- CF, LF, OF, RF
- June 9, 1931
- 175 lbs
- Major League Debut:
- 4-12-1955 with SLN
- Allstar Selections:
- 1955 ROOK, 1962 GG
No player in Pirate history demonstrated the importance of defense better than Bill Virdon. The team’s centerfielder for a decade, Virdon starred for the Bucs despite usually hitting in the .260’s while totaling less than 10homeruns per season and stealing even less bases. Bill, however, hit well in the clutch and it was often said that only Willie Mays exceeded him defensively as a centerfielder. His magnificent catches won many games for the Pirates, including at least one in the 1960 World Series.
Virdon signed with the New York Yankees in 1950, but the Yankees were stocked with outfielders and Virdon quickly fell behind their young phenom, Mickey Mantle on the organizational depth charts. When the Yankees sought to support their annual pennant drive in 1954, George Weiss traded Virdon to the St. Louis Cardinals for aging veteran Enos Slaughter. Bill had an excellent year at AAA, leading the International League in hitting at .333 and adding 22 homeruns and 98 rbi’s. He became the Cardinals’ regular centerfielder in 1955 and hit a career high 17 homeruns while batting .281. Already and excellent defensive outfielder, Virdon was chosen National League Rookie of the Year.
While it looked like Virdon was a budding star with a long future in the major leagues, a couple of factors lead to him being traded to the Pirates. First was Virdon’s eyesight. The flychaser had some vision problems, but glasses seemed to correct the problem. Second, the Cardinals, who played in a ballpark favorable to lefthanded hitters, found themselves overstocked with lefthanded hitting outfielders. Third, the Cardinal General Manager was Frank “Trader” Lane, a man who appeared to love to make deals for the sake of keeping his team in the public’s eye. Fourth, Virdon got off to a slow start, apparently adding to Lane’s fears, or so he claimed, that Virdon’s eyesight was getting worse. Finally, Bobby Del Greco, a righthanded hitting centerfielder who was also very able defensively, hit two homeruns in a game against St. Louis. Lane believed Del Greco would fit better into the St. Louis lineup since he hit from the right side of the plate and was impressed that Del Greco, who had just turned 24, would provide more power than Virdon. Lane and Joe L. Brown agreed to swap centerfielders, with Brown throwing in lefthander Dick Littlefield, who had pitched well in 1954, but not in 1955. The Virdon trade was the first major trade the Pirate rookieGM made and it turned out to be a great deal from the beginning as Virdon’s hitting almost immediately came around. Virdon explained that his hitting improved as once he began playing in Forbes Field, he adjusted his batting. He admitted he had gotten into some bad habits by trying too hard to hit homeruns in St. Louis and had been pulling theball too much. He hit .334 after the trade, higher than eventual batting champion Hank Aaron, but his slow start with the Cardinals cost him the batting crown. Pirate announcer Bob Prince began referring to Virdon as “The Quail” claiming many of Virdon’s hits over the infield resembled dying quails falling to the ground after being shot.Bobby Bragan used Virdon as several different spots in his lineup, but he performed well no matter where he hit.
Bragan remembered the man who he watched play centerfield for and against him for a number of years. “Super centerfielder,” Bragan said, “He played every game hard, like Mays and Aaron.”
One of the factors which afforded Virdon well as a player was his intelligence. He studied hitters and knew
how to play them in the outfield. This aided his excellent range and made many of Virdon’s fine plays appear easy.
He also assisted his teammates, notably Bob Skinner, in becoming better outfielders. Virdon’s arm was strong,
although not in the category of his teammate Roberto Clemente or Mays during his playing days or of Andy Van
Slyke’s a generation or two later, but baserunners had to be wary of taking an extra base against him.
