2010 I-70 Hall Of Legends Inductee: Whitey Herzog

Dorrel Norman Elvert Herzog, a name as obscure as his eight year MLB playing career. Herzog was drafted out of high school in 1949 by the New York Yankees. The Yankees shipped him to the Sooner State League, where sports broadcaster Bill Speith christened the left handed outfielder with the nickname of ‘Whitey,’ for the appearance of his light colored hair.

Even though Herzog would never make his way as a Yankee, his time with the club shaped what would come to be one of the most innovative baseball minds. The lessons he learned in the Yankees farm system ultimately altered the way baseball was played in the Midwest. Herzog was profoundly affected by the teachings of Yankees manager Casey Stengel.

“I’ll bet Casey Stengel walked me down the third-base line 75 times a day teaching me that good base running boils down to anticipation and knowledge of the defense,” said Herzog in a New York Times interview. “Those teachings added up to one thing, he said: “You can steal a lot of runs.”

The Yankees eventually shipped Herzog to the Washington Senators in a trade. Herzog made his MLB debut with the Senators in 1956. 1958 marked his first season in Kansas City. He played two seasons with the A’s, in the town where he would make his managerial impact. Herzog’s career included pit stops in Baltimore and Detroit. In his eight MLB seasons Herzog hit .254 with 25 HR, 60 2B, 20 3B, 172 RBI, 213 R, 634 games.

“Baseball has been good to me since I quit trying to play it,” Herzog frequently said during his managerial career.

After his playing career ended in 1963, Herzog revisited one of his favorite stops as a player, Kansas City. Herzog spent 1964-65 seasons as a player scout and special assignment coach for the A’s.

In 1966, he earned a position on New York Mets manager Wes Westrum’s coaching staff. Herzog served as third base coach, while Hall of Famer Yogi Berra coached first.

“He was an excellent third-base coach, maybe the best I ever saw,” said Ralph Kiner, the last of the Mets’ original broadcasters. “He knows more about baseball than anybody I’ve been around, except maybe Al Lopez.”

Herzog made his biggest impression as director of player development in his six years with New York. Herzog mentored the likes of Gene Gentry, Wayne Garrett, Jon Matlack, John Milner, Amos Otis, and Ken Singleton. These players proved instrumental as the nucleus for the squads which made World Series appearances in 1969 and 1973

“A good third-base coach can win 16 or 17 games a season for his club,” said Herzog in 1966 New York Times interview. “When a base runner has a chance to score, you’ve got to remember that the percentage is with him. It’s like being a gambler — you’ll force the other side to make either a perfect play or a damaging mistake.”

He was beginning to make his visions felt on a Major League level; a managerial monster was being born in the Mets third base coach’s box.

During Herzog’s tenure with the Mets, former Brooklyn Dodger star Gil Hodges took over managerial duties. Prior to the 1972 season, Hodges died suddenly of a heart attack. Many speculated Herzog would be the man to replace Hodges; he had been groomed perfectly for the job.

Eventually Mets Chairman of the Board, M. Donald Grant, chose Yogi Berra as the predecessor.

“Grant’s people even ordered me to stay away from Gil’s funeral just so there wouldn’t be speculation that I’d be hired as the new manager. I’ve never forgiven them for that,” said Herzog in Peter Golenbock’s book “Amazin’.”

Herzog felt slighted by the Mets front office, which grew into a common theme through his coaching career.

Herzog, 41, left New York after the season to accept his first managerial position in November 1972 with the Texas Rangers. The previous season the Rangers had finished 54-100 under the guidance of Ted Williams.

Owner Bob Short ultimately hired Herzog after strong lobbying from general manager Joe Burke. Burke understood Herzog possessed the tools to develop their young team into a winner.

A slow start soured his first season as a manager and was dismissed 138 games into the season. His two year contract was terminated before he made it out of his first season. The wheels were put into motion on the firing when Detroit manager Billy Martin was fired on Thursday, August 30. Herzog was relieved five days later, so Martin could take over in Texas.

Later, Short would admit he liked Herzog as a manager and even offered him a general manager position with the club. Herzog turned it down because he preferred being on the field. Herzog would later say Short told him, “I’d fire my grandmother to hire Billy Martin.”

