The Detroit Tigers announced that Brad Ausmus will be their new manager for 2014. The 44 year-old Ausmus replaces the 68 year-old Jim Leyland, who announced his retirement in late October, shortly after the Tigers lost the American League Championship Series to the Boston Red Sox. The hiring makes Ausmus the 38th skipper in Tigers franchise history — and their first Jewish one.
The Tigers’ hiring of Ausmus comes eighty years after Hank Greenberg — who also wore Detroit’s old English “D” — emerged as baseball’s first Jewish superstar. But while there’s been a steady stream of Jewish players in the big leagues since Greenberg’s heyday, Jewish managers have literally been scarcer than perfect games.
In fact, before now there had only been five Jewish skippers in the entire history of the major leagues: Lipman Pike, who in 1874 hit .355 as the player/manager of the Hartford Dark Blues; Lou Boudreau, who led the Cleveland Indians to their last World Series championship in 1948, and later managed the Boston Red Sox, Kansas City Athletics and Chicago Cubs; Norm Sherry, who managed the California Angels during the second half of the 1976 season and the first half of 1977; Seattle Mariners/Arizona Diamondbacks/Oakland Athletics skipper Bob Melvin (whose A’s lost to the Tigers in this year’s ALDS); and Jeff Newman, who served as the Oakland A’s interim manager for 10 games in 1986. Ausmus is now number six.
Inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2004, Ausmus currently holds the record for most games played by a Jewish major leaguer (1,971); he ranks fifth in career hits among Jewish players (1,579) and eighth in career runs batted in (607). He also served as the manager of Team Israel in the 2012 and 2013 World Baseball Classics, though to date this remains his only managerial experience in organized baseball.
That lack of experience has raised the eyebrows of more than a few fans and pundits, who have expressed surprise that the Tigers would be willing to trust their high-priced roster —which includes Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Prince Fielder and likely American League Cy Young winner Max Scherzer — to a man who has never even coached a game in the minors. However, the Dartmouth-educated former catcher showed ample evidence of leadership abilities and a keen baseball intellect during his 18-year playing career, which included two stints with the Tigers, and he’s well-respected among players and executives alike; rumor had it that he was also Theo Epstein’s preferred candidate to fill the Chicago Cubs’ managerial vacancy.
Time will tell whether or not the Tigers made the right choice, but their hiring of Ausmus certainly fits in with the current mini-trend of teams tapping smart-but-inexperienced former players to pick up where their veteran skippers have left off. Mike Matheny, a similarly inexperienced former catcher who was hired by the St. Louis Cardinals in November 2011 after Tony LaRussa called it a career, has already taken his team into the playoffs twice, including a trip to this year’s World Series. Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski, who watched his team win its division three years running before falling frustratingly short in the post-season, is hoping that Ausmus — with help from Leyland’s bench coach Gene Lamont, who has agreed to stay on with the team — will provide the necessary spark that will result in Detroit’s first World Series championship since 1984. Should Ausmus achieve that lofty goal, he’ll become the first Jewish manager since Lou Boudreau to lead a team to October glory.
Dan Epstein is the author of “Big Hair & Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging 70s.”