Monday, October 06, 2003

A Lesson from Little Napoleon:
Balancing Discipline w/Creativity  

John McGraw started playing in the majors in 1891 at age 18. He was lucky to play as the 3rd baseman for one of the legendary franchises of the 19th century, the Baltimore Orioles of the American Association and then National League. But he was ambitious, too, and that ambition stoked his chances for becoming a manager.

From 1890s baseball, he learned that in a free market, chaos reigns supreme, and as a result, an organization willing to push the limits of rules (or simply break them and worry about the consequences later) had a massive comparative edge. Baseball in that century was pock-marked with here-today-gone-tomorrow franchises, owners who would not pay players, players who would jump contracts, and volatile rules. In that environment, the Orioles set a standard for brawling, high-pressure, anything-goes Baseball, replete with sharpened spikes and a relish for bullying the single umpire appointed to be the arbiter of a game.

But it wasn’t just physical intimidation that set the Orioles apart. They were brainy criminals. Their Hall-of-Fame left-fielder Joe Kelley had good range and a legendary throwing arm and nailed many a critical baserunner at third or home. But it’s important to note Kelley helped himself in this endeavor by keeping a spare ball hidden in the 3-½ inch grass common in the outfields of the era (baseball stadia are called "fields" for a reason). If a ball got past Kelley and was low enough to “disappear” from infield vantages, he might grab the hidden ball and use his rifle to cut down runners whose judgement had told them the ball was past him. According to legend, Kelley was finally caught only because his centerfield teammate, Steve Brodie, tore after a ball through the gap while Joe grabbed the hidden ball and threw it to the infielder. Not seeing the throw, Brodie chucked the actual game ball back into the infield, too.

The Orioles strategy was to make the chaotic environment even more anarchic, trying out all kinds of tactics and changing them daily to confuse opponents and umpires. Looking beyond his playing career, McGraw worked out an off-season job that gave him a different perspective. In exchange for free tuition, room and board, he became the baseball coach at the college known today as St. Bonaventure, and accumulated both credits and knowledge of the complete antithesis of anarchy — the rigor of Catholic education. Even though he was about the same age as the college players he was coaching, he had to be the responsible figure, so he couldn’t have his collegians use his own Oriole techniques such as grabbing the belt of an opposing runner going past him at 3rd base.

McGraw synthesized the creative effervescence of Oriole pressure tactics with the rigorous structure he observed at the educational institution. The result was controlled pressure. “Little Napoleon” learned, too, that adaptation to current circumstances was absolutely vital to survival — he had to, because his on the field and off-season environments were antipodes. Applied creativity in contemporary organizations is best served by a foundation of order, not necessarily “control,” but a structured system and environment that also encourages and rewards creativity. McGraw and the players who toiled for him learned this lesson.

Sadly, American organizations almost never learn this lesson from baseball, becoming miasmæ of sloppiness in the name of creativity at one extreme, or little Falangist rules-worshipping dead-ends at the other, instead of finding that straightforward combination.

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