Obituary: Bill Virdon (1931-2021)

RIP to Bill Virdon, who was both an award-winning outfielder and an award-winning manager in a baseball career that spanned six decades. He died on November 22 in Springfield, Mo., at the age of 90. He and his wife, Shirley, had recently celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary. His passing was announced by the Pittsburgh Pirates, for whom Virdon was a player, manager, coach and occasional spring training instructor into his 80s. Virdon played for the St. Louis Cardinals (1955-56) and Pirates (1956-65, 1968) and managed the Pirates (1972-73), New York Yankees (1974-75), Houston Astros (1975-82) and Montreal Expos (1983-84).

“Bill Virdon was a man who took such great pride in being a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates family,” said Pirates Chairman Bob Nutting. “We send our thoughts and prayers to Bill’s wife of 70 years, Shirley, his children Debbie Virdon Lutes, Linda Virdon Holmes and Lisa Virdon Brown, along with his seven grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.”

William Charles Virdon was born in Hazel Park, Mich., on June 9, 1931, but he grew up in West Plains, Mo. He was considered such a Missouri native that he was inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame — twice! He was inducted as a baseball player in 1983 and then was named a Missouri Sports Legend in 2012.

Virdon was a multi-sport athlete at West Plains High School. As a quarterback, he once led the football team to a 25-0 win over Huston by making touchdown runs of 95, 61 and 60 yards. He was also a track star, particularly at the pole vault and 100-yard dash. He played basketball for Drury University in the fall of 1949, but his baseball career took precedence over all the other sports when he signed a contract with the New York Yankees for the 1950 season. Virdon’s first team was the Class-D Independence Yankees of the Kansas-Ohio-Missouri League. He batted .267 there and hit his first professional home run on his 19th birthday. By the end of the season, he was a second-team All-Star in the K-O-M League and had been given a brief promotion to Triple-A Kansas City to help out the Blues. He batted .341 in 14 games at the highest level of the minors.

Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh congratulates Bill Virdon for his heroics in the 1960 World Series. Source: The Tribune, October 10, 1960.

That stay in Kansas City aside, the Yankees brought up Virdon slowly. He could wow a crowd with acrobatic catches in center field, but his hitting was pretty pedestrian. Virdon recalled that he attended one spring training camp with the Yankees. “I went hitless in 19 trips, dropped a fly ball and we lost a game 1-0, and during practice I threw the ball from center field and hit [manager] Casey Stengel in the ribs,” he recalled. “The next spring I was gone, traded to the Cardinals.”

The Yankees organization, given the opportunity to acquire Enos Slaughter, sent Virdon to St. Louis along with another minor-leaguer and pitcher Mel Wright. The Yankees may have had some seller’s remorse after the season Virdon had with the Rochester Red Wings of the International League in 1954, though. He clobbered 22 home runs to go with 11 triples and 98 RBIs, and he won the IL batting title with a .333 average.

Maybe it was the glasses. Back in 1953, Virdon was batting just over .230 for the Kansas City Blues when the Birmingham Barons, New York’s Double-A affiliate, had a pressing need for a center fielder. The Yankees sent them Virdon, who before he left was advised by Blues manager Harry Craft to get some eyeglasses. That parting advice helped him blossom into a .300 hitter with the Barons and play the best center field that Birmingham’s Rickwood Field had seen since Jimmy Piersall was a minor-leaguer. The Yankees didn’t give Virdon a chance to prove his worth with his improved eyesight, but the Cardinals were delighted with the results. The team had even moved Stan Musial to first base so that Virdon could have a regular position in the outfield.

When Opening Day of the 1955 season came around, the rookie was patrolling center field for St. Louis. The Cardinals were handed a 14-4 defeat at the hands of the Chicago Cubs on April 12, but Virdon had a single and double against starter Paul Minner. Two days later against the Milwaukee Braves, he led off the bottom of the 11th inning with a home run off Dave Koslo for an 8-7 Cardinals win. He finished the month of May with a .336 batting average and then contributed to a sweep of the New York Giants in a June 26 doubleheader by driving in 6 runs with a single, two doubles, a triple and a home run. He cooled off over the second half of the season, but he still finished 1955 with a .281/.322/.433 slash line, with 17 home runs, 68 RBIs and 58 runs scored. He was voted the NL Rookie of the Year, ahead of Philadelphia reliever Jack Meyer.

