Bruce Bochy has won three World Series championships as manager of the San Francisco Giants. He said, “When I made the majors in 1978, the manager was Bill Virdon, and to my mind, he’s the guy I’ve most tried to emulate. He was fair, but he was firm, and while he demanded that we play the game the right way, he never embarrassed anybody. He took you into his office and set you straight. I have the highest respect for Bill Virdon.”
Nolan Ryan told me Bill Virdon “was a matter-of-fact, no-nonsense kind of manager. According to Bill, you better play the game the right way and always respect the game. Those of us who got the opportunity to play for him, we appreciated that perspective. He’s a man of few words and means what he says. Gotta lot of respect for him.”
Andrew McCutchen told me this story about Bill. “During Spring Training, he used to grab his fungo and tell me to get about fifteen feet in front of him. We then played a game. I would have to catch ten balls in a row. He didn’t tell me how hard he would be hitting them. He’d hit balls that would fly past me, short hops, you name it. And if I missed, I’d have to start all over again. A great work ethic is in his blood and he instills that in everyone around him.”
Bill is one of the great faces of baseball in Missouri. In 1955, he was the National League Rookie of the Year playing for the St. Louis Cardinals. The next spring, he was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Shirley, his wife, learned about the trade listening to a pocket radio in the hospital, trying to entertain their daughter as she waited for the doctors to take the daughter back for a tonsillectomy. (Fun side story: Bill and Shirley eloped five weeks after they first met. They have been married now for 66 years.)
Bill is a Gold Glove-winning centerfielder and he won the World Series with the Pirates in 1960. Bill won Manager of the Year in both leagues, with the New York Yankees in 1974 and with the Houston Astros in 1980.
He’s managed several players now in the National Baseball Hall of Fame: Nolan Ryan, Roberto Clemente, Phil Niekro, Tim Raines, and Willie Stargell as well as Pete Rose, Thurmon Munson, and Lou Piniella.
In 1973, Bill helped coach the National League All-Star team. The game was hosted in KC, just a few months after the new stadium opened.
“National League won 7 – 1,” Bill said with a smirk.
Over the past couple of years, I have thoroughly enjoyed getting to know both Bill and Shirley. I was shocked and thrilled when Bill agreed to a game of catch.
“I tossed a ball some at Spring Training last year. Threw out a first pitch for the Springfield Cardinals a couple years ago,” Bill said.
Bill showed me his glove, an old Rawlings with the leather worn through in multiple places and a couple broken strings.
“I used to get a new glove every spring. I’d spend the year breaking it in, just playing catch, then use that glove the next season. This was one of my last gloves.”
I thought it was absolutely beautiful.
We walked through the garage and out onto his back porch. Bill flipped the ball up in the air and straight into the sun. I know how to use my glove to block the sun and catch the ball, but this ball was perfectly centered and I couldn’t find it. I covered my head and the ball fell to the ground right in front of me.
“Sorry,” Bill said. “That was an accident. Had no idea the sun was right there.”
“I thought you might be testing me.”
“Oh, I’ll test you all right. Scoot back,” he motioned.
I stepped back ten feet.
Another few feet.
Still, another few feet.
“Good. Now put some zip on it.”
Bill played in the majors from 1955 through 1965 and then switched to coaching. Except for one month in 1968.
“Someone got injured, I think, so they called me back up for a handful of games.”
In 1968, Bill played in 6 games for the Pirates.
“Just a late game defensive replacement mostly.”
On July 23, Bill was put in as a pinch hitter for Dock Ellis in the bottom of the ninth inning. The Cincinnati Reds were winning 5 – 3. With one out and one on, Bill hit a game-tying home run.
“Only hit I had that season.” (Bill only had three at bats in 1968.)
Despite Bill’s ninth-inning heroics, the Reds went on to win the game 7 – 6 in 12 innings.
The whole time we tossed the ball, Bill teased me about my KC hat and Royals hoodie.
“I can get you a Pirates hat if you’d like.”
But I remembered when we had lunch after the Royals won the World Series in 2015. He congratulated me.
“Those were some crazy games. Good games. Really long games. But the Royals deserved it. They played hard, the right way, as a team. Good way to end the season.”
I know Bill’s missing being at Spring Training this year. With the winter Missouri has had, I can’t blame him one bit. I know the Pirates are missing him, too. I asked him to send a message to the team.
Based on our conversations over the past couple of year, I wrote a poem about Bill.
Virdon’s Rules of Baseball
I was fortunate
to do something
I really loved to do.
Be grateful for every opportunity
to play ball.
Play the game the right way. Always.
Play hard and hustle. Always.
Be honest and fair. Always.
Be friendly and respectful to your teammates,
to the other team,
and to umpires. Always.
Remember people are watching you.
You are an example to someone. Always.
And love — really love! —
this game while you play.
One more thing.
Practice your swing using a pipe.
I did in the off-season.
Probably the smartest thing
I ever did as a player.
Thank you Bill and Shirley, for your hospitality, your generosity, and your support of this year of playing catch!