2022 Golden Days Era Committee Candidate: Danny Murtaugh

The following article is part of a series concerning the 2022 Golden Days Era Committee ballot, covering managers and long-retired players whose candidacies will be voted upon on December 5. For an introduction to this year’s ballot, see here, and for an introduction to JAWS, see here. Several profiles in this series are adapted from work previously published at SI.com, Baseball Prospectus, and Futility Infielder. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

Danny Murtaugh

2022 Golden Era Candidate: Danny Murtaugh
Manager G W-L W-L% G>.500 Playoffs Pennants WS
Danny Murtaugh 2068 1115-950 .540 165 5 2 2
AVG HOF Mgr 3648 1961-1687 .546 274 7 5 2.6
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

“Danny was just a flat-out good manager. He knew the game, he made decisions with guts, he was a fine evaluator of talent, and a good teacher. He had rapport with players, old and young alike, and just about anybody else he came across. his death took some of the sunshine out of the baseball scene, because he would have been a pressroom star among the scouts for twenty more years if he had lived.” — Leonard Koppett, The Man in the Dugout, 1993.

Danny Murtaugh is one of just 22 managers to win multiple AL-NL World Series, only four of whom finished with a career winning percentage of .500 or better and aren’t already in the Hall of Fame. As the manager of the Pirates for 12 full seasons and three partial ones from 1957 to ’76, he gained a reputation as a players’ manager: laid back in appearance but stern, good at unifying divided clubhouses and at overseeing the development of younger players. Hall of Famer Willie Stargell, who debuted with the team under Murtaugh in September 1962 and then had his ups and downs the following season, called him “the perfect manager” for a rookie breaking in, due to his patience.

Murtaugh oversaw substantial portions of the careers of Stargell and fellow Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente and Bill Mazeroski. The latter’s walk-off home run agains the Yankees in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series gave him his first championship, and the one-two punch of Clemente and Stargell helped him win his second in 1971. Additionally, Murtaugh managed the Pirates to three more division titles and a total of five seasons of 92 wins or better.

Ongoing health problems led to his on-again, off-again role as Pittsburgh’s manager. He served four separate stints in the dugout, the most with a single team this side of Billy Martin and the Yankees, albeit with far less drama. Each time he stepped away, general manager Joe L. Brown — who shares responsibility for the Pirates’ success during this era — retained him via a scouting or front office role with the team. Murtaugh once said, “Managing a ballclub is like getting malaria. Once you’re bitten by the bug, it’s difficult to get it out of your bloodstream.” Just two months after stepping down following the 1976 season, he suffered a stroke and died at age 59.

Murtaugh was born on October 8, 1917, in a working class Irish neighborhood in Chester, Pennsylvania, a city about halfway between Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware. As a youngster, he played baseball, basketball, football, and soccer; he declined a football scholarship to Villanova University because he couldn’t afford textbooks or transportation. Instead, he went to work with his father at the Sun Shipbuilding & Drydock Company and played semiprofessional baseball until 1937, when he signed with the St. Louis Cardinals; he actually took a pay cut to do so.

Murtaugh began his career with the Cambridge (Maryland) Cardinals, one of 14 Class-D affiliates in a massive Branch Rickey-built farm system. The 5-foot-9, 165-pound infielder spent five years in their chain, playing second base, shortstop, and third base, and topped a .300 batting average twice but never hit more than three homers in a season. On June 28, 1941, while in the midst of his second season with the Houston Buffaloes, one of the Cardinals’ higher-level affiliates, he was sold to the basement-dwelling Phillies, who were en route to a franchise-record 111 losses. The 23-year-old Murtaugh took over the starting second base job but hit just .219/.275/.248, though he led the NL in both stolen bases (18) and caught stealing (13).

