A new study finds that healthy people who continue to work after age 65 are likely to live longer than those who retire. But many older adults don’t get the chance, too often tossed aside by employers who can’t see past their gray hair. And that got me thinking about major league baseball, now in full swing. Why? Because often the boys of summer are managed by old guys. Sometimes by really old guys.
Age discrimination may infect much of the American workplace, but not the major league baseball diamond, where demands for immediate success are intense.
My local team, the Washington Nationals, is managed by 67-year-old Dusty Baker. One of his top coaches is 70, and another is 65. Baker is almost three-times as old as his best player, 23-year-old Bryce Harper.
In a couple of weeks, the Nats may well be playing the New York Mets for first place in the National League’s eastern conference. The Mets are managed by Terry Collins, who is a mere 66. And Collins is a tyke compared to one of his predecessors, the legendary Casey Stengel, who managed the “amazin” Mets until age 75. The (possibly apocryphal) story goes that he retired only after breaking a hip—falling off a barstool.
And even Stengel fell well short of the major league record. Jack McKeon won a World Series as skipper of the Florida Marlins in 1973, just a few weeks short of his 74th birthday. He retired at 75, but then was rehired to manage the Marlins again at age 80. And Connie Mack managed the old Philadelphia Athletics for 50 years—until age 87.
Mack had long since passed his prime when he left the Athletics. And Stengel, who had many successful years across town managing the Yankees, was hired by the truly terrible Mets as much for his entertainment value as for his managing skills.
But Baker and Collins are hardly being kept around for fun (though Baker is a great storyteller). Both are managing teams with high expectations. And if they don’t win 90 or so games and make it to the playoffs, disappointed fans will be calling for their heads. There is no room for sentiment in big-bucks professional sports. They are expected to deliver.
Baker, who replaced a 50-year-old after one of those disappointing seasons, appears to have the skills and experience to manage 25 rich, headstrong young men. So far at least, there is no grumbling that Baker is over the hill (of course, it helps that the team has won 19 games and lost only 9. And the 20- and 30-somethings he manages value Baker’s long experience. They should since he played big league baseball for 19 years and managed for 20 more and sees few things for the first time these days.
And that’s the thing. Professional sports is the ultimate meritocracy. As they say, you win or you go home. And older managers win respect not for their gray hair or their ability to reminisce about the good old days, but for leadership under great pressure, and the calmness that comes from experience.
That’s how they’d want it. And that’s how it should be. Too bad so many US companies don’t get it. Like the Nats and Mets, they might be much more successful if they did.