By Glen Sparks
Well, why not Lou Boudreau?
The Cleveland Indians needed a manager. Team owner Alva Bradley fired skipper Oscar Vitt following the 1940 season, hired Roger Peckinpaugh to replace him and then moved Peckinpaugh to a front-office job after the ’41 campaign.
Boudreau, born July 17, 1917, was 24 years old in the winter of 1941-42 and Cleveland’s star shortstop. He had already made two All-Star teams. Boudreau batted .295 (.370 on-base percentage) in 1940 and drove in 101 runs. His batting average dropped to .257 (.355 on-base) in 1941, but he still led the league in doubles with 45.
The Harvey, Ill., native thought about it. So what if he would be the youngest manager in major-league history. “Why not me?” he said to himself, according to Baseball’s Most Valuable Players by George Vescey.
Boudreau was a leader, a natural. At age 13 he helped coach his grammar school basketball team. A few years later, the guard led Thornton High School in suburban Chicago to the Illinois state championship. Boudreau played baseball and basketball at the University of Illinois.
Boudreau called Bradley. “Why not me?” Bradley, shocked, mulled it over. On the one hand, Boudreau had never managed in the majors. Would the players respect a 24-year-old skipper? And how would the pressure of managing a team affect Boudreau’s play in the field? No, this might not be a good idea.
A golf game with 83-year-old George Martin, a member of the Indians’ board of directors, went a long way in changing Bradley’s mind. Heck, Martin said, Lou is the team leader right now. Why not just give him the job. He can do it, Martin insisted.
Bradley called Boudreau. Get on the next train, the owner said. The Indians hired the man who was quickly tabbed by reporters as “The Boy Wonder.”
And, it nearly didn’t work out. Cleveland stumbled to a 75-79 mark in 1942, the same record as in 1941. In both years, the Indians ended the campaign in fourth place. Boudreau led the team to a third-place finish in 1943 (82-71), but saw his squad fall to sixth place in 1944 (72-82), followed by a fifth-place showing the next year (73-72). Cleveland bottomed out at 68-86 in 1946, tumbling to sixth place, 36 games out of first.
The team rebounded in 1947 with an 80-74 won-loss record. Even so, owner Bill Veeck, who bought the Indians from Bradley in ’46, thought about making a change in the dugout.
Veeck loved Boudreau the shortstop. What was not to love? Lou made the All-Star team from 1942-44. He led the league in batting with a .327 mark in ’44 and followed that with .307, .293 and .307 marks from 1945-47. He made the All-Star team again in ’47 and topped the A.L. in doubles for a third time. From 1940-47, Boudreau finished in the top 10 in MVP voting every year but ’41.
Veeck just wasn’t sure about Boudreau the manager. He told Boudreau exactly that. The player-skipper went into 1948 on the hot seat.
Fortunately, the Indians responded. Both Bob Lemon and Gene Beardon won 20 games, while Bob Feller won 19. Satchell Paige, the Negro League legend and a major-league rookie at the age of 42, debuted with Cleveland on July 9 and helped out with a 6-1 won-loss record and 2.48 ERA in 72.2 innings. Joe Gordon (32 HR, 124 RBI), Ken Keltner (31 HR, 119 RBI) and Larry Doby (.301 BA, 14 HR, 66 RBI) battered A.L. pitching. Boudreau enjoyed the biggest year of all. He hit .355 (.453 on-base, .534 slugging, .987 OPS) with 18 HR and 106 RBI. Writers voted him the A.L. MVP. Cleveland won its first pennant since 1920, finishing at 97-58, one game better than the runner-up Boston Red Sox.
”It was quite a year,” Boudreau recalled, according to The New York Times. ”The pressure kept building and building, until I thought we’d all burst.”
The Indians went on to beat the Boston Braves in six games in the World Series. It was the high point of Boudreau’s managerial career. The skipper led Cleveland for two more seasons and managed the Boston Red Sox (1952-54), Kansas City Athletics (1955-57) and Chicago Cubs (1960) after that. None of his other teams advanced to the playoffs.
He gained some fame, of course, for implementing the Boudreau shift against Red Sox slugger Ted Williams. Boudreau placed all four infielders between first base and second base and moved his center fielder into right field against the left-handed hitter. Williams, always stubborn, kept pulling the ball. “The shift hurt me,” Williams said, according to The New York Times.
Handsome Lou, as some called him, retired as a player in 1952. He was just 34 years old. Boudreau batted .295 lifetime with a .380 on-base percentage. He hit 68 home runs and drove in 789 with a career OPS+ of 120.
The former Wonder Boy spent many years as a broadcaster with the Chicago Cubs. One of his daughters married pitcher and bad boy Denny McLain, baseball’s last 30-game winner. The baseball writers voted Boudreau into the Hall of Fame in 1970. He died in 2001 at the age of 84.