Leyland, postseason manager extraordinaire, elected to Hall

December 4th, 2023

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- With his gray hair and mustache, his crusty countenance and his penchant for sneaking cigarettes during games, Jim Leyland long looked the part of the venerable, veteran skipper. But he also played the part well, racking up the 18th-highest win total in history, eight postseason appearances, three league pennants, a World Series championship with the 1997 Marlins and three Manager of the Year honors.

Now, Leyland, one of the game’s more beloved and respected leaders, will have his indelible image on a National Baseball Hall of Fame plaque next summer.

Leyland was the lone person elected to the Hall by the Contemporary Baseball Era Non-Players Committee on Sunday.

"It's the highest honor you can get in our business,” said Leyland, “and I'm just thrilled, excited, surprised, flattered. All those words come into play when you're thinking about this."

The vote, which was held at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center as part of MLB’s Winter Meetings and announced on MLB Network, was the result of a recently restructured ballot system in which manager, umpire and executive candidates are no longer lumped together with their player counterparts in the election cycle, thereby creating better opportunity for their induction.

Candidates for the “Contemporary Era” are defined as those whose greatest impact came from 1980 to the present. Leyland was on an eight-member ballot that also featured managers Cito Gaston, Davey Johnson and Lou Piniella; umpires Ed Montague and Joe West; and executives Hank Peters and Bill White. Election to the Hall required 75%, or votes from at least 12 of the 16 committee members.

Leyland was named on 15 of 16 ballots. Piniella, named on 11 ballots, missed the cut by just one vote for the second time in the small-committee process (also on the Today’s Game Era Committee ballot in 2019). White received 10 votes, and Gaston, Johnson, Montague, Peters and West each received fewer than five votes.

The Hall’s induction ceremony is set for July 21, 2024, in Cooperstown, N.Y. The results of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot will be announced Jan. 23.

This marked the first time a manager was elected to the Hall since December 2013, when Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa and Joe Torre were all unanimously chosen.

“I had a few tears,” Leyland said of his election. “My son was with me upstairs. I went up to actually lie on the bed because I didn't get the call until about 10 minutes to 7, and they told us it'd be between 6:30 and 7:15. But I thought when I didn't get it by a quarter to 7, it wasn't gonna happen. So I went up to just kind of rest a minute and get my thoughts together and when my son came up, the phone rang. And it was the Hall of Fame. I couldn't believe it.”

A favorite of reporters and players alike because of the big heart and quick wit residing behind that gruff exterior, Leyland went a combined 1,769-1,728 across 22 seasons in the dugout. He won three division titles with the Barry Bonds-led Pirates of 1990-92, helped orchestrate the upstart Marlins’ surprising surge to October glory in 1997 and, after a sour single season in Colorado and six years on the shelf, helped bring championship-caliber baseball back to the Motor City with an eight-season run with the Tigers that included AL pennants in 2006 and 2012. Even after his retirement from the Major League dugout, Leyland kept winning. He was at the helm for Team USA’s first World Baseball Classic title in 2017.

Following seven seasons as a backup catcher in the Tigers’ system from 1964-70, Leyland – a native of Toledo, Ohio – paid his managerial dues with 11 seasons as a skipper in Detroit’s system before his friend La Russa brought him to the big leagues as a third-base coach with the White Sox in 1982. Four seasons later, Leyland was selected as manager of the Pirates – a role he filled from 1986-96.

“I was just a Minor League manager, and I never really thought I was ever gonna get that opportunity later on in my career,” Leyland said. “When I got to Triple-A, I thought I might have a chance to coach someday in the big leagues, but not manage. But yeah, it was 'Jim Who?' [newspaper headline] when I got here, and, you know, I'm still here. So at least people know me a little better than they did when I first got here.”

The Buccos ultimately came up short in three straight National League Championship Series, including a gut punch of a Game 7 against the Braves (known for Sid Bream’s slide home ahead of Bonds’ throw) in ‘92.

Frustrated with the club’s direction in the mid-‘90s, Leyland resigned to sign with Dave Dombrowski’s Marlins, guiding them to the NL Wild Card and an 11-inning, Game 7 triumph over Cleveland in his first season with the club in 1997. The Marlins’ roster was dismantled ahead of a 108-loss season in ’98, after which Leyland left to sign with the Rockies, but the high-scoring Coors Field environment frustrated him. He spent six years scouting for La Russa’s Cardinals before returning to the dugout – and his roots – with the Tigers, reuniting with Dombrowski on a club that reached the Series (falling to those Cardinals) in 2006 and, during Leyland’s tenure, featured likely future Hall of Famers Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera and Max Scherzer, among other stars.

“The Detroit Tigers have been led by incredibly successful managers since 1901, and Jim Leyland stands out among that group as the skipper for one of the best on-field stretches the Tigers ever experienced,” Tigers chairman and CEO Chris Ilitch said in a statement. “Jim has won a World Series and led teams to three league championships and managed his country’s best players to the United States’ first World Baseball Classic title.

"Those accomplishments, in addition to his mentorship of players off the field and gritty resolve in the dugout, cement Jim’s place among the few managers in baseball history who are bestowed this honor. We’re excited to witness Jim’s enshrinement in Cooperstown next July, and to celebrate him during the 2024 season at Comerica Park.”

Leyland, who turns 79 this month and has remained a special assistant to the Tigers, was ultimately able to win only that single World Series while managing in an era that featured multiple iterations of postseason expansion. His eight playoff appearances are tied for 10th all-time, and he’s one of just 10 managers to win a pennant in both leagues. As evidenced by this vote, he was widely regarded as the absolute best of his era.

“It's a final stop, really, as far as your baseball career goes,” said Leyland, “and to end up there, to land there in Cooperstown, it doesn't get any better than that. I mean, that's the ultimate. I certainly never thought it was gonna happen. Most people probably don't. But it did. And I'm sure I'm gonna enjoy it."