The Cardinals' clubhouse at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla., was named for George Kissell in a 2005 ceremony. (Family photo)
By Rob Rains
There was a major omission when the first class for the Cardinals Hall of Fame was announced last week, a man who might have played a bigger role in the organization’s success than anyone in history.
George Kissell deserved the honor of being included in that inaugural class.
Kissell only wore a major-league uniform for seven seasons, from 1969 to 1975, when he served as Red Schoendienst’s third-base coach, but that was only a small portion of the 68 years he devoted to the Cardinals. He spent most of that time working in the low levels of the minor leagues, teaching what has now become known as “The Cardinal Way.” He literally wrote the book which is still used as the system’s manual.
There wasn’t any young player, or young coach or manager, who came through the farm system from the 1940s until Kissell’s death in 2008 at the age of 88 who did not spend time as a pupil in one of Kissell’s classrooms – ball fields scattered across the U.S. and at times Canada in non-descript, out of the way towns.
He never hit a home run for the Cardinals. He never managed in the major leagues. Connect the dots between the men who did, however, and Kissell’s fingerprints can be found everywhere.
Kissell taught Joe Torre, Mike Shannon and others to play third base. He taught a countless number of players to switch-hit, including Vince Coleman, Terry Pendleton and Tom Herr. When Tony La Russa and Joe Torre were elected to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., last December, both made it a point during their initial press conferences to talk about the influence Kissell had on their careers.
“It’s one of those things which can’t really be proven, but there is pretty much nobody on this earth who has ever taken more pride in wearing that Birds on the Bat uniform than George Kissell,” said Tommy Kidwell, Kissell’s grandson. “I truly mean nobody.
“He didn’t consider wearing another uniform, from the time he first put it on until the day he died. You’re never going to see that again. His loyalty to the Cardinals’ brand and name transcended his life. It’s pretty hard to argue that he was the most loyal person in the history of the organization.”
Sparky Anderson, the Hall of Fame manager who was Kissell’s roommate when they were both minor-league teammates, twice tried to lure him away from the Cardinals, first when he was managing the Reds and later the Tigers. Both times Kissell said no.
Except for the three years he spent in the Navy during World War II, and working as a substitute teacher in the winter, Kissell never earned a paycheck as an adult from anybody except the Cardinals. He didn’t cash million-dollar checks, either, making a very modest living and never demanding or expecting anything more than a thank you from those he helped send up through the system and on to great careers.
“He was a common man,” Kidwell said, “with no glitz or glamour. He treated everybody like they were part of his family. He was a teacher, and he felt the ultimate teaching opportunity wasn’t just in the minor leagues, but truly the lower minor leagues – the baby birds, guys fresh out of the draft or freshly signed from Latin America. That’s when they were the most impressionable, the youngest, with the most eager minds. Those were the ones he enjoyed working with the most.
“No job was beneath him. He did as much grunt work as the next guy. Even 40-50 years into his tenure he was still fixing pitching machines and picking up baseballs on the back fields.”
One of those fresh young faces Kissell indoctrinated into the ways of Cardinal baseball was 18-year-old Andy Van Slyke, a first-round draft pick in 1979 who, like Kissell two generations before him, came from upstate New York when he arrived at the instructional league in St. Petersburg, Fla., that fall.
“We were all in the Al Lang Stadium locker room and he came in and I thought to myself, ‘This guy is probably older than my grandfather. What’s he doing in a baseball uniform?’” Van Slyke said.
Then the teacher began to speak, and Van Slyke, like all of those minor leaguers before him and after, became mesmerized.
“My first impression was I felt like a first grader in a college lecture,” said Van SIyke, now the first-base coach for the Seattle Mariners after a long playing career in the majors. “I never knew there was so much to the game of baseball. I just played it. He was the ultimate professor of the game. I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know about the game until I hung around George Kissell for the first three years of my minor league career.”
In the summer of 1980, Van Slyke was a first-year minor leaguer playing in Gastona, N.C., for the Cardinals’ low Class A team in the South Atlantic League when Kissell came to town for several days.
“I was a wild boy at Gastonia and he came up to me. He knew what I was doing after games,” Van Slyke said. “He said, ‘Van Slyke, let me tell you, you never see a duck and a goose together.’ It took me about three weeks to figure out what it meant. George had a way of making you think. That’s what great teachers do. They don’t program you to spit back information. They program you to think.
