In the spring of 1992, it had been three decades since Pat Jordan had hung up his glove, three decades since he had been the hottest pitching prospect in Connecticut.1 He no longer dreamed of a career in baseball, though he floated in a world just outside it.
Jordan got his start as a sportswriter for the Bridgeport Post Telegram2 and eventually developed into a long-form journalist, but even in 1992, a little bit of that burned-out jock remained. He could turn it on when he needed to, and he did just that when the L.A. Times Magazine assigned him a profile of Whitey Herzog. Known to many as the White Rat, Herzog was the newest member of the Angels front office, a former manager with a World Series ring who was charged with turning around Southern California’s black sheep of a baseball team.3
Jordan didn’t know much about Herzog when he was assigned the piece, but he realized they would connect. They both came from strong immigrant families; Herzog is from a German community in Illinois, and Jordan has an Italian background.4 Both saw their dreams of becoming famous baseball players fade — Herzog was never more than a middling pro — and both had moved on, Herzog building his career in another area of the game and Jordan covering it.5
The reporting was easy, Jordan recalls. The two settled into a routine at a series of Angels spring training games in Yuma, Arizona, meeting up for games, grabbing dinner, their discussions as much banter as interview. They talked not about the day-to-day operations of the Angels, but of baseball and life and the journey Herzog had made from New Athens, Illinois, to the West Coast. It was the kind of story, Jordan says, that simply flowed from Herzog to the notepad to the page. There was little need to interpret or editorialize. Herzog said it all.6
“There are a couple of kinds of stories,” Jordan says. “There’s the kind of story where you get B material, and if you’re a really good writer you can make it into A-minus material. Then there are some stories where you get A-plus material, and all you want to do is not fuck it up. You’re very careful over not screwing it up. Whitey was an A-plus story that I tried not to screw up.”
The Wit and Wisdom of the White Rat
Los Angeles Times
May 10, 1992
By Pat Jordan
The White Rat tells jokes. Sexist jokes about the spinster and the foul-mouthed parrot. Racist jokes about the black dude in the elevator. Redneck jokes about the gay cowboy in the bar. He sits there, in the dugout, chewing tobacco, spitting into a plastic bottle, talking. He is surrounded by younger baseball players. They look down at him and smile. A pugnacious-looking man from another time and place. He is 60 years old. He has a bristly, rust-colored crew cut; a bullet-shaped head; a jutting jaw; a big, hard belly, and, curiously, a child’s bottled-up energy. He rocks back and forth as he talks. He reaches out to touch a player on the arm, the shoulder, anywhere, just to make contact, to draw him closer. “And so,” he says, “this cowboy looks up from the bar and says, ‘Moo moo, Buckaroo!'”7 The players laugh, shake their heads. “That’s funny, Rat.” And trot off to batting practice.
It is a hot afternoon in the desert. Yuma, Ariz., is the spring-training home of the San Diego Padres,8 who, this day, are playing the California Angels in the first exhibition game of the spring. The stands are filled with older men and women not unlike the White Rat.9 Between innings they stop by to chat with the Rat, who is now sitting in the stands along the first base line. They go up to him smiling, acting a little nervous, but they speak to him with familiarity, as they would with an old friend, someone like themselves but more successful.
“Hi, Whitey,” says a big man wearing a trucker’s cap. “My cousin Claude met you at a Little League banquet in Festus. Remember?” Whitey Herzog looks up into the brilliant sun and shades his eyes with the flat of his hand. “Sure do,” he says, but he doesn’t. “Festus, south of St. Louis.”
The man smiles. “We seen you lotsa times with the Cardinals,” he says. “You did some job with them.”
“Well, thank you.” Herzog spits tobacco juice into his bottle.
The man nods, grins, is silent for a moment as he thinks of something else to say to cement his friendship with his idol. He finally blurts out: “Say, Whitey, why didn’t you sign (Dave) Winfield?”
“Tried to,” says Herzog. “But you know how it is today. The whole damned deal is money.”
