Friday, January 18, 2013

Tommy Holmes, the Manager Who Never Managed

This is Tommy Holmes, in a photo taken from an early 1950s banquet program. He's listed as the manager of the Milwaukee Brewers, but you won't find his name in any of the club's score cards.

His road to Milwaukee began with the Boston Braves, the Brewers' parent club since '46, where Holmes originally made his mark. The Brooklyn-born slugger broke into the Braves' lineup in 1942 at the age of 25 and instantly made himself at home. In 1945, he had a monster season at the plate, leading the National League in hits, doubles, home runs and total bases.

Holmes in 1945

The fans at Braves Field loved him, especially those who frequented the right field bleachers, known as the "Jury Box." When Holmes retired after the 1950 season, his nine years in a Brave uniform had made him was one of the most popular players in team history. Perhaps in recognition of that popularity, he was immediately given the opportunity to be the player/manager of the club's low-level Eastern League affiliate in Hartford. The early returns there were very good, and on June 20, 1951, with less than half a season under his belt, Holmes was called up to manage the big-league team.

The Braves had been floundering in mediocrity since winning the National League pennant in '48. The club was stocked with promising young players (many of whom had been developed in Milwaukee), but they failed to produce on the major league stage. The fans were short on patience and so was owner Lou Perini. After consecutive fourth-place finishes in 1949 and 1950 Perini had enough, and skipper Billy Southworth was out, replaced by the fan-favorite Holmes.

The new regime was short-lived. The Braves continued to struggle on the field and, even worse, at the gate. Unable to produce the instant results that Perini demanded, Holmes was about to find himself on the receiving end of his employer's mercurial style.

Holmes was officially relieved of his duties on May 31, 1952, fired as impulsively as he was hired. The Braves' owner blamed his manager's youth for the club's stuggles, insisting that "we think the world of Tommy, but we now feel he doesn't have enough experience."

Holmes reportedly cried when told of the move by long-distance telephone. By the time he talked to the press, he had collected himself.
"That's baseball.

"As a member of the organization, I must follow orders. I will abide by every decision of the Braves officials regarding by future with the organization.

"The Braves have always been very patient with me. But I must say the news of my dismissal as manager came as a complete shock."
Holmes said of his club:
"We have been experimenting with young players and I know that eventually that experiment will bear fruit."
Perini was convinced that those young players needed a veteran presence in the clubhouse, and he knew exactly where to find one: the same Milwaukee club so many had come through.

The Brewers were led at that time by Charlie Grimm, who was very much enjoying his second stint as master of Borchert Field. He had been a part-owner of the Brewers with Bill Veeck from 1941 through 1945, managing the team himself in 1942 and 43 before moving up to the Chicago Cubs early in the 1944 season.

Now in his second season back in Milwaukee, "Jolly Cholly" was initially reluctant to take the Boston job, telling the press:
"I never want to return to the majors. I like Milwaukee and it likes me."
Perini persisted, reportedly leaning heavily on the skipper's loyalty to the organization, and soon Grimm agreed to leave "his beloved Milwaukee" (and his first-place Brewers) for Boston. General Manager Red Smith, a former Brewer catcher and longtime coach, put on a Brewer uniform again to serve as interim manager while he searched for Grimm's replacement. One week later, he hired Bucky Walters, the Braves' pitching coach, to finish out the season.

The 1952 Milwaukee Brewers with new manager
Bucky Walters (middle row, fifth from left)

Smith went 7-0 in that one week as Brewers skipper, handing the new pilot a red-hot club. He told Walters:
"You won't have any worries running this team. This gang loves to win; that's why we're in first place."
Smith was right; under their third skipper of the season, the Brewers continued their run. They couldn't keep the top spot to themselves for the entire year, but they were never far out of it.

The deposed Holmes spent the remainder of the 1952 season as a pinch-hitter with his hometown Brooklyn Dodgers, planning his return to the managerial ranks.

Meanwhile, in the Cream City, Bucky Walters was having a rough go of it.

His Brewers were flourishing on the field, but he was stuggling personally. His health was failing and in August, ulcers forced Walters to leave the club during a road trip in Indianapolis for emergency surgery in Cincinnati. He rejoined the club three days later, but continued to be troubled by them.

After spending several weeks in August grappling for first place, the Brewers finally pulled away and cruised to a 101-53 record for the 1952 season, giving them a comfortable 12-game lead over the second-place Kansas City Blues and bringing Milwaukee its eighth American Association pennant.

With the 1952 season over, Holmes was determined to take charge of a ballclub again. The Dodgers offered him a chance to return to the Eastern League, this time with the Dodgers' farm team in Elmira, New York. Holmes decided instead to return to the Braves organization, his professional home for so long.

Bucky Walters had also come to a decision about his career. On the advice of his physician, and wishing to be closer to his family in Philadelphia, he told Smith that he would not be back to manage the Brewers in 1953. He would rather coach in the majors than manage in the minors.

Perini gave Walters back his old job as the Braves' pitching coach and rewarded Holmes with another managerial gig; this time it wouldn't be buried deep in the farm system but rather at the top rung of the minor league ladder. Tommy Holmes was on his way to Milwaukee, having essentially traded managerial jobs with Charlie Grimm.

A month after taking the job, Holmes was in Milwaukee posing for photographs with the 1951 American Association championship plaque and promising to win a third straight pennant. The Brewers' future was looking bright as the calendar turned to 1953; they had a new manager, lots of talent and were all set to move from the cramped, wooden Borchert Field into the brand-new steel-and-concrete Milwaukee County Stadium.

As every student of baseball knows, the Brewers' future took a turn before they ever got to make that move. Just days before the season was to start, and after fending off Bill Veeck's attempt to move his St. Louis Browns back to Milwaukee, Louis Perini announced that he was moving the Braves to Milwaukee. Tommy Holmes never got to actually manage a game for the Brewers before he, and the club, was bumped out of town.

The suddenly-displaced Brewers ended up in Toledo as the Sox, where they eventually won that third consecutive pennant. Unfortunately for Tommy Holmes, they would have to win it without him. His Sox got off to a sluggish start in their new city, and Holmes was fired twenty-five games into the season.

The youth experiment that Holmes had spoken of upon his firing from the Braves job in 1952 did indeed "bear fruit"; five seasons later, those youngsters brought Milwaukee the city's first World Championship.

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