Pirates' Top 5 managers: Berry's take

June 16th, 2020

No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, we asked each of our beat reporters to rank the top five players by position in the history of their franchise, based on their career while playing for that club. These rankings are for fun and debate purposes only.

Pirates' All-Time Team: C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | LF | CF | RF | UTL | RH SP | LH SP | RP

An all-time team needs an all-time manager, so here is Adam Berry’s ranking of the top 5 managers in Pirates history.

1. Danny Murtaugh, 1957-64; '67; '70-71; '73-76
Key fact: Only Pirates manager to win multiple World Series

Only two Pirates managers have their numbers retired: Billy Meyer, despite his 317-452 record in Pittsburgh, and the highly deserving Murtaugh. There’s a reason nobody will wear his No. 40 again.

Murtaugh managed the Pirates for 15 seasons over four separate stints from 1957-76 and guided them to World Series victories in '60 and ’71. He ranks second all-time in Pirates managerial wins, with a 1,115-950 record. Under his watch, the Pirates had the National League’s best record in 1960 and won the NL East in 1970, ’71, ’74 and ’75. He also wrote out a historic lineup on Sept. 1, 1971, when the Pirates fielded the first all-black starting lineup in Major League history.

Murtaugh was named the Sporting News Manager of the Year in 1960 and ’70. He led the Pirates to the 1960 World Series championship over the favored Yankees, and he guided them to victory over the Orioles in ’71 after they fell behind, 2-0, in the World Series. After Game 2, Murtaugh boldly (and correctly) proclaimed, “You haven’t seen the real Pirates yet.”

Murtaugh may not have been a nationally famous manager like Earl Weaver or Casey Stengel, both of whom he beat in the World Series, and he barely received any attention from Hall of Fame voters after he retired. But he was a winner.

2. Fred Clarke, 1900-15
Key fact: Pirates’ all-time leader in managerial wins (1,422) and winning percentage (.595)

While ranking the top five Pirates at every position, we tried to avoid putting one player on multiple lists. But we simply can’t ignore Clarke here: One of Pittsburgh’s best left fielders ever was also one of the club’s best managers of all time.

No Pirates manager has won more games than Clarke, and no one who’s managed more than five games for Pittsburgh has a better winning percentage than the .595 mark he put together.

Assuming the role of player-manager at just 27 years old, Clarke was at the helm for four of the Pirates’ nine pennant-winning seasons: 1901, ’02, ’03 and ‘09. With Hall of Fame shortstop Honus Wagner as his teammate and star player, Clarke led the Bucs to victory over the Tigers in the 1909 World Series.

While Wagner was the team’s superstar, Clarke the player also contributed to much of Clarke the manager’s success. From 1900-11, the Hall of Famer hit .300 with 237 doubles, 156 triples, 33 homers, 622 RBIs and 261 stolen bases.

3. Chuck Tanner, 1977-85
Key fact: Beloved skipper led the Pirates to victory in the 1979 World Series

Succeeding Murtaugh was a tall order, but the Pirates found the right man in Tanner, an endearingly optimistic native of New Castle, Pa. Pittsburgh acquired Tanner from Oakland in November 1976 for $100,000 and Manny Sanguillen, who wound up returning to the Pirates in '78 and playing for their World Series-winning team in ‘79.

Over the next nine years, Tanner went on to put together a 711-685 record, giving him the fifth-highest wins total in franchise history. He was regarded as popular with his players, always optimistic and fiercely loyal to the Pirates. His managerial career in Pittsburgh peaked in 1979, when he led the Bucs to their most recent championship.

Willie Stargell was the spiritual leader of that team, and Dave Parker was undoubtedly their best player, but it was Tanner who brought together a roster full of big personalities -- a group that fittingly adopted “We Are Family” as their theme song -- and encouraged his stars to be aggressive on the field. Those Pirates won 98 games, swept the Reds in the NL Championship Series and overcame a 3-1 deficit to beat the Orioles in the World Series.

4. Jim Leyland, 1986-96
Key fact: Two-time NL Manager of the Year led the Pirates to three straight NL East titles

Leyland reached the highest levels of success in Miami (1997 World Series) and Detroit (two American League pennants), but he established himself over a decade in Pittsburgh. He ranks third on the Pirates’ all-time managerial wins list, and his overall losing record with Pittsburgh (851-863) is primarily the product of the club’s mid-1990s roster teardown.

Leyland brought together a group of young stars and led them to three consecutive NL Championship Series appearances from 1990-92, winning a pair of NL Manager of the Year Awards during that stretch. Leyland’s Bucs won 95 games in '90, 98 in ’91 and 96 in ’92 but ultimately came up short in the postseason.

Still, Leyland guided the Pirates to their first division titles since 1979 and helped a young Barry Bonds grow into a superstar. The two famously clashed in one early ‘90s Spring Training blowup caught on video, but they’ve shown great respect for each other since then. In 2018, Leyland called Bonds one of the greatest Pirates of all time and “without question … the best player I ever managed in my 22 years as a Major League skipper.”

“I ended up with the right guy for me,” Bonds told MLB Network in 2017. “It’s hard to explain when you get that lucky as a young ballplayer to have such a great manager -- to really have someone that believed in you, that believed in you as a player and believed in you as a person, never judged you -- and that was the type of person I needed.”

5. Clint Hurdle, 2011-19
Key fact: 2013 NL Manager of the Year ended Pittsburgh’s 20-year losing streak

When the Pirates hired Hurdle in November 2010, the idea of him leading the team back to the postseason might have seemed laughable. The Bucs hadn’t experienced so much as a winning season since 1992, so there was little reason for anyone in Pittsburgh to have a positive outlook for their future.

But Hurdle was the right man at the right time. With his booming voice and hard-earned wisdom, the relentlessly optimistic manager steered the Pirates through a strong first half in 2011 and ’12, although second-half collapses extended their losing streak to 20 seasons. Then, finally, it all came together in 2013. An old-school baseball lifer willing to adopt new-school strategies, Hurdle led the Pirates to the postseason three years in a row. The front office appreciated his adaptability, and players fed off his confidence.

“It starts with him,” Andrew McCutchen said in 2015. “It starts with what he believes in, then us buying into what he believes in, then us being a whole as a team -- all one family -- then going out there and performing.”

Not everything worked out, of course. They never won the NL Central or advanced past the NL Division Series under Hurdle, and he was dismissed after a disastrous 2019 season on and off the field. But Hurdle helped bring postseason baseball back to Pittsburgh, and he ranks fourth on the Pirates’ all-time wins list with 735, behind only Clarke, Murtaugh and Leyland.

Honorable mention: Bill McKechnie, 1922-26
McKechnie did two things the last two men on the list never did: win a pennant and win a World Series with the Pirates. He led the Pirates to a championship in 1925, his third full season as Pittsburgh’s manager, and he left Pittsburgh with a 409-293 record. He did not return after the 1926 season, however, as he lost control of the clubhouse during what’s known as the “ABC Affair” -- a conflict centered around Clarke that led to the dismissal of veteran players Babe Adams, Carson Bigbee and Max Carey.

McKechnie’s career included stops in St. Louis, a long run in Boston and a stint in Cincinnati that included two more pennants (1939, ’40) and another World Series title (’40) before he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1962. Younger fans might recognize his name without knowing the club’s history, as the Pirates’ Spring Training home was long known as McKechnie Field before it was rebranded as LECOM Park.