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Looking back at the worst managerial decisions in Yankees history (Part 1)

In wake of one of the most disastrous coaching moves ever made, which playoff mistakes hurt these Yankee skippers the most?

could've made a better choice than Ditmar, Casey
could've made a better choice than Ditmar, Casey
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Last night's Super Bowl between the Seahawks and Patriots was the most-watched game in the history of football, and fans were treated to Seattle coach Pete Carroll utterly blowing the game in the final moments.

For those who missed it or somehow haven't heart about what happened yet, the Seahawks trailed by four with just under a minute to play in the game, but they were right on the precipice of scoring the game-winning touchdown. They were one mere yard away from the end zone and a 30-28 lead that would all but secure the champagne celebration. With one of the best running backs in football, Marshawn Lynch, Carroll elected instead to have Russell Wilson throw a bizarre slant pass up the middle. Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler intercepted it, and the Seahawks' dream of a repeat vanished into the Arizona night. Carroll's decision was instantly reviled and regarded as possibly the worst play call in NFL history. It was so bad that conspiracy theorists might even argue that Carroll's call was an inside job. Way to go, not-Patriots.

Many baseball fans who watched the game instantly tried to come up with similar poor decisions by managers and coaches throughout history. Some were spot-on, like comparing it to Red Sox manager Grady Little leaving a weary Pedro Martinez in the game during Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, only to watch the move blow up in his face when Pedro gave up the lead in memorable fashion. Others comparing it Royals third base coach Mike Jirschele's decision not to send Alex Gordon home with one out to go in the season weren't as convincing. My personal favorite was Greg's hypothetical:

Spot on.

The Yankees have been more successful than any team in major league history, but that doesn't mean that they have always made great decisions. Carroll's blunder brought to mind several managerial miscues that Yankees fans have seen over the years. It's difficult to suggest that they were possibly worse than Carroll's call because they weren't in nearly as much of a pivotal "score-or-lose" scenario. Nonetheless, they definitely brought Yankees fans' blood to a boil, and in some cases, led a manager's dismissal à la Grady Little.

I'm certain that Hall of Fame Yankee skippers Miller Huggins and Joe McCarthy made some crucial errors in judgment during some of the many World Series games that they managed. However, none were so dramatic that they were well-publicized, universally hated, or anything like that. (It helps that McCarthy amazingly only lost one World Series out of the eight that he managed with the Yankees.) Plenty of the moves that are easy to criticize today--leaving a starter in too long, calling a bunt in a puzzling situation, etc.--would not be as applicable back then. For instance, Red Ruffing blew Game 5 of the 1942 World Series in the top of the ninth inning when third baseman Whitey Kuowski crushed a two-run homer that broke the tie and put the Cardinals three outs from the World Series crown. Would a reliever have helped? Probably, but going to the bullpen wasn't nearly as common back then.

Thus, Huggins and McCarthy are not going to be in this post. Neither are Ralph Houk or Dick Howser, who didn't really make many obvious mistakes in the playoff series they each lost. However, one Hall of Fame manager will kick it off:

Casey Stengel - 1960

No Whitey Ford in the World Series opener

There's no denying that the "Ol' Perfesser" was one of the sharpest minds to every manage the game of baseball. Even the smartest people can make colossal mistakes though, and that's exactly what Stengel did at the outset of what would be the final World Series of his long career. Having turned 70 that year and in wake of a disappointing 79-75 third-place finish in '59, there were rumors throughout the season that owners Del Webb and Dan Topping were tired of Stengel and wanted him gone. The Yankees kept their skipper at the helm with a terrific season though, finishing 40 games over .500 and easily winning the American League pennant.

They would face the NL champion Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series, but the first decision Stengel made of the series turned out to be the worst. In Game 1 at Forbes Field, Stengel elected to turn to not Hall of Famer Whitey Ford, but righty Art Ditmar. Ford was furious. Peripherally, they had similar statistics during the season, but no one was confusing Ditmar for the Yankees' ace. Ditmar didn't even survive the first inning, and the Yankees lost the opener, 6-4.

The Yankees recovered to blow out the Bucs 16-3 in Game 2, though Ford continue to be wasted on the bench. At least, Ford pitched Game 3 at Yankee Stadium, and the Yankees won, 10-0. Pittsburgh won Game 4 to tie up the series and Ditmar again faced them in Game 5. This time he did better! He only got knocked out in the second inning. The Yankees lost, but Ford sent the series to a Game 7 with another shutout. Unfortunately, without Ford for Game 7, the Yankees fell to the Pirates in crushing fashion on Bill Mazeroski's walk-off home run.

Had Stengel used Ford in a slightly different manner, perhaps Ford could have started the finale, or at least pitched a little bit in relief. After all, Ralph Terry was the pitcher who gave up Mazeroski's homer, and he was available because he started Game 4. If Ford pitched the opener, then he could have conceivably started a maximum of three games in the series, not two. The loss was the last straw for Topping and Webb, who fired Stengel shortly after the series.

Yogi Berra - 1964

No lefty specialist for McCarver

McCarver 64

When longtime catcher Yogi Berra finally got a chance to manage the Yankees in 1964, he won the AL pennant in his first year on the job. Part of that success was the result of an already-talented club and there was certainly some turmoil throughout the season as reporters questioned Yogi's ability to discipline his players, many of whom were previously just friends and teammates. Nonetheless, Yogi certainly deserved some credit for his work.