The man shakes his head in despair at the players’ greed. Then he says, “Say, Whitey, you like to fish, don’cha? Well, there’s this river up in Alaska …”
“I’ll be sure to try it.” Herzog turns back to the field now to watch a young pitcher for the Angels. The man in the trucker’s cap senses his time is up. “Before I leave you alone, Whitey,” he says, “could you sign this for my grandson?” He hands Herzog a pencil and a scrap of paper. Herzog signs his name. The man says, “Thanks a bunch, Whitey. Good luck this year.”10
When he’s gone, Herzog says, “Aw, it don’t bother me. Signing autographs.” He laughs, then says: “I’ll tell ya what bothers me. Every guy’s got the best damned river to fish in. When you go there, the fish ain’t there. Where’d they go? Shoot, the last time I fished in Alaska the only thing I caught was mosquitoes. They were so big they could stand on their hind legs and screw a turkey.” Which reminds him of a sexist joke. He tells it, then says: “I should be careful today, huh? Can’t go ’round tellin’ my secretary she’s got a cute ass or else I’ll never become a Supreme Court judge.”11
He laughs again, then gets serious, as he always does when he talks baseball. “You know, Winfield built this big house in the area,” he says of the departed Angel outfielder. “You’d think he’d have wanted to stay there. We offered him 3 million a year, but he turned it down to go with the Blue Jays.” Herzog just shakes his head. Three million dollars!12 Such figures were beyond his comprehension when he was a teenager digging graves for a funeral parlor for spare change. Those days are behind him now. He’s the California Angels’ senior vice president in charge of player personnel. He signed with the Angels last September because of his long friendship with “the Cowboy,” as he calls Angels owner Gene Autry.13 “I wanted to bring the Cowboy a world championship,” Herzog says. “He always helped me out when I needed money.”
Last summer the Cowboy called his good friend Whitey Herzog, who had quit his job as manager of the St. Louis Cardinals in mid-season after 10 years with the club, and pleaded with him to help straighten out the Angels’ organization.14 For three decades, the Angels, who finished last in the American League West last year, have had the reputation of an underachieving franchise that constantly traded off its talented young players and spent large amounts of cash, foolishly, on free agents, few of whom consistently came through. (“They never had a plan,” says Herzog, who is never without one.) Herzog told the Cowboy he had planned to spend the rest of the year playing golf and fishing. Then the Cowboy made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Herzog called his financial adviser, who told him that he didn’t need the Cowboy’s money, but that if he took it, he’d be able to retire at 62 with $25,000 a month, tax-free, for life.15
“I can’t ever spend that much money in my lifetime,” Herzog told his adviser, then signed with the Angels anyway, partly because they let him live in St. Louis during the season while keeping an apartment in Anaheim, but mostly because it was a challenge, he said, “to make the Angels one of the better organizations on the field, with their fans and in their farm system.” Then, like a good company man, he said he believed the organization had been unfairly blamed for its bad trades and acquisitions in the past. His primary duties would be to rate talent and suggest trades and free-agent signings. That would include his particular strong suit: grabbing up players other teams were ready to let go of cheap — good players coming off injuries or a bad year and undervalued by their present bosses.
Since the 1991 season was almost over and Herzog knew little about the Angels, he’d have to wait until well into the 1992 season before asserting his presence. “I ain’t gonna do anything rash,” he said, “just because I’m here.” The Angels’ senior vice-president of operations, Dan O’Brien,16 says Herzog has carte blanche: “If he wants to do something, he can. We have no expectations he’s gonna turn it around immediately.” Richard Brown, the Angels’ president, says, “I didn’t hire Whitey to overrule him on baseball decisions,” but on other occasions Brown has said that he, O’Brien and Herzog will rule together on suggestions by any of the three.
By the time Herzog reached Yuma for the first exhibition game, he was familiar enough with the way the organization was being run to say: “One of our big problems is that some of the dickheads we got working for us think we’re competing with the Dodgers, and we’re not.” He refers to the Angel front office’s annoying habit of looking over its shoulders at how much publicity and attendance the Dodgers are getting, rather than concentrating on producing a winner in the American League West.17
Then he adds in disbelief: “You know what the hell’s really wrong with the Angels? Some people don’t get to work until 10 a.m., West Coast time. Everyone in New York is out to lunch by then. When the Angels go to lunch at noon, the New Yorkers are just getting back from lunch. By the time the Angels get back from lunch it’s 6 p.m. in New York, and everyone there has gone home. How the hell can you make a deal? You’d think they (the Angels) would get to work at 7 a.m., wouldn’t ya?”18
Several weeks after opening day, Herzog began to show enthusiasm for his new team. He was particularly pleased with the early pitching of Jim Abbott, Joe Grahe, Don Robinson and rookie Julio Valera, who carried the team while ace left-handers Chuck Finley and Mark Langston were sidelined by injuries. “But I’m still concerned that we’re going to have trouble scoring runs this year,” said Herzog, to no one’s surprise.
On the surface it would appear that Dorrel Elvert Herzog19 is a typical product of his background and age. He was born in 1931 and raised in one of those small, pinched, hardscrabble Midwestern towns so well delineated in the stories of Sherwood Anderson — a town where people tend to remember a native son’s failures more than his successes. When Herzog returned to his hometown as a big-league baseball player in the ’50s, people would say to him, “Your brother Herman was a better player than you.” Herzog would snap back, “Why don’t you ask him? He’s carrying mail right here in town.”
