Next Monday, the Hall of Fame will announce the results of its newly structured balloting for managers, executives, umpires, and pioneers. A field of seven skippers will be considered by a 16-man panel that meets this Sunday, December 2. The group of managers includes Whitey Herzog, Davey Johnson, Billy Martin, Gene Mauch, Danny Murtaugh, Billy Southworth, and “Dick” Williams.
Throughout the week, we’ll analyze the candidacies of the three men who stand the strongest chances of election–Herzog, Martin, and Williams. Let’s begin with “The White Rat.”
As a journeyman outfielder-first baseman, Whitey Herzog had little lasting impact on the game. His post-playing career, however, has produced far more meaningful storylines. During the 1970s and eighties, Herzog became a revolutionary manager, tailoring two ball clubs to a slash-and-speed style that fit perfectly with their distinctive ballparks.
Though it doesn’t technically have any effect on his Hall of Fame candidacy as a manager, Herzog’s work as a scout with the old Kansas City A’s represented the first groundbreaking measures of his post-playing career. Working under the employ of the difficult and demanding Charlie Finley, Herzog signed seven players who eventually made the major league roster, including talented but mercurial right-hander Chuck Dobson. Herzog also scouted Don Sutton for the A’s, strongly recommending to the owner that he sign the future Hall of Fame right-hander. The A’s would have followed through on Herzog’s legwork if not for some Finley foolishness; he insisted that Sutton adopt a nickname, ala Jim “Catfish” Hunter and John “Blue Moon” Odom. When Sutton refused the demand, Finley withdrew the contract offer. As a fan of Finley’s A’s, I can only imagine how formidable an early 1970s rotation of Hunter, Vida Blue, Sutton, and Ken Holtzman would have been for the franchise that had had relocated to Oakland.
After fighting Finley over travel expenses, Herzog left the A’s to become a coach with the Mets. He soon moved up to the front office, becoming the team’s director of player personnel in 1967 and having an influence on the development of minor league talent. As young pitching becoming the hallmark of the franchise in the late 1960s, the Mets shocked all observers by winning the World Series in 1969, with Herzog playing at least a small, indirect role.
From there, Herzog feuded with Mets chairman M. Donald Grant and then assumed his first managerial role with the Rangers. Greatly influenced by the teaching of Casey Stengel, who had managed the Yankees while Herzog played in their farm system, Whitey began to put some of Stengel’s principles, such as platooning and roster usage, into play. Unfortunately, Herzog had little talent at his disposal. Presiding over directionless franchises in Texas and California (where he served the Angels on an interim basis), Herzog managed without fanfare, acclaim, or success. Then came what would prove to be a dream job–two miles from his home in Kansas City. In taking over the upstart Royals in 1975, Herzog assumed leadership of a team that had won nothing since its inception in 1969.
Realizing that the fast artificial turf and lengthy dimensions of Royals Stadium penalized slow, plodding sluggers, and favored players who could run and defend, Herzog made quick and drastic changes to his lineup. He benched slow-footed second baseman Cookie Rojas and aging right fielder Vada Pinson, replacing them with Frank White and Al Cowens, respectively. Cowens and White had their flaws offensively, but both ran well, and both played the field exceptionally. White’s blanket-like range at second base, coupled with Cowens’ range and throwing arm in right field, fit Royals Stadium to a tee. On offense, Herzog showed a preference for players who could get on base, at a time when on-base percentage was not emphasized the way it is in today’s game. He gave players like Hal McRae and Darrell Porter increased roles, taking advantage of their ability to hit and draw walks.
With “Whiteyball” in place, the Royals intimidated other teams with their ability to pepper line drives from foul line to foul line while aggressively stealing bases. Elevating the team from non-contention in 1975 and overcoming the lack of a dominant closer, Herzog oversaw three American League West titles from 1976 through 1978. Unfortunately, each season ended with a League Championship Series loss to the rival Yankees.
