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Big League Stew

¡Happy Cinco de Mayo Smith!

David Brown
Big League Stew

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(AP)

As all baseball fans know, Cinco de Mayo is the day we celebrate Mayo Smith, a former major league manager best known for being the skipper of the 1968 Detroit Tigers. That team — which included pitchers Denny McLain and Mickey Lolich, along with sluggers Norm Cash, Al Kaline, Bill Freehan and Willie Horton — won 103 games during the regular season and beat the St. Louis Cardinals of Bob Gibson, Lou Brock and Steve Carlton in the World Series.

Though he reportedly was viewed at the time as kind of boring — colorless like mayonnaise, if you will — Smith led a fascinating life in baseball, which was detailed wonderfully in a SABR biography written by Dave Raglin.

My favorite personal nugget: His full name was Edward Mayo Smith, but he went by his middle name, which one of his grandmothers picked because she had been a patient at the Mayo Clinic. No kidding.

Probably his most crucial decision as manager was to start Mickey Stanley at shortstop during the '68 Series in order to get Kaline's bat in the lineup in the outfield. The thing was, Mickey Stanley wasn't a shortstop.

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(AP)

The Tigers had great hitters up and down (except at short and third base) and Smith was worried about getting the best offense on the field possible against the likes of Gibson and his 1.12 ERA. Stanley was the Tigers' center fielder and had only played 68 innings at short down the stretch. It was either that, or put Kaline — who was 33 years old and coming off an injury — at third base.

And you thought Jim Leyland putting Miguel Cabrera at third base was desperate. Well, in February, Jerry Green of the Detroit News drew parallels between the two situations.

Smith was tinkering with a resourceful ballclub that had just won a pennant in dominant fashion. Never before had a manager been so bold in fooling with a solid, productive lineup in the days before a World Series. Stanley had played flawlessly throughout the season in center field. He did not make an error. And now he was being switched to shortstop for the World Series.

And it worked out: Kaline went 11 for 29 with two homers, two doubles and eight RBIs, and the Tigers won in seven games.

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Lolich dunks his manager after the '68 Series. Sinko de Mayo! (AP)

Smith played only part of one major league season, with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1945, but became a minor league manager in the Yankees organization. The Phillies made him a 40-year-old major league manager in 1955, a position he held for 3 1/2 years before management made a change. The Reds hired Smith in 1959, but he stayed only 80 games before getting replaced. He did, however, rent the house of Kentucky native Jim Bunning, who was pitching for the Tigers at the time.

For most of the next decade, he worked for the Yankees again, this time as a scout, before returning to managing with the Tigers in 1967. He was fired after the 1970 season and replaced with Billy Martin. Smith retired from baseball thanks to smart real estate investments that made him a millionaire and allowed him to play a lot of golf. But he had a stroke in 1977 and died at age 62.

His all-time record on May 5 as a manager is 4-2. Mayo Smith was a winner on Cinco de Mayo.

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