Herzog moved on to California in 1974 to help coach the Angels. He served as interim manager for four games with the Angels.

After the 1973 season Texas finished its front office overhaul by letting go general manager Joe Burke. Burke found work quickly as the general manager for Kansas City during the 1974 season.

The 1975 Royals got off to a hot start. The franchise had only had two winning season in its history, never finishing at the top of the division. They were talented, the roster included Buck Martinez, John Mayberry, Cookie Rojas, Paul Splittorff, Harmon Killebrew, youngsters George Brett and Frank White, and Amos Otis, a player developed by Herzog.

Manager Jack McKeon led the Royals to a 50-46 start. In odd timing Burke decided Herzog was what the club needed to make it a contender. The man who had given Herzog his first shot at managing in the big leagues came knocking again.

“I don’t think I would have got another chance to manage in the big leagues if Joe Burke hadn’t given me the opportunity,” Herzog said.

It seemed like a perfect fit. Even though Herzog was born in New Athens, Illinois, he had retired in Independence, Missouri after his playing career. After his tenure as both a player and coach previously in his career with the Kansas City A’s, it felt like a hometown hire.

McKeon was a capable manager, 28 years later he took home the 2003 World Series Trophy with the Florida Marlins. Early in his career, player’s questioned his credibility since McKeon had never played or coached in the big leagues before.

“When Whitey came in, all of a sudden there was credibility there,” Splittorff said. “He was so popular, so honest, so believable. He was a great fit.”

Herzog finished the Royals campaign by going 41-25. The Royals finished second in the division at 91-71, a club record for wins at the time.

Herzog recognized his distinct style for the game matched perfectly with the Royals organization. Kansas City had young talent, and an enormous outfield on an Astroturf playing surface. Speedsters Freddie Patek and Herzog’s pupil Otis helped deploy his innovative style. He took advantage of speed on the base paths, solid and speedy defenders, and quality pitching. He had adapted his approach to the roster of the Royals and confines of Kaufmann.

“We played the style of ball he wanted to play because we had a speed team, a line-drive team on artificial turf, which was about the only team like that in the American League,” Splittorff said. “We took off and he was our guy and we were his guys. It kind of snowballed and we got there (first place) quick.

Burke’s risky timing paid off. Herzog led the Royals to their first playoff appearance the next season. He has transformed Kansas City into a perennial play of contender, winning the AL West Division Championship three consecutive seasons.

“One thing he did,” said second baseman Frank White, “was that he just kind of got out of the way and let guys play. He said, ‘As long you make good decisions, you’ll never hear from me. For the first six innings, just play the game aggressively.’ He let us put our own hit-and-runs on and he let us play the defense the way we wanted to play defense. But he said. ‘If we haven’t caught up by the seventh, then it’s my game.”’

In all three years the Royals had fallen to the Yankees in the five game series. The frustration had lingering effects on fans and Herzog alike.

Herzog had always brought a certain presence to the dugout. He had learned the games from the likes of Casey Stengel, but at the same time had a hardnosed mentality combined with the passion to win not seen frequently in today’s game. The players respected him, but most importantly he had a dedication to the integrity of the game and the way he felt it should played.

His unflinching devotion to winning and playing the game correctly showed through specifically in the losses to New York. One series proved especially painful after first baseman John Mayberry should up a few minutes before Game four in 1977. Mayberry dropped a fly ball which kept a Yankee rally alive, Herzog removed him after four innings.

Herzog reprimanded Mayberry further, sitting him for the deciding Game five. The Royals jumped to a 3-1 lead, but without a front line closer lost the lead late. The Royals fell 5-3.

Mayberry was sold to Toronto the next spring and never played for Herzog again.

Herzog said he told Burke and owner Ewing Kauffman that “it’s either him or me. I didn’t want to bring him to spring training. Finally, just a couple of days before the start of the season, Mayberry was moved.”

The loss in 1978 proved too much for Herzog, “They go out and sign Reggie Jackson, Sparky Lyle and Gossage,” he said after the game. “And who do we sign? Jerry Terrell. … All we needed was Gossage and if we’d paid him $600,000, we could have had him but (the Royals’ front office) wouldn’t do it.”

