Yogi Berra was a Hall of Fame baseball player on arguably, the greatest baseball team in Major League history.
Berra played catcher and was captain of a New York Yankees team that won a record ten World Series titles during his tenure. He broke every mold of how great baseball players should look and play.
His manager almost screwed it up.
The year before Yogi made the big leagues, the Yankees used four different catchers who measured six-feet or taller. Catcher is the one position that faces every other fielder on a baseball diamond. The catcher must be a vocal leader on the field and coaches preferred leaders straight out of central casting-tall, strong and athletic.
Berra measured up at 5'7" with a body built like an English bulldog. He was top-heavy, with a barreled chest and athleticism that paled in comparison to his contemporaries. The sportswriter Jimmy Cannon once likened him to a "bull penguin."
In a sport built on tradition and social norms, Yogi stood out like a pimple in a school yearbook picture.
Looks aside, his approach to the game was antithetical to everything coaches preached in that era. In 1946, Major League baseball players hit 1,215 home runs. In 2019, the total will exceed 6,000.
Seven decades ago, patience was preached by baseball coaches. Hitters were expected to show discipline at the plate, swinging only when the count was in their favor. "Chasing" bad pitches was frowned upon and would often lead to a coach benching a player.
In 1946, Major League hitters struck out 9,657 times. Contrast that with 2019, where hitters are tracking to shatter the record of 41,207 strike-outs.
Players were expected to take a patient approach at the plate. Choke up, make contact, play within yourself, hit to the opposite field and only swing after the pitcher has a strike on you.
Yogi ignored all of this coaching. Mr. Berra approached every at-bat like he had a train to catch after the game. Yogi swung at everything.
Yogi is widely considered the greatest bad-ball hitter of all time. One coach once described Yogi's strike zone as being "from his ankles to his nose." His "lack of discipline" drove his coaches nuts, but they couldn't afford to bench him.
In his first full season in 1947, Yogi had 306 plate appearances and only 12 strikeouts. He hit 11 home runs, nearly a 1:1 ratio with his number of strikeouts.
For perspective, current Yankees star, Aaron Judge, strikes out more than five times for every home run he launches.
Even after an incredible rookie year, his coaches were determined to "change" him. Berra's approach made them uncomfortable because it was different. What worked for Yogi was a very different approach than what worked for the coaches when they were playing.
In 1947, the Yankees head coach was Bucky Harris. Harris had a nice major league career, playing from 1919 to 1929. He played in a different era where plate discipline was rewarded. Harris took 472 bases on balls in his career, but only hit nine total home runs. He was a classic, defensive hitter.
He wanted his players to use his approach but exceed his production. After a tremendous rookie season, Harris applied pressure on Yogi to change his approach and lay off so many "bad balls."
Don't swing at high pitches. Lay off the ball on the outside corner. Stay away from anything below your knees. Think more at the plate.
All of this "advice" changed Berra's mindset. Previously, he went to the plate thinking about one thing - hitting the ball. Now, his manager was asking him to think about all of the adverse outcomes he should avoid.
Berra went into a slump, and his frustration peaked after one terrible at-bat. Berra recalled years later, "I took three pitches for strikes and struck out without swinging the bat." Frustrated, he stormed back to the bench and barked at Harris, "I can't hit and think at the same time!"
Berra proceeded to ignore his coach from that point on, trusting his old approach. He finished the 1948 season with a .305 batting average and 98 runs batted in, earning his first All-Star appearance.
Berra would go on to win three MVP awards with his aggressive approach to hitting. Ignoring his coach's definition of a "good pitch," Yogi redefined that term like only he could, "If I can hit it, it's a good pitch."
Be Careful Of Your Biases When Hiring
Yogi Berra learned to play baseball on the streets of St. Louis, swinging broomsticks at bottlecaps and playing bare-footed on sandlots.
He rose to become the most powerful hitter in his American Legion league, which is where most major league teams recruited from in that era.
In 1942, St. Louis Cardinals President, Branch Rickey, made an offer to a local catcher. It wasn't Berra. The Cardinals signed Joe Garagiola to one of their farm teams for a contract of $500.
Garagiola looked the part. He was six-feet and 190 pounds with a handsome face and athletic build. He looked like a professional baseball player, and Yogi did not.
Berra would eventually get a low-ball offer from the Cardinals. He refused, and the Yankees capitalized, signing Berra to their minor league team in Norfolk, Virginia.
Garagiola might have filled out a uniform better, but his career came up far short of Berra's. In 9 professional seasons, he hit a total of 42 home runs to Berra's 358. He was never named an All-Star, while Berra was awarded that honor 15 times over his career.
All hiring managers are up against an unconscious "Similar-to-me bias." We have a natural tendency to disproportionately select individuals who resemble us.
Similarities relate to anything-ethnicity, gender, nationality, career history, educational background and more.
- If a manager graduated college with a 3.7 grade-point-average, they might recruit only candidates with a high GPA.
- A profit-center manager worked his way up through accounting, and now only promotes managers who took a similar path.
- An extroverted sales manager whittles out any candidate with a more reserved interpersonal style.
When selecting talent, ask yourself who is most likely to deliver results. The best way to predict this is a track record. When presented with similar challenges, what results did they provide?
A common mistake of hiring managers is overweighting the approach a candidate took and discounting their objective track record. The best method of predicting future objective results is by heavily weighting past objective results during your interview process.
Great Managers Focus On Outcomes, Not Approach
Bucky Harris was no different than most new managers. He felt strongly that his role as a leader was to coach a specific approach to delivering results.
This approach was highly biased to what worked for Harris as a player. The problem with this line of thinking is that it assumed that everyone who played for him had the same skill set.
In reality, every person has a unique personality and set of skills primarily formed by the time we turned 21 years old.
Managers are paid to deliver results. The approach is insignificant, so long as your team delivers the intended outcomes in an ethical fashion.
His experience with overbearing coaches heavily influenced Yogi's approach to working with his pitchers. Catchers have the responsibility of signaling the next pitch to their pitcher.
With a bird's eye view of the hitter, a catcher has a great perspective on what pitch might work best next. If a catcher notices that a hitter has been late on the fastball, he will call for more of the same. If they see that the hitter is moving back in the batter's box, an offspeed pitch will throw off timing.
Most catchers get irritated when their pitcher disagrees with the signal. To a catcher with a big ego, getting "shaken off" is received as a slight to their ability to call the game.
Though Berra was a proven game-caller, he never took it personally when pitchers disagreed with his pitch call. After all, his pitcher had to believe in the pitch he was calling.
As good as Berra was, he wasn't throwing the pitch. Only the pitcher understands how they are feeling, both physically and mentally. If they do not believe they can get their curveball over for a strike, there is no point in arguing with them.
"They had to believe in what they were throwing," said Berra. Over time, pitchers learned to trust him, especially when they changed the call and gave up a big hit.
No one will achieve results precisely as you would. As a leader, your responsibility is helping your team recognize their strengths, while putting them in a position where those strengths can shine.
If someone you are coaching has a firm conviction on their approach, give them the freedom to deliver results their way. Take confidence and accountability over a specific plan any day.
If you force an approach on your team, you will get compliance and nothing else. When your teammate fails to deliver, they will blame you for forcing them out of their comfort zone. And they will be correct.
A Hall of Fame career almost wasn't. The Yankees took a chance on a productive talent, while others passed because he didn't fit the mold. Better yet, they let him be himself and ignored their urges to change an approach that was so clearly productive.
Prescriptive managers are rarely effective.
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