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Throwback Thursday: The End Of Whitey Herzog, And A Way Of Baseball

Whitey Herzog's teams perfected a maddening and distinctive style of baseball that has mostly vanished from the face of the earth. He was an original, too.

by Steven Goldman
Jul 7 2016, 4:52pm

Photo by Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Each week, VICE Sports takes a look back at an important event from sports history for Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids. You can read previous installments here.

On September 13, 1985, The St. Louis Cardinals visited Wrigley Field for an afternoon game against the Chicago Cubs. With just 24 games left in the season, the Cubs were finished, trailing the division-leading New York Mets by 18 games. The Cardinals, though, were still very much alive. At 83-55 they trailed the Mets by only one game.

The Cardinals had one pure power-hitter on their team in first baseman Jack Clark, and he wasn't playing. In late August, he tore muscles in his rib cage while fouling off a pitch and would miss nearly a month. Cesar Cedeno, a career outfielder stretching the dregs of a once extraordinary talent, started in his place. Further hampering the Cardinals, the Cubs were starting left-handed pitcher Steve Trout, which meant platoon outfielder Tito Landrum and catcher Tom Nieto were starting in place of Andy Van Slyke and Darrell Porter, respectively future and former All-Stars.

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To that point in the season, the Cubs had hit 123 home runs. The Cardinals had hit 75, yet they won easily. The top of the first inning gives a taste of how they did it. Left fielder Vince Coleman walked and stole second. Center fielder Willie McGee singled, bringing Coleman home. McGee stole second. Second baseman Tommy Herr Walked. Cedeno singled, scoring McGee, with both Herr and Cedeno taking an extra base when Cubs center fielder Bob Dernier bobbled the ball in his haste to get it back to the infield. Landrum hit the ball to deep first base, forcing Trout to cover, and Herr scored from third. Third baseman Terry Pendleton struck out. Shortstop Ozzie Smith walked and stole second. Nieto was intentionally walked, and pitcher Bob Forsch grounded out to end the inning. Cardinals 3, Cubs coming to bat.

The rest of the game was like that. The Cardinals got 12 hits, drew 10 walks, and stole eight bases. They had just one extra-base hit, a double by Nieto. Final score: Cardinals 9, Cubs 3. Just a typical day in the world of Whiteyball.

Whitey Herzog, who quit this week in 1990, has been in the Hall of Fame for six years now, but he may still not yet be fully appreciated. Dorrel Norman Elvert Herzog, the White Rat—it was a nickname he welcomed, saying, "Anything is better than Dorrel, I suppose"—had a folksy way of speaking, a billiards-table precise flat-top, and a knack for thwarting the righteous destinies of coastal elites like the Yankees, Mets, and Dodgers. He was much more than a foil for the big-town teams, though; the fact that he kept facing off against one team that had nurtured him as a player (the Yankees, from 1949 through 1956) and another that had spurned him as a coach and executive (the Mets from 1966 through 1972, where he had a key part in putting together the 1969 championship squad) was probably just a coincidence of timing. Nevertheless, he played the role very well, and his teams perfected a maddening and distinctive style of baseball that has mostly vanished from the face of the earth.

In the mid-1980s, Herzog proved particularly effective in preventing what could have been a Mets dynasty. The Cardinals ultimately passed them in September, 1985, the day after the above win against the Cubs, and just held on in the season's final days. In 1987, they led the Mets most of the way. The Mets, rebounding from an onslaught injuries, came on strong late. When the two teams met at Shea Stadium on September 11, a Mets win would have shrunk the Cardinals' lead to half a game. The Mets took a 4-1 lead to the top of the ninth, but co-closer Roger McDowell blew up in spectacular fashion, allowing a game-tying home run to Pendleton. The Cardinals then scored two more runs off of Jesse Orosco in the tenth, doing so in more typically Herzogian fashion: three consecutive singles and an RBI ground-out. That was pretty much the end of the Mets.

Along the way, Herzog had Howard Johnson's bats X-rayed, oh... Let's say 37 times. HoJo wore out Herzog's closer, Todd Worrell, hitting .462 with four home runs against him in 19 career plate appearances, and Herzog was certain each and every one of them resulted from a corked bat. Or maybe he was just trying to be annoying. Or both.

It could be hard to tell with Whitey. As a manager who often doubled as his own GM with the Kansas City Royals and Cardinals, he was observant, intelligent, and creative. He had one of the best professional preparations of any managerial prospect in baseball history, and was a student of one of the great managers. "As smart as I am," he said at his Hall of Fame induction, "most of [what I've accomplished] is because of Casey Stengel." When Herzog was a Yankees farmhand, big-league manager Stengel somehow intuited that Herzog had a future in coaching and befriended him in the same way that John McGraw had taken an interest in Stengel himself 30 years earlier. Herzog eagerly absorbed all he had to say. He also played eight seasons in the majors, passed through the orbits of managers Chuck Dressen and Paul Richards, coached for Dick Williams, and had scouting and executive positions that put him in conflict with two of the game's great bulletheads, the A's' Charlie Finley and the Mets' M. Donald Grant.

