Virdon meeting fans at McKechnie Field on March 4, 2012
|Center fielder / Manager|
Born: June 9, 1931|
Hazel Park, Michigan
|April 12, 1955, for the St. Louis Cardinals|
|Last MLB appearance|
|July 26, 1968, for the Pittsburgh Pirates|
|Runs batted in||502|
|Career highlights and awards|
William Charles Virdon (born June 9, 1931) is an American former professional baseball outfielder, manager, and coach in Major League Baseball (MLB). Virdon played in MLB for the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates from 1955 through 1965 and in 1968. He served as a coach for the Pirates and Houston Astros, and managed the Pirates, Astros, New York Yankees, and Montreal Expos.
After playing in Minor League Baseball for the Yankees organization, Virdon was traded to the Cardinals, and he made his MLB debut in 1955. That year, Virdon won the National League Rookie of the Year Award. He slumped at the beginning of the 1956 season, and was traded to the Pirates, where he spent the remainder of his playing career. A premier defensive outfielder during his playing days as a center fielder for the Cardinals and Pirates, Virdon led a strong defensive team to the 1960 World Series championship. In 1962, Virdon won a Rawlings Gold Glove Award. Following the 1965 season, he retired due to his desire to become a manager.
Virdon managed in Minor League Baseball until returning to the Pirates as a coach in 1968. He served as manager of the Pirates in 1972 and 1973, before becoming the manager of the Yankees in 1974. During the 1975 season, the Yankees fired Virdon, and he was hired by the Astros. After being fired by the Astros after the 1982 season, Virdon managed the Expos in 1983 and 1984. Virdon won The Sporting News' Manager of the Year Award in 1974, his only full season working for the Yankees, and in 1980, while managing the Astros. He returned to the Pirates as a coach following his managerial career, and remains with the Pirates as a guest instructor during spring training.
William Charles Virdon was born in Hazel Park, Michigan, on June 9, 1931. His parents, Bertha and Charles Virdon, were originally from Missouri, but moved to Hazel Park during the Great Depression, where they were able to find jobs in automotive factories. When he was 12 years old, his family moved to West Plains, Missouri.
Virdon attended West Plains High School. He competed in American football, basketball, and track and field for the school. As West Plains did not compete in baseball, Virdon traveled to Clay Center, Kansas, to play for their American Amateur Baseball Congress team as a center fielder and shortstop. He enrolled at Drury University in Springfield, Missouri.
Minor league career
Virdon attended an open tryout held by the New York Yankees in Branson, Missouri, and scout Tom Greenwade signed Virdon to the Yankees for a $1,800 signing bonus ($18,309 in current dollar terms). Virdon made his professional debut in 1950 with the Independence Yankees in the Class D Kansas–Oklahoma–Missouri League, and was promoted to the Kansas City Blues in the Class AAA American Association for the final 14 games of the season. Virdon played for the Norfolk Tars in the Class B Piedmont League in 1951, and for the Binghamton Triplets in the Class A Eastern League in 1952. The Yankees assigned him to Kansas City in 1953, but he struggled, batting .233. While he played in Kansas City, Virdon was diagnosed with astigmatism. When Kansas City manager Harry Craft noticed Virdon reading while wearing glasses, Craft told him to wear them while he played.
The Yankees demoted Virdon to the Birmingham Barons in the Class AA Southern Association. In 42 games for Birmingham, Virdon had a .317 batting average. According to Hal Smith, his roommate with Birmingham, Virdon changed his approach to hitting, prioritizing line drives to all parts of the field, rather than trying to hit for power.
Virdon remained stuck behind Mickey Mantle on the Yankees' depth chart for center field, while Gene Woodling and Hank Bauer played the corner outfield positions. The Yankees traded Virdon to the St. Louis Cardinals before the 1954 season with Mel Wright and Emil Tellinger for veteran outfielder and All-Star Enos Slaughter. Virdon struggled during spring training, and Cardinals manager Eddie Stanky worked with Virdon to improve his hitting. The Cardinals assigned Virdon to the Rochester Red Wings of the Class AAA International League for the season. He led the league with a .333 batting average and hit 22 home runs, finishing second in voting for the International League Most Valuable Player Award to Elston Howard.
