"Father of Modern Baseball" Ned Hanlon helped usher the game -- and managing -- into the 20th century

MONTVILLE, Conn. -- So this is the birthplace of the first great baseball manager.

Located northwest of New London on Connecticut 163, Montville isn't exactly a metropolis. There's a deer crossing sign just before the Speed Limit 30 posting, and the village center consists of Radgowski's Deli-Mart, the small Montville post office and Mel's Diner.

When the clerk at Radgowski's is asked, "Where's the nearest baseball field?" she replied, "Go up Oakdale Road, take a left at the dump, and you'll see it after the intersection at the high school."

There's nobody on the baseball field on this warm June evening, but Josh is throwing batting practice to Jorge on the nearby softball field.

"Did you guys know that one of the pioneers of baseball was born here?"

"Really?" Jorge said. "What was his name?"

"Ned Hanlon."

"Never heard of him."

"He would like your swing."

Indeed, Jorge is crushing the ball. The metal bats and oversized balls might have mystified Hanlon, but he wouldn't have minded that Jorge is directing Josh where to lob the ball -- batters could tell pitchers where to throw the ball back when Hanlon first played the game.

Edward Hugh Hanlon, born in Montville on Aug. 22, 1857, has been called "the father of modern baseball." Also "Foxy Ned," and the "Napoleon of Base Ball." He inspired the renaming of the Pittsburgh baseball team to "the Pirates" and refined the Baltimore Chop. He won five National League pennants with the Baltimore Orioles and Brooklyn Superbas, and he brought the game into the 20th century with a sign system, the hit-and-run, the squeeze play, the delayed steal, platooning and a pitching rotation. As head of the National League rules committee, he signed off on the infield fly rule. Spring training? That was his idea.


But Hanlon's greatest contribution to the game may have been as a teacher. He managed Hall of Fame managers John McGraw, Connie Mack, Miller Huggins, Wilbert Robinson and Hughie Jennings, as well as HOF players Pud Galvin, Dan Brouthers, Joe Kelley and Willie Keeler. He is to baseball what Socrates was to philosophy, what Eclipse was to thoroughbred racing, what Claude Monet was to impressionism.

While there is a park not far from Camden Yards in Baltimore named after Hanlon, there is no sign of him in Montville, much less a statue. Not even the head of the Montville Historical Society has heard of him. "Can't say that I know the name," John Geary said.

Truth be told, it took too long for Cooperstown to recognize him -- he wasn't inducted until 1996, long after most of his renowned pupils. Poetic justice may have been worth the wait, though: He was in the same class as another Orioles manager, Earl Weaver, and he learned from Andy Cohen, who learned from John McGraw, who learned from Ned Hanlon. (You can also trace Rollie Fingers' mustache back to Hanlon.)

A baseball manager is the sum of the parts he plays. He needs the competitive fire of McGraw, the fatherly presence of Mack, the strategic acumen of Huggins. As great as Babe Ruth and Murderers' Row were, they needed someone like Huggins, who was tough, flexible and smart. By the way, when Ruth signed his first professional contract with the Baltimore Orioles in 1914, guess who was in attendance? Right, Ned Hanlon.

Mack, who caught for Hanlon when he ran the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1891, later said, "I think it's safe to say [Hanlon] knew more about baseball than any other man of his day. And he knew how to teach the game to young players. He talked it from morning until night, on the bench, on the field, in hotel lobbies, at meals, aboard trains. Players on his clubs heard nothing, ate nothing and dreamed nothing but baseball."

Where, besides Montville, did this genius come from? His father, an Irish immigrant, was a homebuilder, so Ned knew about plans. His work ethic came from a mill in nearby Taftville. His natural baseball abilities were recognized early -- he was pitching for Norwich at 15, for $3 a game, plus expenses. According to a well-researched article by Joe Alderman for the SportzEdge website, it was while pitching in an exhibition for the New London Stars against the Boston Red Stockings that the 18-year-old came to the attention to his mound opponent, A.G. Spalding. He was asked to join the Providence team of the New England League.

