It’s been a long time since the Yankees have “fired” a manager. Technically, both Joe Girardi and Joe Torre’s tenures in the Bronx came to an end after their contracts expired. Particularly in Girardi’s case, the Yankees seemingly made a conscious choice to move on, but it still wasn’t officially a firing.
In order to find their most recent mid-season managerial change, you have to go a long way back. The last time the Yankees had more than one official manager in a season was 1990, back when George Steinbrenner was still in his peak George Steinbrenner-ness. After an 18-31 start to the 1990 season, Bucky Dent was fired and replaced by Stump Merrill for the rest of that season.
While it hasn’t happened in a while, there are plenty of two-manager seasons throughout Yankee history. While many of them did happen during peak Boss times, there are several others beyond that. However, there are three occasions in team history when the Yankees went through three different managers in a season. These are their stories.
(Note: We’re only counting managers who are officially listed in the record books. There are probably situations from history like in early 1999, when bench coach Don Zimmer filled in while Joe Torre underwent prostate cancer treatment, but those games are still listed on Torre’s record. It’s possible there are other situations like that which lead to three separate people managing the team, but we’re only looking at ones where the record books list three different skippers.)
Not shockingly, two of the times that it’s happened came during George Steinbrenner’s heyday. One of them was even during an incredibly successful season.
After returning the Yankees to the championship mountaintop in 1977, Billy Martin got the Yankees off to a fine but not great start in ‘78. Between that and a very public spat between him, star outfielder Reggie Jackson, and Steinbrenner, Martin eventually stepped down, likely before he was pushed. After that, third-base coach Dick Howser filled in for one game. Although Howser eventually became an accomplished manager in his own right, Bob Lemon was soon appointed to the role full-time.
The Hall of Fame pitcher Lemon had been the White Sox manager to start 1978, but he too had been let go, as rumors that Steinbrenner and Chicago owner Bill Veeck had attempted to pull off a manager trade emerged. (Said rumors were thought to be part of the discontent between Martin and Steinbrenner.)
In this instance, the move worked. After taking over, Lemon led the Yankees on a furious charge back into the AL East, winning it on Bucky Dent’s famous home run in the one-game playoff against the Red Sox at Fenway Park.
Four years later, Lemon was back in charge as the Yankees began the 1982 season. I say “back in charge” because he had left the role after a 34-31 start to 1979, following up the World Series title. After the Yankees went through several more managers—including another Martin stint at the end of ‘79 and Howser in ‘80—Lemon, who had still been working in the front office, returned to the dugout in 1981. He took over for Gene Michael, who had been in a rare position at the helm of a big-league dugout rather than a front office. New York won the pre-strike first half under Michael, but after a 14-12 start to the second half, Steinbrenner called on Lemon. The Yankees would fall in the World Series anyway.
Much like Yogi Berra in 1985, Lemon received assurances from Steinbrenner that he would get the full 1982 season, which Lemon planned on making his final one as a manager. But this was Steinbrenner, and after a 6-8 start, he removed Lemon from the role and, naturally, replaced him with Michael, who he had only just replaced the previous season.
After Michael couldn’t improve on the .500-ish play, Steinbrenner dismissed him, and elevated Clyde King, former Giants and Braves manager and holder of many Yankees front-office titles, to the role for the rest of that season. The Yankees finished 1982 in fifth place, and made another change after the season, bringing in, obviously, Martin for 1983.
The other instance happened several years before the Steinbrenner era, and included a pair of notable names from franchise history.
After taking over in 1931, Joe McCarthy had led the Yankees through the a dynastic era, as the team won seven championships from 1931-45. In 1944 and ‘45, though, the team finished in third and fourth place. The team was then okay to start 1946, but found themselves several games back of first place in late May. After a 22-13 start to the season, McCarthy abruptly resigned citing “health reasons,” but more likely due to a conflict of personality with team president Larry MacPhail.
In need of a skipper, the team elevated catcher Bill Dickey to the player-manager spot. Under Dickey, the Yankees stayed above .500, but never truly challenged in the AL pennant race. Late in the year, Dickey went to MacPhail and ownership with questions about his status as manager for beyond the 1946 season. With the front office unwilling to make any promises, the catcher resigned with 14 games remaining in the season. Coach Johnny Neun was put into the job for the rest of the forgettable ‘46 season, and replacement Bucky Harris ultimately regained the World Series crown in ‘47.
Ideally, the Yankees will never have a three-manager season again, because dealing with all of that sounds stressful, but they offer a fascinating look into dysfunctional organizations.