With characteristic humility, Virdon credited manager Eddie Stanky for giving him a chance to play regularly, in spite of the outfielder’s poor spring. “Stanky called me in and told me I did have a job until I had a real chance to show I could play. I started hitting a little better. And I did all right when the regular season started,” he said.

Virdon was the second straight Cardinal to win the Rookie of the Year Award, after outfielder Wally Moon was honored in 1954. Cardinals fans were likely imagining a star-studded outfield for years to come, but they weren’t counting on the hiring of “Trader” Frank Lane as the new Cardinals general manager. Lane changed players like other general managers changed socks, and on May 17, 1956, Virdon was sent to the Pittsburgh Pirates for outfielder Bobby Del Greco and pitcher Dick Littlefield. He’d played in just 24 games and was hitting .211 at the time.

It’s a rare thing for Rookies of the Year to be traded in their second season. The only other time I can find it happening is when 1976 co-ROYs Butch Metzger of the Padres and Pat Zachry of the Reds were both traded in 1977. Virdon’s move was part of a flurry of deals that Lane made to remake the entire roster. “It may seem odd giving up the Rookie of the Year, but you’ve got to do what you think is best in this game, and it’s our judgment, Frank’s and mine, that with Bill in such a long slump a combination of Del Greco and Littlefield can do us more good,” explained Cardinals manager Fred Hutchinson.

The trade, unsurprisingly, backfired. Del Greco hit .215 in 1955 and was traded away the next season. Littlefield pitched in 3 games and was 0-2 with a 7.45 ERA. He was traded a month after joining St. Louis in an even more controversial deal that sent the much-loved Red Schoendienst to the New York Giants. Incidentally, Littlefield was then traded to Brooklyn for Jackie Robinson, but the deal was voided when Robinson decided to retire instead.

Virdon, on the other hand, hit .334 with his new team, leaving him with a final slash line of .319/.361/.445 — an improvement over his rookie season in every category. His home run total dipped to 10 on the season, and he never reached double digits in the category again, but he provided the Pirates with a decade’s worth of consistent play in the outfield and at the plate.

Virdon’s batting average tended to settle in the .260s throughout his Pirates tenure, with enough gap power that he could pick up 20+ doubles and 10 or 11 triples in a good year. Jerry Lumpe later jokingly said of Virdon, “The sound of the crack of his bat against the ball was like the sound of pulling a Kleenex out of the box.” Offense aside, Virdon was a top-notch defender in center field and formed one of the better outfields in the National League with Roberto Clemente and Bob Skinner. They, along with the likes of Bill Mazeroski, Vern Law and Bob Friend, were part of a core group of players that eventually brought a world championship to Pittsburgh.

Virdon makes a sensation catch of a Yogi Berra fly ball in the 1960 World Series. Roberte Clemente looks on. Source: News Journal, October 10, 1960.

In 1957, the Pirates went 62-92-1 for a seventh-place finish. Virdon batted .251 and hit 2 of his 8 home runs against the Cardinals on June 18 — getting a measure of revenge on the team that rushed to trade him. The ’58 Pirates, however, won 84 games and vaulted up to second place, and Virdon raised his batting average to .267. Both he and the Pirates slipped in 1959, but then came 1960. Virdon slashed .264/.326/.406, with 16 doubles, 9 triples and 8 home runs. He struggled at the bat for most of the first half of the season, with an average below .240 as late as June 30. A strong second half helped to improve his numbers, but the World Series was where he really shined.

