Coleman Griffith

From BR Bullpen

Coleman Roberts Griffith

Biographical Information[edit]

Coleman Griffiths is considered the father of sports psychology in the United States. He worked for the Chicago Cubs from 1938 to 1940.

Griffith was a Professor of Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign specializing in the psychological aspects of sports, when he was contacted by Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley after the Cubs' disappointing 1937 season, when they lost the pennant to the New York Giants due to a late-season swoon. Wrigley considered that the Cubs' problems lied as much in their heads as with the talent at their disposal; he was a man interested in how science could help business, leading to his search for a novel approach to helping his team.

Coleman Griffith had played some baseball while an undergraduate at Greenville College, although his interest in the discipline he helped found was based more on his relationship with football coach Robert Zuppke at the University of Illinois where he did his graduate work and earned a PhD in psychology. He began working in the field in 1918, measuring the correlation between athletes' reaction times and their performance. His work was noticed by the New York Times, and in 1923 he taught the first course on psychology and athletics. He went to Germany where the first experiments in sports psychology were being conducted and brought those techniques back to the U.S. He worked with legendary football coach Knute Rockne of the University of Notre Dame, published journal articles on the mental aspects of athletic competition and was provided funds by his university to set up a large research facility. In 1926, he published two classic books Psychology of Coaching and Psychology of Athletics. The laboratory was closed for budgetary reasons at the height of the Great Depression in 1932, but Griffiths remained interested in the subject.

In his work with the Cubs, Griffith used a chronoscope which was able to measure reaction times down to the thousandth of a second, and a high speed movie camera that allowed the study of players in slow motion. He accompanied the Cubs to spring training on Catalina Island, CA in 1938 and began writing regular reports addressed to owner Wrigley entitled The Psychological Point of View. He had a good relationship with the players, but not necessarily with manager Charlie Grimm who saw him as a "headshrinker" and "egghead interloper". Griffith, in turn, expressed his lack of enthusiasm for the manager in his reports, who he saw as "aimless, disorganized and unproductive". He suggested that the Cubs make improvement by adopting a more systematic training regimen, changing their approach to batting practice, making greater effort to practice newly-acquired skills, and install a series of "achievement tests" to measure progress. No need to say that the old-school Grimm was not interested in changing the way he was doing things, and by early June, instructed his players to stop cooperating with the psychologist. But Grimm's position was not secure; with the Cubs struggling on the field, he was fired on July 20th and replaced by catcher Gabby Hartnett. The relationship with Hartnett was better at first, but there is no evidence that any of Griffith's recommendations were actually put into action. Hartnett did manage to turn around the team's fortunes, however, leading them to the pennant (although they were swept by the New York Yankees in the World Series). By then, Griffith's reports were critical of Hartnett: [He is] "not at all a smart man... Not a teacher nor would he have the ability to adapt himself to any other style of training and coaching but that which he had been familiar throughout his playing career", he wrote to P.K. Wrigley in his year-end report.

Nothing succeeds like success, however, so Wrigley decided to confirm Hartnett in his position, and also to keep Griffith on staff for 1939. He was around the team in a reduced capacity, however. He still wrote a few reports, but they reflected his growing distrust with the manager and seem to have had little influence (luckily, perhaps, since he evaluated incorrectly that up-and-coming Cubs star Phil Cavarretta would not amount to much, based on his psychological assessment). The Cubs finished in third place, and Griffith thought he knew the cause of the shortfall: "The center of the whole problem is Hartnett... Hartnett is a man who must satisfy his ego at all costs". But the catcher kept his job, and Griffith only wrote one report during the 1940 season, then his services were no longer retained.

Griffith's career prospered however. He became Provost at the University of Illinois, and retired from teaching in 1962. The discipline of sports psychology was by then recognized and he was considered the father of the field. Ironically, Wrigley rehired Grimm as his manager in 1944, and he led the team to a World Series appearance in 1945, sports psychology be damned. The next psychologist hired by a major league team was hypnotist David Tracy, who worked for the St. Louis Browns in 1950 under maverick owner Bill Veeck, but eventually all teams realized the value of having a sports psychologist on staff.

Further Reading[edit]

  • Christopher D. Green: "Psychology Strikes Out: Coleman Griffith and the Chicago Cubs", History of Psychology, volume 6, 2003, pp. 267-283.
  • Christopher D. Green: "The Chicago Cubs and 'The Headshrinker': An Early Foray into Sports Psychology", in The Baseball Research Journal, SABR, Volume 40, Number 1 (Spring 2011), pp. 42-45.