Billy Southworth was like Casey Stengel’s long-lost brother from another mother. Both were born west of the Mississippi, less than three years apart. Both were outfielders in the teens and ’20s. But unlike Stengel, who had no children, lived a long, happy life with a wealthy wife, and has never left the public consciousness, Billy endured tremendous tragedy in his personal life and had been in danger of being forgotten before his 2008 election to the Hall of Fame.
Billy was born on March 9, 1893, near the hamlet of Harvard, Nebraska. Two droughts and a house fire forced the family to return to Ohio (where his father, Orlando, was originally from).
Billy left school in his early teens and joined the working world. Like the rest of his family, he took a railroad job. But he also played baseball on Sundays for the Chenoweths, a team in the semipro Capital City League, which at that time included fellow future big leaguers Hank Gowdy and Wally Gerber. The young catcher soon moved up to the Kenton Reds, where a slide into third base hurt his throwing arm. Rather than lose Billy’s bat for the rest of the game, the skipper moved him to the outfield. When Billy played for his first professional team — Portsmouth in 1912 — they already had two catchers, so he made his position switch permanent.
Southworth played 134 games for the Portsmouth Cobblers in the Ohio State League that year. Twenty-year-old Billy made one appearance with the Indians before being sent westward to minor league Toledo.
When Billy returned to Cleveland in 1914, he did so with the entire Toledo team. The Naps’ ownership brought their farm team’s whole roster of players to Cleveland to prevent the Federal League from placing a competing franchise in the city. That spring, the Boston Braves reportedly offered Somers $5,000 for Billy’s services, but were turned down.
Southworth played for Toledo for a year and a half. In early June of 1915, Shoeless Joe Jackson got hurt and Billy the Kid got his second shot at the big leagues. But after 60 games, in which he batted just .220, he was shipped to Portland of the Pacific Coast League, where he finished the season and also played in 1916.
He played for the Birmingham Barons in 1917 (missing almost two months with a broken shoulder) and 1918. The league ended operations in June of 1918 — every other minor league folded that season — on account of World War I. Pirates manager Hugo Bezdek called up Billy. Casey Stengel had just joined the Navy and Billy took over his right-field spot. Billy registered for the draft but was never called.
Bezdek was the only man ever to serve as a major-league manager (Pittsburgh Pirates) and an NFL head coach (Cleveland Rams). His training methods may have been an inspiration for Southworth’s regimented spring camps during his own managerial career, and Billy certainly thrived under them.
In January of 1921, the Braves finally snagged Southworth — one of three Pirates traded to Boston, with $15,000, for Rabbit Maranville. Billy wasn’t happy to be moving from a winning team to a loser. But he wound up signing a contract a few days later and was named captain of the team. Billy hit .308 for Boston that year. He was limited to 43 games in ’22 due to a dislocated knee, but in 1923 he accumulated a career-high 611 at-bats and hit for a .319 average. After the season, however, he was part of a trade with the Giants. It was a multiplayer deal, with Casey Stengel coming to Boston along with Dave Bancroft and Bill Cunningham in exchange for Billy and hurler Joe Oeschger.
Southworth and McGraw wound up not getting along, and he struggled at the plate. The Giants won the pennant in 1924, but Billy saw duty in the World Series only as a late-inning outfielder in five games and made just one plate appearance.
In 1926 Billy started with a bang, and after about a month of the season he was carrying a .442 batting average. But in mid-June, McGraw was looking to strengthen the team, and traded Billy to St. Louis. The move backfired for McGraw. Billy was already 33, but 1926 may have been his best year. Not only did he hit, but his hits were timely — including a couple of walk-off home runs a week apart in July.