New Athens (pronounced Ay-thens), Ill., population 2,100, lies 40 miles east of St. Louis. Sixty years ago, much as it is today, New Athens was a farming and coal-mining town with two lumber mills, strip mines, a foundry, a brewery and 16 bars. Its inhabitants, mostly descendants of German immigrants, were neat, clean, orderly, punctual, hard-working and hard-drinking people who, inexplicably and proudly, referred to themselves as hard-headed Dutchmen. They saw the daily sameness of their lives as comforting, not confining. A day in the mines. Shots and beers on the way home. Checkers on Saturdays at the barbershop. The big Sunday dinner. Laundry on Monday. When Herzog passed through town with a U.S. Army baseball team in 1953, he took his teammates on a tour. He told them who would be sitting where in which bar at what time, and they were. Thirty-four years later, Herzog would write in his autobiography, “White Rat”: “And unless they’re dead, that’s where they are right now.”
Herzog is reticent about his parents. He says only that his mother worked hard in a shoe factory and was so fanatically strict about cleanliness that he preferred to stay away from home as long as possible, playing sports and working at the Mound City Brewing Co., where he learned to drink beer like his father. Edgar Herzog worked at the brewery, where he had the distinction of never having missed a day of work. Herzog remembers his father telling him: “Be there early and give them a good day’s work, so when it comes time to lay someone off, it’ll be the other guy.”
If Herzog’s childhood sounds parched and devoid of affection, he glosses over that and points out the positive things he learned. How to make his own bed, a habit he retains to this day. The value of a dollar. Hard work. Punctuality. Self-reliance. He talks disparagingly about kids today, who wouldn’t think of playing Little League baseball unless they had the best uniforms and equipment and parents cheering them on. Herzog and his friends played baseball endlessly, in open fields, by themselves. Their parents had no interest in games. They worked too hard.
“But I really think we had it better,” Herzog says. “For kids today, everything is organized. I don’t see kids having much fun.”
Herzog claims there is still a lot of New Athens in him today. When he meets a couple for dinner in Yuma, he is 15 minutes early. When they arrive, 10 minutes early, Herzog is already pacing in front of his car. He says he’s worried because he doesn’t have a sport jacket. “Do you think it will be all right?” he asks. “In Yuma?” says the man. Inside the restaurant, most of the customers are wearing jeans and T-shirts. The hostess tells Herzog’s party to wait at the bar. Precisely at 7 p.m., Herzog goes to the hostess and asks to be seated. She says it’ll be 10 more minutes. “But our reservations are for 7,” he says, almost panicky. When they are all finally seated, he checks his watch again. Fifteen minutes late.20 He fidgets, says: “My kids, they’re always late. I don’t know how they hold a job.” Then he adds proudly, “But they all got their master’s degree.”
His three grown children were raised differently than he was. When asked how he was brought up, Herzog doesn’t answer. Was he close to his father? He looks pained, angry. “Every kid is close to his father, isn’t he?” He calms himself, looks down and says: “We were poor. Dad drank a lot. Women did the work. He never talked to me. The goddamn Germans are like that. My father only asked me if I needed money when he knew I had it. I supported myself since the seventh grade.”21
In high school, Herzog was a star athlete in baseball and basketball and, despite his considerable intelligence, a lackluster, hardly studious pupil. He used to skip school and hitchhike to St. Louis to watch the Cardinals play. He wanted to leave New Athens, he says, “because there ain’t nothin’ there.”
He got his wish when he graduated from high school. He signed a contract with the New York Yankees, for a $1,500 bonus and $150 a month, to play in their minor league system. “More money than Mickey Mantle got,” he says, smiling. They were both center fielders, which was only part of Herzog’s problem during his 15-year playing career. He was a good outfielder who always hustled but couldn’t hit a curveball. While Mantle was hitting 50 home runs a year for the Yankees, Herzog managed to hit only 65 home runs during his entire career, both in the minors and the majors.
