtered down to our local owners.

There’s no need to feel sorry for Manny Acta, however, despite his non-excellent misadventure in Washington. For one thing, he won’t have to lose sleep worrying about the pathetic Gnats anymore. For another, he’ll likely rebound sooner or later as the manager of a real major league team.

And small comfort though it may be, Manny, don’t forget the old Joe Kuhel Rule.


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