NASHVILLE, Tenn. — When Jim Leyland was hired as the Pirates’ manager in November 1985, one of the Pittsburgh newspapers ran a column with the headline “Jim Who?”
That was a rather rude welcome to the Steel City for Leyland but there was some truth in the headline. Leyland had built a strong reputation within the game after a four-year stint as the Chicago White Sox’s third base coach, but he was an unknown to Pirates’ fans.
Well, he’s not Jim Who anymore. Now, he is Hall of Famer Jim Leyland.
Leyland was elected on Sunday night at baseball’s Winter Meetings. The 78-year-old received 15 of 16 votes from the contemporary era committee for managers, executives and umpires.
Leyland will become the 23rd manager inducted into the Hall on July 21 during ceremonies in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Leyland won 1,769 regular-season games during 22 seasons that included stints with the Pirates (1986-96), the Marlins (1997-98), Colorado Rockies (1999) and Detroit Tigers (2006-13). He won a World Series championship with the Marlins in 1997 and took the Tigers to the Fall Classic in 2006 and 2012.
However, from a major-league managerial standpoint, it all started in Pittsburgh when then-general manager Syd Thrift hired Leyland, who had also spent seven seasons as a player and seven more as a manager in the Tigers’ farm system before joining the White Sox.
While Leyland moved on to manage three other teams, he still calls Pittsburgh home and has a soft spot for the Pirates. And he certainly wasn’t thinking about Cooperstown in 1986.
“All those years in the minors, I never really even thought about coaching in the big leagues,” Leyland said Sunday night. “I was just a minor league manager and I never really thought that I was ever going to get that opportunity later on in my career. When I got to Triple-A as a manager, I thought I might end up having a chance to coach someday in the big leagues, but not really a manager.”
Leyland then chuckled.
“Yeah, I was Jim Who when I got here and, you know, I’m still here,” he said. “So, at least people know me a little better than they did when I first got here.”
A whole lot better.
Leyland’s 851 wins with the Pirates are third in franchise history behind Fred Clarke (1,422) and Danny Murtaugh (1,115). Clarke is in the Hall of Fame and Murtaugh should be.
Thrift once famously said “It ain’t easy raising the dead,” when asked about the Pirates’ rebuilding process that started in 1986 after the Pirates had lost 104 games a year earlier in Chuck Tanner’s final season as manager.
Yet, Leyland helped raise the dead after the franchise nearly was sold to out-of-town interests in 1985 until Pittsburgh mayor Richard Caliguiri formed an unprecedented public/private consortium to buy the Pirates.
The Pirates lost 98 games in Leyland’s first season in 1986 but were competitive by the end of 1987. Eventually, they won three straight National League East titles from 1990-92.
The turnaround wasn’t all because of Leyland, of course. However, he played a big hand in it with his fiery style that motivated players but was offset by a caring side that helped nurture those same players.
Leyland’s biggest regret during his 11 seasons with the Pirates was not reaching a World Series. They lost in three straight National League Championship Series from 1990-92.
The Pirates still haven’t been to the World Series since 1979 and haven’t won a division title since 1992. So, Leyland isn’t the only manager who hasn’t got the Pirates over the hump in the last four-plus decades.
With his spot in Cooperstown officially reserved, it only confirms the Pirates turned out to be touched by greatness when they hired Jim Who.