Herzog never made more than $18,000 a year playing ball. In the off-seasons, he supported his wife, Mary Lou Sinn, and their growing family by working in a bakery, in a brewery and for a brick and pipe company. They lived in a trailer that Herzog dragged from town to town until 1958, when he attended a technical school so he could learn how to build their first house, which he did.22
Herzog never did play for the Yankees (he was a bit player with Washington, Kansas City, Baltimore and Detroit from 1956 to 1963, with a lifetime .257 batting average), except during spring training. In the spring of 1955 he got his Rat nickname because of his resemblance to Yankee pitcher Bob (The White Rat) Kuzava.23 Both men had short, bristly, pure-white crew cuts that looked like bleached-out spring grass. (A minor league sportscaster24 had previously dubbed him Whitey.) He also met and became the pet of Yankee manager Casey Stengel that spring. “He took a liking to me,” Herzog says. “I was his Boo Boo. Casey said I was a great leader. I don’t know why. He just did.”
The Yankees’ flamboyant, eccentric manager was in his 60s when Herzog met him. Stengel had a reputation for taking modestly gifted players, like Billy Martin, and encouraging them to exceed their limits. He spent a lot of time talking about the intricacies of baseball with his pet Rat, as if sensing even then that Herzog’s future lay not on the field but in the dugout or front office. He impressed upon Herzog the importance of the media in a manager’s career.
“Stengel taught me how to control an interview,” Herzog says. “Spend a lotta time answering their first question so they don’t get a chance to ask another.”25 He laughs, then says, “I enjoy writers. They work hard today. But they can create controversies. We had just as many players who were assholes when I played as there are now. But the media didn’t write about that stuff then.”
Stengel may have taught Herzog how to handle the press, but he couldn’t talk him into rising above his talent. On April Fools’ Day, 1956, Stengel told Herzog he was going to trade him to the Washington Senators, but then he added: “I’ll get you back if you have a good year.” Herzog never did.
When Herzog was released by the Detroit Tigers in 1963, he said, “We can’t all be Mickey Mantle, can we?” And then, “It’s a tough thing for a ballplayer to come to grips with the limits of his talent.”26 It was something he never forgot. Years later, when he had to release 36 players himself, he tossed and turned in bed the night before. His first job outside of baseball during the winter of ’63 was as a construction foreman in Kansas City. One afternoon his boss told him to lay off 20 men, based on seniority, not performance. He told his boss, “I don’t need a business where you have to fire the good guys and keep the dogs,” and he quit.
Herzog assumed that he would live out an ordinary workingman’s life. But in 1964, Charley Finley, owner of the Kansas City A’s, offered him a major league scouting job. Herzog grabbed it, and it turned into a coaching job the next year. Herzog’s destiny now, it seemed, was that of a marginal baseball man, a coach, a man who owes his career to a kindly owner or manager precisely because he threatens no one. Managers pick coaches from among friends less famous than themselves. Managers often take their coaches with them, from team to team, when they’re fired and rehired, so long as that coach is loyal, hard-working, not too bright, and grateful for his job, which often can be as mind-numbingly boring as a New Athens job. Coaches hit ground balls to infielders until their hands are callused. They sustain a false good cheer — “Atta boy, pick it up, good kid!” They drink late into the night with their manager. They listen to his monologues without disagreeing.
But that was not Herzog’s destiny. He took his coaching duties so seriously at Kansas City that Finley called him the “best coach” he’d ever had. If so, Herzog said, then why are you paying me less money than coaches Luke Appling and Eddie Lopat? He already knew the answer. The latter two were more famous than he.27 When Finley refused to give Herzog a raise, Herzog told him to “get your donkey to coach third base,” referring to the A’s mascot, a mule,28 and left the team.
Herzog wasn’t out of work long. The Baltimore Orioles hired him as minor league manager in 1965; then the Mets hired him as their third base coach in ’66. He became the team’s director of player development in ’67 and was partly responsible for bringing along such Met pitching stars as Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan and Tug McGraw. The Mets promised Herzog he would be their manager when Gil Hodges stepped down. But when Hodges died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1972, the Mets hired the more famous Yogi Berra to manage the team. Herzog completed his contract, then quit and was immediately hired by owner Bob Short of Texas to manage his floundering Rangers. Herzog called his first press conference as a manager and said: “This is the worst excuse for a big league club I ever saw.” He was both honest, as always, and right.
The Rangers were in sixth place in mid-season when Herzog was fired and replaced by the flamboyant Billy Martin.29 It must have galled Herzog, always being passed over for men more famous but not necessarily more talented. People always underestimated him, which may be why he has a penchant for tooting his own horn. He is quick to claim he was the best third base coach, the best manager, the best player-development man — but not the best player — to anyone who asks. He’s quick to mention that whenever newspapers conduct polls to find the manager players would most like to play for, his name usually tops the list.
