The Player-Manager

Steve Schnaudt

September 6, 2022

Throughout the history of Major League Baseball, the position of "Player-Manager" was fairly common, dating back to the 1800s. Baseball icons like Frank Robinson (who hit a home-run in his first at bat in Player-Manger role), Joe Cronin, Bill Dickey, Ty Cobb, Cy Young, Pete Rose, and Joe Torre served as player-managers during their storied careers. While there hasn't been a player-manager in baseball since the mid-1980s, baseball is still the only major professional sport where the head coach (the manager) wears a team uniform - a throwback to the days of the player-manager.

Hall of Famer Frank Robinson served as the Player-Manager of the Cleveland Indians for the 1975 and 1976 seasons

Nowadays, while we no longer have player-managers in baseball, in many industries, the front-line supervisors of our work forces are precisely that. In a fire department, these roles fall on the company officers - the Lieutenants and Captains. Line-level supervisors are an organization's most influential and visible leaders in public safety. They are expected not only to be coaches, mentors, and decision-makers but also to perform the same duties as the people they supervise. They're managing the team but also playing the game. They wear the uniform.

In my July 2022 blog post, I discussed how leaders need to be visible. Leaders must come from behind their desks and actively participate with their teams. But, being the player-manager in the public safety "game" requires an awful lot more than just wearing the same uniform.

You probably get some great perks if you're in a formal leadership position. Doing less work shouldn't be one of them. If your crew is sweating and dirty, then it's expected that you better be sweating and dirty too.

One of my favorite quotes is from USMC General James Mattis. "Everyone fills sandbags in this outfit." Essentially, when you are short-handed, or there is more work than people available to do it, your rank carries no privilege. You need to roll up your sleeves and lead by example.

USMC General James Mattis

You're going to make a much bigger impression when you are seen physically doing the same tasks as the people that you are managing are expected to do. Nothing is off-limits. From sweeping floors and cleaning dishes all the way to stretching hose lines off the fire engine and fully participating in company-level hands-on training.

There are many parallels in the fire service between the player-manager and the company officer:

  • At the beginning of a tour, the company officer holds a roll call and assigns riding positions. Before a game, the baseball manager submits a lineup card with everyone's field position and spot in the batting order.
  • Baseball players "practice." Fire departments do "company drills."
  • At a fire, the company officer determines the strategy and tactics needed to mitigate the emergency. Interior or exterior attack? The first line through the front door or to the rear? Request a 2nd alarm? In a game, the baseball manager changes pitchers, inserts a pinch hitter, calls for an intentional walk, or signals a runner to steal a base. Regardless of the "game," as the leader, it's your job to make the best calls to maximize your probability of winning.

Yes, if you are a supervisor, you have more work to do than the typical line-level employee. Rank carries a lot of extra responsibilities. Well, guess what? You are also being paid more to do that stuff. There will no doubt be some built-in downtime during your day when your team members can relax a little bit. They've earned that downtime if you are doing your job right. During their downtime is when you should be taking care of whatever administrative or other responsibilities you have as the boss.

Would the "player-manager" concept work in every industry? Probably not. But in many, it absolutely can and does.

So, what differentiates the run-of-the-mill manager from the "player-manager?" Well, the player-manager doesn't disappear to an office and hide behind a desk, only to conveniently reappear when the work is done. The player-manager doesn't just watch from the dugout. They recognize that they are a critical member of the team. They put themself into the lineup.

If you put on the uniform, you must be ready to enter the game. To swing the bat. To field your position. But, you must also remember and be able to manage, coach, mentor, lead and do all the other work that comes with your job.

Are you a player-manager or just a manager? 

Steven Schnaudt is retired Captain with the Robbinsville Township Fire Department in New Jersey. He is a Nationally Registered paramedic and a Level 2 fire instructor with over 30 years in fire and EMS. He has been published in both Fire Engineering Magazine and 1st Responder Newspaper and is almost always available on Twitter at @FireMedic40NJ.