Herzog’s passion for winning often came at the expense of owners, whom he felt weren’t as dedicated to victory. These comments only worsened the rocky relationship between Herzog and Kauffman.

One of the biggest factors in the feud was a small clause in Herzog’s contract. If the Royals drew two million fans, which they did in 1978-79, Herzog would get a $50,000 bonus each year.

“Kauffman said I didn’t draw the people,” Herzog said. “And I said, ‘You couldn’t even draw a million before I got here.”

Royals Hall of Fame broadcaster Denny Matthews said, “Whitey didn’t feel that ownership went the extra mile to get him the extra player that he really needed. He said many times, ‘If we’d had a closer, we might have won three instead of losing three.”

“I didn’t get along with Mr. Kauffman. He didn’t like it that I had a $2 million bonus clause in my contract for attendance,” Herzog said. “I was brash; I was young. He didn’t like me, and I didn’t care for him, either. I knew the first time we didn’t win, I would get fired. In ’79, we finished three games out, and I got fired.”

In his four and a half years with Kansas City Herzog had gone 410-304. His .574 winning percentage is by far the highest rate in Royals history. In his first year the Royals had drawn 1.15 million in attendance. The numbers grew every season, 1979 drew 2.26 million, a club record at the time.

It’s possible if Herzog and Kauffman’s relationship hadn’t soured he would be donning a Royals hat on his Cooperstown plaque. At any rate, MLB had been exposed to ‘Whitey-ball.’ He resurrected ‘small-ball’ attributes of generations past and altered it to fit his team’s roster and field. Herzog would frequently run opponents out of the park by aggressively attacking teams. His clubs played fast on defense and the base paths. His ultra aggression translated into convictions his presence alone was worth wins.

Splittorff recalled one meeting when Herzog was discussing an upcoming series with a division contender and Herzog said, “We’ll beat these guys. Actually, you guys play them even. I know I’m five games better than their manager.”

Herzog provided a unique asset to clubs, his popularity with players was second to his popularity with fans. He brought a fresh and efficient strategy, which succeed with the lack of power. By the time Herzog left Kansas City the consistent success of ‘Whitey-ball’ was undeniable.

A season later Herzog found a new home 250 miles away on I-70 East, the St. Louis Cardinals. Owner Gussie Busch hired Herzog during the 1980 season. St. Louis offered a similar surface and field to deploy his signature style on, but the roster wasn’t well equipped.

“I had been there for two weeks when I told (Busch), ‘We’re not going to win with this group. Here’s what we have to do,'” Herzog said. “And he said, ‘Do it.’ The winter meetings of 1980, I traded 14 guys. We changed the whole team. In our ballpark, speed was the only thing that worked on both sides of the ball. If it hadn’t worked, I’d have been fired in two years.”

It did work, and in two years instead of being fired he led the Cardinals to the 1982 World Series Championship. Herzog’s handpicked nucleus of Vince Coleman, Willie McGee, Ozzie Smith, Tommy Herr, and Andy Van Slyke stole 200 or more bags for seven straight seasons.

“With a bunch of guys, he didn’t have a steal sign; they were on their own,” Van Slyke said. “He said, ‘Do whatever you want.’ You don’t keep a greyhound on a choke chain. He knew unless we ran, we couldn’t win. … I remember one time when we scored two runs without hitting a ball out of the infield. It was a track meet. It was crazy. The way we played was more exciting than hitting home runs.”

Herzog had created a style of baseball which players, fans, and owners revered mutually. When Herzog arrived in 1980 the Cardinals drew 1.3 million fans. From 1987-89, Busch Stadium averaged over 3 million in attendance.

“When it came to evaluating players, commanding the game, the media and the fans, Whitey is the greatest manager in the history of the game, I believe,” Van Slyke said. “No one did all four things better. His relationship with the fans superseded his relationship with the players. In the stands, there were as many Herzog jerseys as McGee jerseys. You just don’t see that happening anywhere else.”

Herzog continued his success through the 80s. He helped the Cardinals to two more World Series appearance in 1985 and 1987.

His most successful campaign as a manager was in 1985. Herzog had acquired a player who could match his intensity and aggression on the base paths, rookie Vince Coleman. Coleman took home the 1985 Rookie of the Year award by snatching 110 bags, while hitting .267, 10 3B, 20 2B, 40 RBI at the age of 23. Coleman led a squad which stole 314 bags.

