By Scott A. Rowan
Philip Wrigley has often been misunderstood. He loved working on engines and mechanical parts, but when he tried to apply that knowledge to human beings, everything fell apart. Such was the case with yet another first in sports history pioneered by Wrigley.
Today, every sports team has vast weight rooms filled with special training equipment and staffed by strength professionals who oversee players’ workouts. There are now entire companies specializing in workouts for certain positions. But it wasn’t always that way. In fact, the first team to attempt such tactics— which was also the first to hire someone to oversee this area—found its players and coaches alike were simply too entrenched in old-fashioned methods to give this new approach a fair shake.
“I was ahead of my time,” said Colonel Robert Whitlow, whom Wrigley hired as the Chicago Cubs’ athletic director on January 10, 1963, becoming the first person to hold that position in Major League Baseball. “None of the ballclubs had special training rooms. Now they have as many as two and three rooms filled with the latest machines,” continued Whitlow. Whitlow was accustomed to being first. He was also the first athletic director at the Air Force Academy. This 6’5″, 230- pound colonel quickly turned his cadets into peerless physical specimens. But doing the same thing with a group of professional baseball players proved to be a different kettle of fish. It didn’t help that Whitlow had no professional baseball experience (although he did pitch for UCLA during his college years). Major-league players had their own traditional ways of doing things, and they were not interested in changing.
It also didn’t help that Whitlow’s responsibilities were vague from the beginning. He became a fourth layer of management with unspecified duties. Whitlow was technically under only Wrigley in the management structure, overseeing both general manager John Holland and team manager Bob Kennedy. But Whitlow’s only discernible accomplishment during the two years he was with the Cubs abolishing Wrigley’s “College of Coaches” and installing Kennedy as the team’s manager. (It’s little wonder that as a student of military hierarchy management structures, Whitlow saw the need for one voice in charge in the dugout.) At the announcement of his hiring, Wrigley said Whitlow would be “responsible for the conduct of the club on the field.” But what did that mean? Nobody was sure.
The fit and trim Whitlow knew that the Cubs would not be successful if they were not in shape. He took his role as athletic director seriously, audaciously requiring the team to work out, eat better, and avoid alcohol and late night partying. Today, teams spend hundreds of thousands of dollars each year on personnel and equipment to do the same thing. Recalled Ron Santo in Wrigleyville:
[Whitlow] would run spring training, and they ran it like a military camp. The only thing we didn’t have was army uniforms. You couldn’t believe it. We never did things like this . . . jumping jacks, this, that, you had to be in a straight line, you had to be in formation. It was something. An army colonel was running spring training!
Formation? Exercise? Special foods? Baseball players were not ready for that kind of regimentation. In fact, the widespread opinion in the baseball world was that players got in playing shape by playing actual games during spring training, not by following a strict workout regimen and dietary restrictions.
“The players were eating too many hot dogs,” Whitlow told Jerome Holtzman for a Chicago Tribune column in 1994. “I was trying to come up with an energy food. I found a company that was into that sort of thing. They were patterned after chocolate milk balls, but they had a lot of vitamin C. The players liked them, but after a while they sort of lost interest.”
Actually, the players didn’t lose interest so much as they hated taking orders from a non-baseball guy, and a military man, to boot. Said Don Elston in Wrigleyville:
We didn’t like what he was doing at all. He came out in the morning with calisthenics, jumping jacks, and all that jazz. . . . “This is the way we did it in the army. This is what we’re doing here.” And we resented that. There was a lot of resentment about the Colonel. He was a nice man, but we didn’t like that concept. He was the athletic director? In college maybe. Not in the major leagues.
Today, Whitlow’s ideas are an integral part of professional sports of all kinds, not just baseball. In fact, strength trainers are indebted to Whitlow for helping to create their field. The Professional Baseball Strength & Conditioning Coaches Association was founded in 1993—30 years after Whitlow became the first and only known athletic director in pro sports—with only five professional strength trainers registered during its first year. According to the nonprofit organization’s website, the PBSCCA now has strength coaches from every MLB team, as well as many minor league squads.
As historian John Snyder explained in his book Cubs Journal:
Whitlow had many ideas about conditioning, diet, and use of a computer to spot trends and formulate strategy that later became common in baseball, but his lack of experience in the sport gave him no credibility. Whitlow was ignored by general manager John Holland and head coach Bob Kennedy. The colonel resigned in January 1965, and the position of athletic director was abolished.
Many historians have called the Whitlow experiment a failure or worse. “A terrible idea” wrote one historian, while another said, “Had it not been so sad, it would have been funny.” But Wrigley and Whitlow have had the last laugh: while the title of athletic director no longer exists in professional baseball, the specific strength and nutrition guidelines that Whitlow tried to instill in the Cubs are alive and well today. They are simply handled by many more people, including nutritionists, strength trainers, and team trainers. In fact, the ideas of healthy eating, workouts, and discipline are very much a part of teams in every sport, whether professional or amateur, and have been for decades thanks to pioneers like Whitlow.
“Baseball simply was not ready for an athletic director,” Wrigley said after Whitlow quit. “Maybe in the years ahead baseball will accept one. Whitlow was ahead of his time.” That quote came from Jimmy Greenfield’s book 100 Things Every Cubs Fan Should Know & Do Before They Die, and the author followed up the quote with one observation: “That time still hasn’t come.”
We respectfully but vehemently disagree. In fact, the financial market analysis company IBIS World estimated in a February 2013 report that the health and fitness club market in the United States alone generates roughly $26 billion annually, and that “demand for gyms and health and fitness clubs will continue to rise over the next five years, as the general public becomes more health-conscious and the aging population places a greater emphasis on staying fit.”
Whitlow and Wrigley cannot claim credit for the creation of fitness clubs, of course, but they certainly were the first to make health, fitness, and strength a priority in baseball specifically and in professional sports in general.
Wrigley was only partially correct when he said that Whitlow was ahead of his time. Wrigley was too.
Jerome Holtzman, “College Of Coaches Got Failing Grade From AD Whitlow,” Chicago Tribune, February 20, 1994, http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1994-02-20/ sports/9402200477_1_training-remember-philip-wrigley.
Jimmy Greenfield, 100 Things Cubs Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die (Chicago: Triumph
Books, 2012), 51
Golenbock, Wrigleyville, 38
Snyder, Cubs, 42
Shea, Wrigley, 22
Stout and Johnson, Cubs, 242.
“Gym, Health & Fitness Clubs in the US: Market Research Report,” ibisworld.com, May 2013, http://www.ibisworld.com/industry/default.aspx?indid=1655.
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