“More than anything else he taught me the wisdom of the game. He taught me to be wise about how to play the game. He is the only coach I’ve ever come around who helped you gain instincts. He had a gift. He matched philosophy with fundamentals in a way nobody else has ever done.”
A simple beginning
The story of how Kissell first joined the Cardinals is legendary, connecting more dots back to Branch Rickey.
It was the summer of 1940 and the 19-year-old Kissell was helping his father on the family farm in Evans Mills, N.Y., while home from Ithaca College, where he earned bachelors and master’s degrees in physical education and history.
He wanted to attend a tryout camp in Rochester, but his father said he needed to work in the fields. It rained the night before the camp, however, and the fields were wet. Kissell and his dad got in the family car and drove to Rochester.
About 400 would-be ballplayers were there, with numbers pinned to their backs. When Kissell’s turn came, he went to shortstop and fielded five balls in the hole.
The next day, Rickey decided to sign about five or six of the players. He asked Kissell and his father how much it had cost to come to the tryout, counting gas, a hotel room and meals. Kissell’s father told him $19.80.
Rickey handed him a $20 bill and said, “Keep the change,” meaning Kissell’s signing bonus worked out to be 20 cents.
Kissell’s first salary that year in Hamilton, Ontario in a Class D league was $75 a month. That winter, he received a contract in the mail for a raise to $125. He called Rickey on the telephone and said he wanted $150.
Over the years, it has been reported the rest of the brief conversation went like this:
Rickey: “You like milking cows?
Kissell : “No.”
Rickey: “Then you’d better sign for a hundred and a quarter.”
Kissell did, and never looked back.
He spent three years playing in the low minors before the war interrupted his career. When he came back in 1946, Kissell became a player-manager at the age of 25 and kept that dual occupation for six years before turning strictly to managing, which he did for most of the next 22 years.
“When you were a manager in those days, you didn’t have a coach, a bus driver, a trainer, you had to do every damn thing,” said former Cardinals’ manager Whitey Herzog. “The biggest thing you had to do was work your tail off with those players with morning workouts every day.
“There wasn’t anything in baseball he couldn’t teach. Teaching is repetition. I know some of those young players probably got ticked off at him; ‘My God, how many times are you going to tell me that?’ But he kept at it until they got it right. That’s how he got it into their heads. He wanted to be with the kids.”
Herzog first met Kissell when he was running the instructional league for the Mets in the 1960s and Kissell was in charge of the Cardinals’ camp. Both teams trained in St. Petersburg.
“I always admired him,” Herzog said. “He was one of the old-school guys, men like him and Hub Kittle and Clyde McCullough. George could talk for a half-hour to 45 minutes about a ground ball. He wanted to talk baseball all the time. It didn’t make any difference to George what your draft status was. He tried to make everybody as good a ballplayer as they could possibly be.”
When Herzog became the Cardinals manager in 1980, he had a special assignment for Kissell during spring training.
“I wanted to make sure every one of our players knew how to get a jump off third base,” Herzog said. “I told George I wanted him at third base and I wanted every player to walk down that line while a hitter was at the plate so he could get a proper jump. We were going to go on contact all the time because we had so many basestealers. I knew George was the only guy among all of our coaches who when I told him to do something it was going to be done the way I wanted it.
“For the 10 years I managed the Cardinals he was out there every morning during batting practice. Nobody quit taking that walking lead until the next hitter was done. All learned to do it. One of the best compliments I ever got as a manager was Gene Mauch said to me, ‘How come your team gets from third to home faster than anybody else?’ I gave George credit for it. Nobody else would have got it done like George.
“It’s hard to go out today and find a George Kissell or Hub Kittle. I don’t think anybody loved the game more than George or Hub.”
Continuing the legacy
Working conditions have changed over the years in the minor leagues, but the importance of teaching young players – even though it sometimes is done differently thanks to the use of video and other technology – remains the same was it was when Kissell was in charge.
Mike Shildt, the manager of the Double A Springfield Cardinals, joined the organization as a scout and coach in 2004 and was put in charge of running the spring training camp four years later.