In 1927, Billy suffered a rib injury and was limited to 92 games. That fall, Cards general manager Branch Rickey offered him a managerial job in the St. Louis farm system. Billy took the position, and as a player-manager with Rochester in 1928. After hovering around the .500 mark early in the season, Rochester caught fire, beating out Buffalo by .001 percentage point for the pennant by going 5-1 in three doubleheaders in three days against Montreal late in the year. Rochester wound up losing the Little World Series to the American Association champion Indianapolis Indians, but Billy’s leadership had turned more heads.
Southworth was named manager of the Cardinals for 1929. He had been called to St. Louis to meet with owner Breadon, but he had assumed that the meeting would concern the Rochester club. He would be the youngest manager in the National League at the age of 36, and he found himself in over his head. Billy’s former teammates didn’t respect his authority. He ran a tough camp in Avon Park, Florida. Billy aggravated the players at times.
Southworth was the only playing manager in the National League at the time, but in the limited action he assigned himself he hit an anemic .188. Whatever the cause, the Cards had a 7-15 East Coast swing in July, and when they returned home the mercurial Breadon had Billy return to Rochester.
Back in the minors, Billy led the Red Wings to another International League title. Flags followed again in 1930 and 1931, and they won the Junior World Series both seasons as well. Billy returned to Rochester in 1932, but it would prove a dismal year.
When Mrs. Southworth got sick, Billy started drinking heavily, and the injury-bedraggled Redbirds finished second. The Cards fired Billy (it was the Depression era and they wanted to go with a playing manager, especially because the American Association set a $6,300-a-month salary cap), and Lida died of a cerebral hemorrhage in the fall of 1932.
Billy wasn’t out of work long. The New York Giants announced that they had signed him as a coach for 1933. Mgr Bill Terry fired Billy and his drinking may not have helped matters.
To his credit, Billy was able to wean himself off the bottle. Baseball briefly took a back seat in his life. He got a job with Capital City Products, Inc. as a cottonseed oil salesman.
After promising reports of how Billy comported himself, Branch Rickey hired him to manage at Class B Asheville, North Carolina, for the 1935 season. He finished first there, and in July 1936 moved up to the Class A Memphis Chicks.
After the 1938 season, the organization asked Billy to return to Rochester as skipper. 1939 was the fifth full season that Billy managed Rochester, and it was the fifth time he took them to the Junior World Series. In 1940, Rochester got a good jump out of the gate, but in the National League, the preseason favorite Cards were floundering, a game out of the cellar.
The Cards were still going through managers and Breadon hired Billy without consulting Rickey, and Billy reported directly to the owner. After Billy assumed the helm, the team caught fire. The Cards were 15-29 when he took over, but went 69-40 the rest of the way. It was too little, too late, however, and they finished in third.
It was in 1940 that Billy started platooning. It was a strategy that was in widespread use during his playing days, but it had fallen out of favor over the previous 15 years. In revitalizing it, he would achieve his fame — and eventually his fortune.
Going into the 1941 season, The Sporting News had the Cards picked for third behind Brooklyn and Cincinnati. They actually finished in second, and might have finished in first if it weren’t for injuries. Perhaps taking this into account, The Sporting News named Southworth its major league Manager of the Year. He also kept his job.
By 1942, the U.S. had entered World War II. The Cardinals were unaffected that year This was the team that was known as the St. Louis Swifties. In a humdinger of a pennant race, the Cards went 43-9 in their last 52 contests to top the Dodgers by two games and reach the World Series.
Going into 1943, the Cards lost the services of others to the armed forces. But thanks to Branch Rickey’s farm system — Rickey himself was now with Brooklyn — they were able to call up capable reserves. The pennant race was a cakewalk, as the Redbirds grabbed the National League laurels with an eighteen-game lead over the circuit. They faced the Yankees once again in the World Series.
In 1944, the Cardinals were shooting for a third straight pennant under Billy. St. Louis scored almost 100 more runs, and for the third year in a row the Cardinals won at least 105 games and the pennant. They were one of baseball’s all-time dynasties, even considering the fact that they were a wartime team. That year’s AL champs were the surprising Browns, and the Cards won the Series for the second time in three years.
