Baseball was endless storybook to late Red Sox manager Herman

Phil Jackman

September 08, 1992|By Phil Jackman

A two-by-four landing smack between the eyes would have been more welcome. It was one of those obituaries you hoped would never come:

"Former NL star Herman dead," informed the morning newspaper.

Hall of Fame second baseman Billy Herman was not only born to play baseball, he was put on earth to teach it, manage it and especially to talk about it.

"When I started in professional baseball, I had what you might call a rude awakening. See this scar right next to me left ear?" he used to say. "That's where the pitcher hit me the very first time I came to bat as a pro. I was out cold for about 10 minutes."

But the soft-spoken youngster, reared in rural Indiana, learned from that experience and went on to do a lot more than survive during a period when that's what the game was all about, survival.

Ah, the stories Billy used to tell back in the days when he was managing in Boston and after his misfit ninth-place ballclub had been beaten back another day.

There was the one about the famous "called shot" by Babe Ruth TTC during the 1932 World Series, Herman's first full season in the big leagues. "We had what I thought was a heckuva team in Chicago [Cubs] until we went against the Yankees," he said.

"We knew from the moment they came out for batting practice before the first game we were overmatched. We could do everything they could do until it came to power. They had about a dozen guys who could hit the ball out of sight."

As Herman used to tell it, Babe did indeed step out of the batter's box after pitcher Charlie Root had delivered two called strikes to him midway through the third game. But that was to remind the bench jockeys on the Cubs bench, who had been riding him non-stop for three days, that two strikes did not constitute an out. "He then held up his hand, that's where the pointing came in, as though gesturing Root he was ready," Herman said. "Then, of course, he hit the next pitch out of the ballpark."

Billy always contended that his were the perfect years to be playing baseball, starting just after the so-called Golden Age of Sport, the 1920s, and running up through and into the boom years after World War II. He coached and managed for two decades thereafter, thus giving him a closeup look at more than a half- century between the lines.

The scene is a ballclub on a bus heading for an airport one day when a player who has had an 0-for-4 day becomes a bit too overwrought with his lot in life. Herman, a third-base coach then, quietly begins telling a story about life in the bigs a few years before:

"You got on a train about midnight, and maybe that train had been sitting in the yards all day under the boiling sun. It felt like about 150 degrees in those steel cars. You'd get to St. Louis at 6:30 in the morning, grab your bag, fight to get a cab and head for the hotel.

"You'd have an afternoon game to play, so you'd head for the dining room to get something to eat and it would be stifling in there. It was tough to get any rest in the room because it was about 110 degrees in there. The clubhouse at the ballpark was 120.

"It was July and August in places like St. Louis and Cincinnati, and with no air conditioning, the rooms would stay hot all night, too. You had to soak sheets in cold water, wrap yourself in them and that would feel pretty good for a while. In two hours, they'd be dry again, so you'd get up and do it again.

"Road trips used to be to four cities and you'd go to the first two and in eight days you hadn't had a decent night's sleep."

Billy never presented his musings as an object lesson, but somehow the point always got across without the ballplayers thinking the words were the ramblings of just another old-timer. They knew because it was back when players still had the good sense to look up an ex-player's record and Herman's was a pip.

As a rookie, he hit .314. The next time the Cubs won the pennant, 1935, he hit .341 with 227 hits. After six years, Herman's average stood at .322. He had seasons when, as a hit-and-run man batting second, he smacked 57 doubles and batted in about 85 runs.

Players respect performance. They were eager for him to be named manager of the Red Sox. When it happened, many rued the day.

The record of his three full seasons of managing suggest Herman was far from a success. Simply, the 1947 Pittsburgh Pirates were beyond repair and in the mid-'60s the Sox were nearly as bad. Only Kansas City or Washington prevented them from being the worst in the American League.

During his first spring training in charge, Billy used to say of his coddled, over-priced players, "Hell, I know how these guys can play, let's try doing it with the young guys."

Tony Conigliaro, Reggie Smith, Rico Petrocelli, Jim Lonborg, Mike Andrews and Mike Ryan were the kids Herman was talking about and he found ways to get them into the lineup.

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