In the major sports of the United States, the men in charge of entire teams are known as head coaches. Except in baseball, which indeed employs squads of coaches for each club, but the main guy in charge is called the manager. Why are the top baseball coaches called managers, instead of simply coach (or head coach) as in other sports?
The most authoritative coaches in baseball are called managers mainly due to tradition, going back many years as baseball is much older than other American major sports. Professional baseball’s beginnings differed significantly from the origins of professional football, hockey and basketball.
Some may argue that baseball managers are different from other sports’ coaches this way: the managers oversee the overall team, and game strategy, while his coaches work to benefit the players directly. This is true mostly, but doesn’t really touch upon why the term “manager” is applied.
It goes way back to the mid- to late-19th century when baseball “clubs” formed. It wasn’t like today when a corporation might be established in a large new business arrangement to create a baseball club. Pro baseball teams started just like the name implies, as clubs — gentlemen’s clubs, that is.
As such they developed over time, with a player assuming the duties of choosing who would play and when. Most often this leader also played games along with the teammates he managed. It was just an extra duty, and over a few decades players who stopped playing remained involved as team managers.
The other major sports blossomed at the academic level, not with private clubs. These young collegiate athletes needed a more hands-on coach for instruction. It’s not the only difference that might account for baseball using the term “manager,” but an important one nonetheleless. The bottom line is much of baseball’s terminology grew from situations of the late 1800s, and simply stuck as the years passed.
Clubs vs. College Teams: Different Administration Tasks
The differences with the sports using “head coach” goes back to when a particular sport began organizing on its way toward professional status. Sports like baseball began long ago on their own, as “sporting clubs” of amateur players enjoying recreational competition.
The other sports organized more along the lines of college campuses, where personalized “coaching” of players was needed for success. In early baseball, players who joined clubs were expected to have skills and know what they were doing, hence no need for individualized coaching — not that too many were knowledgeable enough anyway since the men back then were making up the game and its rules as they went along.
However, there was a need for someone to manage when, where and how they would play games.
In the sporting clubs, one of the gentlemen would assume a leadership role to organize the squad’s matches and related activities. These duties could include who might be available or eligible to play. As players worked jobs, prior to the sports becoming professional with players getting paid, the leading gentleman was in essence the sporting club manager.
By the early 20th century, baseball coaches were added to assist the field manager, and eventually, the general manager was established to handle player contracts, transactions and rosters, leaving the team manager to focus on in-game performance.
In short, baseball’s evolution was as an amateur or semi-professional sport, away from schools; American football, hockey and basketball grew up on college campuses. Baseball has a robust history, and some very old traditions remain to this day.
Team Manager Duties in Baseball vs. Other Sports
The ways the four major American sports are played contribute to the terminology too, some say. Let’s start with the facts that baseball teams start games with a lineup designed to match up against the opposition’s players such as who will pitch; and there are fewer opportunities for timeouts in baseball compared with the sports that have game timers. Consider:
- Football games are organized strategically before games begin, such as which players will fill squads for offense, defense and special teams. Then during the game the head coach adjusts either due to adjustments to a game plan spurred by the score or momentum of the game, or by injuries. Player movement in and out of a football game is constant.
- Basketball games don’t have squads, per se, but a starting lineup adjusted by the head coach as games progress, maybe for matchups with opposing lineups, or because a player needs rest for stamina or to play through injury. Both football and basketball allot the head coach a set number of timeouts to call and stop action to adjust who’s playing and the plays to be executed.
- Hockey also typically has squads of players, known as lines of a group of players, who play a certain number of minutes together and then are replaced by another group of players, sometimes mid-action without use of a timeout. Hockey coaches have timeouts but they are not used as strategically as they are in football and basketball.
- Baseball is the only major sport without a clock that dictates when the game will end. Baseball games are played until 9 innings are complete — or more in case of ties — regardless how long it takes. Since MLB rosters have a finite number of players, games must be managed in terms of who might be still available later in games if the score is close or tied. In very long games, like those going 14 innings or more, baseball team managers could run out of players still eligible to play, because in baseball once a player is removed from the game he is not eligible to return to action.
This final point is important because it indicates that baseball managers indeed must manage all aspects of a club for each game, from pre-game decisions to lineups, to in-game substitutions especially pitching changes and pinch-hitters, on down to knowing which particular players feel good or bad that day.
