Because of their unenviable place on baseball’s pecking order, Class B minor-league teams rarely hired rising managers on their way to the Major Leagues. Exceptions aside, normally they were thirtysomething player-managers or crusty baseball lifers still fortunate to earn a paycheck while wearing a uniform. It beat working.
That was the Anniston Rams’ plight. The inaugural Rams of 1938, seventh in the Southeastern League, cycled through two managers: Lena Styles, a native Alabamian who enjoyed a few pedestrian seasons in the Major Leagues, and Ray Brubaker, who never reached MLB but played (23 years) and managed (13 years) extensively in the minors.
In 1939, the second-year Rams seemed to strike gold when they hired the son of a German immigrant, Paul “Pee Wee” Wanninger, as manager. Anniston couldn’t expect to lure Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig, but in the Birmingham-born Wanninger they had a player-manager who’d been a teammate of Ruth and Gehrig’s in New York, befriending them both, and played a sizeable role in a longstanding baseball record.
Yet, a question lingered: Could he manage?
The concern was real. Wanninger’s resume was dominated not by managerial skill but by a single season, in 1925, in which he made the Yankees’ roster with a spectacular spring that threatened playing time for veteran shortstop Everett Scott. When Manager Miller Huggins started Wanninger over Scott on May 6, it ended Scott’s then-record streak of consecutive games at 1,307. When Gehrig, then a youthful prospect, pinch hit for Wanninger on June 1, it marked the first of 2,130 consecutive games in which he’d appear. (Gehrig started at first base the next day for Wally Pipp and wouldn’t miss a game for 14 years. Cal Ripken broke Gehrig’s streak in 1995, extending the MLB record to 2,632 consecutive games. Wanninger would play only one season with the Yankees and split one other summer with Cincinnati and the Boston Red Sox, finishing with a .234 average in 163 career games.)
In a 1980 interview with the Associated Press’ Will Grimsley, Wanninger described his friendship with two of the game’s all-time greats. “Gehrig was very quiet but a nice fellow,” he said. “The Babe and I often went over to his house to eat German cooking. The Babe? He had a big appetite but I never found him to be the beer drinker and womanizer he has been painted. When we went to small towns, he would always go to hospitals and orphanages. The Babe never forgot he was an orphan himself.”
Nevertheless, the Southern League’s Knoxville Smokies in 1934 went to spring training with the inexperienced Wanninger as their dugout leader. Two days before the opener, the Smokies canned him while offering only a vague explanation. “We hold no ill feeling toward Wanninger,” team secretary Edgar Allen told The Knoxville Journal. “We feel that a change will strengthen the club and better our chances to be up among the teams battling for first division.”
Bob Murphy, the Journal’s sports editor, excoriated Wanninger after admitting that the former Yankee “had a great personality,” was accommodating and polite with sports writers, and was good with his players. Murphy liked him. “But I am equally positive Paul (Pee Wee) Wanninger, the baseball player, never would have been a success as a manager in the Southern League … Pee Wee just wasn’t intended to do things that way. And I don’t mean that as a slam at Wanninger.”
A year later, Wanninger was hired to manage a lower-level roster in Daytona, Florida, but the team folded in the spring, robbing him of another managerial opportunity. Signed by Augusta of the South Atlantic League in 1936, Wanninger slipped into the player-manager’s role in late May when he took over for Dixie Parker. The experiment lasted a month. When Augusta finished in last place in the season’s first half and refused to win at the beginning of the second, Wanninger (the manager) was dumped on July 1. Wanninger (the player) remained on the roster.
When Anniston hired him to pilot the Rams in December 1938, The Anniston Star didn’t mention his previous managerial missteps. “This will be Wanninger’s first year as a manager,” the paper wrote. Not everyone thought it a lackluster hire. Ray Adamski, the Rams’ catcher, told The Star he’d played with Wanninger elsewhere, and that Anniston “couldn’t find a better man to pilot the Rams for the coming season. He is a very popular fellow, and, incidentally, he won a most popular player award in 1936 (at Augusta).”
Despite the muted outlook, the summer of 1939, as well as Wanninger’s managerial performance, blossomed into one of the bright spots of the Rams’ lifespan. Wanninger led Anniston to within a half game of the playoffs and its first winning season (71-70), one of only three positive campaigns in its 10 seasons. His self-deprecating handling of his playing time twice made headlines in The Sporting News: once, in April, when he benched himself to strengthen the Rams’ lineup, and a second time in May when he placed himself on the inactive list to make room for a newly acquired pitcher.
Wanninger would manage again — in Selma, in Montgomery, in Huntington — in the years before World War II, but never again would he manage the same team for an entire season. His one year with the surprisingly competitive ‘39 Rams would be his managerial apex.
When the war enveloped the 39-year-old Wanninger into the Army Air Corps, he was assigned to coach stateside military teams, sparing him from combat. Wanninger died in 1981 in North Augusta, South Carolina. He’s buried in Elmwood Cemetery in Birmingham.