Time Capsule

Bill Veeck had a long career as a flamboyant baseball executive, but he got his start as an assistant to Philip K. Wrigley, the owner of the Chicago Cubs and heir to the chewing gum empire. Wrigley’s eccentricity is on display in Veeck’s autobiography, where he describes an encounter with an unnamed voodoo expert: “One afternoon, I was called into Mr. Wrigley’s office. … Seated in one of the easy chairs alongside the desk was a ferret-faced wizened little guy in a checkered suit. … ‘He’s going to help us,’ [Wrigley] told me. ‘He’s going to give us a psychological advantage.’… [The guy] jumped out of his chair, fixed me with an awesome and terrible glare and began to circle around me, making cobra-like passes at me with one hand like Bela Lugosi.”

The “guy,” a self-proclaimed “evil eye,” promised to “put the whammy” on opposing teams during Cubs’ games. Veeck, a master promoter who had long thought the Cubs were weak on marketing, was elated at Wrigley’s apparent publicity stunt.

“Let me give it to the papers today,” Veeck pleaded. “There is nothing funny about this,” Wrigley shot back. “This man might help us.”

Wrigley had great standing as a captain of American industry in the 1930s, but fellow baseball team owners considered him a bit of a crank. So, when he called on University of Illinois experimental psychologist Coleman Griffith to bring his powers to bear upon the Cubs for the 1938 season, opinion among Chicago’s sports writers and fans was decidedly mixed. Was this just another crazy flight of Wrigley’s fancy?

Griffith opened America’s first athletics research laboratory at the University of Illinois in 1925. Although the lab attracted some attention at the time, university trustees shut it down after only six years. Official accounts blamed cutbacks on the Depression, but rumors circulated that Illinois football coach Robert Zupke had recommended its closure. Griffith was shifted into a middling administrative role, and it looked like his sport research days were over. But then Wrigley came calling late in 1937 not only with a job, but also with an equipment budget, a laboratory in Chicago and an invitation to join the Cubs for spring training on Santa Catalina Island off the southern California coast. Griffith bought his lab gear — including high-speed movie cameras and chronoscopes — and headed west.

Whatever benefits Wrigley and Griffith thought a psychologist might bring to a professional sports team, the Cubs coaching staff had other ideas. Manager Charlie Grimm had apparently slid into a depression so severe toward the end of the previous season that he had been temporarily replaced by one of the players, catcher and future Hall-of- Famer Gabby Hartnett. The team led the National League into late August of 1937, but slipped into second in the first week of September and finished there. Grimm returned for the 1938 season, but most of the players did not think he would last. Apparently, Grimm felt the pressure. He mocked the “headshrinkers,” as he called them, and ordered his players not to cooperate.

Griffith tried, at first, to defuse the resentment by inviting the manager into the circle of psychologists. In the first of 16 short reports Griffith submitted to Wrigley during the season, he opined that “every human being ... is a psychologist simply because [of] the adjustments he makes to other people and the adjustments they make to him.” Therefore, the baseball manager is a psychologist, too, because his job is to “handle men.” The only question, according to Griffith, was whether he uses psychology effectively. The ploy didn’t work. Grimm continued to freeze the psychologists out. Wrigley watched and did nothing.

On July 1, 1938, a frustrated Griffith reported to Wrigley that the spring training sessions had been “aimless, disorganized and unproductive.” He recommended a number of changes to make practice drills seem more like actual game situations, such as calling balls and strikes during batting practice, rather than just allowing batters to swing away at a set number of pitches. Most of his advice, however, had to do with the attitude the players took into the game: “A man’s frame of mind, his outlook, the way he feels,” Grif.th wrote in a July 10 report, “is a kind of foundation for his special [baseball] skills …. He should make [the will to win] a necessary feature of every practice period and of every game he plays. He must reduce it to a habit.” Still, none of his recommendations were implemented.

By July 26, the Cubs were languishing in fourth place. Wrigley fired Grimm and replaced him with the catcher, Hartnett, for the rest of the season. At first, Griffith had reason to hope that Hartnett would be more amenable to his ideas and they met to discuss each player from a psychological standpoint. But soon Griffith came into conflict with Hartnett as well. Disparaging Hartnett’s traditional baseball mindset, Griffith wrote that “to appeal to instinct or to heredity is … a lazy, unimaginative and ignorant man’s way of evading the demands of his job.”

Despite Griffith’s skepticism, Hartnett’s leadership seemed to work: The Cubs began to climb in the standings during September, taking over first place on a game-ending home run by Hartnett himself. The Cubs won the National League, but were quickly downed by the New York Yankees in the World Series.

After the season was over, Griffith submitted to Wrigley a 183-page report on the team’s campaign. Griffith wrote that Hartnett “was not at all a smart man. ... He [doesn’t] have the ability to adapt himself to any other style of training and coaching but that with which he had been familiar throughout his playing career.”

Even if Wrigley had been inclined to fire Hartnett, the catcher’s late-season heroics had made him a fan favorite, and so he stayed on for the 1939 season. Griffith, too, worked for the Cubs in 1939, though only part time. He submitted just four short reports, but noted in one that, “as far as the team and its management is concerned, we have met not only with failure but with a large amount of suspicion and distrust.” The Cubs finished fourth that year.

Griffith filed one last report in 1940, marking the end of psychology’s initial venture into the world of professional sports. Most baseball managers saw the project as a failure, and the idea was not picked up by other teams for a long while to come. Griffith returned to the University of Illinois, where he rose to the level of provost. He retired in 1962 and died in 1966, just a year before the founding of the North American Society for the Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity. In 1970, University of Massachusetts professors Walter Kroll and Guy Lewis rediscovered Griffith’s work and declared him “America’s First Sport Psychologist.” Today, the Association for the Advancement of Applied Sport Psychology has an annual award named in his honor.

Christopher D. Green, PhD, is a professor of psychology at York University in Toronto. Katharine S. Milar, PhD, of Earlham College is historical editor of “Time Capsule.”

Further reading

  • Green, C.D. (2003) Psychology strikes out: Coleman R. Griffith and the Chicago Cubs. History of Psychology, 6, 267–283. DOI: 10.1037/1093-4510.6.3.267

  • Green, C.D. (2006). Coleman Griffith: “Adopted” father of sport psychology. In L. Benjamin, D. Dewsbury, & M. Wertheimer (Eds.). Portraits of pioneers in psychology (vol. 6). Washington D.C.: APA & Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

  • Griffith, C.R. (1928). Psychology and athletics: A general survey for athletes and coaches. New York: Scribner’s.

  • Kroll, W., & Lewis, G. (1978). America’s first sport psychologist. In W. F. Straub (Ed.), Sport psychology: An analysis of athlete behavior (pp. 16–19). Ithaca, NY: Mouvement (Original work published 1970).