As it turned out, he was a better player than a pitcher, and he bounced from Fall River to Rochester to Albany before getting a call to play center field for the Cleveland Blues of the National League in 1880. In 12 seasons as a major leaguer, he had an ordinary lifetime average of .260, but it was his speed and his leadership that stood out. Sam Crane, a former player and sportswriter, wrote of Hanlon, "I have seen 'Eddie' slide into three bases in one inning, tearing along the ground like a battering ram, when his legs were like raw beef from ankle to hip -- yes, and come out the next day and do it again."

In an account of Hanlon from 1887, when he stole 69 bases as the captain and "centre fielder" for the Detroit Wolverines, he is described thusly: "His chief forte lies in the way in which he handles the Detroit nine." After the 1888 season, Hanlon went on Spalding's world tour -- two teams of major leaguers played in places such as Hawaii, Australia, Egypt, Europe and the British Isles. The tour helped launch Spalding's sporting goods empire, but it also spawned a players' revolt when they found out, while in Egypt, that owners were capping their salaries at $2,500 a year.

Hanlon played for the Pittsburgh Alleghenys in 1889, taking over as a manager late in the season. When the Players League formed for 1990, he agreed to become a player-manager for the brand-new Pittsburgh Burghers. But first, he had a little hometown business to attend to: He married Miss Nellie J. Kelley of Taftville, who "was attired in white brocade satin, trimmed with ostrich feathers, the veil being draped with roses and smilax."

When the Players League disbanded, the rebels were taken back, and Hanlon resumed his role as player-manager of the Alleghenys. After he heard that Lou Bierbauer, a former Athletics second baseman of considerable talent, was wintering on the Presque Isle Peninsula near Erie, Pennsylvania, Hanlon braved a storm to cross the icy harbor, find Bierbauer's shack and sign him to a contract. After a league official called the signing "piratical," the phrase stuck and the name of the Pittsburgh team was changed to the "Pirates."

Unfortunately, Bierbauer batted just .206 in 1891, eight ticks lower than the weak-hitting catcher, Connie Mack. The team got off to such a slow start that Hanlon was demoted from manager to captain. A late-season knee injury pretty much ended his playing career at the age of 34. As bad as the newly named Pirates were, the Baltimore Orioles were worse, and in June of 1892, their owner, brewery scion Harry von der Horst, offered Hanlon stock in the team and full authority over baseball operations. Hanlon began to clean house, keeping only a young infielder named John McGraw, pitcher Sadie McMahon and catcher Wilbert Robinson.

In a masterly job of rebuilding, Hanlon traded for Hall of Fame outfielders Joe Kelley and Willie Keeler, shortstop Hughie Jennings and first baseman Dan Brouthers. Led by the feisty McGraw, they became an intimidating team adept at the precursor of "small ball": the hit-and-run, the squeeze, the double steal, going from first to third on singles, and what came to be known as "the Baltimore Chop," smacking the ball into the hardened area in front of home plate and beating out an infield single. From 1894 to 1898, they finished in first place three times and in second twice.

Hanlon once said, "I decided early in the game that there was money to be made in baseball if it was studied seriously. After I took hold of the Orioles, I often got out of bed in the night to jot down a play that might be worked out."

After the 1898 season, he and von der Horst worked out a different kind of play. They traded their Baltimore stock for equivalent shares in the Brooklyn Bridegrooms, owned by Charles Ebbets and Gus Abell, and Hanlon assumed control of the Brooklyn team, taking Keeler, Kelley, Jennings and several other Orioles along with him. The team, which came to be known as the Superbas after a vaudeville troupe named Hanlon's Superbas, then won the NL titles in 1899 and 1900.

Things fell apart after that, though, and von der Horst became beholden to Ebbets, who lowered Hanlon's salary from $11,500 to $7,500 after Brooklyn finished fifth. Hanlon and Ebbets would become mortal enemies who moved their fight from the diamond to the court room.

In 1906, Cincinnati Reds owner August Herrmann gave Foxy Ned one last shot to create a championship ballclub. It didn't happen, but Hanlon did discover a kindred spirit in a local second baseman who chose baseball over the law on the advise of his University of Cincinnati law professor, William Howard Taft. The second baseman was Miller Huggins.