The Yankees met the upstart Cardinals in the 1964 World Series, and the teams split the first four games. In Game 5 at Yankee Stadium, Tom Tresh stunned Cardinals ace Bob Gibson with a two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth down to the Yankees' last out. The game was tied and went into extra innings. Rookie reliever Pete Mikkelsen started the tenth in his third inning of work. He immediately ran into trouble by walking Bill White and allowing a bunt single to Ken Boyer. Mikkelsen induced a force-out from Dick Groat, but that brought young catcher Tim McCarver up to the plate.

The 22-year-old had hit .288/.343/.400 as the Cardinals' catcher, and as a lefty in Yankee Stadium, there was certainly potential for some pop. In the bullpen, Yogi had lefty specialist Steve Hamilton rested and available. Nonetheless, he elected to stick with the weary righty Mikkelsen. One catcher brought pain to another as McCarver crushed a three-run homer into the short porch, giving the Cardinals a 5-2 lead. St. Louis went on to win the game and the series in seven games, and Yogi would not manage the Yankees again for 20 years.

Billy Martin - 1976

Catfish forever

For as much as Billy Martin is associated with the Yankees, it's interesting to note that he only managed the team in two World Series. They won the second one in '77, but the first voyage was a disaster, as the famed "Big Red Machine" swept the Yankees away in '76 following the euphoria of Chris Chambliss's pennant-winning homer. In some ways, the Yankees probably never really had a chance against such a ridiculously dominant team. They didn't make it any easier for themselves though.

The Reds won the opener at Riverfront Stadium on the strength of a 5-1 victory. They were helped by the fact that Yankees ace Catfish Hunter was unavailable to start Game 1 due to a sore arm. With Martin as his manager during his first two years in New York, he pitched a ridiculous amount of innings, as Martin had complete trust in him and was always quite hesitant to go to the bullpen. As a result, Catfish pitched an unfathomable 626 2/3 innings and 51 complete games in 75 starts for the Yankees in '75 and '76. So it should hardly be a surprise that Hunter's arm was starting to get sore; injuries would later end his career early at age 33.

Hunter got the start in Game 2. While he gave up three early runs, the Yankees' offense supported their ace and gradually chipped away, tying it up in the seventh against the Reds' bullpen. The score remained deadlocked as the game continued into the bottom of the ninth. Unsurprisingly, Hunter was still on the mound. He got two fly balls, but Ken Griffey reached on an error by shortstop Fred Stanley that allowed the elder Griffey to reach second.

Martin had the choice of pitching to either Hall of Famer Joe Morgan or Hall of Famer Tony Perez. It wasn't ideal, but Martin chose Perez. Hunter, of course, remained in the game, even though the Yankees' bullpen had dangerous arms like Sparky Lyle, Dick Tidrow, and Grant Jackson potentially available. Martin's trust in Hunter was ironclad though, and he got burned. On Hunter's 135th pitch, Perez scalded the walk-off single to left, and the Reds took a 2-0 lead in the series. That was all she wrote for the Yankees, who never again got that close to winning a game in '76.

Bob Lemon - 1981

Tommy John and the early hook

A midseason replacement in the dugout for the second time in his Yankees career, Lemon took over the Yankees from Gene Michael not long after the second half of the '81 season resumed following the players' strike. George Steinbrenner sought to recapture the magic of '78, but it was not meant to be. The Yankees did win the pennant, taking down the Brewers in the first Division Series and sweeping old friend Billy Martin's Athletics in the ALCS.

In the Fall Classic against the Dodgers, the Yankees took an early 2-0 series lead, winning both games at Yankee Stadium. The next four games did not go nearly as well, and Lemon played a pivotal role in two of the losses. With runners in scoring position and the game tied in the seventh inning of Game 4, Lemon decided to bring starter Tommy John out of the bullpen rather than relief ace Goose Gossage. Against the easier-to-hit John, the Dodgers, Steve Yeager brought the go-ahead run in with a sacrifice fly, and a couple innings later, L.A. tied the series at two games apiece. Could Yeager have made contact against the flamethrowing Goose? We'll never know.

An even more questionable decision was made by Lemon back at Yankee Stadium for Game 6. The Dodgers now held a 3-2 series lead and had the Yankees on the brink of elimination. The game was tied at 1-1 with two outs in the bottom of the fourth and Graig Nettles on second following a dobule. Back in '81, the rules dictated that the DH was only used in the World Series in alternate years, so pitchers unfortunately had to bat at Yankee Stadium during this year. Tommy Lasorda had Burt Hooton walk Larry Milbourne to bring John up, a move that would most likely end the inning.

Even though it was early, Lemon decided he had to try to get the lead, and he removed the flabbergasted John from the game for pinch-hitter Bobby Murcer. The move did not pay off, as the veteran flew out to end the inning, and the Yankees were forced to rely on the bullpen for the rest of the game. It didn't work, as they gave up seven runs in the next two innings, and the Yankees lost the World Series. Lemon survived only 14 games into the '82 season before he was fired.


That's enough managerial failures for one day. Check back tomorrow to see what Buck Showalter, Joe Torre, and Joe Girardi's darkest playoff moments were. It will be a delight.