Murtaugh’s play improved, as did the Phillies; in 1943, he hit .273/.357/.335 (105 OPS+) for a team that went 64–90 and finished seventh, Philadelphia’s only season out of the NL basement during the 1938–45 span. Late in the 1943 season, he was inducted into the Army, and he spent the next two years in the infantry, seeing significant battle action in Europe and then being transferred to the occupation forces in Japan. Upon returning, he played just six games for the Phillies before being sold back to the Cardinals and playing the rest of the 1946 season at Triple-A Rochester. He was chosen by the Braves in the Rule 5 draft that December, though he spent all but three games of the ’47 season at Triple-A Milwaukee.

On November 18, 1947, Murtaugh was traded to the Pirates in a five-player deal. He had his best major league season in 1948, hitting for a 94 OPS+ with 3.6 WAR and even placing ninth in the NL MVP voting. But injuries prevented him from building upon that season; he played in just 270 games over three more years, the best of them (1950) interrupted by a skull fracture from a Sal Maglie pitch.

After Murtaugh’s dismal 1951 season, Rickey, who had moved from the Cardinals to the Dodgers to the Pirates, offered him a job as the player-manager of the Double-A New Orleans Pelicans. Murtaugh spent three seasons there, plus another at Triple-A Charleston (West Virginia), before Brown, who succeeded Rickey after the 1955 season, offered him a job as a coach for the Pirates for ’56, during which the team went 66–88, its eighth straight losing campaign. About two-thirds of the way through the 1957 season, Brown fired manager Bobby Bragan; after coach Clyde Sukeforth passed on the job, he promoted the 39-year-old Murtaugh to interim manager. The team’s 26–25 record the rest of the way impressed Brown enough to remove the interim tag.

In 1958, Murtaugh piloted the Pirates to an 84–70 record, their first winning season in a decade. The 21-year-old Mazeroski and 26-year-old left fielder Bob Skinner made their first All-Star teams, 25-year-old rookie Dick Stuart hit 16 homers in only 67 games, and pitcher Roy Face, whom Murtaugh had converted to a relief role at New Orleans, emerged as a valuable bullpen piece with a league-leading 20 saves. Both the Associated Press and United Press International voted Murtaugh Manager of the Year, the former covering both leagues, the latter just the NL.

“Quietly and patiently, [Murtaugh] soothed the troubled waters left in the wake of the volatile Bobby Bragan,” wrote Sports Illustrated’s Roy Terrell in the March 16, 1959 issue. “With Danny, if a young player made a mistake, it was not the end of the world, it was just a mistake; go out and do better next time. If a player did well, he was told so. If he needed work on some deficiency, he was encouraged to work and given the opportunity.”

“I suddenly felt as if an elephant had just climbed down off my shoulders,” Mazeroski told SI.

The Pirates slipped to 78–76 in 1959, but with the 25-year-old Clemente breaking out to earn All-Star honors for the first time and Vern Law putting together a Cy Young-wining season, Pittsburgh took over a share of first place on May 29 in ’60 and never left the top spot, winning the pennant by seven games with a 95–59 record. Though the Pirates were on the wrong end of three lopsided games in the World Series against the Yankees, they won four close ones, three of them started by Law. In the see-saw Game 7, they took an early 4–0 lead, allowed seven runs in the fifth through eighth innings as Law and Face faltered, and climbed back on top by rallying for five eighth-inning runs. The Yankees tied the game in the top of the ninth, but in the bottom of the frame, Mazeroski hit Ralph Terry’s second pitch over the left field wall, delivering the Pirates their first championship since 1925.

Again Murtaugh was the AP Manager of the Year (this time, it was given out in each league), but the award and the championship turned out to be tough acts to follow. The Pirates finished below .500 in three of the next four seasons, with a 93–68, fourth-place finish in 1962 the only positive showing. Murtaugh, who in the spring of 1962 was hospitalized for a few days due to a heart condition, resigned at the end of the ’64 season, citing health concerns including bouts of chest pains, as well as the pressures of the job. He remained employed by the team, working as a scout and advisor to Brown. “Scouting is the golf tour of baseball,” he said. “Easy traveling, out in the sun, real enjoyable.”