The Baseball Hall of Fame has a small cache of correspondence that Hanlon wrote in the first decade of the 20th century. Immaculately typewritten, the letters reveal his toughness, an attention to detail that would presage the micro-managing in modern baseball, and his loyalty to his players.

After former Andy Coakley, a former 18-game winner, submitted a salary proposal of $3,000 following his trade to the Reds after the '06 season, Hanlon wrote back to him:

As you were sick and unable to pitch but very few games last season I was surprised at your request. ... The Cincinnati Club will give you a contract for Twenty Five Hundred Dollars, and in the event of our retaining you through the season and you win 21 games will give you an additional Three Hundred Dollars.

Before the Reds headed off to spring training in Marlin Springs, Texas, in 1907, Hanlon gave these instructions to his first baseman and captain, John Ganzel:

Tell them that this expensive trip is made for their benefit and for the purpose of getting them in condition. ... Be on the ball-grounds ready to commence morning practice at 10:15, remaining until 11:45; and afternoons from 3 o'clock until 4:30. ... Have them fielding bunts as though in an actual game and it will materially improve their fielding ... each pitcher should receive one half hour of actual pitching every day.

Hanlon called it quits after the '07 season to become president of the Baltimore club, then in the Eastern League. But he stayed on a friendly basis with Herrmann and gave him an honest but humane scouting report on one of his current Reds, catcher Larry McLean:

Was sorry to learn that Larry had trouble so early, and trust he will cut out the BOOZE for the season. He is undoubtedly a grand catcher and batter, a fine fellow and a favorite with the people.

In 1909, Hanlon sold the Orioles to his old pitcher, Jack Dunn, who would later ask him to be there when he signed a local orphanage kid, George Herman Ruth, to his first pro contract.

Hanlon had one more contribution to make to the game: He took the owners to the Supreme Court. When his attempt to buy the St. Louis Cardinals and move them to Baltimore was thwarted, he sued organized baseball for violating the Sherman Antitrust Act. In a landmark 1922 decision that still governs the game, the court ruled that baseball was not interstate commerce and therefore exempt from regulation by acts of Congress.

He spent his last 21 years out of baseball, though he did continue to serve on the Baltimore parks board. He died at the age of 79, on April 14, 1937, and after a funeral attended by Mack and other dignitaries, he was buried in New Cathedral Cemetery, the final resting place, as well, of John McGraw, Wilbert Robinson and Joe Kelley.

Upon his death, longtime Baltimore sportswriter Rodger Pippen evoked this sweet vision: "McGraw, Jennings, Keeler, Robbie, Gleason, Brodie and other pupils ... have been waiting for their teacher. ... On a bench, in a warm sun, with a soft wind, [they] will tell Ned for the hundredth time that they owe their success in baseball to him."

He and Nellie had two sons, one of whom was killed in World War I, three daughters and 20 grandchildren. In fact, it was a letter that three of them, Sean (age 15), Ryan (11) and Mark (6), wrote to Buzzie Bavasi of the Hall of Fame Veterans Committee in 1995 that helped convince the voters that it was time for Ned Hanlon to have his own Hall of Fame plaque.

In the northeast corner of the town of Montville is the village of Uncasville, home of the Mohegan Sun resort and casino. Hanlon wouldn't know what to make of this monument to excess on his old stomping grounds. His father certainly never built anything like this, and though he had an appreciation for money, he would be mystified by all the different ways people in the 21st century try their luck.

At one end of the maze of slot machines is the Bow & Arrow Sports Bar, and high above the bottles of liquor are three gigantic sports screens, one divided into nine different segments. Once he rubbed the amazement out of his eyes, and noted that modern players aren't only Caucasian, Hanlon would be able to see the familiar on the collage of baseball shows.

A chopper in front of the plate. A third base coach flashing signs. The infield fly rule. A team called the Pirates. A Ruthian blast by the right fielder. A pitcher in total command. A second baseman ranging far to his right like Huggins did. Heavens, a no-hitter. He'd been involved in seven of them as a player or manager, but they're still a joy to see.

"Why are they covering him in chocolate sauce?" he might ask.