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A history of Royals managers: Whitey Herzog

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The White Rat comes home.

Kansas City Royals Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images

There are 23 men enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame as managers. Five of those men have a direct connection to Kansas City. Casey Stengel was born in Kansas City. Dick Williams, Tommy Lasorda, Whitey Herzog, and Tony LaRussa all played for the Kansas City Athletics. Those Athletics didn’t win many games, but they did turn out a high percentage of Hall of Fame managers. Maybe losing builds the character that produces outstanding managers? If that’s the case, we should see a bunch of excellent managers materialize out of the 1995-2012 Kansas City Royals.

Two other Hall of Fame managers, Rube Foster and Connie Mack, have indirect ties to the city. Foster helped form the Negro Leagues during a meeting at the Paseo YMCA. Mack, of course, sold the Athletics to Arnold Johnson, who moved them to Kansas City. Mack is still the all-time managerial leader in wins with 3,731. LaRussa is third with 2,728. Stengel is sitting in twelfth place with former Royals outfielder Lou Piniella sixteenth with 1,835 wins. Lasorda, Williams, and Jimmy Dykes, another fellow with Kansas City ties, all sit in the top 30 in all-time wins. Yes indeed, Kansas City it appears, is known for jazz, BBQ, and producing baseball managers.

Dorrel Norman Elvert Herzog, he of the sophisticated name, was known by the simplest of monikers - “Whitey.” All the boys in the Herzog family had interesting and unusual names – Therron, Dorrel and Codell. The boys were born and raised in New Athens, Illinois, a small burg about 40 miles southeast of St. Louis. Edgar, the boys’ father, worked at the Mound City Brewery. Their mother, Lietta, worked in a local shoe factory. Whitey, known around New Athens as Relly, wasn’t the only star athlete in the family. Therron played a year of minor league baseball in the Cotton States League.

As a young man, Relly was a hard worker and a hustler. At times he sold baked goods out the back of a truck, delivered newspapers, worked at the brewery for a time, and even dug graves. He was known to skip school, hitchhike to Belleville, Illinois, then catch a bus to Sportsman Park, where he would watch his idols Stan Musial, Vern Stephens, and Enos Slaughter. Relly would often arrive early and snatch up batting practice balls hit into the stands. He would bring a bag of balls back to New Athens, where he would sell off several and keep a few to use in the local sandlot games. Whitey the hustler.

A standout basketball and baseball player at New Athens High, Herzog was originally signed by the New York Yankees in 1949. His first posting was to the McAlester Rockets of the Sooner State League. There he hit .279 as a 17-year-old and thanks to a local sportscaster, he was given the moniker “Whitey” for his light blonde hair. In 1949, the Yankees also signed another 17-year-old outfielder, a kid from Commerce, Oklahoma named Mickey Mantle.

Herzog made it as far as the Yankees AAA team in Kansas City in 1952, where he hit .296 in 14 games. Unfortunately, the Korean conflict interrupted his progress. Herzog was drafted into the Army and spent two years with the Army Corps of Engineers. Before he left for the service, Herzog married his high school sweetheart, Mary Lou Sinn. By 2020, the couple had been married for 68 years. The union produced three children: Debbie, Jim and David. Whitey returned from the Army for the 1955 season, and he hit a robust .289 for the Yankees new AAA team located in Denver. With Mantle starring in New York, the Yankees had little need for Herzog, and sent him to the Washington Senators in a multi-player deal.

OCT 23 1956; Herzog, Whitey; Whitey Herzog, former Denver Bear outfielder now in the Washington Sena
Whitey in 1956
Photo By The Denver Post via Getty Images

Whitey made his debut with Washington on April 17, 1956 at Yankee Stadium against his former teammates. He got the start in right field and in the eighth inning stroked a single off Don Larsen for his first major league hit. Herzog slammed his first home run on June 6, a third inning shot off the White Sox Gerry Staley at Griffith Stadium. Herzog stayed with the Senators until he was purchased by the Kansas City Athletics on May 14, 1958.

Whitey spent three seasons in Kansas City, seeing action at all three outfield spots as well as some games at first base. Herzog hit .268 during his years with the Athletics, but when new owner Charlie O. Finley wanted more power, he sent the slap hitting Herzog to Baltimore in a trade that brought Wayne Causey to Kansas City. Like many players the Athletics traded away, Herzog enjoyed his best years in Baltimore, hitting .280 in 212 games stretched over two seasons. After the 1962 season, the Orioles traded Herzog to the Detroit Tigers. He appeared in 52 games for Detroit in 1963, but after hitting only .151, he called it a career at the age of 31.

Whitey Herzog Posing in Baseball Stadium

Always quick with a quip, Whitey once said, “baseball has been good to me once I quit trying to play it.” The entirety of his career wasn’t that bad: 634 games with a slash of .257/.354/.365 with 25 home runs, 172 RBI and 213 runs scored plus some outstanding defense and versatility. There are plenty of big-league outfielders today clogging up rosters with far inferior numbers.