In the bottom of the first inning in Game One, Virdon drew a leadoff walk off Art Ditmar. He then stole second base and advanced to third when Yogi Berra’s threw sailed right past middle infielders Bobby Richardson and Tony Kubek, neither of whom tried to catch it. The error was charged to shortstop Kubek for failing to cover second base. Dick Groat followed that play up with a double, scoring Virdon. The Pirates tacked on two more runs that inning, taking an early 3-1 lead. That was the score when the Yankees put two runners on base in the top of the fourth, and Berra crushed a ball to center field. Virdon and right fielder Clemente raced toward the wall, and Virdon came down with the ball after bouncing off both his teammate and the wall. He stole a double away from Berra and kept at least one and maybe both runs from scoring. The Pirates won the game, 6-4, and Pittsburgh manager Danny Murtaugh called it the play of the game. “I suppose I have made just as good catches before but none which gave me such a thrill,” Virdon said. “After all, this is the World Series.”

In Game Four, Virdon managed just one hit off starter Ralph Terry, but it happened to come with Smoky Burgess and Vern Law on base. His 2-run single was the difference in the Pirates 3-2 victory. He also once again made a sensational leaping catch up against the wall to rob Bob Cerv of a run-scoring double that could have tied the ballgame. Finally, in Game Seven, Virdon was a part of a big eighth-inning rally that saw the Pirates score 5 runs to take the lead. With a runner on first base, Virdon smacked a hard grounder that bounced off Kubek’s throat for an infield single. He came around to score on Clemente’s infield hit off reliever Jim Coates, right before Hal Smith hit the clutch 3-run homer that should have gone down as one of the greatest home runs in World Series history. But then the Yankees tied the game, and Mazeroski hit his walkoff home run to eclipse all the heroics that came before it. But of the Pirates’ four wins, Virdon played a significant part in three of them.

The Pirates failed to repeat, and the team didn’t see the postseason again until 1970. Virdon kept up his steady play, batting .260 in 1961. Though he was widely considered one of the best outfielders in the National League, he won just one Gold Glove Award, and it came in 1962. He had a .976 fielding percentage that season with 11 assists and 9 errors in 156 games. He also led the National League with 10 triples, which was the only time that he led the NL in an offensive category. (He also led all of baseball by bring caught stealing 13 times in 18 attempts that season.)

Virdon’s teammates appreciated all he gave to the team. Pitcher Roy Face called him as good a center fielder as Willie Mays. “Virdon is a comfort to the pitchers because he does his job so well. The best compliment I can pay him is when the ball is hit in his direction with two outs, I automatically start walking off the mound. He’s a master craftsman,” Face said.

As his career started to wind down in 1964, he mentioned that he would like to manage one day. He retired after the 1965 season to start preparing for an eventual managing job. He batted a solid .279 that season, but his extra-base hits and RBIs had all but vanished. “When you get older, every step is a bit longer,” he admitted. “I feel my future is in managing. I’m willing to start in the minors — if I can make a decent living wage — and work my way up. If I don’t reach the majors as a manager or a coach within a few years, I’ll get out.”

Virdon landed with the New York Mets organization, and he spent 1966 and ’67 managing their teams in Williamsport and Jacksonville, respectively. The Pirates brought him back to the major leagues in 1968 to act as an outfield/hitting/first base coach for manager Larry Shepard. Not only did he handle those duties, but he also was activated briefly as a player, three years after his retirement. It was an emergency move made after infielder Fred Patek broke his wrist, and the players who could have been called to the majors were on military reserve (Richie Hebner) or injured themselves (Andre Rogers). Virdon appeared in 6 games, played 6 innings in the outfield and had 3 at-bats. He struck out twice, but the other at-bat resulted in a pinch-hit, 2-run homer off Cincinnati’s Ted Abernathy that tied the game at 5. Cincinnati eventually won 7-6 in 12 innings, but it was a nice final moment of glory for him. When Patek had recovered enough to play again, Virdon was taken off the active roster and, permanently, retired.

In his 12 seasons, Virdon had a career .267/.316/.379 slash line. His 1,596 hits included 237 doubles, 81 triples and 91 home runs. He drove in 502 runs and scored 735 times. He had a lifetime .982 fielding percentage in center field and, per Baseball Reference, is valued at 19.6 Wins Above Replacement for his career.