At some point in the second half of the ’40s, Billy backslid to the bottle. His son’s death may have triggered this.
In 1945 despite injuries that befell virtually everyone on the roster, the Cards kept close to the eventual pennant-winning Cubs. They finished the season only three games behind, mathematically alive until the next to last day of the season. The Cards were still a force, if not still champions.
On the opposite end of the National League spectrum were the Boston Braves. For years, the Braves were one of the laughingstocks of the senior circuit. They changed their name to the Bees for a while, but even that didn’t help. They hadn’t finished in the first division in more than a decade. New owner Lou Perini and his partners sought to change this. Boston general manager John Quinn recommended Southworth to them. Perini and company spoke with Breadon, and were able to secure Billy’s services with a three-year contract paying around $100,000 in all. It was substantially more than the Redbirds could or would pay him.
The Braves trained in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Billy brought his combination of flexible and no-nonsense training methods over from the Cardinals. The Braves moved up from sixth place in 1945 to a driving fourth-place finish, just a game out of third. Attendance at Braves Field more than doubled to an all-time high of 969,673.
In February of 1947, managers in the Braves farm system were indoctrinated into the “Southworth System.” Billy divided his team into groups and rotated them from task to task. He’d keep his players running and work them from 10:30 in the morning to well into the afternoon. In this way, he differed greatly from his contemporary Joe McCarthy, who would work his Yankees team as a group and be done in a couple of hours.
As it happened, the Braves opened the year in Brooklyn as Jackie Robinson made his historic big-league debut. Billy was able to coax an MVP season out of third baseman Bob Elliott, who had been rather indifferent as a member of Frankie Frisch’s Pirates. The Braves wound up in third place, a good enough finish for Lou Perini to tear up Billy’s contract and give him a new five-year deal valued at over a quarter of a million dollars.
The Brooklyn Dodgers were grooming Eddie Stanky for a possible managing or coaching position, but he was looking for more money and Branch Rickey was looking to move Jackie Robinson to second base in 1948. Rickey put Stanky on the trading block, and Southworth and the Braves jumped at the opportunity. The team promoted hotshot young shortstop Alvin Dark from Milwaukee of the American Association, and he became Rookie of the Year. Everything came together nicely.
The Braves hadn’t won a pennant since 1914. By September, they (and the Red Sox) had Time magazine talking about double pennant fever. The Red Sox fell to the Cleveland Indians in a one-game American League playoff, but the Braves were able to capture the senior circuit flag. It was probably a more impressive job of managing than Billy had ever done in St. Louis. He had only one future Hall of Famer in Spahn, but was able to win the pennant through judicious use of platooning, or “the Army game” as The Sporting News was calling it back then. Billy just barely missed becoming Manager of the Year. The Braves lost the World Series to the heavily favored Indians in six games, most of them close.
Success for the Braves, however, would be short-lived. Cracks in the edifice were forming already in June of 1948. Boston signed a bonus baby pitcher named Johnny Antonelli for $50,000 or higher — more than most, if not all, the Braves were making. Many were veterans of World War II, including Spahn, who had received a battlefield commission during the Battle of the Bulge. Antonelli, in contrast, had just graduated from high school, so there was naturally a little resentment. Stan Musial said that over the All-Star break Johnny Sain threatened a sit-down strike, and the 24-game winner (in 1948) got a raise. And while Billy would use his youngsters when he managed the Cardinals, he let Antonelli languish on the bench.
The March 28, 1949, edition of Life magazine had a feature on how hunky-dory things were at the Braves’ training camp in Bradenton, Florida. Meanwhile, a Boston tabloid, was writing another story, one of a ballclub in revolt. Outfielder Jimmy Russell was fined for staying out past curfew. Sain and Southworth weren’t speaking. Spahn wanted to be traded and didn’t care if it was to a second-division team. Worst of all, near-fistfights involving Southworth, one with a radio announcer and one with a player who was reportedly asked to keep tabs on his teammates. Management and players denied everything, and the storm blew over for a while.