Major league career
Virdon joined the Cardinals in 1955, as the Cardinals moved Stan Musial to first base to allow Virdon to play the outfield. As a rookie, Virdon had a .281 average with 17 home runs and 69 runs batted in (RBIs). He was named the winner of the National League (NL) Rookie of the Year Award, voted on by the Baseball Writers' Association of America, beating Jack Meyer of the Philadelphia Phillies.
After the 1955 season, the Cardinals hired Frank Lane, nicknamed "The Trader", as their general manager. Virdon slumped to begin the 1956 season, and the Cardinals traded him to the Pittsburgh Pirates in May 1956 for Bobby Del Greco and Dick Littlefield. Lane claimed that Virdon's late season slump in 1955 was because he tired down the stretch, and that is why he chose to trade him. Lane later referred to the trade as "the worst trade [he] ever made".
When he arrived at Pittsburgh, he developed an eye condition, for which he received treatment, missing one week of the season. Virdon's vision improved, and he challenged Hank Aaron for the NL batting title. Virdon batted .334 for the Pirates during remainder of the season, which increased his season batting average to .319, second-best in the NL to Aaron, who batted .328. Pirates' announcer Bob Prince gave Virdon the nickname "Quail" due to the frequency of his soft-hit infield hits.
The Pirates hired Danny Murtaugh as their manager during the 1957 season; Virdon credited Murtaugh with pushing him to perform at his best. Virdon consistently batted in the .260s for the next several seasons. He led all NL center fielders in assists in 1959 with 16, and in double plays turned with five. In 1960, Virdon, along with right fielder Roberto Clemente, shortstop Dick Groat, second baseman Bill Mazeroski, and third baseman Don Hoak, formed a strong defensive unit for the Pirates, and they reached the 1960 World Series, where they faced the New York Yankees. Virdon batted .241 during the seven game series. In the deciding Game 7, he hit a ground ball that struck Yankees shortstop Tony Kubek in the throat after taking an unpredictable bounce, enabling Virdon to reach base safely. This started a rally for the Pirates that culminated in Bill Mazeroski's home run that won the series for Pittsburgh.
Virdon led the NL in triples with 10 during the 1962 season. That year, he won the Rawlings Gold Glove Award. He struggled in the 1964 season, batting only .243. Though his batting average improved to .279 in the 1965 season, Virdon retired after the season due to his desire to become a manager. Virdon retired with 1,596 MLB hits, a career batting average of .267 with 91 home runs during his 1,583-game NL career.
Coaching and managing
Virdon began operating a baseball academy in 1956. After the 1962 season, Virdon coached in the Arizona Instructional League. He coached in the Florida Instructional League following the 1964 season. Following his retirement as a player after the 1965 season, Virdon spent the next two seasons as a manager in the minor leagues for the New York Mets' organization. In 1966, he managed the Williamsport Mets of the Eastern League, and in 1967, he managed the Jacksonville Suns of the International League. He led Williamsport to a 68–72 win-loss record, and Jacksonville to a 66–73 record.
Virdon joined the Pirates' major league coaching staff under manager Larry Shepard in 1968. Shepard left the Pirates after the 1969 season, and Virdon interviewed to become the Pirates' next manager. However, the Pirates re-hired Murtaugh, and Virdon remained on Murtaugh's coaching staff. Virdon coached the Pirates as they won the 1971 World Series. Due to health problems, Murtaugh retired after the 1971 season, and Virdon was named as his successor.
As a manager, Virdon led the Pirates to the 1972 NL East division title, but the Pirates lost the 1972 National League Championship Series (NLCS) to the Cincinnati Reds when Pittsburgh pitcher Bob Moose unleashed a wild pitch in the final inning of Game 5, allowing the winning run to score. The 1973 Pirates had to play without Clemente, who died during the previous offseason. Further struggles included pitcher Steve Blass' inability to throw strikes and injuries to Dock Ellis. In 1973, Virdon clashed with Ellis and Richie Hebner, and the Pirates fell into third place, with a 67–69 record, and the team fired Virdon, replacing him with Murtaugh.