When Herzog left the Rangers, the Cowboy came to the rescue; in 1974 Herzog served briefly as the Angels’ third base coach.30 In Kansas City, in 1975, he was managing again. In four years he won three division titles and finished second, then switched over to the Cardinals.31 He managed in St. Louis for nine seasons, winning three pennants and one World Series, and periodically served simultaneously as the Cardinals’ general manager. He was named Manager of the Year in 1976 by UPI and again in 1982 by The Sporting News and UPI, which also selected him as Executive of the Year in 1981 and 1982. The Sporting News chose him as Man of the Year in 1982, the Baseball Writers Assn. of America awarded him Manager of the Year honors in 1985 and Sports Illustrated named him Manager of the Decade for the ’80s.32
Cardinals owner August A. Busch Jr. was the first to trust Herzog’s judgment and innovative theories, which is why Herzog considers him “the greatest owner I ever worked for.”33 When Busch died in 1989, Herzog lost heart. He quit and went to work for another old man he respected, the 84-year-old Cowboy.34 Herzog immediately found himself in the middle of a contract dispute between the Angels’ hard-hitting first baseman, Wally Joyner, on one hand, and the Cowboy and his wife, Jackie, on the other. Joyner — offered a four-year, multimillion-dollar contract containing, the club said, everything he had asked for — left at the last minute to accept a less-money, one-year contract with Kansas City. Herzog’s first impulse was to side with his player. When the squabble reached an impasse, however, he said the bottom line was, “I work for the Autrys.”
Herzog’s respect for older men has a lot of New Athens in it. It is the respect of the workingman for his boss. Herzog sees himself fingering his hat in his hand, at one end of a vast expanse of office where his boss sits behind a burnished, mahogany desk. “Yes, sir,” he says, and backs out the door. Today, as an older man himself, Herzog seems to enjoy more the company of younger men, his players. He greets them all by name, with a smile, a slap on the back, a dirty joke, and then, serious now, sotto voce, a solicitous inquiry into a wife’s pregnancy. The players’ faces light up when talking to the White Rat. He is more like them than he is like a front-office man. He is still profane, raunchy, like a jock. “I want them to be my friends,” he says of the players, “yet to respect me as a person, too.”
Herzog’s nickname is a misnomer. His hair is not really white, but orange. There is nothing ratlike about him. He is not secretive, underhanded or untrustworthy. Herzog is honest to a fault.35 He says he persuaded the Angels to sign Mark Langston to a long-term contract because he knew the pitcher wanted to stay in Southern California to further his wife’s acting career. “But she ain’t that pretty,” says Herzog.36 Of another Angel, Junior Felix, Herzog says: “He’s a dog. Always has been. They say he’s got talent, but a lotta players got talent.” (True to form, Herzog later owned up to this rash statement. Two weeks into the season he said: “Junior Felix has hustled and done things he wouldn’t have done a year ago. I don’t know how he’ll do all season, but after the first two weeks I’m enthused about his play.”)
Todd Worrell, Herzog’s ace relief pitcher at St. Louis, was a wimp, the Rat says, until he married a tough-minded woman Herzog calls a “bulldog.” Herzog is not even afraid to criticize his beloved Cowboy, when it comes to the Angels. “The Angels have never been a factor with Latin-American players,” he says, “because the Cowboy always wanted California boys.” He raises his eyebrows and waits for his listener to get the picture. California boys. Blond, blue-eyed, white. Then he goes on: “The Cowboy says, ‘That kid’s from Southern California. Why didn’t we draft him?'” Herzog shakes his head.
Last winter, Herzog had a much-publicized dispute with Dennis Gilbert, agent for former Pittsburgh All-Star outfielder Bobby Bonilla, now a New York Met. Gilbert used the Angels in a bidding war to get higher offers from other teams. Herzog was furious, not because Gilbert used the Angels but because he didn’t tell Herzog he was using them. “That S.O.B. lied to me,” Herzog says. “If he’d have asked me not to withdraw our offer so he could use it with other teams, I woulda said, ‘The offer’s there for you.’ But he didn’t ask me!” Herzog vowed never to deal with Gilbert again, then began bargaining with him over the services of another free-agent client, Kansas City outfielder Danny Tartabull, who wound up with the Yankees. “He wanted a five-year contract,” Herzog says. “But at Kansas City he had a five-year contract and only played good his first and last years. So I offered him a three-year contract. I figured that way he’d only have one bad year for us.”
One morning in Yuma, the Padres-Angels game was in a rain delay, and Herzog wandered over to the pressroom.37 He sat at a corner table with an old friend, Kenny Parker, a scout. Parker is in his 50s, a pink-faced man with white hair, a deep-South drawl and a riverboat gambler’s straw hat. Parker laughed with Herzog about the time they got drunk in a Mississippi hotel room. Herzog then told Parker a joke about a guy who gets killed by a car in front of his friends. The friends decide to send their most sensitive cohort to break the news to the man’s wife. The sensitive man knocks on the door. The wife opens it. “You the Widow Jones?” the man asks. “I’m not a widow,” she says. “The hell you ain’t!” says the man.