It was during his Royals’ tenure that Herzog first began to show his intolerance of players he believed to be drug abusers or heavy drinkers. Suspecting that the play of slugging first baseman John Mayberry was being affected by cocaine and alcohol abuse, Herzog convinced the front office to rid the team of its cleanup hitter in the spring of 1978, when the Royals sold him to the Blue Jays in a cash deal. (Herzog would later do the same with the Cardinals, ridding them of Keith Hernandez, one of St. Louis’ key contributors to the 1982 World Championship. Unlike the Mayberry deal, the Hernandez trade would badly hurt Herzog’s team, especially in the short term.) Although the Royals ended up winning the AL West without Mayberry, Herzog’s influence in riding the popular slugger out of town made him a target within the organization. A developing feud with batting coach Charlie Lau only exacerbated the situation; when the Royals finished second in 1979, the front office had its excuse to fire Herzog.
To his full credit, Herzog did not allow the firing to become a career-killer. He became the manager of the Cardinals in 1980, then actually modified his career path, moving to the front office and becoming St. Louis’ general manager. By October, Herzog had assumed the dual role of general manager and manager. (Such an arrangement in today’s game is almost unthinkable.) With the Cardinals, he did exactly what he did to the Royals–but now with full power over player personnel decisions. Herzog shipped out slower players and sluggers, replacing them with superior defensive players who could run. Through a series of blockbuster trades, Herzog phased out Ted Simmons, Leon “Bull” Durham, Garry Templeton, and Ken Reitz. In most cases, he brought in a better defender to man each position. At catcher, Darrell Porter replaced Simmons. At shortstop, Ozzie Smith succeeded Templeton. In another move, Herzog stole Willie McGee from the Yankees for Bob Sykes, giving the Cardinals a top-flight center fielder. The succession of deals also netted a Hall of Fame closer, Bruce Sutter, who gave the Cardinals a lockdown quality in the late innings.
Emphasizing speed, defense, and the ability to hit line drives into the spacious outfield gaps, the Cardinals conformed to the fast-paced artificial surface of Busch Stadium. In spite of a shocking lack of power, the Cardinals scored runs efficiently while putting enormous pressure on opposing defenders. They also overcame a lack of dominant starting pitching, in part because of Herzog’s masterful use of the bullpen and overall skill as an in-game strategist. The end result? The Cardinals won the World Series in 1982, then followed up with National League pennants in 1985 and ’87. They narrowly missed a second title under Herzog’s watch in ’85, in part because of Don Denkinger’s blatantly bad call at first base in Game Six of the World Series.
With three pennants, one World Championship, and a successful reign as general manager in St. Louis (a later stint as Angels GM proved largely ineffective), Herzog built up a considerable Hall of Fame resume. But is it strong enough? Three straight losses in the American League Championship Series certainly damage Herzog’s cause. (Unlike some, I’m not a big proponent of the “crapshoot” theory of postseason baseball.) The personality conflicts in Kansas City led to his premature firing, denying him of an opportunity to manage the Royals in 1980, when they ended up winning the AL pennant under a lesser manager in Jim Frey. And then there were the two World Series failures in the mid-1980s, with the Cardinals losing to seemingly inferior teams in Kansas City and Minnesota, despite building early leads in each Series. The defeat at the hands of the Royals was especially disheartening, given the Cardinals’ three-games-to-one lead in the Series.
Objectively, Herzog seems like a borderline Hall of Fame candidate. Managing for part or all of 18 seasons, he compiled a .532 winning percentage, which compares favorably with Tommy Lasorda (.526) and Bill McKechnie (.524). He dared to buck–and successfully so–the conventional wisdom that dictated power hitting was a prerequisite to making the postseason. He also succeeded in the dual role of manager-general manager, an incredible accomplishment given the time demands of both jobs. Yet, there were two large failings: Herzog’s inability to coexist with others, which short-circuited his Royals tenure, and the ill-fated trade of Hernandez for Neil Allen and Rick Ownbey, which weakened the Cardinals while simultaneously strengthening a division rival in New York. While a reasonable argument for Herzog’s election can be made, I think he may have fallen one World Championship (or perhaps just one league pennant) shy of Hall of Fame induction.