The Pirates’ great Bill Virdon, midfielder for the 1960 World Cup, dies at the age of 90

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The leadoff hitter and Gold Glove centerfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 1960 World Series champions, who became a major-league manager for four teams, Bill Virdon was a baseball liver known as a quiet but ingenious strategist and intense outfield instructor.

Virdon, christened “Quail” by television company Bob Prince for his penchant for hitting infield hits, died Tuesday morning at the age of 90. Virdon is survived by his wife of 70 years, Shirley; daughters Debbie Virdon Lutes, Linda Virdon Holmes and Lisa Virdon Brown; along with seven grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.

“Bill Virdon was a man who took great pride in being a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates family,” Pirates President Bob Nutting said in a statement. “Every fan who followed our 1960s team will always remember the instrumental role he played in bringing a third World Series championship to the city of Pittsburgh.

“We are also eternally grateful for all that Bill did to represent the Pirates after his playing days, not only as a successful manager, but also for helping a myriad of our young players, whom he so proudly instructed and guided as a coach and a of our many years of spring training guest instructors. ”

Virdon finished with 1,596 hits, a career average of .267 batting, 237 doubles, 81 triples, 91 homeruns and 502 RBIs in 12 seasons, including the final 11 with the Pirates.

A native of Hazel Park, Mich., Virdon moved to West Plains, Mo., at the age of 12 and is hailed as a hero in the Ozarks. He signed with the New York Yankees and spent four seasons in their minor-league system, but was stuck behind Mickey Mantle in midfield. The Yankees traded Virdon to St. Louis. Louis Cardinals with Mel Wright and Emil Tellinger for Enos Slaughter.

The Cardinals moved Stan Musial from midfield to first base to make way for Virdon, who hit .281 with 17 homeruns and 68 RBIs to win 1955 NL Rookie of the Year honors. However, after Virdon dropped to start next season, Cardinals general manager Frank Lane traded him to the Pirates for Bobby Del Greco and Dick Littlefield. Lane came to regret the deal and later called it the worst deal he had ever made.

Virdon beat .334 over the last 133 matches to finish with a batting average of .319, finishing in second place after Hank Aaron for the 1956 NL batting title. Virdon never hit as high as average again, but established himself as one of the game’s leading defensive midfielders with elite speed and a strong, precise arm. He led National League center-backs in assists (16) and doubles (five) in 1959 and got a gold glove in 1962 (when he also led the NL with 10 triples).

Virdon is best known for his Game 7 grounder in the 1960 World Series who took a bad jump and hit Yankees shortstop Tony Kubek in the neck at the bottom of the eighth inning. Virdon reached safely and then scored on Roberto Clemente’s two-out infield single. Hal Smith followed with a three-run homer to give the Pirates a 9-7 lead, setting the stage for Bill Mazeroski’s walk-off homer to win the World Cup.

In the 1960 World Series, however, Virdon also showed his speed and glove with a pair of catches that prevented two-run doubles. The first came in the fourth inning of Game 1 when he robbed Yogi Berra in deep center to maintain a 6-4 victory. The second came in the seventh inning of Game 4 as Virdon made an acrobatic catch on a Bob Cerv drive to deep right-center to protect a 3-2 win that leveled the series.

With a desire to become a manager, Virdon retired after the 1965 season. He briefly returned as a player-coach in 1968, playing six games, then succeeding Danny Murtaugh as manager in 1972. The Pirates won 96 games to win the NL East, but lost to the Cincinnati Reds in the NLCS on a wild Bob Moose course.

Clemente was killed in a plane crash on New Year’s Eve. After going 19-8 and finishing in second place in the Cy Young poll in ’72, right-hander Steve Blass lost control and went 3-9 with an ERA of 9.85 the following year. The Pirates fell to 67-69 when Virdon was fired by general manager Joe L. Brown in September.

