In 1951, Bill Veeck let the fans manage the St. Louis Browns on Grandstand Managers Night
Just about every baseball fan has spent countless hours of his or her life imploring the manager of their favorite team to not make the wrong decision. Why is he leaving this pitcher in the game? Why weren't the infielders protecting against the bunt? Why would he tell that guy to steal second?
Sports talk radio dedicates entire programs to these second guesses and complaints -- but for one glorious night, baseball showman Bill Veeck turned this fantasy into a reality.
When Veeck bought the St. Louis Browns in the summer of 1951, there wasn't a whole lot to get excited about. The team had lost 90 or more games each of the previous four seasons, and was smack in the middle of a 102-loss campaign -- good for last place in the American League.
So upon taking over, he made some quick changes. He moved the team's offices to the first floor of Sportsman's Park, had his family live in the stadium, and held fireworks shows after every Browns' home game. On the field, meanwhile, he signed 44-year-old Satchel Paige to pitch and Crown Prince of Baseball Max Patkin to coach first base. In mid-August, he even signed the 3-foot-7 Eddie Gaedel, who went on to make one plate appearance in his career -- a walk -- before being banned from baseball.
But not even the world's smallest baseball player could top Veeck's greatest trick in his first partial season with the Browns: Grandstand Managers Night.
On Aug. 15, 1951, an ad appeared in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat informing readers that they -- yes, every one of them -- could help manage the Browns when they took on the Philadelphia Athletics on Aug. 24th. All they had to do was submit their contact info, their proposed starting lineup and, if they wished to be one of the on-field managers, a brief letter of interest. As you might imagine, demand was off the charts:
After sifting through over 4,000 letters, Veeck selected Clark Mitze and Charles E. Hughes to replace manager Zack Taylor for the evening. The pair's role was to propose yes-or-no managerial questions to the grandstand managers to decide upon. In honor of their selection as managers, Hughes and Mitze got to share a dugout with a particularly leisurely Taylor.
While the fans did not get to vote on the starting pitcher for the game, they had to make an early decision in that regard. Ned Garver -- who would go on to win 20 games for St. Louis that year -- got the start, but quickly gave up three runs in the top of the first inning.
And thus, the Grandstand Managers faced their very first dilemma: Should the Browns pull Garver from the game?
Despite a four-hit, three-run first inning from the Athletics that included a home run from left fielder Gus Zernial, the fans voted to keep Garver in the game. That proved to be a smart decision: He only gave up three more hits the rest of the game and, more importantly, held the Athletics scoreless for the next eight innings of a complete game.
While Garver settled in, St. Louis' fan-generated lineup took over. In the bottom of the third, catcher Sherm Lollar launched a game-tying three-run homer. Lollar's presence in the lineup was another fan-inspired move: He typically backed up Matt Batts in Taylor's normal lineup, but the Grandstand Managers voted to start him. The fans also voted to start backup Hank Arft at first base over Ben Taylor -- and, naturally, the two combined to go 4-for-8 with four RBIs.
The Browns won, 5-3, thanks in large part to Garver and the Grandstand Managers, and after the game, Veeck thanked the fans for their help with a fireworks display that read, "Thanks GS managers for a swell job, Zack manages tomorrow."
So, just how did the managers do? In his autobiography, Veeck -- As in Wreck, the Browns owner wrote of the Grandstand Managers' performance, "Never has a game been called better." And, though Veeck was certainly prone to hyperbole, he had a point: The managers correctly decided to leave Garver in the game, and they even voted to play back for a double play with runners on first and third with one out in the first inning -- while Athletics second baseman Pete Suter obliged by grounding into a double play.
The Grandstand Managers only made one glaring mistake in the game. After tying the game with a single in the first inning, the group instructed Arft to steal second base with two outs. Unfortunately, the Athletics apparently saw the move coming, and Arft was thrown out easily to end the inning.
With the success of Veeck's Grandstand Managers Night in 1951, it is a wonder that no one has tried it since. With social media, one would imagine fans could more easily manage a game through a series of Twitter polls or even handheld devices in the stands. On the 66-year anniversary of Veeck's innovative promotion, perhaps some enterprising team will propose a Grandstand Managers Night for the 21st Century.