Remembering Whitey Herzog and the Runnin’ Redbirds of the 1980s

Whitey Herzog

To say that Whitey Herzog is a baseball legend would be a huge understatement. The Cardinals manager was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 2010, and he was labeled a genius and games master by his peers. He led the Cardinals to three NL pennants and one World Series title during the 1980s, and his teams revolutionized the game in many ways.

Known affectionately as ‘The White Rat’, Herzog employed an offensive arsenal that could bedevil any opponent’s pitching staff. His teams were fast, and they ran… A lot.

With a system known as ‘Whiteyball,’ the famed skipper unleashed some of the fastest stars in the game onto the blazing hot turf of Busch Stadium II. Names like Vince Coleman, Willie McGee, and Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith played the game fast and furious, leading to three World Series appearances in six years and some of the most exciting baseball the city had ever seen.


Whitey Herzog is Truly a Hometown Hero

Herzog began his career as a player, appearing with four clubs from 1956-1963 before transitioning to player development and management. After fairly successful stints managing the Kansas City Royals, Texas Rangers, and California Angels, Herzog brought the Cardinals their first World Championship since 1967, when his club defeated the Milwaukee Brewers in seven games in the 1982 Series.

But Whitey Herzog was already a hometown hero in every sense of the term. Raised in nearby New Athens, Illinois – a stone’s throw away from St. Louis and Busch Stadium – he was as ‘local’ as you could be.

He often returned home to the town (population: 2000) to sit around the tavern and drink Stag beer with the people he knew. Many in the community and the surrounding area would stop by to listen to Whitey talk about baseball and bullshit… and they were never disappointed.

Despite all his success as a skipper, his small-town upbringing kept Herzog humble.

“Down there (New Athens), we’ve got more taverns than grocery stores,” Herzog once said. “I walked in, threw down a bill, and said, ‘Give everybody a drink.’ Nice gesture, I thought, but down the bar, somebody yelled, ‘Hey, big shot, your brother is still a better ballplayer than you are.'”


Whiteyball is a Part of St. Louis Cardinals Lore

Whitey Herzog’s brand of baseball captured the imagination of a generation of Cardinal fans. While his lineup rarely had more than one slugger (or maybe two), it was filled, up and down, with jackrabbits. They didn’t have the big bats or the big contracts of baseball’s boppers, but their blazing speed made up for it.

 

Besides – Herzog reasoned – there was no need to try hitting home runs in cavernous Busch Stadium II. Instead, he filled his roster with gazelles who could hit the gaps. Then, he turned them loose on the park’s AstroTurf, and the havoc that followed set the game on its ear for several seasons.

Whitey Herzog Had a Need for Speed

Willie McGee would become an instant star in St. Louis, flashing heroics in the Cards’ 82 World Series win. Then he would have the finest season of his career in 1985, hitting .353 – capturing the National League’s Batting Title, the NL MVP Award, a Gold Glove, and the Silver Slugger. Amazingly, McGee also drove in 82 runs while hitting just 10 homers on the year.

Coleman, who debuted in 1985 by breaking the rookie stolen base record with 110, became the leadoff man and lightning rod on offense. His ability to swipe a bag was so prominent that during a game in 1986, Reds pitcher Chris Welsh made an astounding 17 pickoff attempts to stop the speedster. Then, Coleman stole second, anyway:

 

Anchoring it all was the greatest defensive shortstop ever, 13-time Gold Glove winner and MLB Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith. The back-flipping superstar became the face of the franchise during the Herzog era, and he exemplified the attitude that his 1980s Redbird teams exuded. They played with fearlessness, but they won with dignity. And they always left smiles on the faces of Cardinal Nation all the way.

Orchestrating all that electricity was Whitey Herzog. A baseball genius and a local boy who made good. A true symbol of what baseball in St. Louis is all about, he is universally admired by the fan base. And in terms of Major League Baseball in general, he’ll be remembered as one of the most influential managers of all time.

Whitey Herzog passed away on April 15th of this year, just as the new baseball season was beginning to bloom. The 2024 Cardinals have honored him with a memorial patch adorning their jersey sleeves.

He left behind a legacy like no other, an era of success, but most of all… a lifetime of joy.
And even somewhere in heaven? He’s probably giving the boys the steal sign.

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Ryan K Boman is the author of the 2023 book, Pop Music & Peanut Butter: A Collection of Essays about Embracing Life with Laughter & Love. His previous work has appeared at The Miami Herald, SB Nation, Bounding into Sports, and Yardbarker. Follow him on social media @RyanKBoman.

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