Sunday, January 24, 2010

As Subtle as a Belch

"I've never been a yes man." That's for sure. Rogers Hornsby pretty much called it like he saw it. He didn't make a lot of friends as a player and made even fewer as a manager, but Hornsby's performance at the plate wasn't affected by his lack of popularity off the field.

Hornsby joined the St. Louis Cardinals in 1915 at the age of 19 and quickly became a standout. His extreme focus meant no smoking or drinking (not even coffee!) and no newspapers or movies for fear of ruining his eyesight. While his teammates found this dedication odd, it paid off for Hornsby. His career batting average (.358) is second only to Ty Cobb. During the 1920's he hit more home runs and brought more men home than any other player and he accomplished all this as a right-hander. Most pitchers are right-handed, giving right-handed hitters a disadvantage and making Hornsby's accomplishments even more impressive.

Although Hornsby's teammates appreciated his powerful bat they could probably have done without his powerful tongue lashings, especially when he became a player-manager. His direct approach with his players was even mentioned in a popular scene from the 1992 movie A League of Their Own. Sportswriter Lee Allen said "he was frank to the point of being cruel and as subtle as a belch."

This frankness and other distasteful behavior affected his legacy. Ask most casual baseball fans if they've heard of Rogers Hornsby and the answer will be no. He did not inspire the affection that other baseball greats got and he'd probably tell you he didn't care - he just wanted to win games!

While I can respect Hornsby's desire to tell it like it is and, to a degree not wanting to censor himself to please others, I think he could have learned about giving constructive criticism to his players. This is an area many managers struggle with, though admittedly most don't get it quite as wrong as Hornsby did! In my job I train Instructors in the Family Development Credentialing (FDC) program, a strength-based approach to working with families. By focusing on individuals' strengths rather deficits, change is more likely to occur. This approach can be used by counselors, managers, parents, coaches or anyone wanting to help someone with a change.

Hornsby, like many great players turned managers, never understood why his players couldn't become a great hitter like him. Maybe if he had participated in our FDC class he could have had better results as a manager and changed his legacy as well. But... I wouldn't have wanted to be the instructor that had to put up with him in the class!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Merkle's .... um ... Gaffe

Sure, I could have used the commonly used term for Fred Merkle's base-running mistake and I would have gotten a lot of hits on this post, but I decided to take the high road. Merkle entered the Major Leagues in 1907 and played for 16 seasons. He is remembered, however for one day in September 1908 when he made a base-running error that cost the New York Giants the game and ultimately the National League Pennant.

The moment Merkle will never forget began during a game in the midst of a tight pennant race. His Giants were tied with the Chicago Cubs in the bottom of the ninth. Merkle was on first with a runner on third. The next batter got a single which allowed the runner to head home. The crowd went crazy, assuming the Giants had won the game. Merkle, excited by the win and overwhelmed by the crowd rushing the field, started to head from first base straight to the clubhouse without touching second base. This was the custom of the time. Cub's second baseman Johnny Evers, however, was a student of baseball rules and knew that if he could find the ball and touch second base, Merkle would be out on a force play and the run would not count.

Varying accounts exist about what exactly happened next. Merkle claims he went back and stood on the base while Evers struggled to find the ball. Ultimately the umpire called Merkle out and decided the game could not continue because the field was now crawling with rowdy fans. The game would be replayed at the end of the season if needed. The game was needed and Merkle's Giants lost to the Cubs who went on to win the World Series.

Merkle never lived down this gaffe but I think Evers should have been the one to receive the attention. As pointed out in the October 18, 1908 edition of the Pittsburgh Press, what can be learned from this story is "the necessity of keeping careful track of the little details, and never passing over the seemingly insignificant things." Evers knew that that players were often not tagging the bases in these situations so he was ready to take advantage. He knew the rules and was paying attention. Merkle and the rest of the Giants learned it the hard way. In fact, the rest of baseball learned from Merkle's... gaffe.

I am someone who loves digging into the details and reading rules and policies (just ask anyone who's ever played a board game with me!). If I had been in the stands during Merkle's ill-fated game I'd have been yelling at him to go touch the base because I would have known he was putting the run at risk!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Wearing the Black Gloves

What do raw meat, grass clippings, a dead sparrow, a dead rat and Limberger cheese have in common? Believe it or not, they have each been stuffed inside of a Major League player's glove. The last three were as a result of modern day pranks, but the raw meat and the grass were 19th Century ballplayers' attempts to add padding that was lacking in the early gloves.

Baseball gloves first entered the game in the 1870's starting with the catchers. Fielders were reluctant to wear gloves at first, not wanting to appear weak. Stories were told of players wearing flesh colored "mittens" so they would go unnoticed by fans. Sporting goods store owner and stand-out first baseman Albert Spalding was determined to change the perception of gloves so he proudly donned black gloves during a game in 1877. Not surprisingly, those thin black leather half-fingered gloves were for sale in his store shortly after the game.

This risk paid off for Spalding (heard of Spalding Sporting Goods?) and the game was also changed as a result. Within a few years nearly all fielders were wearing padded gloves on their non-throwing hands. Infielders became more aggressive, overhand pitching was allowed and sporting goods manufacturers soon changed the ball itself in order to compensate for this new tool. In his book, Glove Affairs: The Romance, History, and Tradition of the Baseball Glove, Noah Liberman states, "All in all, it's impossible to overestimate the effect gloves have had on the game of baseball. Perhaps no innovation has changed the game more."

Spalding's move was bold and I wonder if I would have the guts to do the same. It was a calculated risk. He knew ballplayers were breaking fingers and going home with bruised and swollen hands. He knew that he had enough credibility and fame that he probably wouldn't be laughed off the field. Still, he had heard stories of that happening to other men in their flesh colored gloves but he didn't let that stop him. I hope I have the wisdom to see the opportunities like Spalding did and the nerve to step onto the field wearing the black gloves.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Make 'em Play Ball and Keep Their Mouths Shut

Picture this - two baseball teams about ready to start the game and they select a fan from the stands to serve as the umpire. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, right? This is exactly how umpires were selected in the early days of baseball. Sometimes a player even served as the umpire! These volunteers were chosen for their knowledge of the rules of the game and their reputation for being fair.

The National League raised the standing of umpires in 1878 by ruling that clubs would pay them $5 a game and giving them the ability to fine players for foul language and ultimately eject them from games if necessary. These men earned every penny. The rules of the game changed each season and umpires had to stay on top of the changes in order to do their job. Team owners encouraged fans and players to express their frustration when they were unhappy with the umpire's calls. In fact, some owners even paid players' fines. It seems arguments, physical altercations and items thrown at umpires increased attendance at games.

By the turn of the 20th century life started to get a little easier for umpires as baseball rules became more stable and more umpires were added to the field. Today's umpires probably don't realize how easy they have it, especially when faced with the wrath of an angry manager. They may want to take the advice of old-timer Bob Ferguson, "Never change a decision, never stop to talk to a man. Make 'em play ball and keep their mouths shut, and people will be on your side and you'll be called the king of umpires."

In my job I am tasked with ensuring that our partners implement programs in accordance with the procedures we establish. Like umpires in baseball, in order to do my job well I must study and know the policies and be able to enforce them fairly. While I don't follow Ferguson's advice to a tee (I do let people speak!), I do see the benefit in being decisive and firm when I have a strong set of policies and procedures to back me up. I've found that people respect decisiveness. Fortunately our partners don't resort to yelling, physically attacking me or destroying property when they disagree with my decision so I have it much easier than umpires!
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