Over the next five seasons, Murtaugh stayed away from the dugout save for the second half of 1967, when he guided the team to a 39–39 record after Harry Walker, who had previously helmed seasons of 90 and 92 wins, was fired. The move was only intended to be temporary; Brown named Murtaugh director of player acquisition and development at season’s end, and soon hired Larry Shepard, then the Phillies’ pitching coach but previously the Pirates’ Triple-A manager, to take the reins. Shepard lasted just two seasons, though in the second one the Pirates won 88 games. After meeting with Brown to discuss potential successors, Murtaugh put himself up as a candidate and was offered the job so long as his wife and doctor were on board (they were).

Now playing in the NL East and, as of July 16, Three Rivers Stadium instead of Forbes Field, the Pirates went 89–73 and won the division in 1970, with Clemente, Stargell, catcher Manny Sanguillen, and first baseman Bob Robertson all having big seasons — when they were available. Murtaugh had to manage around numerous injuries.

On that subject, Murtaugh had clashed with Clemente during his previous stints, believing his star to be a hypochondriac, a prevalent notion during the Hall of Famer’s career given that he rarely suffered in silence. Murtaugh conceded that the two hadn’t been “bosom buddies” in the past “but never have our clashes of personality affected Clemente’s playing at all,” he told a television reporter in 1970. Murtaugh pointed out that on his watch, the great right fielder had won three batting titles, adding, “I’ve been trying to figure out a way to get eight other guys mad at me so we can possibly have eight more batting champions.”

Elsewhere, Murtaugh said of Clemente, “He’s the best ballplayer I’ve ever seen. I’m old enough and I think smart enough to get along with anybody on our ballclub — especially if he’s a .350 hitter.” Clemente hit 352/.407/.556 in 108 games that year. As Bruce Markesun, author of The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, wrote:

[B]y the end of the 1970 season, Murtaugh and Clemente had developed a peaceful coexistence. Though still not close friends, the two men came to understand each other’s importance. Murtaugh recognized Clemente as the leader of the clubhouse, a realization that made the manager’s job easier. He began to confide in Clemente, knowing that Roberto could pass along important messages to the rest of the players.

In the 1970 NLCS, the Pirates were swept by the 102-win Reds, but the following year, a stronger Pittsburgh team won 97 games and another NL East title. Murtaugh, however, was not stronger, missing over two weeks in late May and early June due to chest pains.

On September 1, 1971, Murtaugh and the Pirates made history, as they fielded an all-Black or all-minority lineup for the first time in the AL or NL annals:

Pirates’ All-Black Lineup, September 1, 1970
# Player Pos
1 Rennie Stennett 2B
2 Gene Clines CF
3 Roberto Clemente RF
4 Willie Stargell LF
5 Manny Sanguillén C
6 Dave Cash 3B
7 Al Oliver 1B
8 Jackie Hernández SS
9 Dock Ellis P
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

While Ellis struggled early, getting charged with five runs while recording only four outs, the Pirates went 6-for-7 against Phillies starter Woodie Fryman, plating five first-inning runs, taking an 8–6 lead after two innings, and winning 10–7.

“When it comes to making out the lineup, I’m colorblind,” Murtaugh told reporters afterwards. “And my athletes know it. They don’t know it because I told them, but they know it because they’re familiar with the way I operate. The best men in our organization are the ones who are here. And the ones who are here all play, depending on when the circumstances present themselves.”

Interestingly enough, Murtaugh had actually tried to field an all-minority lineup during his first stint with Pittsburgh. In 1964, as they headed north from spring training in Florida, the Pirates and Phillies played an exhibition game in Asheville, North Carolina, and Murtaugh wrote out a lineup without a single white player. Before the game, the manager got into a confrontation with a representative from the local Chamber of Commerce. As Dick Allen, then a rookie with the Phillies, later recounted, “I can still see tobacco juice flyin’ out of Danny’s mouth and goin’ all over this guy’s shirt. What Danny had done was, he’d penciled in an all-minority lineup. And the guy from the Chamber of Commerce was out there to tell him he couldn’t do that.”

