“FENWAY'S BEST PLAYERS”
Self-effacing and relentlessly confident, Joe McCarthy was a relatively silent yet authoritative force behind the success of the New York Yankees during 1930s and most of the 1940s. McCarthy’s Yankee teams regularly dominated the American League and, in many seasons, New York faced little competition for the pennant. Although he was once famously scorned by Jimmy Dykes as a “push-button manager” who won largely because of his teams’ superior talent, McCarthy’s former players regarded him as indispensable to the success of seven World Series-winning teams in New York. “I hated his guts,” said former Yankee pitcher Joe Page, “but there never was a better manager.”
The first manager to win pennants in both leagues, McCarthy also managed the Chicago Cubs to the World Series in 1929. Overall, McCarthy’s teams won seven World Series in nine appearances, and his career winning percentages of .615 in the regular season and .698 in the post-season remain major league records. At the end of his career, McCarthy also managed the Boston Red Sox. Although McCarthy’s Red Sox teams won 96 games in both 1948 and 1949, he was never able to manage Boston to the World Series, leading many Red Sox fans to view him as aloof and gruff rather than the taciturn managerial genius that so many Yankee fans embraced.
McCarthy was born in Philadelphia on April 21, 1887. When he was only three years old, his father was killed in a cave-in while working as a contractor. McCarthy’s impoverished upbringing forced him to do everything from carrying ice to shoveling dirt. Still, his prowess playing baseball in the Germantown section of Philadelphia soon earned him attention. He was a member of his grammar school team as well as a local team in Germantown. He broke his kneecap as a youth while playing in Germantown, which likely limited his chance to one day be a major-league player. “It left me with a loose cartilage which cut down on my speed,” said McCarthy. “But I didn’t do so good against a curved ball, either.” Even so, McCarthy was productive enough to be offered a scholarship to Niagara University to play baseball starting in the fall of 1905, in spite of never attending high school. McCarthy lasted at college for two years, but the strain of not making any money was too great and he left school to play minor-league baseball.
The 5-foot-8 1/2-inch, 190-pound, right-handed-batting McCarthy signed with Wilmington of the Tri-State League to start the 1907 season. His first game was on April 24, against Trenton, and he got one of his team’s four hits and stole a base while playing shortstop in a 9-3 road loss. In 12 games with Wilmington, McCarthy had seven hits in 40 at-bats without getting an extra-base hit or more than one hit in a game. McCarthy was never much of a hitter, and during his entire minor-league career, he batted better than .300 in a full season only once, when he hit .325 for Wilkes-Barre in 1913. When manager Pete Cassidy was fired and McCarthy’s job was given to another player, McCarthy jumped to Franklin of the Inter-State League, where he batted a more impressive .314 with two home runs for the rest of the season while making $80 a month. Three and a half years of minor league ball with Toledo under Bill Armour followed before McCarthy went to Indianapolis of the American Association for the final half of the 1911 season in a trade for Fred Carisch. It wasn’t always smooth in Indianapolis: In a game on April 26, 1911, McCarthy made four errors in seven chances at third base. In 1912 and 1913, McCarthy played for Wilkes-Barre of the New York State League, where Bill Clymer was the team’s president and manager. Eventually his salary rose to $350 a month. In 1914 and 1915, McCarthy played for Buffalo of the International League, along with Joe Judge and Charley Jamieson.
McCarthy jumped his contract to sign with Brooklyn of the Federal League in 1916, but the league collapsed and McCarthy never got to play for Brooklyn. That period was particularly confusing for McCarthy, as he received a call from the New York Yankees for a tryout around the same time, but he instead received what author Harry Grayson called “the runaround” when the team refused to commit to McCarthy, saying it might be sold. Instead, McCarthy spent the final six years of his minor-league career with Louisville of the American Association from 1916 through 1921 after being awarded to the team in the dispersal of players from the Federal League. In spite of his long minor-league playing career, McCarthy was never able to get to the major leagues as a player.
McCarthy got the chance to manage again in Louisville. “In those early years in Louisville, I became convinced that I never would set the woods on fire as a player,” McCarthy later recalled. “My mind began to work along managerial lines. I studied the systems of successful managers of the period. My chance came midway through the 1919 season when Patsy Flaherty resigned.” McCarthy took over as manager of Louisville on July 22, 1919, and won his first game, 6-2. McCarthy went on to manage Louisville to its first American Association pennant in 1921 (he did play in 11 games that year). The Colonels defeated the Baltimore Orioles in the Little World Series, five games to three. In every year but one after that, McCarthy’s teams finished in the top four in the league. He managed the Colonels for four more seasons, leading the team to a second pennant in 1925. This time the Colonels lost the Little World Series to the Orioles, by an identical five games to three, then played a series with San Francisco of the Pacific Coast League, losing five games to four.
