Bill Virdon’s Excellent Adventure
By Marty Appel
When one recalls the general lack of enthusiasm that surrounded the hiring of Joe Torre a few years ago – only to find him going on to win Manager of the Year honors and turning all skeptics around – one can’t help but turn back the clock a quarter century to the day Bill Virdon faced a similar reception upon his hiring.
Virdon, a 42-year old former centerfielder, was a number two choice to become the first manager hired under the George Steinbrenner ownership. His lack of American League credentials – similar to Torre – and his quiet, reserved Midwest demeanor, made him also an unenthusiastic selection after the exciting headlines of the preceding weeks.
Ralph Houk, the respected but beleaguered Yankee manager, had resigned on the final day of the 1973 season after 35 years in the Yankee organization. To replace him, the Yankees dramatically set their sights on the skipper of the world champion Oakland A’s, the dynamic Dick Williams.
Williams, tired of the meddling of owner Charles O. Finley, had similarly resigned after the World Series victory over the Mets. Now, seizing the moment, the Yankees pounced. Gabe Paul, the team’s President worked through an intermediary – a Yankee season ticket holder and friend of Williams – to make an offer.
The problem was, Williams still had another two years left on his Oakland contract. It was one thing to quit, but another thing to go to another team without compensation. And Finley knew he was holding the cards if the Yankees wanted his manager.
For two months, the intrigue went on. Finley insisted on two minor league prospects – pitcher Scott McGregor, and outfielder Otto Velez, plus $150,000.
“McGregor and Velez are our crown jewels,” said Gabe Paul. “No way!”
Knowing they were headed for legal battle, the Yankees signed Williams without compensation, and held a gala press conference on December 18, 1973 to introduce him as manager.
Two days later, in his final act as League president before retiring three weeks later, Joe Cronin ruled in favor of Oakland, and voided the Yankees deal with Williams. That left the Yankees without a manager, and created a new search.
While this was playing out, Lee MacPhail left the Yankees to succeed Cronin. In his place came Tal Smith, a one-time Gabe Paul protégé, and long time Houston Astros executive. Smith and Paul came up with the new selection – Virdon. He was given a one-year contract on January 3, the first anniversary of the Steinbrenner purchase. The announcement was done without the fanfare of the Williams appointment, and most Yankee fans expressed disappointment over the little known, and seemingly uninspired selection after the promise of the Dick Williams signing.
Virdon had been the Pittsburgh Pirates’ centerfielder from 1956-65, and had played against the Yankees in the classic 1960 World Series. After his playing career, he managed in the Mets system, and then returned to Pittsburgh as a coach under Danny Murtaugh. In 1972, he succeeded the retired Murtaugh as manager and captured the National League eastern division title, losing to the Reds in the NLCS. In ’73, the team slipped to third, and he was replaced by Murtaugh on September 7. And so as he found himself looking for work, the Yankees found themselves past New Year’s Day and in need of a manager. Virdon was in the right place at the right time.
He had Yankee roots. He had been signed by the Yankees in 1950, and spent four seasons in the Yankee system, but never played in the majors with them. In April of 1954, he was traded with Mel Wright and Emil Tellinger to the Cardinals for Enos Slaughter. With the Cards in 1955, Virdon would be named The Sporting News Rookie of the Year. A year later, he was dealt to the Pirates.
One of Virdon’s first acts as Yankee manager was to hire the same Mel Wright as a coach. Otherwise, he was surrounded by familiar pinstripers – Whitey Ford as pitching coach, Elston Howard at first, and Dick Howser at third. Most managers get to name their full staffs. Virdon, because of his late hire, was lucky to get one selection.
His team was coming off a disappointing ’73 finish which had led to Houk’s resignation. They were 21-38 over the last two months after looking like contenders. Now, forced to play home games in Shea Stadium for two years while Yankee Stadium was remodeled, thrown into disarray by the managerial upheaval, and with only one significant addition to the roster over the winter – Lou Piniella – the team received no support from pennant prognosticators as they headed for spring training.