The centerfielder’s hitting fell to .251 in 1957 as Danny Murtaugh took over as manager and the centerfielderwas used more in a leadoff role. His averages were consistent over the next four years. Total Baseball credits him with leading the league in fielding runs in 1959. Although Virdon didn’t steal many bases (eight in 1960 was his career high), he worked well with number two hitter Dick Groat on the hit and run, and was probably one of the most underrated players of his time. In 1960, Virdon tried to help improve his hitting by switching to contact lenses. “1960was the only year I wore them and I only wore them early in the season because they would fog up too much,” Virdon remembered. He got off to a strong start at the plate that year, but shortly thereafter struggled and went back to wearing eyeglasses.
The 1960 World Series was a microcosm of his career. Although Virdon hit just .241, he hit well in the clutch, driving in five runs. Virdon robbed Yogi Berra of an extrabase hit with two on and the Pirates’ leading 3-1 in Game 1. In Game 4, Virdon broke a 1-1 tie with a two-run single in the fifth and bailed the team out of a major jam by making a leaping catch on a ball hit by Bob Cerv to deep rightcenter. Virdon made several other fine defensive plays in the Series which attracted less attention as they came at less critical times. In the eighth inning of the seventh game, Virdon hit the famous hard shot which took a freak bounce striking shorstop Tony Kubek in the neck and putting the Pirates in position to rally. Earlier in the contest, he had driven in two runs with a basehit to put the Bucs up, 4-0.
Virdon’s hitting fell under .250 in 1962, but he was finally awarded a long overdue Gold Glove Award. He remained the team’s regular centerfielder for the next three years, retiring at the end of 1965. At the time, Virdon expressed he felt some of his skills were starting to decline even though his .279 average was the highest since his first season with the Pirates.
Quiet, steady and studious, Virdon went to the minor leagues the next year to begin gathering managerial experience. He managed in the minors for a couple of seasons before joining Larry Shepard’s coaching staff in Pittsburgh in 1968. Briefly activated as a player that year, Virdon helped win a game with a pinch hit homerun.
Virdon remained on the team’s coaching staff when Murtaugh returned in 1970 and when Danny missed time due to health problems, Virdon guided the team. Virdon’s roles as a player on the 1960 team and coach on the 1971 team, gave him a perspective by which to evaluate both clubs. Comparing the two, Virdon once wrote, “’71 had more power. ’60 better overall defense and play making. Pitching equal. Toss up. No way to predict (who would win a series between the two).”
When Murtaugh retired after the 1971 World Series, Virdon became his obvious successor. After winning the National League East in 1972, only to lose the NLCS on the last pitch thrown, Virdon was given much of the blame when the Pirates played sluggishly in 1973 and was replaced by his former mentor, Murtaugh, late in the season. After managing the Yankees, Astros and Expos in ensuing years, Virdon was named bench coach under rookie manager Jim Leyland in 1986. He also worked with the outfielders and hitters and gained a reputation for working players extremely hard in improving their outfield play.
Virdon left the Pirates following the 1986 season, but assisted the team at times in spring training and was a minor league hitting instructor for three years. Never one to shy away from what he believed to be unfair treatment of another, Virdon verbally took on Barry Bonds when Bonds overstepped his bounds with a photographer in 1991. In 1992, Virdon returned to the Pirates fulltime and remained with the team in a coaching capacity through 1995. Although “retired” the very active Virdon remained connected with the Pirates and participated in many promotional events and was hired as Larry Dierker’s bench coach in Houston in 1997. Virdon was called on to assist his third rookie manager as bench coach in 2001 when he returned to Pittsburgh as Lloyd McClendon’s chief aide. The 71-year-old announced near the end of 2002 that he was finally going to try taking it a little easier and resigned his position, but agreed once again to help the Bucs in spring training.
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- Bill Virdon, Billy Martin, Bob Cerv, Bobby Del Greco, Danny Murtaugh, Dick Littlefield, Dock Ellis, Frank Lane, George Steinbrenner, Gold Glove, Houston Astros, Manager of the Year Award, New York Yankees, Pittsburgh Pirates, Richie Hebner, Rookie of the Year Award, St. Louis Cardinals, Tony Kubek, Yogi Berra