Once his playing career ended, Whitey jumped right into the coach’s box, first as a scout with the Kansas City Athletics, before joining the New York Mets in 1966 as a third base coach. Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner said of Herzog, “he was an excellent third-base coach, maybe the best I ever saw. He knows more about baseball than anybody I’ve been around, except for maybe Al Lopez.”

Herzog was applying the lessons he learned at the feet of Casey Stengel. “I bet Casey 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. You can steal a lot of runs.”

By 1967, Whitey had assumed the role of Director of Player Development for the Mets and ultimately was responsible for the influx of young talent that led the Mets to the 1969 and 1973 World Series. He seemed destined to take over as the next Mets manager after skipper Gil Hodges died suddenly during the 1972 spring training, however there was one problem. Herzog and M. Donald Grant, the Mets supercilious owner, did not like each other. In fact, Grant’s people ordered Herzog to stay away from Hodge’s funeral so there wouldn’t be speculation that Herzog would be hired. “I’ve never forgiven Grant for that.” Said Whitey. Instead, Grant hired Yogi Berra the day of the funeral. Herzog was later quoted as saying that Grant “didn’t know beans about baseball.”

Herzog stayed with the Mets through the 1972 season when he left to take the managerial job with the Texas Rangers. The General Manager of those Rangers was future Royals executive Joe Burke. Herzog picked up his first managerial win with a 4-0 victory over Kansas City on April 12, which was the third game ever played at Royals Stadium.

The 1973 Rangers battled their own dysfunction. In the June amateur draft, they held the #1 pick and took Texas high school pitcher David Clyde (who was born in Kansas City). Clyde was billed as the next Sandy Koufax, but it’s worth noting the Rangers passed on future Hall of Famers Robin Yount and Dave Winfield to take the left-handed Clyde. Clyde’s contract stipulated that he had to make two major league starts before being sent to the minors.

Clyde pitched reasonably well in his first two starts, allowing five hits in eleven innings of work. He struck out 14 but walked 9. Instead of sending him to the minors for seasoning, the Rangers continued to run him out every four days despite evidence that major league hitters had figured the kid out. The key factor for the Rangers was the nice bump in attendance whenever Clyde took the mound and that overrode any common sense among Rangers ownership on how to handle their prodigy. Clyde ended up starting 18 games that summer, going 4-8 with a 5.01 ERA. Teammate Tom Grieve said, “it was the dumbest thing you could do to a high school pitcher” and that Rangers owner Bob Short had effectively ruined Clyde’s career. Herzog said that Clyde “was one of the best young left-handed pitchers I’ve ever seen.”

Texas Rangers
David Clyde

The Rangers had been a 100-loss team in 1972 under the great Ted Williams and were headed that direction in 1973, when Herzog was fired on September 7 with the team standing at 47-91. The catalyst to Whitey’s firing was the Detroit Tigers firing Billy Martin a few days prior. Ranger owner Bob Short declared that if Martin were available, he’d fire his own grandmother. Probably would have too.

Martin improved the Rangers to 84-76 in 1974 and prognosticators made them a fashionable pick to win the Western Division in 1975. It was not to be. As was his way, Martin’s drinking and temper eventually led to his ouster in Arlington, as it usually did.

Herzog landed in California for one season before fate dealt him a good hand. Burke had moved on to Kansas City, inheriting a talented young team put together by the brilliant Cedric Tallis. After a 50-46 start to the 1975 season, Burke abruptly fired manager Jack McKeon and called on his old friend Herzog. The easy-going Herzog was the perfect fit for a team that was struggling under the abrasive McKeon. The Royals caught fire, going 41-25 (.621) to close out the 1975 season, which was good enough to propel the Royals to a then franchise-best 91-71, second place finish.

Herzog looked over his roster and designed a game plan the press called “Whiteyball”. Whiteyball was built on speed, defense, and pitching. It also helped that Herzog had several of the best hitters in the game at his disposal, guys like Amos Otis, John Mayberry, Frank White, Hal McRae, and George Brett.

The Royals flourished under Herzog, winning three consecutive American League West titles. Winning the West in those pre-wildcard days was no walk in the park. The Royals had to first dispatch the three-time defending World Series champion Oakland A’s and fight off upstarts like the Chicago White Sox and the Texas Rangers. During the Royals’ historic 102-win 1977 season, the second place Rangers went 94-68 and stayed home. Getting into the playoffs was tough in those days.

The 1977 American League Championship Series was the first stumble in Herzog’s tenure. Slugging first baseman John Mayberry showed up for pivotal Game Four, just a few minutes prior to the first pitch, reportedly in no condition to play. Herzog was livid and after Mayberry dropped a foul ball in the fourth inning that kept a Yankee rally alive, Whitey yanked him, replacing him with John Wathan. The heavily favored Royals lost Game Four, at home, and Herzog, still fuming the next day, refused to play Mayberry.

Any Royals fan worth his salt knows what happened in Game Five. The Royals had a 3-to-1 lead going into the top of the eighth. Whitey pulled starter Paul Splittorff after a Willie Randolph leadoff single. Doug Bird struck out Thurman Munson but yielded a single to former Royal Lou Piniella. Reggie Jackson then dropped a soft single into center field to pull the Yanks within one run. Herzog called on Steve Mingori, who got out of the inning by retiring the dangerous Graig Nettles and Chris Chambliss.