Parker laughs so hard his face turns crimson. When he stops, he looks around, as though for eavesdroppers. He leans forward to whisper in Herzog’s ear about a ballplayer he’s been scouting. Herzog nods, then says, “No, I think he can still play.” Parker says, “Thanks, Whitey.”38
Before the rain stops and Herzog leaves, he and Parker will be interrupted a number of times during their conversations. The men are mostly old-time scouts. They stand respectfully in front of Herzog as if waiting for an audience. He greets them all with a smile, as if he remembers them. They lean down to whisper another question in his ear. Herzog shakes his head. “I don’t know,” he says. “He’s got a bad attitude.” The men nod, “Thanks, Whitey” and leave.
Parker says baseball men are always picking Herzog’s brain, not only because he’s such a great judge of talent, but also because “Whitey don’t lie. If you’re horseshit, he tells you to your face.” Cleveland General Manager Hank Peters once called him “the best judge of talent I ever saw.” Others have called him the most talented baseball man of his era. The most innovative. A baseball genius, because he can see the obvious, then act on it, no matter if it had never been done before in baseball.39
Herzog questions everything. Why do pitchers run lazy wind sprints day after day in the outfield? “It don’t do them no good,” he says. Why do managers insist that players not drink at the bar in the hotel where the team stays on road trips? It only forces the players to spread out at different bars where they are more inclined to get in trouble. It’s safer to keep them together in the hotel bar where they’re staying. “I gave my players the hotel bar,” Herzog says, “and I found another one.”
Herzog was the first manager in baseball to tailor his team to the realities of artificial turf.40 During his years with St. Louis, he was saddled with mediocre starting pitchers and punchless hitters. He simply adjusted, by relying heavily on his relief pitchers and by building his offense around speed and defense, which perfectly suited the fast artificial turf of Busch Stadium. A typical Cardinal rally would produce a run on a walk, a stolen base, a sacrifice bunt and a sacrifice fly. Whitey Ball.41 In 1982, the Cardinals hit only 67 home runs all season, then went on to beat the Milwaukee Brewers, who had hit 216 home runs, in the World Series.
The White Rat tells stories. Baseball stories about people. Like the minor league pitcher called up to the Mets one year. He went home first to get his good suit coat for the Big Apple. “He got syphilis,” Herzog says, “and never pitched again.” He shakes his head, a bulldog of a man sitting in the sun in Yuma along the first base line, watching a baseball game.
Lance Parrish, the Angels’ veteran catcher, walks past Herzog’s seat on his way toward the bullpen. He smiles and waves to Herzog, who stares after him, a big lumbering man, perhaps in the twilight of his career.
“Now that bothers me,” Herzog says. “Lance is on the last year of his contract, and if I sit him on the bench and play John Orton (a rookie catcher), Parrish won’t put up any numbers to bargain with next year. But this year I want to give the kids an opportunity to play. The Angels never did that before. They just signed free agents. But you gotta find out about these young kids. We got Tony Perez’s kid (Eduardo) in the minors, and he can play. We got this pitcher Paul Swingle; he’s got the best arm in camp. He use ta be an outfielder until they made him into a relief pitcher.” Herzog opens the Angels’ press guide to check Swingle’s statistics. “Look!” he says. “Eighty-eight innings in three years. I wanna know why he wasn’t pitchin’ 200 innings a year, to get some experience, then put him in the bullpen.”42
Herzog stares down toward the bullpen. Parrish, sweating in the heat, warms up the next pitcher. “He’s a good person,” Herzog says. “He’s been good for baseball. Goddamn, I worry about him!”
One reason Herzog wants to see if his young players can play is that the usual avenues for building a team, trades and free-agent signings, are largely closed to him. The Angels aren’t likely to spend millions on free agents anymore because they are in financial trouble, according to Jackie Autry, who has been running the team’s financial affairs for much of the past decade. She claims that because of escalating salaries the team lost $3.6 million last year and could lose $8.5 million this season. “By August we’ll be $21 million in debt,” she says. Herzog, true to his New Athens background, is not averse to pinching pennies. In fact, it seems to be a challenge — to build a contending team without bursting the owner’s budget.43
As for trades, the Angels don’t have much talent that anyone wants. They lost Winfield and Joyner, who represented most of the team’s home run and RBI production, and they failed to sign any big names to replace them. The only Angels any team would want are its three left-handed pitchers, Langston, Abbott and Chuck Finley, and their ace reliever, righthander Bryan Harvey. But unlike most baseball men, Herzog doesn’t believe in trading an ace pitcher for an everyday player, no matter how good the player is. That doesn’t mean he won’t make trades, however. He’s a master at finding players with selective skills who fill a need on the kind of club Herzog and Angels’ manager Buck Rodgers are trying to build.