In summary, they truly hold broad game management responsibilities, from start to finish. A baseball manager doesn’t really have to coach his players into a specific response, as in extra energy (or spirit) for a late-game comeback push, as may occur in basketball or football.
Changes with Professionalism in Baseball
Once Major League Baseball began with establishment of the National League in 1876, things began to shift away from the leisurely clubs, and toward performances to attract crowds and capture the biggest market share possible from all the money coming in from paying fans.
Clubs looked to specialize off-field roles to better compete, and eventually, transactions of players (e.g. trading them, buying their contracts from other teams, or dismissing players) was shifted to general managers, or even team owners.
What About Baseball ‘Coaches’?
When they are deemed “coaches” in baseball, think the equivalent of assistant coaches in football or basketball. Use of coaches in MLB began with Hall of Fame manager John McGraw in 1909, and expanded to a point where teams were employing coaches super-specialized to provide guidance on everything from hitting and hitting to baserunning, strength and physical fitness.
Many MLB teams even have a “bench coach”; they’re usually holders of great knowledge to be tapped for any question or suggestion, guys like Yogi Berra or Don Zimmer. Sometimes baseball managers just like to have good friends they can trust nearby.
By the 21st century, Major League officials finally put a cap on all those extra guys on the bench, starting with 6. That was bumped to 7 with the 2013 season, to allow an “assistant hitting coach.” Hitting and pitching nuances have become so detailed that even top-level pro players often seek technical assistance and adjustments.
Two will serve as base coaches, seen standing in foul territory near first and third base. Sometimes, but not often, a manager will serve as third-base coach, the person responsible for passing signs to and otherwise cheering on the hitter at bat. Usually a manager from the bench sends signs to the third base coach, who then relays them to the hitter.
With all this help, today’s managers can focus on other elements of a game, such as calling pitches by sending signs to the catcher to relay to the pitcher. Other coaches on the bench might keep track of pitches, as in locations and whether they were called balls or strikes; others today help monitor statistics and analytics of other players, to help gauge tendencies and matchups.
Unique Manager Attire in Baseball
Head coaches in pro football, basketball or hockey wear either suits, or jackets or casual sporting-wear attire usually adorned with team logos and/or colors. Baseball managers today wear the same uniform as the players on the field, numbers on the back and all.
In the early 20th century, as baseball’s field manager concept continued developing, Connie Mack of the Philadelphia Athletics was famous for wearing a full suit in the dugout. Mack was unique in that he owned the club and served as its field manager and general manager. He never wore a team uniform in the dugout.
While some managers over the years did the same — notably Burt Shotton of the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1947 to 1950, among the last field managers to wear street clothes rather than the team’s uniform — managers eventually just preferred wearing the same comfortable uniforms as the players they oversaw.
Question: Are there managers in other popular sports?
Answer: Yes, notably in soccer and rugby. Remember, those sports also developed before pro football, basketball and hockey, so use of the term also could be linked with tradition. Additionally, at least in pro soccer, the man in charge still is sometimes referred to as a head coach, and some do double duty as general manager, too. Some say the terminology is just a matter of regional preferences, as in, hurricane vs. typhoon. Same thing, different name.
Q.: Do baseball managers delegate almost everything to all those coaches?
A.: Not really, but it depends on the manager’s style and how much he trusts his coaches. Typically the manager coordinates coaching tasks, but maintains setting the lineup, and making decisions on game strategy, and player substitutions. Some baseball managers are involved with positioning players on defense, or to order steals, bunts, pitch outs, intentional walks or more.
Q.: In some levels of baseball, like college and high school, the main decision-maker is called a “head coach.” Why isn’t use of “manager” or “head coach” consistent for all levels?
A.: There are many reasons for differences, and some are simply regional. However, in a broad sense, professional leagues use “manager” because that person indeed does more of that ~ strategically manages a roster with a lot of players, through games where only a few of them play at a time. It harkens back to when pro baseball started and there was not yet a general manager to oversee salaries, trades, etc. The main decision-maker in pro baseball was called a manager in the 19th century, and it just stuck over the years.
Some schools might use the “head coach” designation for salary level reasons (e.g. to be consistent with the “head coaches” of other sports, instead of differentiating between positions that essentially do the same thing). It also could be because top coaches in school and some youth leagues still actually do some coaching, that is, personalized instruction on how to play baseball like tips in the batting cage, baserunning, etc. In pro levels of baseball the manager focuses on the lineup and game strategy, and they pay other coaches to handle the details.