In that instance, Murtaugh bowed to the pressure by starting Mazeroski but gave him just one plate appearance; history would have to wait. Still, the team’s success during the 1960s and ’70s owed a whole lot to Brown’s willingness to sign Black and Hispanic players and Murtaugh’s ability to manage them. Clemente, Stargell, Sanguillen, Oliver, Cash, Ellis, and later Dave Parker and John Candelaria all had their first sustained major league success under the manager.

The 1971 Pirates won the NL East by seven games, then beat the Giants in a four-game NLCS. Facing the defending champion Orioles in the World Series, they dropped the first two games in Baltimore, won three straight in Pittsburgh, and missed a chance to clinch as the Orioles chipped away at a 2–0 lead in Game 6 and eventually won in 10 innings. With Steve Blass spinning a complete-game four-hitter, Clemente hitting a solo homer to drive in the first of Pittsburgh’s two runs, and Stargell, who had been moved down to sixth in the order, singling and coming around to score the second run, the Pirates won Game 7, 2–1. Clemente, who hit .414/.452/.759 for the series, was its MVP. Murtaugh again was the AP NL Manager of the Year.

Again citing health concerns, Murtaugh stepped down from managing to return to a scouting role, with hitting coach Bill Virdon taking over as manager. The team won 96 games and the NL East in 1972, but after the season, on December 31, Clemente was killed in a plane crash while delivering humanitarian aid to earthquake-stricken Nicaragua. Even with rookie right fielder Richie Zisk playing well while filling Clemente’s spot in the lineup, the team was just 67–69 when Brown asked Murtaugh to return to managing, health and family permitting; rumors that the Astros sought to hire him may have spurred the move.

The Pirates were three games behind the Cardinals in the NL East when Murtaugh took over, and they actually moved into first place with just a 71–71 record on September 12; they occupied that spot until September 20, when a four-game losing streak against the Mets knocked them back. They were still just half a game behind the Mets with five games to go but went 1–4 and finished 80–82, 2 1/2 games behind the 83–78 Mets in the NL East. Had the move been made sooner, it’s not impossible that the Pirates could have overtaken them.

Murtaugh’s squad won 88 games and another NL East title in 1974 but fell to the 102-win Dodgers in the NLCS. With Parker emerging as a star in 1975, the team went 92–69 but was swept by the 108-win Reds in the NLCS. The Pirates won 92 games again the following year but finished second as the Phillies took the division with 101 wins. Near the end of the season, Murtaugh again announced his retirement, just days after Brown had done the same. Noting that he’d beeen ill “more times than anybody realized,” the manager again cited health as the main reason for stepping down, adding, “I think it’s time for a younger man to take over. The Pirates’ failure to win this year didn’t influence my decision.”

Murtaugh planned to spend time with family, including his five grandchildren, as well as doing some scouting for the Pirates. But just two months after retiring, he was felled by a stroke. The Pirates, who had already traded Sanguillen and $100,000 to Oakland for the right to hire Chuck Tanner to manage, retired Murtaugh’s no. 40 jersey on Opening Day of the 1977 season.

Via the research of Graham Womack, it took two decades after his death for Murtaugh to draw serious consideration for the Hall of Fame; not until 1996 was he considered by the Veterans Committee, which elected Earl Weaver, his counterpart in the ’71 World Series. He received “strong consideration” two years later but didn’t make the cut for another ballot until 2008, when he polled 37.5% on the VC’s managers and umpires ballot, on which Billy Southworth and Dick Williams were elected. Two years later, he received 50% of the vote when Whitey Herzog and umpire Doug Harvey were elected. This is his first appearance on an Era Committee ballot.

Murtaugh’s strongest claim on election, as noted above, is his two World Series wins, making him one of just 22 managers with such a claim. Beyond him, six of those managers are outside the Hall: Bruce Bochy, Bill Carrigan, Terry Francona, Cito Gaston, Ralph Houk, and Tom Kelly. Bochy, the only one of the group to win three championships, will probably be elected next year via the Today’s Game ballot despite a career winning percentage of .497, weighted down by a long stretch of dismal Padres teams. Francona, with a .540 winning percentage, an additional pennant, and a total of 10 playoff appearances, is almost certainly headed in that direction once he retires. Carrigan, who won two with the Red Sox in 1915 and ’16 but managed only seven seasons, and Kelly, who won with the Twins in 1987 and ’91, both finished with career winning percentages below .500.