Stengel had managed some truly terrible teams in Brooklyn and Boston. Herzog had played for some in Washington and Kansas City, and also managed one of the great bad teams, the 1973 Texas Rangers. "We just need two players to be contenders," he said, "Babe Ruth and Sandy Koufax." ("Don't," he told beat writer Mike Shropshire after a rare win, "go expecting too many more fucking miracles out of this bunch.") Both had come away convinced that tolerating any slippage in a player was the quickest route to losing and mercilessly spaded their rosters. "I made up my mind to have three Yankees for every position," Stengel said, with the idea being that he'd never be obligated to use any one of them. In Herzog's book, You're Missin' a Great Game, he writes of avoiding a category of hurler he called, "Pitchers who will get you fired." Same idea.

They both also had no patience for a player's off-field weaknesses. Stengel was either a high-functioning alcoholic or someone who did an incredible impression of one, like Bruce Wayne making sure no one confused him with Batman. As such, he had a laissez-faire attitude towards the many problem drinkers on his teams, but only up to the foul lines. "No ballplayer should ever get into the habit where he drinks before a ball game," he said. "When I had one of those boys, I said, 'Well, this man is limited... if he doesn't want to change—why, disappear him."

Herzog confronted the same problem with cocaine in the 1970's and '80s. "I would rather lose than have a bunch of drug addicts running around playing baseball," he said, and he packed Keith Hernandez off to the Mets for minimal return to prove it. Earlier, the Royals had blown a 2-1 lead in the 1977 American League Championship Series when slugging first baseman John Mayberry had to be benched midway through Game 4 after appearing to be playing in some kind of trance. "The man couldn't even talk," Herzog said. That winter, he demanded Mayberry be traded. When the Royals hesitated, he made a him-or-me ultimatum. The team obliged, but it was the beginning of the end for Herzog in Kansas City.

That's the background. Here is the artistry. On taking over both the Royals and the Cardinals, Herzog was confronted with big ballparks carpeted in unholy Astroturf. He quickly figured out that the best way to win was by emphasizing speed both on offense and defense, not as a matter of personal taste, but one of pure pragmatism. "You build your ballclub to fit your park and your league," he said. "I wouldn't play that way in Boston or Atlanta. I wish I had some home-run hitters, but you're never going to have home-run hitters in St. Louis. You have to run there. You have to run in Kansas City."

The apotheosis of his thinking was the 1987 Cardinals, a team that, as Bill James later observed, "had a lineup of Jack Clark and seven leadoff men." In a rabbit-ball year in which everyone from Wade Boggs to Dale Sveum was hitting homers and the average major league team hit 171 balls over the walls, the Cardinals hit 94, which was 19 fewer than any other team. On the other hand, they stole 248 bases, 50 more than any other team.

When he took over the Royals in 1975, they had gone 50-46 under Jack McKeon. Soon after he swapped out 36-year-old veterans Cookie Rojas and Vada Pinson, the second baseman and right fielder, respectively, for the young Frank White and Al Cowens. This change, which emphasized speed, revitalized the defense, and the club went 41-25 under Herzog. In St. Louis, pursuant to his goal of running a club that was tight defensively and tightly focused, he swapped the talented but difficult shortstop Garry Templeton to the Padres for Ozzie Smith, made his inner defense impregnable, and helped kickstart a legend.

Thirty teams in the postwar era have stolen over 200 bases. Herzog managed 10 of them. His 1985 team is one of only four in the modern era to steal over 300 bases and one of two to do it since 1912. Over the years Herzog had 15 players reach double-figures in triples. Willie McGee hit 18 for him in 1985. George Brett hit 20 in 1979. That wasn't just a reflection of their speed or hitting ability, but that Herzog pushed his players to take the extra base. That same year, Willie Wilson stole 83 bases, becoming one of 14 players to steal 40 or more bases in a season for him. Since he piled on the switch-hitters—his later Cardinals lineups had five or six a game—he always had the platoon advantage. With that kind of speed, Herzog didn't need strikeout pitchers to compete and rarely had them; his rabbits could run down most anything put in play.

Herzog had some bad breaks in the postseason, including the infamous blown call at first base by Don Denkinger in Game 6 of the 1985 World Series, but the record is still enviable: two 100-game winners, six division titles, three pennants, the 1982 championship. Herzog quit in 1990 after Cardinals ownership lost interest in supporting the ballclub and began letting his best players leave in free agency, beginning with Clark, the club's sole power source. He was 58 then, and he said, he didn't want to end up looking like Sparky Anderson, who was three years younger but looked about 25 years older. Other than a brief stint as general manager of the California Angels from late 1993 to early 1994, Herzog has stayed away ever since.

If a magically rejuvenated Herzog were to manage now, he almost certainly wouldn't do things the same way. The turf fields are almost all gone and most of the newer stadiums are hitter-friendly. The ball is livelier, and it makes less sense to risk stealing a base when the next hitter, even if he's the shortstop or the fifth outfielder, might park the next pitch in the seats. Teams tend not to scout singles-hitting speedsters anymore, preferring sluggers who can exploit the current conditions. And so the baseball world Herzog conquered has gone to dust. It's a shame, because his teams offered something you couldn't get with any other—the understanding that a touch of the Deadball Era's old Inside Baseball of hustle could succeed in a lively ball world. When Herzog quit, something wonderful went out of the game forever, and the sport got a little smaller.

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