A recommendation from a manager in their farm system prompted the Cardinals to acquire a player who would become the top rookie in the National League.
Bill Virdon was an outfielder with the Yankees’ minor-league American Association club in Kansas City in 1953. Johnny Keane, managing the Cardinals’ Columbus, Ohio, club in the American Association, was impressed by Virdon’s defense, speed and throwing, and rated him ready for the big leagues.
Acting on Keane’s advice, the Cardinals acquired Virdon and two other prospects from the Yankees for outfielder Enos Slaughter in April 1954. Virdon became the Cardinals’ center fielder in 1955 and won the National League Rookie of the Year Award. He went on to play 12 years in the majors, mostly with the Pirates, and then became a coach and manager. Virdon was 90 when he died Nov. 22, 2021.
Virdon was born in Hazel Park, Mich., near Detroit. His parents moved there from Missouri to find work in the auto industry. Virdon’s father was a machinist in an auto plant, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
When Virdon was 12, the family relocated to West Plains, Mo., about 20 miles from the Arkansas border. West Plains was the birthplace of actor Dick Van Dyke and country singer Porter Wagoner. Virdon later became a West Plains neighbor of Preacher Roe, who operated a grocery store there on the corner of Broadway and Porter Wagoner Boulevard after finishing his big-league pitching career.
Signed by the Yankees, Virdon entered their farm system in 1950.
“He credits his powerful forearms and biceps to gymnastics and summer jobs of toting full 24-bottle cases _ one to each hand _ for a soft-drink company in West Plains,” the Post-Dispatch reported.
In 1953, while with the Yankees’ Class AAA affiliate in Kansas City, Virdon struggled to hit, puzzling manager Harry Craft.
“Virdon was barely hitting over .200,” a teammate, pitcher Bob Wiesler, told The Sporting News, “and one day he was reading the paper in the hotel lobby when Craft walked in. Craft nearly fell over when he saw Virdon wearing glasses.
“He asked Bill if it was something new, but Bill told him he always used them for reading. Because he wasn’t hitting, Craft suggested he wear them on the field, too.”
Said Virdon, “The way I wasn’t hitting, he knew I had nothing to lose.”
Tests revealed Virdon had astigmatism in his right eye, the Post-Dispatch reported. A left-handed hitter, Virdon’s right eye was the one closest to the pitcher when he batted.
Virdon began wearing steel-rimmed spectacles on the field. The Yankees sent him to Birmingham, Ala., and Virdon hit .317 for the Class AA team.
“Virdon credits his improved hitting to the use of glasses after an eye test proved his vision in one eye was 50 percent impaired,” The Sporting News reported.
Early in 1954, the Pirates offered pitchers Vern Law and Max Surkont to the Yankees for Virdon, The Sporting News reported. The Yankees were more interested in obtaining Enos Slaughter from the Cardinals. When the Yankees agreed to package Virdon with two other minor-leaguers, outfielder Emil Tellinger and pitcher Mel Wright, the deal was done.
“It was Johnny Keane’s report and recommendation on Bill Virdon that was the big factor in his being included in the deal,” Cardinals farm director Walter Shannon told The Sporting News.
Virdon was assigned to the Cardinals’ Class AAA Rochester, N.Y., farm team in 1954. Playing for manager Harry Walker, Virdon was the International League batting champion (.333) and led the club in home runs (22) and RBI (98). He also “continues to cover the outfield like a tarpaulin, and none take liberties with his arm,” The Sporting News noted.
“Virdon undoubtedly is the best player I’ve ever managed,” Walker said after the season. “He excels in every phase of the game.”
With prospects such as Virdon, Ken Boyer and Don Blasingame in their system, “for the first time I can see a future without Stan Musial and Red Schoendienst,” Cardinals vice-president Bill Walsingham told The Sporting News.
After Rochester’s season ended, Virdon played winter baseball in Cuba and led the Havana Reds in hitting (.340).
Cardinals scout Gus Mancuso, who watched Virdon in Cuba, called him “one of the best young stars I’ve come across in a long time.”
The Cardinals’ center fielder in 1954 had been Wally Moon, who won the National League Rookie of the Year Award that season. To make room for Virdon in center in 1955, Cardinals manager Eddie Stanky shifted Moon to a corner outfield spot. The other corner outfielder was Rip Repulski. Stanky moved Stan Musial from the outfield to first base.
Virdon was given uniform No. 9, the same Enos Slaughter wore with the Cardinals.
Though Virdon got off to a good start, the Cardinals didn’t. Stanky was fired in May and replaced by Harry Walker.
Virdon hit .281 with 17 home runs for the 1955 Cardinals and fielded impressively. Virdon “can go get them as well as Willie Mays,” Cardinals infielder Solly Hemus said to The Sporting News.
In balloting for the Rookie of the Year Award, Virdon got 15 of the 24 votes from the Baseball Writers Association of America.
When Virdon struggled to hit early in the 1956 season, Cardinals general manager Frank Lane suspected it was because of an eye problem and traded him to the Pirates for outfielder Bobby Del Greco and pitcher Dick Littlefield.
Virdon spent the rest of his playing career with the Pirates. He was part of their 1960 World Series championship team and won a Gold Glove Award in 1962. Virdon three times led National League center fielders in fielding percentage and finished with 1,596 hits.
Leader and teacher
In 1966 and 1967, Virdon was a manager in the Mets’ farm system. The Mets’ director of player development was Whitey Herzog. He and Virdon had become friends when both were outfield prospects with the Yankees.
Virdon went on to manage in the big leagues with the Pirates, Yankees, Astros and Expos. He also coached for the Pirates and Astros. He had four stints as a Pirates coach, including two with manager Jim Leyland.
“I can’t think of anybody I respect in baseball more than Bill Virdon,” Leyland told Scripps Howard News Service in 1992.
In 1985, Whitey Herzog arranged for Virdon to spend the season as the Cardinals’ minor-league hitting instructor.
‘I think Whitey’s basic theory is to drive the ball and not worry about home runs,” Virdon told the Post-Dispatch. “If my thinking was a great deal different than Whitey’s, I wouldn’t be doing this.”