By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
Former Montreal Expos manager Bill Virdon passed away on Tuesday at the age of 90.
The Pittsburgh Pirates, whom Virdon maintained ties with, announced his death on social media early Tuesday afternoon.
Virdon was the dugout boss of the Montreal Expos in 1983 and for most of the 1984 season. A two-time Manager of the Year, he was hired by the Expos on October 12, 1982 to instill discipline and teach fundamentals to a talented squad that was coming off a disappointing third-place finish in the National League East. Unfortunately, Virdon failed to propel the Expos out of mediocrity. The team compiled a 146-147 record during his tenure with the club – which was his last as a major league skipper.
But Montreal was just a short stop in Virdon’s lengthy professional baseball odyssey. Born June 9, 1931, Virdon grew up in West Plains, Mo., and was signed by the New York Yankees in 1949. After playing parts of four seasons in the Yankees’ organization, the heady outfielder was dealt to the St. Louis Cardinals on April 11, 1954 as part of a package for outfielder Enos Slaughter.
In 1955, Virdon enjoyed a stellar rookie campaign with the Cardinals. As the club’s regular centre fielder, he batted .281 with 17 home runs and 68 RBIs and was voted the National League’s Rookie of the Year. But after a slow start with the Cards in 1956, he was dealt to the Pittsburgh Pirates on May 17. He would excel in Steeltown, batting .334 with eight home runs and 10 triples in 133 games.
However, Virdon would never approach offensive numbers like that again, but he did evolve into one of the best defensive centre fielders of his era. In 1959, he topped National League centre fielders with 16 assists and three years later, he won a Gold Glove Award.
In all, Virdon suited up for parts of 10 seasons in the Pirates’ outfield alongside Roberto Clemente. And though he never hit higher than .269 in a season after 1956, he was frequently among the league leaders in triples and was a key member of the Bucs’ 1960 World Series-winning team.
Virdon was released by the Pirates on November 22, 1965 and he almost immediately began his second career as a manager. He started in the New York Mets’ organization, serving as the bench boss for double-A Williamsport in 1966 and triple-A Jacksonville in 1967.
The Pirates hired him as a coach in 1968 and he continued in that role until 1972 when he was promoted to be the club’s manager. In his first season as skipper, he guided the Bucs to 96 wins and an National League East title.
He returned to the Pirates in 1973 but was let go after leading the team to a 67-69 record. Prior to the 1974 season, he was hired by George Steinbrenner to manage the New York Yankees and he guided them to an 89-73 record and a second-place finish.
But after the Yankees got off to a 53-51 start in 1975, the impatient Steinbrenner replaced Virdon with Billy Martin in August. Less than a month later, Virdon was hired to manage the Houston Astros.
Virdon served as the Astros manager for eight seasons and led the club to their first division title in 1980. He guided the Astros to the post-season again in 1981 where they lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers in their National League Division Series.
Virdon was fired by the Astros in August 1982 and he had hinted he was going to retire before being convinced to manage the Expos by team president John McHale.
After advancing to the National League Championship Series in 1981, the Expos had finished a disappointing 86-76 and in third place in 1982 under Jim Fanning. Following the season, Fanning returned to his previous role as vice-president of player development.
McHale hired Virdon on October 12, 1982, signing the veteran bench boss to a two-year contract with an option for a third season. By this time, Virdon had garnered a reputation as a drill sergeant who expected his players to abide by a strict set of rules. It was a reputation McHale downplayed at Virdon’s introductory press conference.
“He’s a reasonable guy,” McHale told reporters about Virdon. “But when you’re managing 25 guys, you have to have rules and they have to be followed. I think you’ll find that Bill is fair, well-prepared and organized. He’s a stickler for details and the fundamentals of the game. He’s tough, but I think he knows when to turn it on and when to turn it off.”
As Expos manager, Virdon would implement a dress code, forbid facial hair (although he was somewhat flexible on this) and emphasize that participation in pre-game workouts was mandatory. There was also to be no beer in the clubhouse.
Expos catcher Gary Carter, for one, was looking forward to playing for Virdon.
“I’ve heard he’s a disciplinarian. That’s good,” Carter told the Montreal Gazette. “He might kick some butts. From the people I’ve talked to, he’s a winner and that’s important.”
Virdon was asked what his priorities would be in spring training.
“We’ll work on the basics,” he told reporters. “We’ll have bunting and base running, outfield and infield work. That’s why you have spring training. You won’t see anything different from me in spring training, but you may see a little more work.”
Virdon believed the Expos had the talent to play deep in October.
“The manager’s job is to find the assets a club has and go with that,” he said. “I think there is a strong running game here and some home run ability, so there’s enough offence to win. The manager has to adjust to the club. It’s not a question of the players adjusting to the manager.”
Unfortunately, the adjustments Virdon made never really clicked with the Expos. The club finished a disappointing 82-80 and in third place in the National League East in 1983 and they were three games under .500 and 14 1/2 games behind the first-place Chicago Cubs the following season when Virdon was let go.
By that time, the 53-year-old skipper had already told McHale that he didn’t plan to return in 1984.
“I have no ill feelings about it,” said Virdon upon his dismissal. “I partially created the situation myself. I had already told them I wasn’t planning on managing next year. That has to give them some food for thought.”
After Virdon was fired, Fanning returned to the Expos dugout for the remainder of the 1984 season.
“I wouldn’t say that’s it for Bill Virdon in baseball,” Virdon told the Canadian Press. “I’ve been in baseball for 34 or 35 years, so I could stay in the game in some manner, somehow with somebody. I can see myself doing something like working with young players in spring training.”
Virdon returned to coach with the Pirates in 1986 and aside from a season with the Astros in 1997, he continued to be an instructor at Bucs’ spring training until 2002.
In retirement, Virdon settled in Springfield, Mo., where he enjoyed life with his wife, Shirley, his children, his grandchildren and his great-grandchildren.
“Bill Virdon was a man who took such great pride in being a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates family,” said Pirates Chairman Bob Nutting in a statement on Tuesday. “Every fan who followed our 1960 team will always remember the instrumental role that he played to bring a third World Series championship to the city of Pittsburgh.
“We are also eternally grateful for everything that Bill did representing the Pirates following his playing days not only as a successful manager, but also in helping a countless number of our young players that he so proudly instructed and mentored as a coach and one of our long-time Spring Training guest instructors. We send our thoughts and prayers to Bill’s wife of 70 years, Shirley, his children Debbie Virdon Lutes, Linda Virdon Holmes and Lisa Virdon Brown, along with his seven grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.”