The Yankees announced the hiring of Dick Williams as their manager for the 1974 season, but American League president Joe Cronin nullified the transaction because Williams was still under contract with the Oakland Athletics. The Athletics demanded prospects Otto Vélez and Scott McGregor as compensation for Williams, but the Yankees decided the price was too steep. Without a manager, the Yankees hired Virdon, signing him to a one-year contract. Virdon led the Yankees to a competitive finish, one game behind the Baltimore Orioles in the American League East division. He won The Sporting News' Manager of the Year Award. The Yankees signed him to a two-year contract after the 1974 season, with a raise from $50,000 to $65,000 per year. However, Virdon clashed with Bobby Murcer. He received a death threat due to his preference of playing Elliott Maddox over Murcer in center field. The Yankees struggled in 1975. When Billy Martin was fired as manager of the Texas Rangers during the 1975 season, the Yankees fired Virdon on August 2 and hired Martin.
The Houston Astros hired Virdon as their manager on August 20, 1975, succeeding Preston Gómez. Tal Smith, who had served as executive vice president for the Yankees, had become the Astros' general manager on August 7. Virdon led the Astros to third-place finishes in 1976 and 1977, but the Astros slipped to fifth place in 1978. The 1979 Astros fell one game short of winning the NL West division championship. The Astros tied the Los Angeles Dodgers for the division championship in 1980, and defeated them in the 1980 NL West tie-breaker game. The Astros played the Philadelphia Phillies in the 1980 NLCS, losing the series in five games. He again won the Manager of the Year Award in 1980. Due to the 1981 Major League Baseball strike, the 1981 season was split into halves with each half's winner appearing in the 1981 NL Division Series. The Dodgers won the first half, while the Astros won the second. In the Division Series, the Dodgers defeated the Astros in five games. During the 1982 season, the Astros fell to fifth place. Virdon was fired during the season and replaced by Bob Lillis.
The Montreal Expos hired Virdon as their manager before the 1983 season, replacing Jim Fanning, and signed a two-year contract. During the 1984 season, Virdon expressed to Expos general manager John McHale that he did not want to return to the Expos in 1985. With a 64–67 record in August 1984, the Expos fired Virdon, replacing him with Fanning. Gary Lucas, a pitcher for the Expos, felt that they had lost many one-run games because Virdon was too conservative in his managing, not employing the hit and run play and relying on the starting pitcher for long in the game.
Virdon returned to the Pirates as the hitting coach under Jim Leyland in 1986, Leyland's first season as a manager. He took the position only when he was convinced that he would not succeed Leyland should the Pirates fire him. Following a contract dispute, the Pirates replaced Virdon with Milt May before the 1987 season. Virdon remained with the Pirates as a minor league hitting instructor for the Pirates from 1987 through 1989. He worked as a spring training instructor for the Cardinals in 1990 and 1991, and then rejoined Leyland's coaching staff in Pittsburgh in 1992.
With Major League Baseball expanding by two teams for the 1993 season, Virdon interviewed for the managerial positions of both expansion teams, the Florida Marlins and the Colorado Rockies, in 1992. The Marlins instead hired Rene Lachemann, and the Rockies hired Don Baylor. In 1994, Virdon interviewed with the Orioles for their vacant managerial position. Virdon left the Pirates after the 1995 season. He became the bench coach for the Astros under first-time manager Larry Dierker in 1997. The Pirates brought Virdon back as their bench coach for the 2001 season under first-time manager Lloyd McClendon. He retired from coaching after the 2002 season.
Virdon's career managerial record, over all or parts of 13 seasons, was 995–921 (.519). He also managed in the minor leagues for the Cardinals and the Astros. In June 2012, the Pirates attempted to add Virdon and Mazeroski to their coaching staff, but were rebuffed by MLB for violating the rules on uniformed coaching staffs after one game. Virdon continues to serve as a special outfield instructor for the Pirates during spring training.
Virdon and his wife, Shirley, married in November 1951, and live in Springfield, Missouri. They have three daughters. Together, Bill and Shirley Virdon endowed two scholarships at Southeast Missouri State University, Shirley's alma mater, with one specifically devoted for a baseball player.
A portion of the U.S. Route 63 business route in West Plains is named "Bill Virdon Boulevard". Virdon was inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 1983, and named a Missouri Sports Legend by the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 2012. The Independence, Missouri, Baseball Hall of Fame inducted Virdon in 2013. Following Whitey Herzog's election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2012, Herzog indicated that he would champion Virdon's cause to the Veterans Committee in future elections.
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