Dave Martinez of the Washington Nationals is about to start his first year as a baseball manager. (Alex Brandon/AP)
Frederic J. Frommer is the author of “You Gotta Have Heart,” a history of Washington baseball, and leader of the sports business practice at the Dewey Square Group, a public affairs firm in Washington.

In replacing manager Dusty Baker with Dave Martinez, the Washington Nationals are betting on an untested leader over one with 22 years of managerial experience. 

 It’s a move that some baseball experts think will pay off — notably Sports Illustrated, which predicts that the Nats will win the World Series this year. But it’s been nearly two decades since a rookie manager led his team to a title, when Bob Brenly did it with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2001, and rookie managers inheriting playoff teams have had a mixed record of success in recent years.

From a historical standpoint, though, the Nats are onto something: Dating back nearly a century, Washington’s had a lot of success with rookie managers. 

The Washington Senators won the city’s only three pennants — all in the 1920s and early ’30s — under the leadership of novice managers. Even after the District’s last World Series appearance, in 1933, the Senators continued to have good luck with a series of first-year skippers, covering several decades and two franchises. In 1969, Ted Williams came out of retirement and with a fresh pair of eyes led the second Senators team to its only winning season.

The managerial magic started in 1924, when Senators owner Clark Griffith, coming off a fourth-place finish, named his 27-year-old second baseman, Bucky Harris, as player-manager. Griffith knew firsthand that young rookie managers could succeed: In 1901, at 31, he led the Chicago White Sox to the American League’s inaugural pennant as a first-year player-manager.

Although player-managers were fairly common at the time, Harris was especially young, and sportswriters panned the move as “Griffith’s folly.” Early that season, Ty Cobb, the 37-year-old player-manager of the rival Detroit Tigers, taunted Harris as “baby face” and “snookums.” 

The Senators, also known as the Nationals, got off to a mediocre start, but by midseason, Harris had found his footing. As the Senators battled the New York Yankees in a furious pennant race over the final months of the season, fans across the country rooted for the upstart team from Washington.

Harris displayed a political savvy beyond his years. On a road trip out West, he told his players: “Let’s not make any enemies if we can help it. Most of the western clubs would rather see us win the pennant than the Yankees. Let’s beat ’em, but treat ’em nice.”

Harris, dubbed “the Boy Wonder,” led Washington to a surprise pennant and then an upset seven-game victory over the New York Giants in the World Series. That matchup featured another demonstration of youth over experience, as Harris out-managed John McGraw , the legendary 10-time pennant-winning Giants manager. 

Harris repeated as pennant winner the next year, 1925, but the Senators lost the World Series to the Pittsburgh Pirates in seven games. It would be eight years before Washington returned to the Fall Classic. Harris had moved on by then, but Griffith went with the same prototype — naming another young, untested infielder, the team’s 26-year-old shortstop, Joe Cronin, player-manager in 1933.

“I like these scrappy youngsters as leaders,” Griffith said. “Cronin is a fellow who is interested in nothing but baseball.” It worked again: Washington’s “boy manager” succeeded on the field and in the dugout. Cronin hit .309 with a team-high 118 RBI and a league-best 45 doubles while guiding the Senators to the pennant with a 99-53 record, the best winning percentage in Washington baseball history.

“Crossing his early season critics by assuming managerial cares without losing any of the sparkle of his play afield and at the plate, Cronin has been credited with imparting something akin to college-boy spirit to the Senators,” the Associated Press observed.

After Washington clinched the pennant with a victory at home in September, fans mobbed the handsome Cronin. As The Washington Post put it:

“Besieged in the clubhouse by a hero-worshiping throng of thousands of fans of both sexes gone mildly mad by the Nats’ conquest of the American League pennant, Manager Joe Cronin led a wild chase over the ball park grounds to escape to safety through a trap door in the center field fence in a comic-opera sequel to the ball game.”

 As they did in ’24, the Senators dethroned the Yankees and again faced the Giants in the World Series. This time, Washington fell in five games. 

Unlike Harris, Cronin wasn’t able to repeat as pennant winner. In 1934, the Senators tumbled to seventh place in the eight-team American League. After the season, in a Depression-era deal, the cash-strapped Griffith sold Cronin to the Boston Red Sox for $250,000 (about $4.7 million in today’s dollars) and a marginal infielder. Griffith wasn’t just jettisoning his star player-manager, he was also breaking up his family: Cronin had just married Griffith’s niece, Mildred Robertson.

Even in the many years when the team missed the World Series, Washington continued to capitalize on the open minds and energetic dispositions of rookie skippers. 

After wrapping up a career as perhaps the best pitcher in baseball history, for example, Walter Johnson served for four years as Senators manager between Harris and Cronin. The Big Train started with a losing record in 1929 but followed that with three winning seasons — each time finishing at least 30 games over .500. 

In 1943, another former Washington ballplayer, Ossie Bluege, took over the Senators as manager and led the team to a second-place finish and its first winning season in seven years. In 1945, he piloted Washington to its last real pennant race of the 20th century, when the Senators weren’t eliminated until the final day of the season. 

After that, the Senators would post just one winning record over the next 15 years before moving to Minnesota in 1961. The American League immediately awarded a new team to Washington, also called the Senators, but they picked up where the old one left off with eight straight losing seasons. 

That ended in 1969, when the new Senators owner, Bob Short, persuaded Ted Williams to come out of retirement to take over as a rookie manager. With his infectious personality, Williams got the most out of his players, such as good-field, no-hit shortstop Eddie Brinkman. During spring training that year, Williams told him to focus exclusively on hitting.

“If I ever see you with a glove on your hand in the first two or three weeks of spring training, I’m going to hit you over the head with a damn bat,” Williams told his skinny shortstop, who wound up raising his batting average to .266 from .187 the previous season. The new manager also got Washington slugger Frank Howard to cut down on strikeouts and take more walks.  

As Washington got ready to host the All-Star Game that summer, the New York Times recognized Williams as the “focus of a tremendous revival in baseball interest in the nation’s capital, and of a remarkable improvement in the weak team’s fortunes on the field.” Washington would finish 10 games over .500 that season, the high-water mark before the team moved to Texas to become the Rangers in 1972. 

Ten years later, the Rangers drafted a teenage Brooklyn native named Dave Martinez. He didn’t sign at the time, but later in his career, he spent part of the 2000 season with the team formerly known as the Senators. 

Twitter: @ffrommer

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