Sunday, August 30, 2015

'56 of the month: Alex Grammas

I'm sure that even the young baseball fans know that managers Don Mattingly, Paul Molitor, Matt Williams and Robin Ventura were defined by their playing careers long before they became "known" as managers.

But what about managers like Clint Hurdle or Bruce Bochy or Lloyd McClendon? Does anyone under 30 think of them as a player first, manager second? I know I do. I grew up with those guys on the playing field. Same with Walt Weiss and Ned Yost and Joe Girardi.

But I understand the perspective. When I was a young baseball fan in the 1970s, I was perpetually surprised that these "old" men with bellies, waddling out to the pitchers' mound, were actually once players with -- baseball cards!

Time after time, once I discovered vintage, I stumbled across current managers as players. Chuck Tanner was a player! So was Jeff Torborg and Whitey Herzog and Joe Altobelli! Even Don Zimmer, for crying out loud, had baseball cards where he's fielding and hitting and stuff!

The more obscure the name, the more surprising it was. For instance, Alex Grammas.

I had no idea who Alex Grammas was, other than that he was the tiny "old" man in the inset picture on the Brewers' team cards.

Like so.

As far as I was concerned, Topps could have made him up and plastered some random picture on a baseball card. "Sure, Alex Grammas? I'll go along with that." Only two years earlier I believed that a giant bunny broke into my house and opened cupboards and drawers to hide baskets of candy. Alex Grammas I could handle, too.

But Alex Grammas was very real. And pretty notable, too.

His playing career diminished after this card. After two years as pretty much the starter at shortstop for the Cardinals (combining with Red Schoendienst on double plays), he fell into a utility role for not only the Cardinals, but the Reds and Cubs. He last a full decade in the majors, though, unbeknownst to me.

Then, he built a reputation as the best third base coach in the game, directing the Big Red Machine during the early '70s, and then later following Sparky Anderson over to Detroit to do the same with the perennial playoff-contending Tigers in the '80s. Along the way, he shaped the careers of Joe Morgan, Pete Rose, Davey Concepcion, Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker.

In fact, the managing period -- the period where I knew him -- didn't turn out so well.

He managed the Brewers to consecutive last-place finishes in 1976 and 1977. In between, he instituted the Reds' "no facial hair" policy in Milwaukee, which led Brewers players going from this:

To this:

(Trust me, clean-shaven Broberg and Bevacqua are wearing Brewers unis under that airbrushing, and don't appear too happy about it).

All of this was going on while I didn't know whether Alex Grammas was real or not.

But he was real, made his mark -- he's the first Greek-American to manage a major league team -- and had an impact on what your baseball card photos look like. After exiting the game at age 65, he's still around at 89 years old.

Oh, and he also played.

There's more to a manager than the dumb decisions he makes in the dugout.


  1. When mentioning 70s managers that were players you left off one.

    Hint: AL Manager of the Year
    Hint: NL Manager of the Year
    Hint: ROY
    Hint: I'm the one leaving this comment...

  2. George Scott looks quite unhappy about the no facial hair policy, and Gorman Thomas looks like no one who ever played for the Brewers. I especially like the #3 that Thomas is wearing. He had to give up 44 when Hank Aaron came to Milwaukee, so he switched to 3. At some point in 1976/1977, the Brewers had pretty much given up on him till Harry Dalton and George Bamberger came in to replace the old regime. Gorman came back, put on number 20, and led the AL in home runs in 1979 and 1982.