Virdon, slim, muscular, and intense, was not a great communicator. Thurman Munson once said “he went weeks without saying anything, then he called me in one day to sign some baseball cards on his desk that some kid had mailed to him.” But Virdon was not grounded by protocol either. He and Gabe Paul had some plans.
In spring training, Paul purchased outfielder Elliott Maddox from Texas. Almost at once, Virdon announced that Maddox would play center, and Bobby Murcer, the heir to Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio in centerfield, would move to right.
Murcer was miserable, and a 10-home run season would follow, as he never found Shea to his liking. Munson hit .261 with only 60 RBIs. Mel Stottlemyre injured his arm and never pitched again. But something else was going on.
The move of Maddox to center proved brilliant. Virdon, the one-time center fielder, knew what his speed and his glove could add to the team. He didn’t particularly care about Murcer’s feelings – or the fans – because he himself had played next to a right fielder named Roberto Clemente.
Maddox delivered a .303 season and brilliant fielding. Meanwhile, Gabe Paul was wheeling and dealing. On April 26, he traded four of his eight pitchers to Cleveland for Chris Chambliss, Dick Tidrow and Cecil Upshaw.
It was considered the “Friday Night Massacre” in the Yankee clubhouse. Munson stormed around – in front of Virdon and Paul – grumbling “they traded half our pitchers – HALF! How are we gonna replace Fred Beene!!?”
Of course, it proved to be a brilliant trade. Chambliss and Tidrow would help the team to return to pennant glory in a few seasons, and produced immediate results. Meanwhile, Ford and Virdon were manipulating the pitching staff – now including newcomers Rudy May and Larry Gura – to get the team into pennant contention. Pat Dobson and Doc Medich would win 19 each.
The revamped roster under the unknown manager was starting to kick in. It started to become fun. As the road trips turned good, utilityman Bill Sudakis would play Wings’ “Band on the Run” on his 8-track boom box, which became sort of a team fight song. “Yes We Can” banners began appearing at Shea.
Although the team was 60-61 on August 20, Virdon had them charging . The team was on fire. They would win 29 of their last 41 and go right into the final weekend of the season with a chance at the division title, only to have it fall just short and finish two games behind Baltimore. It was a tremendous finish, and Virdon was rewarded with Manager of the Year honors. Paul was named Executive of the Year.
In the off season, the Yankees traded Murcer to San Francisco for Bobby Bonds, one of the game’s most complete players. Then, they signed Cy Young Award winner Catfish Hunter to baseball’s first major free agent contract. Everyone picked them to win it all.
Two things went wrong for Virdon in 1975. The first was that all did not go as planned on the playing field. The team was just 53-51 through July, struggling to get hot. Then, Texas fired Billy Martin. Martin had never made a secret of his desire to manage in New York. He was the master of the quick fix, and he had carried his love for the Yankees in his heart since he had been traded 18 years earlier. Steinbrenner loved that. And he was beginning to become disenchanted with Virdon’s quiet ways – how Howser would take the lineup card to home plate, how Ford would make the pitching changes, how Virdon would be slow to argue with umpires. Martin, of course, would do all of that.
On August 1, a Friday night, the Yankees defeated Cleveland at Shea. But Virdon was an old baseball man. He had heard the drumbeats. The press was surrounding him nightly. “Are you being fired?” they would ask.
“No one has told me anything,” he would answer.
After the game, the phone rang on Virdon’s desk. Gabe Paul wanted to see him across the street in the team’s offices in Flushing Meadow Park. Late that night, he crossed Roosevelt Avenue and was told he was out. The next afternoon, Old Timers’ Day, Billy Martin took over. And in ’76, Billy would win a pennant.
And so Virdon had a short stay in New York and never did manage the team in Yankee Stadium. But the stay greatly enhanced his reputation in baseball and with the major sports media based in New York, who found him to be a straight shooter. He would go on to managing positions at Houston and Montreal, and won titles with the Astros in 1980 and ’81, reunited with Tal Smith. Today, he remains a coach in the Pirates organization at 68.
He was a second choice, but his brief tenure helped turn the team in the right direction.