That leaves Houk and Gaston. The former, with a .514 winning percentage, inherited the Yankees team felled by Mazeroski, one that had just won five pennants and three championships in Casey Stengel’s final six seasons. Houk won back-to-back World Series in 1961 and ’62, plus a pennant in ’63, but he never returned to the playoffs in 17 additional seasons as manager. Gaston, with a .516 winning percentage, led the Blue Jays to four AL East titles and back-to-back World Series wins in 1992 and ’93 but managed just eight full seasons and four partial ones, though in one of the latter, he missed 33 games due to back surgery, returning in time to guide Toronto to the playoffs.

Leaving Francona out of this because he’s still going, Murtaugh’s .540 winning percentage is higher than any of the eligible two-time winners, and despite a career consisting of only 2,068 regular-season games, his 165 games above .500 is the highest of the group as well. The problem is that managers with careers of his length are mostly outside the Hall. Of the 22 elected for their managerial careers, only Southworth has fewer games (1,770), and he has a .597 winning percentage (340 games above .500), four pennants and two championships. The next-closest Hall of Fame manager is Frank Selee, who led the Boston Beaneaters to five pennants in the 1890s. He managed for 2,180 games with a .598 winning percentage and 22 games above .500. Murtaugh doesn’t measure up to either.

That said, Murtaugh’s 165 games above .500 are more than Hall of Famers Tommy Lasorda (160), Herzog (156), Ned Hanlon (149), Clark Griffith (124), and Williams (120). Lasorda and Williams both won two World Series plus two additional pennants, Herzog one World Series plus two additional pennants, Hanlon five pennants in the 1890s, and Griffith, who has additional credentials as a very good pitcher and executive, just one pennant. Murtaugh isn’t out of place among that group, even with his short career. While his credentials would have been bolstered by another pennant, it should count for something that his teams were underdogs in both World Series he won; in fact, only in the 1971 NLCS against the Giants did the Pirates have more regular-season wins than their opponents.

I don’t think he’s anything close to a slam-dunk, but Murtaugh’s credentials fit in solidly with those of Hall of Fame managers. He was pretty consistently successful, particularly during his third and fourth stints, when his teams won at a .564 clip (91 wins per 162 games) and captured four division titles plus a second-place finish in his five full seasons. He might well have added at least one more division title in that stretch given that Virdon won in 1972, and it’s not out of the question that Murtaugh’s Pirates could have won the NL East in ’73 had the move to replace Virdon been made earlier, though they did have their shot even with his late return, and it slipped away. The team did continue to contend after Murtaugh’s final retirement and death, winning 96 games in 1977 and ’78 plus another World Series in ’79, with Stargell, Sanguillen (who was traded back in early ’78), and Bruce Kison, who threw 11 shutout innings in the ’71 postseason, all still on board. But while it’s compelling to wonder how much more success Murtaugh might have had if he’d been healthy enough to stay in the dugout, this isn’t a Gil Hodges case, where one crowning achievement as manager is accompanied by a tragic early demise and a whole lot of what-ifs. (Leaving aside, that is, that Hodges was a far better player than Murtaugh, putting his Hall of Fame case in a different realm, where managing is a bonus atop his playing career.)

If I had a ballot, I’d tab Murtaugh over Hodges on the strength of his managerial work — the wins and the player development, which is an important facet of his legacy — and slot him alongside Minnie Miñoso, Dick Allen, and Ken Boyer to fill out my Golden Era ballot. With so many compelling candidates, including the still-living near-misses Tony Oliva and Jim Kaat, I would not be at all surprised if Murtaugh gets lost in the shuffle when the committee votes on December 5, but I think he deserves a plaque in Cooperstown.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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2 years ago

Thanks Jay! I hope Meg will at least give you time for a nap between writing up the era committee ballots and the BBWAA ballots.