Herzog believes that the days of building a team by simply buying or trading for superstars is over. It’s too risky, too expensive and often counterproductive; teams loaded with superstars are often less than the sum of their parts. That doesn’t mean he’s averse to keeping the stars his club already has. Take Abbott, an 18-game winner last year, for instance. He made under $400,000 last year, and the Angels promptly signed him to a $1.8-million one-year contract. Herzog thought that was foolish, that the Angels should have locked Abbott into a long-term contract for a lot more money. “The time to sign him to a long-term contract is before he has a big year,” Herzog says. “You got to stay ahead of the hounds.”
Herzog also doesn’t believe in the Angels’ policy of waiting until the season is over before negotiating with a player whose contract is up. “I’m not sure you can wait until a player’s in his ‘walk year,'” he says. He believes that it is often cheaper to sign a player in mid-season, before other teams begin sniffing around.
Because of the intricacies and risks involved in signing superstars, Herzog prefers instead to pursue high-quality players who are relative bargains because they struggled the previous season. Two examples are designated hitter Hubie Brooks, whom Herzog obtained from the Mets, and outfielder Von Hayes, late of the Philadelphia Phillies. Both had below-par seasons in 1991, and trading for them wasn’t too costly; both have done well for the Angels in the early stages of 1992.
“I’ll follow a guy from team to team,” says Herzog, “look for things, then grab him. I like to get a guy after a bad year. Hell, you can’t touch him after a good year.” Besides, Herzog says, if you keep stealing other teams’ stars, soon nobody will want to trade with you. “The secret is to make trades that help the other club, too.”
Herzog also isn’t afraid to trade for other teams’ headaches. When Joaquin Andujar pitched for manager Bill Virdon at Houston, he drove the placid Virdon to distraction. “He wants to pitch every day,” said Virdon. I can live with that, Herzog thought, and traded for Andujar. Herzog says that when he went out to the mound to take out Andujar, he’d tell him: “Great job, Joaquin! You’re pitching Tuesday.” Andujar would smile and say, “OK, Skip,” and walk off the mound.44
Herzog smiles at the simplicity of his solution to the Andujar problem. It was so obvious — the secret to his success — he must wonder why others hadn’t thought of it. Then, remembering Andujar, he says with affection: “He was wacky, ya know, but he had a heart of gold. I called him the other day. Just to talk to him. He lives in the Dominican Republic. Maybe he could do some scouting for us down there.”
Although Herzog often traded for problem players, he just as often got rid of his own when he saw they were disrupting the delicate balance of his team. He parted with the Cardinals’ Garry Templeton, whom he called “the most talented athlete I ever saw,” because, he says, Templeton wouldn’t hustle.45 He traded off Lonnie Smith, only after repeated drug-related problems, and finally Andujar himself, the season after he’d won 21 games, for the same reason.46
“A leopard can’t change his spots,” Herzog says. He mentions Yankee pitchers Steve Howe, arrested on drug charges this past winter, and Pascual Perez, banned from baseball for failing a drug test during spring training. Hiring them is “bad management,” he says. “It’s not only talent. You got to find his personality, too.”
The Angels-Padres game is in the late innings now. A lazy, spring-training kind of game in the hot sun. A lot of delays. Pitching changes. Fans growing restless, looking over their shoulder at the White Rat. They still go up to him between innings.
“Hey, Whitey! Remember me?” asks a man with a sunburned face. “I was in Korea with you.”47
“Sure do,” says Herzog. The man hands him a beer, crouches down to talk awhile, then leaves. Herzog hides the beer under his seat. In a way, he’s still an old-fashioned man, conscious of his image in public. He may curse and tell raunchy jokes, but never around people he doesn’t know.
“Whitey, can I have your autograph?” says a teen-age boy with stringy hair, handing over a baseball. Herzog notices all the other signatures on it.
“Whaddaya gonna do, sell it?” he asks, and signs.
“Wow!” the boy says. “Right on the sweet spot!” It is that spot always reserved for the biggest stars on a team.
Herzog turns back to the action on the field. He sits there, rocking back and forth, touching his companion on the arm to make a point, commenting, questioning, remembering a life lived in the game he loves.