“We had a bet for every at-bat,” said Coleman in a Sporting News interview. “If I hit the ball in the air, I’d give him a dollar, and if I hit it on the ground, he’d give me 25 cents. So my job was just to hit it on the ground and beat it out. I didn’t want to give him a dollar against his 25 cents. I think he still owes me. My rookie year I hit .267 and won Rookie of the Year. That bet really made me concentrate.”

Coleman, Herr, Smith, McGee, and Van Slyke all stole at least 30 bags in 1985. They scored 747 runs on the strength of only 87 home runs, 22 of which first baseman Jack Clark supplied.

“Whitey is a tremendous guy,” said Coleman. “He’s one of a kind. The players loved to play for him, and it was an honor to play for him. I don’t think I would have been in major-league baseball if not for Whitey, to be honest with you. He knew the type of players he wanted—guys who could run and who could put a lot of emphasis on defense and pitching. He believed in running, defense and pitching, that those things win ballgames.”

Busch died after the 1989 season. With new ownership in place, Herzog abruptly resigned during the 1990 season. In his 11 years in St. Louis, he had gone 822-728, a .530 winning percentage.

“I didn’t feel happy,” Herzog said. “I had had free reign, but not anymore. Today, guys manage for so much longer than I did. If I had managed another 10 years, I could have won 2,500 games, or at least over 2,000. But I made my own bed by quitting.”

After his time with the Cardinals Herzog held various front office positions, most notably he served as general manager of the California Angels from 1993-94. He was a leading candidate for a 1996 opening at manager for the Boston Red Sox. Herzog turned down the offer, effectively closing the book on his days as a manager.

In his 18 years as a manager Herzog earned 1,281 wins, six division titles, three NL Pennants, and the 1982 World Series Championship. He took home the Manager of the Year Award in 1976, 1982, and 1985. Herzog was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veteran’s Committee, receiving 14 of 16 possible votes. He was inducted in the Hall of Fame on July 25, 2010. A week later the St. Louis Cardinals retired Herzog’s number ‘24’ he wore while managing to pay their respects.

“What I’m most proud of is our teams in Kansas City and St. Louis set home attendance record 11 times in the 18 years I was there,” Herzog said. “I loved Kansas City, but my 10 years in St. Louis were the most enjoyable years of my life. I can’t tell you how many times I’ll go out around St. Louis — to the bank, the grocery store — and people come up to me, shake my hand and thank me for 10 years of exciting baseball. They’re still talking about it.”

Herzog’s infectious style, passion for success, and abrasive confidence played a significant role in the ending of his tenures in New York, Kansas City, and St. Louis, but along the way those are the same attributes that helped him change the way the game was played.

His dedication to the process and supreme player development skills helped the likes of George Brett, Frank White, Ozzie Smith, Vince Coleman, Willie McGee, and Jack Clark blossom while under his tutelage. This group turned out to be some of the most celebrated players of the decade. Sports Illustrated recognized his impact by naming him the Manager of the Decade for the 1980s.

Even though Herzog hasn’t managed a game in two decades, his effects are still being felt on today’s game. Major League managers Jim Fregosi, Frank Robinson, Bobby Valentine, Buck Martinez, Hal McRae, John Wathan, Clint Hurdle, Art Howe, and Tony Pena all played under Herzog.

Herzog changed the way baseball was managed. He was renowned along with Earl Weaver, for being able to put relief pitchers in positions to succeed. His management of the bullpen and use of players off the bench played pivotal roles in the success of both franchises.

Herzog’s “Whitey-ball” altered baseball history for the Missouri MLB organizations. He brought a young and troubled franchise to the promise land for the first time, and then brought a historic power back to fruition for a decade. Herzog’s blueprint for baseball strategy pumped life to fizzling franchises and for a decade shifted the baseball powers from the coasts to the Midwest.

3 thoughts on “2010 I-70 Hall Of Legends Inductee: Whitey Herzog

  1. A great article on one of the true characters of the game. I don’t know if there was a better judge of baseball talent in his era – an aspect of Herzog’s resume that gets lost behind his transformations of the Royals and Cardinals.

    Thanks for sharing!

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