Virdon was considered a finalist for the Pirates’ managing job when Shepard was let go after the 1969 season. However, the job went back to Murtaugh, for his third tour of duty with the team. Virdon remained on the coaching staff and was considered Murtaugh’s heir apparent. The manager encouraged it; he once let Virdon manage a game while he was an active player. Murtaugh recalled that he sat at the end of the bench and let “Quail” (Virdon’s nickname on account of all the dying quail base hits he had) run the game. Only once, when Virdon sent up a pinch hitter for the pitcher, did he step in. “I got up and walked over to Quail and said, ‘I never like to interfere, but would you mind if I make a suggestion?'” Murtaugh said. “He said, ‘Go right ahead,’ and I said, ‘Well, whenever I take my pitcher out the umpires insist that I put another one in.’ He said, ‘Omygod’ and yelled, ‘Bullpen, bullpen!'”

Murtaugh managed for two seasons, and Virdon had a large role with the team. He conducted many of the pre-game meetings and ran the club from May 20 through June 6, 1971, as Murtaugh recovered from a stomach disorder. The Pirates won the 1971 World Series over Baltimore, and Murtaugh retired after the postseason. Virdon was hired as his replacement. The 1972 Pirates didn’t get off to a great start and dropped as far as fifth place by May 12. Then Virdon delivered what he called his “Bust their butts meeting,” and the team rattled off a nine-game winning streak on the way to a first place finish. As the team improved, Virdon said his managerial skills improved. “Experience has to help everybody. If it doesn’t, you’re a goddam fool,” he said.

The Pirates lost to the Cincinnati Reds in the NL Championship Series. Their 1973 season was an up-and-down affair as well. The team was rocked by the death of Clemente in the offseason, and emotions were so high that Virdon and Hebner once nearly came to blows. The Bucs were in dead last at one point and but rallied to retake first place. Then Pittsburgh lost three out of four games to St. Louis in early September, and general manager Joe L. Brown quickly fired Virdon and replaced him with Murtaugh. The surprised Pirates did get back up to first place briefly but finished in third with an 80-82 record. They were 60-69 under Virdon.

The New York Yankees ended the 1973 season with their own managerial dilemma, trying to pry Dick Williams away from the Oakland A’s. When that didn’t work, they hired Virdon. He took a 1974 team that was around .500 for the previous few years and had them in first place until the Red Sox swept them in a doubleheader on September 24. For guiding the Yankees to a second-place finish, Virdon was named the AL Manager of the Year. It was a short honeymoon between he and the Yankees, though. He was fired on August 1, 1975, when the Yankees were 53-51 and stuck in third place, far behind the Red Sox. His replacement, Billy Martin — in his first round as Yankees manager — went 30-26.

Virdon’s departures left his players shocked and saddened. He had built up a great deal of trust with his players, and they admired his honesty. “I’d do anything in the world for him,” said Bobby Bonds, who struggled early on as a Yankee and was counseled by Virdon. “He’s an honest man. Completely honest. That’s what I respect so much about him.”

Virdon wasn’t out of work long — about two weeks. The Houston Astros were deep in the doldrums of the NL West and had hired ex-Yankee executive Tal Smith as their new general manager. He quickly fired Preston Gomez as manager and replaced him with Virdon. Smith didn’t hire Virdon over the phone; they were neighbors in Long Island, so he just walked next door with a contract good through 1976. “I know now what Texans mean when they say damn Yankees,” Virdon joked at his inaugural press conference.

Source: The Ottawa Citizen, August 31, 1984.

Virdon guided the Astros to a 17-17-1 finish, which kept them from reaching 100 losses. He stayed with Houston into the 1982 season — an eternity for managers. The Astros to that point had spent the bulk of its existence at or near the bottom of their division, with occasional seasons above .500. The ’75 Astros finished 43-1/2 games out of first place behind the Big Red Machine, so they had nowhere to go but up. Gradually, the team moved up to third place in 1976 and ’77, and then second place in 1979. According to first baseman Bob Watson, Virdon was responsible for the team’s turnaround.