Against Pittsburgh on July 23rd, things came to a head. The Braves lost a game to the Pirates as the Bucs came back in the ninth frame against a tiring Warren Spahn. Some blamed the loss on Eddie Stanky; Spahn had reached base three times, and twice Stanky signaled for a hit-and-run play, forcing the pitcher to run and slide several times. One time, Spahn was caught stealing. Billy said he didn’t approve of the strategy, while Stanky said he was allowed to put on his own hit-and-run plays. The loss was part of a bad 5-8 home stand.
August saw the defending champs still hovering around .500. Sain was ineffective, possibly from having thrown more than 300 innings the previous year. His shoulder was sore. The team had also suffered other injuries. The night of August 7th, first baseman Earl Torgeson got into a fistfight with teammate Jim Russell in Chicago. Outfielder Russell suffered two black eyes, and Torgeson broke a thumb. This was just as Torgy — one of the team’s top hitters — was about to return from a separated shoulder. Billy then tried to hush up the episode, and he and the front office wound up telling conflicting stories to the press. Discussing the Torgeson-Russell fight one night, the skipper blew up over the phone at Perini. He had also been hostile to the press on that road trip, and this may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.
The Braves brain trust held a meeting on August 15th. The next day, Billy was given a “leave of absence” for the rest of the season. He was whisked away from Boston on Perini’s private plane before the press could reach him. The official reason was that the Braves felt he was on the verge of a mental breakdown. Billy was complaining about headaches, something he never had problems with before. His continued drinking probably didn’t help matters. Billy may have lost the emotional energy needed to control headstrong veterans of both the war and the ballfield.
There was speculation about whether Southworth would return in 1950. About a month after he took a leave of absence, Billy received a clean bill of health from a cardiologist in Columbus and said he planned to return in 1950. The Braves ended the season at 75-79 and in fourth place. Dissension may have played a role in their disappointing finish, but injuries. The players awarded Southworth a half-share of their fourth-place money. But the message was clear.
At the winter meetings Billy said that Johnny Sain and Alvin Dark would remain with the Braves. Sain did, but Dark and his outspoken mentor, Eddie Stanky, were traded to thge Giants. Seven other Braves became ex-Braves over the winter.
The 1950 squad was younger and included 20-year-old catcher Del Crandall and Sam Jethroe, the first African-American player for either Boston team. There were also some changes to the spring training routine. Press conferences were no longer lengthy affairs at the hotel cocktail lounge; no more bed checks; golf and swimming were permitted; and sportswriters would travel separately from the team. But despite prodigious slugging by Gordon and Elliott and 59 wins from the trio of Spahn, Sain, and Bickford, the Braves finished fourth behind the Whiz Kids of Philadelphia, the Dodgers, and the Giants.
Early in the 1951 season, the Braves were proving a disappointment. One Sunday in June, Billy called GM Quinn and president Perini, asking to resign immediately. The players didn’t know until they found out from fans around the dugout who had portable radios. After bidding a teary goodbye to his team, Billy left on the 10:45 train to Columbus with his older brother, Press.
Billy was still just 58, and there were rumors that he might catch on with the St. Louis Browns or Branch Rickey’s Pittsburgh Pirates. These came to naught, however, and starting in 1952 he hit the road as a scout for the Braves. In the winter of 1955 he was arrested for drunken driving but found not guilty. His scouting contract ended on December 31, 1956, and he retired to Sunbury. This gave Billy more time to pursue his hobbies, which author Frederick Lieb said included hunting, fishing, bowling, and — at least during the days his son attended the school — Ohio State football.
Although he quit smoking in the late 1940s, Billy spent his last days battling emphysema. He died on November 15, 1969, at Riverside Hospital in Columbus.