Coaching is on the rise in the major leagues

April 1, 2010 at 6 a.m.
Updated March 31, 2010 at 11:01 p.m.


By Rick Hummel

St. Louis Post-Dispatch


The St. Louis Cardinals, who have won or shared seven division titles in the past 10 years, employ six full-time coaches and one full-time instructor, a total that probably is one over what other big-league teams have because the Cardinals, in effect, have two hitting coaches in Mark McGwire and his assistant, Mike Aldrete.

This number of coaches is about five or six more than most teams had until the 1950s or so. In the early years of the 20th century, teams would employ former players as instructors, but those jobs were limited mostly to spring training duties. The higher profile positions of hitting coach and pitching coach didn't become prominent until after World War II.

The first coach? It's anybody's guess, although several historians credit Arlie Latham, who once stole 129 bases in a season for the 1887 St. Louis Browns, as the first coach on the base lines. As a player-coach with the New York Giants in 1909, Latham was credited with being the oldest player to steal a base at age 49.

However, when Latham coached third base for the Giants, he was said to have yelled insults at the opposing pitcher more than give signs. Latham would run up and down the third-base line screaming, which ended with the addition of the coaching box.

Latham apparently was so little a factor as a coach that, according to author Lawrence Ritter in "The Glory of Their Times," Giants star Fred Snodgrass labeled Latham "probably the worst third-base coach that ever lived."

However, the benefits of Latham's coaching were evident to baseball journalist Ren Mulford, Jr., who, according to Sporting Life, suggested that the Cincinnati Reds follow the Giants' lead by hiring former Reds player Heinie Peitz as a full-time coach at third base.

Peitz, who also played for the Browns, was, according to Mulford, "one of the prize coaches when he wore the red. His cheery voice was an inspiration to the players on base and, as a matter of whispered fact, there were qualities in that sarcastic little yelp of his that never helped the fellow (pitcher) on the firing line."

But the Reds were 75-78 in 1912, and when Peitz went over to the Cardinals next season as a third-base coach they finished last at 51-99.

For the most part in the early 20th century, managers chose to use pitchers who weren't working that day as base-line coaches. In the book, "The Game on the Field," author Peter Morris quotes a 1913 Sporting News article that said, "Some managers seem to think that if a player is good for nothing else, he is just the man to do the coaching. Such managers, however, never win pennants."

The pitching coach

There may have been pitching coaches as early as the 1880s, with Bobby Mathews credited as perhaps the first paid coach in 1888. The 5-foot-5 spitballer had just finished a career in which he had won 297 games (and lost 248).

Mostly, the pitching coach's duties were in spring-training instruction, with occasional responsibilities as needed during the season. Wilbert Robinson was one such coach for the Giants in 1911-13, assisting fiery manager John McGraw.

At least once, according to author Larry Mansch, who wrote in "Rube Marquard," about a Giants Hall of Fame pitcher, McGraw called on Robinson during the season when he sensed that team was "about to go to pieces."

Mel Harder, who pitched in the major leagues from 1928 to 1947, believed himself to be the first full-time pitching coach, according to Walter M. Langford, author of "Legends of Baseball."

Harder said he was given the job of pitching coach in Cleveland at the end of the 1947 season. Harder went to camp with the major-league club and then worked his way through the entire system, instructing younger pitchers.

History says a dozen or so other men worked as pitching coaches, perhaps for just one season, until halfway through the 20th century. But it is generally acknowledged that full-time pitching coaches at the major-league level didn't become the norm until the 1950s.

Former pitcher "Barnacle Bill" Posedel served the Cardinals as a pitching coach from 1954 to 1957, although he was also listed as first-base coach and then assistant coach.

Al Hollingsworth was listed as the Cardinals' pitching coach in 1958, and then former Cardinals pitcher Howie Pollet became the first Cardinals pitching coach of any tenure when he served from 1959 through the world championship season of 1964.

Adding more coaches

Similarly, full-time hitting coaches didn't come into play until after World War II. Harry Walker, whose base hit scored Enos Slaughter from first base to win the 1946 World Series for the Cardinals, and who was their manager for part of 1955, returned as a coach from 1959 to 1962, with hitting coach among his responsibilities. Walker and another former outfielder, Wally Moses, are considered to be among the earliest of full-time hitting coaches.

For many years, the staff of coaches was capped at three.

"We had a pitching coach, a third-base coach and a first-base coach. That was it," said Cardinals Hall of Famer Red Schoendienst, whose playing career lasted from 1945 to 1963. "You didn't even have a coach in the bullpen."

The "bullpen coach," who readies the relievers, came along perhaps 20 to 25 years after the hitting coach. Then, about 10 to 15 years ago, the term "bench coach" was used for the first time.

This doesn't mean he makes sure the planks are in place in the dugout. Rather, he makes sure who's available and who's not among opposing players and pitchers who have not started a game.

Hall of Famer Ted Williams, who managed the Washington Senators from 1969 to 1972, generally is credited with hiring the first bench coach, Joe Camacho, who joined Williams with the Senators in 1969.

The Cardinals generally have had bench coaches in just Tony La Russa's stint as manager, with current bench coach Joe Pettini having been here for nine seasons. Pettini also works with the infield defense during the game but, with the advent of so many relief moves and double switches in National League games, he often handles the lineup card in the dugout, reminding La Russa which opposition players haven't been used yet.

But the bench coach's job or that of an assistant hitting coach is more important before a game than during one.

Learning the game

La Russa thinks the increase in the number of coaches has to do with the number of young players in the game.

"Younger pitchers and players are being accelerated through the system so they don't have the benefit of learning the game at the minor-league level, like they used to," La Russa said. "They've got to be coached more at the big leagues.

"Just look at the experience of guys at the big-league level now, versus 20, 30, 40 years ago when they had (Class) D ball, C ball, B ball, A ball, Double-A and Triple-A."

Atlanta manager Bobby Cox, who has managed in five decades and is retiring after this season, says more coaches are needed now because more instruction is needed.

"There was no early (batting practice) before games when I played," Cox said. "You couldn't even get the balls. (The clubs) wouldn't give them to you. It was kind of 'either you could play or you couldn't,' in our day.

"If you couldn't hit, you couldn't hit. And you'd get released. Coaches work more with (the players) during the course of the season, with early workouts and all that. I think it's for the better."


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