The Hall of Fame Calls for Jim Leyland

Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Jim Leyland is headed to Cooperstown. The 78-year-old former manager of the Pirates, Marlins, Rockies, and Tigers was the only candidate elected by the 2024 Contemporary Baseball Era Committee for Managers/Executives/Umpires, which met on Sunday at the Winter Meetings in Nashville to consider eight figures who made their greatest impact from 1980 to the present. In his first appearance on an Era Committee ballot, the 78-year-old former skipper received 15 of 16 votes (93.8%) from a panel of Hall of Famers, executives and media members/historians.

In a 22-year managerial career with Pittsburgh (1986–96), Florida (197–98), Colorado (1999) and Detroit (2006–13), Leyland led his teams to the playoffs eight times, winning a World Series with the Marlins in 1997, a pair of pennants with the Tigers in 2006 and ’12, and six division titles. He ranks 18th in career regular season wins (1,769) but was only 41 games above .500 for his career, with a .506 winning percentage; his record included some lean years with teams that had been torn down and weren’t likely to compete. When given the resources to do so by ownership, he was quite successful, guiding seven teams to at least 90 wins. He was a three-time Manager of the Year, winning the NL award with the Pirates in 1990 and ’92 and with the Tigers in 2006. He’s one of 10 managers to win pennants in both leagues and just the second to lead two teams to a World Series in his first year on the job; Bucky Harris was first, with the 1924 Senators and ’47 Yankees (h/t @AlmostCoop).

Leyland was his era’s archetype of an old-school manager. Prematurely gray, he went from looking ancient at the start of his career to actually being ancient, at least in baseball terms. Known for sneaking cigarettes between innings, he cut an indelible image in the dugout and in front of a microphone, where his dry wit made him a media favorite. Despite a gruff exterior and a knack for getting his money’s worth from umpires when the situation merited it, he earned a reputation as a players’ manager rather than an old-school hard-ass.

The Hall-appointed 16-member Era Committee consisted of Hall of Fame members Jeff Bagwell, Tom Glavine, Chipper Jones, Bud Selig, Ted Simmons, Jim Thome, and Joe Torre; major league executives Sandy Alderson, Bill DeWitt, Michael Hill, Ken Kendrick, Andy MacPhail and Phyllis Merhige; and media members/historians Sean Forman, Jack O’Connell, and Jesus Ortiz. Each member was allowed to vote for up to three candidates, making possible a total of 48 votes. To be elected, a candidate needed 75% of the vote (12 out of 16). Only two other candidates besides Leyland received votes whose totals were reported:

2024 Contemporary Baseball Era Committee
Managers/Executives/Umpires Voting Results
Candidate Category Votes %
Jim Leyland Manager 15 93.8%
Lou Piniella Manager 11 68.8%
Bill White Executive 10 62.5%
Cito Gaston Manager <5 <31.3%
Davey Johnson Manager <5 <31.3%
Hank Peters Executive <5 <31.3%
Ed Montague Umpire <5 <31.3%
Joe West Umpire <5 <31.3%
SOURCE: Baseball Hall of Fame

This was the second time in a row that the now-80-year-old Piniella fell one vote short, which regardless of the merits and/or shortcomings of his case has to be absolutely heartbreaking. He barely missed on the 2019 Today’s Game ballot on which Lee Smith and Harold Baines were elected. While Piniella had more wins and a higher winning percentage than Leyland (1,835 and .517, respectively) in his 23 seasons, most notably piloting the 2001 Mariners to a modern record with 116 wins, he was never able to lead a team back to the World Series after winning in 1990 with the Reds. In my analysis, I saw that as the main separator between him and Leyland; additionally, where Leyland won 44 postseason games in his eight playoff appearances (five in the Wild Card era), Piniella won just 23 games in seven postseason appearances, six of which were in the Wild Card era.

The staying power of both managers still put them ahead of Johnson and Gaston, who had significantly shorter careers. Like Piniella, Johnson never returned to the World Series after winning his first title, with the Mets in 1986, while Gaston, the only one of the four managerial candidates to win multiple World Series, and the first Black manager to win a World Series, managed fewer games (1,731) than Leyland had wins.

To these eyes, the strongest candidate on the ballot was the 89-year-old White, who had three careers of note. As a player with the Giants, Cardinals, and Phillies from 1956 to ’69, he won seven consecutive Gold Gloves, made five All-Star teams, and helped St. Louis win the 1964 World Series. While with the Cardinals, he made a significant impact by speaking out against the Jim Crow laws that separated Black players from their teammates in segregated Florida during spring training, long after the color line had fallen. After retiring from playing, he spent 18 years (1971–88) calling Yankees games alongside Phil Rizzuto and working for national networks, becoming the first full-time Black play-by-play broadcaster in any sport. He left broadcasting to spend five years (1989–94) as president of the National League, making him the first Black person to assume such a post and the highest-ranking Black executive in any sport at the time. It adds up to a unique and admirable career as an ambassador for the game, the kind that would improve the Hall with his inclusion.