After that season William Wrigley, Jr., the Cubs’ owner, offered the managerial position with the Cubs to McCarthy. As Joseph Durso recounted, McCarthy was quickly introduced to the star system when he joined the Cubs. Discussing a strategic scenario in the clubhouse, McCarthy reportedly said, “Now, suppose we get a man on second base…” Star pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander lit a cigarette and retorted: “You don’t have to worry about that, Mr. McCarthy. This club will never get a man that far.” A month later, McCarthy sold Alexander to the St. Louis Cardinals. Shortly thereafter, Wrigley told McCarthy: “Congratulations. I’ve been looking for a manager who had the nerve to do that.”
In McCarthy’s first season with the Cubs, the team showed marked improvement. McCarthy’s success, the writer said, was even more remarkable considering that Alexander and Wilbur Cooper were both gone from the pitching staff. The Cubs finished in fourth place in both 1926 and 1927 behind the strong hitting of Gabby Hartnett, Riggs Stephenson, and Hack Wilson. McCarthy’s managerial decisions paid more dividends in 1929. Although McCarthy was never a particular favorite of the media, his managerial style was appreciated early in his career. Said one account in 1929: “[McCarthy] has one quality which endears him to those who know what a manager has to face in the way of heckling. He stands by his players….Tell him the team his team is weak here, or weak there, and he will not fly off the handle. On the contrary, he will tell you where it is strong and going along to suit him.”
McCarthy’s finest moment with the Cubs ultimately resulted in his undoing there. He led the Cubs to a 95-win season in 1929 and to the World Series. The Cubs, however, lost the Series in five games to Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics. Not only did McCarthy’s team lose the first game when Mack surprisingly started aging Howard Ehmke, who won, 3-1, and struck out a then-record 13 batters, but the team also allowed the Athletics to overcome an eight-run deficit in Game Four by allowing 10 runs in the seventh inning, keyed by Hack Wilson’s losing Mule Haas’ fly ball in the sun. Even with a second-place finish in 1930 supported by Hack Wilson’s National League record 56 home runs, McCarthy was not offered a contract by the Cubs at the end of that season and was replaced by Rogers Hornsby.
For whatever lack of enthusiasm followed McCarthy out of Chicago, he was eagerly pursued by the New York Yankees to replace Bob Shawkey. The exact reasons behind McCarthy’s refusal of the Red Sox’ offer are unclear, but team president Bob Quinn reportedly held nothing back in trying to get the former Chicago manager. Babe Ruth, who was said to have been disappointed not to get the New York managerial job himself, reportedly praised McCarthy when the latter was hired and said that the two would get along well. So began one of the most impressive managerial tenures in major-league history. In McCarthy’s first 13 seasons with the Yankees, his teams finished in first or second place in every season but one. From 1932 to 1943, his teams won eight American League titles and seven World Series. His teams won more than 100 games in a 154-game season six times, and the Yankees won 90 games or more 11 times during that span.
With the Yankees, McCarthy maintained strict standards. McCarthy also succeeded in managing Babe Ruth. According to one writer, “No matter what his thoughts might have been, Joe ran the rest of his club and left Babe to his own devices. Ruth never bothered Joe much either. He did just about as he pleased, just showed up for the games and gave McCarthy four pretty good seasons. It was hard to tell what he thought of the manager.” There were, however, reports that Ruth’s jealousy of McCarthy led to Ruth’s release by the Yankees and signing by the Boston Braves in 1935.
Still, in spite of his successes, McCarthy’s teams were not up to the same standards during the latter part of World War II. From 1843 to 1945 the Yankees never finished above third place, as many of his star players had retired, left for other teams, or gone into the armed forces. On May 26, 1946, in a telegram from his farm at Tonawanda, New York, to team president Larry MacPhail, McCarthy resigned. But that explanation had its doubters. There were persistent rumors that McCarthy resigned because of a personality conflict with Larry MacPhail, with whom McCarthy did not have as close a relationship as he had with Ed Barrow.
After two years out of baseball, McCarthy was hired by the Boston Red Sox. Boston had finished 14 games behind the Yankees in 1947, and McCarthy’s hiring was part of a larger shakeup that included shifting then-manager Joe Cronin into a front-office position. Cronin sounded impressed also: “Joe’s going to have more power than probably any manager since McGraw. He will have complete charge of the team and will have the power to make any deal he wants.” Boston sportswriter Harold Kaese wrote, “McCarthy is more highly rated than Cronin, having won nine pennants to Cronin’s two.… When McCarthy signed, Boston fans were confident that another pennant was on the way.”
Even though McCarthy’s Boston teams finished in second place in each of his two full seasons with the Red Sox, it was not enough to satisfy Boston fans who were eager for him to duplicate the World Series-winning success he had in New York. Boston lost a one-game playoff for the American League pennant to Cleveland in 1948 and finished second to the Yankees in 1949, losing the pennant on the last weekend of the season. Ted Williams also appreciated how McCarthy never criticized his players in the press.
McCarthy resigned from Boston’s managerial position on July 22, 1950. McCarthy was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 1957 along with former Detroit Tigers star outfielder Sam Crawford.