The Royals were only three outs away from their first World Series. Herzog brought on Dennis Leonard to close things out. Remember, in those days Leonard was an ace. He was an innings-eating workhorse, a consistent 20 game-winner. But he was not a closer. Paul Blair stroked a leadoff single and after Leonard walked Roy White, Whitey hit the panic button. He brought in another starter, Larry Gura, who immediately gave up a single to Mickey Rivers which tied the game. The groans from Royals Stadium could be heard across the entire Midwest.

Whitey made another trip to the mound, yanking Gura and finally bringing in his de facto closer, Mark Littell. Littell got Randolph on a liner to center, but White tagged and scored the go-ahead run. With two outs, Piniella reached on a Brett error, which scored Rivers with an insurance run. Littell finally got Jackson on a grounder to Frank White to end the agony. The Royals went down in order against Sparky Lyle, which left Freddie Patek in tears on the bench and sent the Yanks to another World Series.

During the Series autopsy, Herzog took significant, and rightful, criticism for his handling of the pitching staff. He also took heat from his own team for the way he handled Mayberry. Frank White was particularly outspoken: “To me, it wasn’t anything but the team at that point. I felt that whatever was going on between John Mayberry and Whitey could have been handled in the offseason. We’d worked too hard to get to that point of the season not to have him in Game 5. I know you’re talking about integrity and letting the team down and all that stuff — Whitey was all about the integrity of the game and respecting the game. But when you’ve got one more game to play and you’ve got your power hitter and your best first baseman not in the lineup, that didn’t set too well. Losing that game without John Mayberry was kind of bad. I thought we were a much better team’’ than the Yankees.

Herzog was immensely popular with the Kansas City fans. Not so much with Ewing Kauffman. Attendance skyrocketed during Herzog’s tenure, from 1,151,836 in 1975 to 2,261,845 in 1979, an increase of 96%. Kauffman was making money, but Herzog, frustrated by three consecutive gut-wrenching losses to the New York Yankees in the American League Championship series called out Kauffman in the press over the owners’ reluctance to spend money on free agents. “They go out and sign Reggie Jackson, Sparky Lyle, and Gossage,” Herzog said. “And who do we sign? (Reserve infielder) 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.”

The Royals took a small step back in 1979, finishing at 85-77, three games back of division-winning California. That was all it took for Kauffman and Burke to fire Herzog. It almost seems incredulous today, when Royals ownership and fans seem perfectly happy to have an occasional winning season and apparently think nothing of hanging onto a manager for a decade who had a sub .500 career record, that they would fire someone of Herzog’s talent. Times, and expectations, have certainly changed and not necessarily for the better. The Whitey Herzog era in Kansas City ended with a 410-304 record (.574).

Herzog wasn’t unemployed for long. In June of 1980, the St. Louis Cardinals were laboring under Ken Boyer at 18-33 when they tapped Herzog as their next manager. Herzog had his brother Codell make up and deliver his first Cardinal line up. By 1981, Herzog had also assumed the title of general manager and made several audacious trades to remake the Cardinals roster. By 1982, Herzog had the Cardinals in the World Series, where they bested the Milwaukee Brewers in seven games.

In 1986, the job of President of the National League opened, and Herzog expressed interest. The job went to Yale President A. Bartlett Giamatti, who later became Commissioner of Baseball in 1989. After Giamatti accepted the National League job, Marv Albert jokingly asked Herzog if he would be interested in the now vacant Yale job. Herzog replied, “Well, you’re trying to be funny now, Marv. I don’t think that’s funny at all.”

Herzog spent 11 seasons in St. Louis, guiding the Cardinals to 822 wins against 728 losses (.530). The Redbirds appeared in three World Series during Herzog’s tenure (1982, 1985, and 1987), and like in Kansas City, set attendance records, jumping from 1,385,147 fans in Herzog’s 1980 season to 3,080,980 for the 1989 season.

Herzog recounted that George Steinbrenner would send him telegrams of congratulations after the Royals and Cardinals won division titles, pennants, or the World Series crown. One particular telegram stood out. The Boss wrote, “How can you win a pennant with Jose Oquendo in right field and I can’t win it with Dave Winfield?” Eventually, the good times came to an end. They always do. Herzog resigned halfway through the 1990 season, which prompted him to say, “I came here in last place and I leave here in last place. I left them right where I started.”

Herzog joined the Angels organization upon his departure from St. Louis, rising to general manager in 1992. By 1994, he’d had enough and resigned, ending a brilliant 45-year career as a player, scout, coach, manager, and General Manager.

He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2010. The Cardinals inducted Herzog into their inaugural Hall of Fame class in 2014. The Royals beat all of them to the punch, inducting Herzog into their Hall of Fame in 2000.

Those managers with Kansas City ties? Whitey still ranks #37 on the all-time wins list with 1,281 victories, just ahead of his former player Clint Hurdle (39th with 1,269).