Jim Abbott, who’s missing his right hand, lines a foul ball down the first-base line. “Pretty good swing for a one-armed man,” Herzog says. “If he gets a hit off this pitcher, I’d release the S.O.B.”
Apropos of nothing, Herzog blurts out, “Ya know what the two most amazing stats in baseball are? Ted Williams hit .400 against Herb Score, and Nolan Ryan pitched 170 consecutive innings without losing the lead after the seventh inning. I never did think Nolan would make it in New York. He needed a relaxed atmosphere. Some guys can’t play in certain cities.” Such intangibles are what Herzog looks for when he makes a trade.
When the Angels score a run on a ground-ball single, a stolen base and two sacrifice fly balls, Herzog says: “Helluva rally! If I was our manager, I’d tell ’em, ‘There’s our run, boys, now hold ’em.'” Then he answers an unspoken question before it’s asked. “I ain’t here to manage the Angels.” He raises his eyebrows, then adds: “But it ain’t written in stone I won’t manage the Rhode Island Reds or some Korean team. I was a good manager, ya know. You can check it out. But today, a manager doesn’t control his destiny. And that would bother me.”
After the game, Herzog stops off at the hotel bar to unwind. He has a few drinks, explains how today’s ballplayers confuse him. “They’re programmed to deal with failure,” he says, “not success. They’re always talkin’ about pressure. I’ll tell you what pressure is. A guy’s got to put food on the table for his family.”
He drains his drink and orders another. When it comes, he holds up the glass, and says: “Drinks are like a woman’s breasts. One ain’t enough and three are too many.” He takes a sip and settles back into his chair. Comfortable. A 60-year-old man from a small, pinched town who has risen above it all — who’s achieved fame, wealth, success, respect, the good life beyond his wildest dreams. He can play golf and go fishing whenever he wants to. He can watch four different baseball games on the four TVs he owns. He can buy his brother a pet Vietnamese pig as a joke. “He’s got all this pig crap,” Herzog says. “Ashtrays and stuff. So I said, ‘You like pigs, huh? Let’s see if you like this one.’ And damned if he don’t.”
Herzog today seems less passionate about the game he loves, though still intellectually involved. He seems more determined to enjoy his life outside of baseball, too. So he accepted a no-lose situation. The Angels can only get better, not worse,48 and the credit will go to Herzog. So what if he was overruled about Joyner and Abbott, if he must listen to Jackie Autry say she has no money to throw around, and to Richard Brown warn that all Herzog’s suggestions must be filtered through committee.
A younger Herzog might have raged, or even quit, over such things, insisting on the last word. The loss of such power doesn’t seem to bother him now, because the game has changed and so has his place in it. The power has shifted to the players, and that rankles him.
Suddenly he lurches forward, his elbows planted on the table. “You know what I don’t understand,” he says. “One year I made $6,000 as a player and I had to buy my own tickets to the game for my family. Today, you got players making 2 million a year and they want 500 free tickets.” He shakes his head in despair. “I just don’t understand it,” he says. “I never saw so many unhappy millionaires in my life.”49
When Jordan was assigned the piece, he didn’t think much of it. It was just another baseball story, he thought, this one with a local angle. “If you’d have asked 10 people on the street who weren’t great baseball fans who Whitey Herzog was, they wouldn’t have known,” says Jordan, who typed the 6,700-word profile with one finger that spring.50 And outside of St. Louis, perhaps, that was the case.
“It’s not the kind of story the New York Times at that time would have run, or Sports Illustrated,” Jordan says. “If I’d have called Sports Illustrated or GQ or the New York Times Magazine to write about Whitey Herzog, I wouldn’t have gotten much of a response. At that time he was just a local phenomenon.”
If the pitch wasn’t good enough, maybe the finished product would have been. “Maybe they would have run it [if they’d seen it] after it was written,” Jordan says.
After years of profiling porn stars and movie stars and athletes, the stories have started to run together in Jordan’s mind, but this one still stands out.51 To date, he says, only one other subject has been as refreshingly honest as Herzog was those days in the desert. That was Tom Seaver, the former Mets pitcher who grew close with Jordan during the course of reporting and remains his friend.52
Herzog never contacted Jordan after the story was published. Jordan said he doesn’t think it was out of anger — the piece was hardly damning — but rather apathy. In fact, Jordan says, he doubts Herzog ever even read it.
Herzog did. He said he still remembers the story, but he saw no need to comment or object. It told the truth, he says, and that’s all he wanted.
Joan Niesen (@JoanNiesen) covers the Broncos for the Denver Post.