It rates as at least somewhat surprising that neither umpire received significant support, but then West, in particular, has always been a polarizing figure. He holds records for longevity that may not be broken, with 44 years and 5,460 games umpired, but he often placed himself at the center of attention, and not in flattering ways. Three times he was suspended, the first of which was for shoving Torre when he was managing the Braves in 1983. That’s believed to be the first in-season suspension of an umpire in major league history.

In a Zoom call with media members after the announcement of his election, Leyland described himself as “just thrilled, excited, surprised, flattered. All those words come into play when you’re thinking about this.”

Leyland is the first manager elected to the Hall of Fame since Torre, Tony La Russa, and Bobby Cox were elected via the 2014 Expansion Era Committee ballot. He’s just the fourth Hall of Fame manager who never played in the majors, after Joe McCarthy, Frank Selee, and Earl Weaver.

“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 via Zoom. “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.”

A minor league catcher in the Tigers chain, Leyland first made the big leagues as the third base coach of the White Sox under La Russa in 1982. He succeeded Chuck Tanner as the Pirates manager in 1986, and while he lost 98 games in his first season, he led the team to three straight NL East titles from 1990–92. After enduring some lean years in Pittsburgh following the free agent departures of Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla, Doug Drabek and other key players, he took over the Marlins, a 1993 expansion team whose general manager, Dave Dombrowski, had served as the assistant GM of the White Sox during Leyland’s time there. Dombrowski jump-started the Marlins by loading up on established stars such as Bonilla, Moises Alou, Kevin Brown, Gary Sheffield, and Devon White, and in Leyland’s first year, they won 92 games, the NL Wild Card, and a thrilling seven-game World Series against Cleveland. The champagne had barely dried before all of those stars were traded. After the team bottomed out to 54-108 in 1998, Leyland resigned with three years remaining on his contract.

The Marlins let Leyland out of his contract to manage the Rockies in 1999, but he quit after one season, admitting his heart wasn’t in it. “I wasn’t a 9-8 manager, I wasn’t a 12-9 or an 11-10 manager,” Leyland told ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian. “It was like slow-pitch softball. I’d look at the frustration on our pitchers’ faces, and it frustrated me so much. I thought, ‘I can’t go through this again.’

After six years away from the dugout, during which he scouted for La Russa’s Cardinals, he reunited with Dombrowski in Detroit, where the Tigers had posted 12 straight sub-.500 seasons. Spurred by the arrivals of rookie Justin Verlander and 41-year-old All-Star Kenny Rogers, the team rocketed from 71 wins to 95 in his first season, winning the AL pennant before losing to La Russa’s Cardinals in the World Series.

The Tigers didn’t return to the playoffs for four more years, but they won the AL Central and at least reached the ALCS in each of Leyland’s last three seasons, including another 95-win one in 2011. The next year, they won another pennant but were swept by the Giants in the World Series.

I’ll admit to having a particularly soft spot for Leyland based on a moment from my own career. In 2011 the Tigers beat the Yankees in the Division Series, winning Game 5 in the Bronx thanks in part to light-hitting utilityman Don Kelly’s first-inning home run off Iván Nova. Afterwards, I asked a question (or rather, provided a “talk about” prompt — this was my first year with a credential) about what went into his decision to play Kelly. It left Leyland a little watery-eyed:

Leyland’s election could be the first of several among managers under this format. The next time this slate comes around in the cycle three years from now, Dusty Baker, Bruce Bochy, Terry Francona, Joe Maddon, and Mike Scioscia could all be eligible, so long as they’re no longer in the dugout (candidates 65 years or older are eligible six months following retirement). That’s a particularly accomplished group, with all of them winning at least one World Series and all but Scioscia winning multiple pennants; the first three from that group have at least three. With the Rangers’ World Series win, Bochy now has four titles, and Francona, who just retired from the Guardians, has two.

For now, the spotlight belongs to Leyland, who will be inducted along with any honorees from the BBWAA ballot on July 21, 2024. As he said on Sunday, “It doesn’t get any better than that. I mean, that’s the ultimate.”

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

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4 months ago

This could be naiveite on my part, but I’m pretty surprised too that West got so few votes. The Wikipedia scandal alone deserves a plaque in Cooperstown.