Commentary

Herzog changed way game was played

Longtime manager won three pennants and one World Series during his storied career

Originally Published: July 24, 2010
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

Whitey Herzog rarely held a team meeting for largely the same reasons as those of another Hall of Fame manager, the great Earl Weaver of the Baltimore Orioles, who would say, "What if I hold a team meeting, then we lose that night? What do we do then?"

"I don't remember him ever having a team meeting except for one time, which Whitey had in front of a thousand people," said former Cardinals outfielder Andy Van Slyke, who played for Herzog from 1983 to 1986. "In 1985, we started out 1-6. At the team's 'Welcome Home Luncheon,' Whitey got up in front of the crowd and said something like, 'I know a lot of you thought we had a pretty good club here this year. I thought we did, too.' Then he looked down the line of players at the luncheon and said, 'It's time to s--- or get off the pot.' Then he just sat down. He was talking to players, not the fans. I'll never forget that."

That was Herzog. He always knew the right thing to say, and the right time to say it. As a manager, he was smart, brash, fearless, calculating and innovative, all of which make him a Hall of Fame manager. Sunday in Cooperstown, N.Y., he will be inducted into the Hall. Surely, his speech that day will make many people laugh. Just as certain, he will cry.

"Ozzie [Smith] told me, 'You are going to choke up,'" Herzog said as he prepared for his trip to Cooperstown. "I probably will, but I hope I can hold it together, take a deep breath. You see, I never even dreamed I'd ever get an opportunity to manage in the big leagues."

[+] EnlargeWhitey Herzog
AP Photo/Robert KozloffWhitey Herzog led the Cardinals to a World Series title in 1982.

Herzog went 1,281-1,125 for four teams over 18 years. He won three division titles (1976, '77 and '78) for the Royals, who had never been to the playoffs until he arrived. He won three pennants (1982, '85 and '87) and one World Series (1982) for the Cardinals. He won at least 100 games in a season for two franchises (the Royals and Cardinals), each time lifting them to heights neither had seen for a long time, or ever. He changed the way the game was played -- they called it Whiteyball -- and several other teams followed that lead.

"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."

Van Slyke lives in St. Louis. He knows what Herzog is talking about.

"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. When he got to St. Louis, we were drawing 1.3 million per year. Within a few years, we were drawing 3 million a year. His relationship with the fans superseded his relationship with the players. In the stands, there were as many Herzog jerseys as [Willie] McGee jerseys. You just don't see that happening anywhere else."

Herzog was also popular with the fans in Kansas City. He took over the Royals midway through the 1975 season and went 41-25. In four-and-a-half years in Kansas City, he went 410-304 -- his .574 winning percentage with the Royals is, by far, the highest in club history. He went to the American League Championship Series three years in a row, losing each time to the Yankees, twice in five games of a five-game series. His first year, the Royals drew 1.15 million fans. Attendance increased every year through 1979, when the club record was set with 2.26 million.

"I didn't get along with [Royals owner] Mr. [Ewing] 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 [in the AL West], and I got fired."

Herzog took over in St. Louis in the middle of the 1980 season, which was the beginning of a wonderful relationship with Cardinals owner Gussie Busch.

Andy Van Slyke 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. No one did all four things better.

-- Former Cardinals outfielder
Andy Van Slyke

"I had been there for two weeks when I told him, '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 [and acquired 11 players]. 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 worked. With Vince Coleman, McGee, Smith, Tommy Herr, Van Slyke and others, the Cardinals stole at least 200 bases for seven straight seasons, including 314 in 1985.

"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."

The fans loved it. The year that Herzog took over in midseason, the Cardinals drew 1.3 million fans. After a strike-shortened 1981 season, they nearly doubled their attendance in 1982. From 1987 to 1989, the Cardinals averaged more than 3 million fans per year at Busch Stadium.

In 1990, less than a year after Busch died, Herzog abruptly resigned.

"I didn't feel happy," he 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."

As it turned out, his career was long enough, and successful enough, to make it to the Hall of Fame. Sunday in Cooperstown, he will thank dozens and dozens of people from his journey, including Yogi Berra, with whom he became close as coaches with the Mets. He will thank the managers who taught him the most, including Ralph Houk, but mostly Casey Stengel, who spent a lot of time with Herzog.

"When [Stengel] played [1912 to 1925], there was a third baseman named Buck Herzog. I guarantee you Casey thought I was his grandson," Herzog said.

Herzog will likely apologize to all his teachers in junior high and high school for the times he skipped school to go watch the Cardinals play at Sportsman's Park in St. Louis.

Whitey Herzog didn't apologize for much in his career, including calling out his players at a luncheon in 1985. They got the message; the Cardinals won the National League pennant that year.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.