Mayo Smith managed underwhelming teams in Philadelphia and Cincinnati. He scouted for the New York Yankees after a stint with the Reds. Jim Campbell decided to roll the dice and hired Smith for the 1967 campaign. The press and public were underwhelmed with the hire. However, Smith inherited a talented squad. He missed the pennant by a game in 1967, but returned to win the World Series in 1968. Despite serving only four seasons, Mayo Smith remains one of the most successful managers in Tiger history.
Smith played in 73 major league games in 1945 with the A’s. He hit just .212 and returned to the minor leagues in 1946. Eventually, he decided to manage and served in the Yankee farm system from 1949-54. The Phillies raided the Yankees to sign Smith to manage their big league club. He managed three and a half years in Philadelphia, but could do no better than 77-77. Philadelphia fired him after a 39-45 start in 1958. Smith’s overall record as Phillies skipper was 264-282.
The Reds decided to give Smith a try in 1959. Cincinnati lacked pitching, but the fans placed high expectations on the club. They never gave their manager a chance to succeed. The Reds went 35-45 under Smith before the ax fell. The Yankees welcomed him back into the organization after shoddy treatment in Cincinnati.
Smith scouted for the Yankees from 1959-66. In 1966, two Detroit managers died in the middle of the season. Tiger management hunted for a permanent skipper in the off season. High profile names turned the organization down. Eventually, Jim Campbell turned to Mayo Smith. Tiger fans and media hated the pick. They felt Smith lacked the resume and personality needed to manage the squad. However, Smith inherited a talented team that featured Al Kaline, Mickey Lolich, and Denny McLain.
The new manager made waves quickly. He moved Dick McAuliffe from shortstop to second base and inserted slick fielding Ray Oyler at short. The move paid off for Smith and the Tigers. McAuliffe made the All Star team and hit 22 home runs from a non-power position and Oyler played gold glove caliber shortstop. The pair helped the Tigers in a wild pennant race in 1967. Detroit won 91 games, but finished one game behind Boston for the pennant. Despite the disappointment, Smith’s first year was a success.
Disappointment in 1967 motivated the club in 1968. The Tigers swept through the American League to win the pennant by 12 games. The team won a club record 103 games, Denny McLain won 31, and Detroit won their first world title since 1945. Detroit boasted four potential all stars in the outfield and Smith had to find a way to get all four bats in the lineup for the World Series. As a result, he moved Mickey Stanley to shortstop and benched Ray Oyler. This allowed Willie Horton, Al Kaline, and Jim Northrup to all play. Horton threw out Lou Brock at home in Game 5 to keep the game close, Kaline had the game winning hit in Game 5, and Northrup hit a grand slam in Game 6 and the game winning triple in Game 7. Smith looked like a genius.
The world champions won 90 games in 1969, but finished light years behind the Orioles. The bottom fell out in the second half of the 1970 season. Denny McLain was suspended for illicit contacts with bookies. The offense struggled and McLain’s departure was keenly missed. The Tigers finished 79-83. Detroit fired Smith at season’s end and replaced him with Billy Martin. Privately, the former manager lashed out, “the fans in Detroit are ignorant.”
Despite the sour exit, Smith was a successful manager. He went 363-285 in his tenure and won the 1968 World Series. He showed extraordinary prescience in moving McAuliffe to second and Stanley to shortstop. Smith’s win total ranks eighth in Tiger history and his .560 win percentage is second to Mickey Cochrane amongst managers with at least one full season at the helm. Overall, he was 78 games over .500, which is sixth in Tiger history. In four years, Smith finished second twice and won a World Series.
Mayo Smith’s legacy is cemented in the 1968 World Series. He moved Mickey Stanley to shortstop from centerfield to add bats to the lineup. His stratagem worked and Detroit won the World Series in seven games. Smith missed the 1967 pennant by one game and finished second in 1969. Overall, he was extremely successful over a short span of time. Management probably fired him too soon.