by James H. Burns
Last week’s vote by the veterans’ committee to put Whitey Herzog into the Hall of Fame reminds us of something a lot of fans don’t know: though for years Mets devotees thought of Whitey as the “White Rat,” an arch-enemy, managing the rival St. Louis Cardinals to three National League pennants and one World Series title between 1980 and 1990, Herzog was also one of the geniuses behind 1969’s Miracle Mets.
As Director of Player Development, Herzog worked with many of those championship talents (and later rued the Mets’ trading, over his objections, of such future All Stars as Amos Otis, Ken Singleton, and Nolan Ryan) — and, in return, was treated shabbily by the front office.
Forty years later, Whitey Herzog just might have the key to solving the current Mets mess. After all, he’s performed similar miracles before…
In the 1950s Herzog came up as an outfielder through the Yankees farm system, when the parent club was led by Casey Stengel. The Yanks traded Herzog to the Washington Senators, where he made his major league debut in 1956 (managed by former Brooklyn Dodgers pennant winner Charley Dressen).
Over the next eight years Herzog travelled to the Kansas City Athletics, the Baltimore Orioles, and the Detroit Tigers. In 1964, he became a scout and coach for the As, then owned by Charley Finley.
Herzog joined the Mets in 1966 as third base coach. He was devoted to the organization, and patiently awaited the day he’d be asked to take over for manager Gil Hodges.
But when Hodges died unexpectedly just prior to the start of the 1972 season, Herzog received one of the nastiest insults in local baseball lore: Associates of the Mets’ Chairman of the Board, M. Donald Grant, ordered Herzog not to attend his friend’s funeral, reportedly to avoid “speculation.”
Within a year, Herzog left to manage the Texas Rangers for a season. He then coached third base for the California Angels, under legendary former Arizona State college baseball skipper Bobby Winkles and his succesor, Hall of Fame manager, Dick Williams.
In August of 1975, Herzog took over as manager of the Kansas City Royals, with whom he took three consecutive American League Western Division crowns, only to be stopped
in each year’s ALCS by the ascendant Yankees.
(Herzog’s greatest accomplishment may have been doing double-duty, for eighteen months, as the Cardinals’ skipper and general manager — transforming 1980’s moribund St. Louis Cards franchise into 1982’s World Series celebrants.)
Now Herzog is 78. He has recently been a scout, and says that he’d love to be back more actively in baseball. No one’s suggesting that the wiley veteran belongs in the dugout as a
manager — though it is conceivable that he could match, or surpass, the triumphs of such recent septuegenerian skippers as Jack McKeon and Frank Robinson.
It’s certainly a long shot that the Mets would ever bring him back; the franchise is too insular and, conventional wisdom would say, Whitey is too old. But after three seasons of failure under General Manager Omar Minaya, the Mets might want to try something unconventional.
Recently the Mets hired a marketing consultant and introduced a “retro-uniform” for 2010. If such intangibles are thought by the front office to be meaningful, perhaps they should consider hiring Herzog in any capacity, just to have someone around who knows that much about winning.
Herzog wrote in his autobiography, The White Rat, “One thing I learned during the seven years I spent with the Mets is that the whole organization has to work in harmony if things are to go right. You can’t give a manager (mediocre) players and expect him to win. You can’t acquire or develop good players unless everyone in the front office is thinking alike, or unless there’s one strong personality in charge…
“You don’t find an organization like that very often, but when you do, it’s usually flying pennant flags.”