“He was the manager. He was the boss when I played. I always respected authority, and Bill Virdon represented authority, I have to tell you,” said Blass, who became good friends with Virdon.

“In the field of professional baseball, I do not think there is anyone who does not respect Bill Virdon – and it is rare. He is one of the most decent people I have ever encountered, just a thoroughly decent person. He did not go compromising on his principles, had everyone’s respect and I was just thinking of him.

“When Bill ruled us in 1972, I won 19 games for him. There was no worse than I was the next year, in 1973. Bill Virdon was the same guy when I could not do anything like he was when I “won 19 games for him. It told me everything I had to know about Bill Virdon.”

Virdon was so principled that when he led the Houston Astros to their first playoff spot by winning the 1980 NL West Division title, they celebrated it by showering him with milk instead of the usual champagne shower. Virdon won this year’s manager awards in the season he had when he was hired late by the Yankees in 1974, after their attempts to hire Dick Williams from the A’s were thwarted. Virdon is also the most winning manager in Astro history with 544-522 (0.510) in eight seasons.

Virdon finished with a record of 995-921 as a major-league manager with the Pirates, Yankees, Astros and Montreal Expos.

He joined Jim Leyland’s staff in 1986 following suggestions from Brown and South Thrift. Leyland and Virdon spoke at the winter meetings to discuss the role. Virdon started as a bench coach and later became a stroke coach.

“The rest was history. We became best friends,” Leyland said. “He was so good to me, especially the first year. He was such a professional. He let me do my thing and then suggest things once in a while. ”

“He was a really strict disciplinary, tough guy. His personality with us was a personality most people never saw. He laughed and had fun. He had so much of a softer personality than the average guy would have thought, including me.”

Leyland laughed by telling about one of his favorite stories from Virdon from their first spring training together. As a minor league manager, Leyland was used to having a shorter bench compared to the expanded lists in Grapefruit League matches. When Leyland complained that he would have liked to have used a pinch runner, Virdon pushed towards him.

“He said, ‘Jim, you have 60 players sitting here on the bench. Keep going,'” Leyland said. “He wanted to talk baseball to us, in a way teach us with suggestions and ideas and stories. Those were some of the greatest memories of my career. I will miss him terribly.”

These stories contained tales of the toughest pitcher Virdon had ever faced (Dodgers left Sandy Koufax), and how impressed he was with the way Pirates shortstop Dick Groat – Virdon’s road mate – could handle a bat and never miss a hit. and-run.

Virdon shared his baseball knowledge with Pirates players for generations as a special instructor at spring training, where he worked on field drills with outfielders. Leyland credits Virdon for helping develop Pirates outfielders Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla and Andy Van Slyke into All-Stars in the 1990s, with Van Slyke earning five gold gloves in a row, while Pirates and Bonds won the first three of his eight.

“He was huge,” Leyland said. “In fact, the first guy I texted this morning was Barry Bonds to tell him our good friend Bill Virdon was dead. Not two minutes later my phone rang. It was Barry. He wanted Shirley’s number. He said, that there was never a better outfield instructor than him. Barry responded so quickly that you know what Barry thought of him. ”

Blass recalled watching Virdon take Pirates outfielders in the grass with his mushroom bat. Spectators marveled at Virdon’s pussy physique and his commitment to fundamental things, even in his 80s.

“He was a wizard with the mushroom bat,” Blass said. “He wanted to work hard on those guys, and they respected that. As a result, they were better outfielders because of them. He knew what he had to do to get the maximum effect. He also realized the more you do the repetitions of to do the right things, it locks in. You do not have to think about them because of the consistency of repetition.

“We were lucky to have him. I’m so glad I crossed paths with him. Pittsburgh was lucky to have Bill Virdon.”

He leaves behind his wife Shirley, three daughters, seven grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren

Visits will be held Tuesday morning at. 9:30 a.m. at Kings Way United Methodist Church in Springfield, Mo. A funeral will take place at.

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin via email at kgorman@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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