“Virdon has the complete respect of the entire team,” he said after Houston got off to a fast start in 1976. “It’s the best winning attitude I’ve ever seen on this team. Bill has instilled the desire to win. There are a lot of guys here who never learned how to win.”

In addition to a winning attitude, the Astros added on more talent. Virdon put J.R. Richard in the starting rotation on a full-time basis, and the pitcher never saw the bullpen again. Terry Puhl, Jose Cruz and Enos Cabell all became productive hitters, and Joe Niekro and Vern Ruhle moved from the bullpen to the starting rotation as well. Joaquin Andujar impressed as a swingman, and Joe Sambito and Dave Smith proved their value as relievers. The 1980 team was bolstered by the addition of flamethrower Nolan Ryan. Though Richard’s career-ending stroke was a devastating blow, Houston had enough talent to win 93 games, finishing tied for first in the NL West. The Astros and Dodgers played a 163rd game to determine the division champ, and Houston hitters pounded starter Dave Goltz and reliever Rick Sutcliffe for 7 runs in the first four innings to win the division crown, 7-1. They faced the Philadelphia Phillies in the NLCS and lost in five games. Virdon won his second Manager of the Year Award for guiding the Astros into the postseason for the first time in franchise history.

Smith was fired as general manager at the end of the season, ending a successful partnership between he and Virdon. Houston, with new GM Al Rosen, struggled in the first half of the strike-shortened 1981 season but got hot in the second half. Though the team’s overall record was 61-49, good for third place in the West, its 33-20 record in the second half got them into the playoffs once again. They lost in the NL Division Series to the Los Angeles Dodgers in five games. After back-to-back playoff appearances, the 1982 Astros fell all the way to fifth place in the NL West. Virdon was fired on August 10 with a 49-62 record. With a total of 544 wins, Virdon was and remains the winningest manager in Astros history.

Almost from the day he was fired, it was widely rumored that Virdon would eventually end up with the manager’s job in Montreal. “I’ve always said Bill Virdon was my favorite manager,” said Expos’ Al Oliver, who played for Virdon in Pittsburgh. “He was a disciplinarian who liked ‘gamers,’ people who put out. You can’t guarantee results, but Bill guaranteed effort.” Sure enough, he was named manager for the ’83 Expos, as the team tried to return to the playoffs after narrowly losing to the Dodgers in the 1981 NLCS. The 1983 team finished in third place, 2 games over .500. The 1984 club was three games under .500, at 64-67, when he was fired on August 30. Days before, he told general manager John McHale that he would not return to the team in 1985. He and the Expos just did not mesh, and McHale replaced him with Jim Fanning, whom Virdon had replaced the previous season.

Bill Virdon at the unveiling of his bronze statue at the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 2017. Source: Missouri Sports Hall of Fame.

Virdon ended his managerial career with a 995-921-2 record, good for a .519 winning percentage. He was 6-9 in three separate trips to the postseason. The Springfield resident was valued for his baseball knowhow, and he worked off and on as a coach for the Pirates and Astros until 2002. Veteran managers like Jim Leyland and rookies like Larry Dierker sought his insight and advice as a bench coach. Even though he had technically retired, he continued to work with young Pirates in spring training into the 2010s. Even stars like Barry Bonds or Andy Van Slyke had to be on their guard, because Virdon wouldn’t hesitate to get on their case if they were a little too lackadaisical in spring training. “You don’t like to press Gold Glove guys, but still, you’ve got to be ready,” Virdon explained. “I got some results.”

In 2017, the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame unveiled a bronze statue of Virdon, depicting his catch of Yogi Berra’s fly ball in the 1960 World Series. “I’m very, very, very fortunate — blessed,” Virdon said at the statue’s unveiling. “I don’t know how to explain it… I couldn’t be more pleased to be a part of baseball. I just hope that baseball continues for a long time.”

For more information: Missouri Sports Hall of Fame
Gorman-Scharpf Funeral Home

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