“One of the first conversations I had with him was effectively saying, ‘I want you to know Mr. Kissell that we’re not going to change anything, we are going to carry on the legacy and the teaching philosophy,’” Shildt said. “He wagged a finger at me and said, ‘You’d better not. Don’t forget what works.’ But he also said, ‘You have your own ideas. Try to figure out how to make it better. That’s the way it works.’
“He had no ego. He never said things had to be done this way, which allowed for evolution and growth and different teachings and methods. Some of the things he did with guys are just legendary. I met Joe Torre a few years ago in the off-season and when I introduced myself and struck up a conversation I brought up Mr. Kissell and he said, ‘Stop right there. Kissell taught me more baseball than anybody I’ve ever met in my life.’”
It’s ironic that Oct. 7, the date Kissell died following a car accident a day earlier, was the same date that Shildt’s father passed away. When he talks about Kissell, it’s obvious Shildt had the same respect and admiration for him as he did for his father.
“He challenged me, but he did it in a way that was comfortable,” Shildt said, “yet you got the impression you needed to continue doing what you were doing and keep moving forward. I wish I would have had more time with him personally, but the time I had with him was highly appreciated and his spirit is with us, and his teachings are still with us.”
Shildt had the honor and responsibility a couple of years ago of taking much of Kissell’s manuscript on player development and revising it and updating it into the current form of The Cardinal Way which is sent to every player once he signs with the organization following the amateur draft.
“The meat and the fundamentals part of it, the cutoffs and relays, bunt plays, all of the fundamental teachings about how we go about things – that’s all George’s blueprint,” Shildt said. “We drew from all his previous notes and manuals.”
On a small table next to Shildt’s desk in the manager’s office at Hammons Field sits a small black book, another manual which once belonged to Kissell. It was given to Shildt by Kissell’s son after his death.
“It’s his baseball Bible,” Shildt said. “I carry it everywhere and refer to it, and read it regularly. It’s a little more condensed, more from the manager’s perspective. On the first page it says, ‘Do you have a checklist? Are you prepared? Are you an organizational man?’ Effectively you’re doing what is best for the greater good. And that’s a big part of the success of this organization – humility, a single-mindedness of developing players to be able and ready and to own what they do when they are called upon.
“One of the things I have heard Mike Matheny talk about is ‘what kind of wake’ you leave. When you look at it from that context, his wake is enormous, powerful, strong and the reason is because first of all he was a straight shooter. He was fundamental with everything he did. It made sense, it was practical, it was fair and it was honest. Importantly it was based on the best interests of that player and the Cardinal organization. That’s a legacy that is very impressive.
“We appreciate and understand how George had such a big part, and how he impressed upon people, to care more about the organization than about themselves.”
Shildt knows as well as anyone that the lessons and teachings Kissell left behind still work. One day last week he pulled out a drill from Kissell’s book to help young third base prospect Patrick Wisdom, a first-round pick in 2012, nearly four years after Kissell’s death.
“George developed a drill if a guy was having trouble getting a good hop defensively on ground balls,” Shildt said. “He would hit him grounders and tell him to count the hops. That would get him on time to catch either a short hop or a big hop. I did it with Patrick and he was counting hops. It’s a drill that has been done by a lot of guys in the organization for years. The next thing you know he was catching everything clean, and it’s coming together for him.”
A teacher first
Kissell always had a job title in the Cardinals’ organization but whether it was manager, coach, roving instructor, field coordinator or something else, it was his nickname that really described what he did – The Professor.
Van Slyke remembers another lesson from a visit by Kissell to Gastonia 34 years ago.
“He was trying to teach us how to play together as a team,” Van Slyke said. “Here was a bunch of 18-to-20 year old kids from all over the country and different parts of the world trying to learn how to play the game, and play as a team. We weren’t playing well when he came in, and he started pointing fingers at guys. ‘You and you and you, it’s not your fault. The scouts should have never signed you. But you know what, you’re here.’
“He took the wallet out of his back pocket of his baseball pants and threw it on this dirty, dingy awful locker room floor and he said, ‘I should be able to come back tomorrow and there’s only two things that should happen. The wallet should still be there, or it should be in my locker.’ Then he walked out of the room.
“The ones who understood what he was trying to say got it. He was teaching us about trusting each other.”
Stories like that do not surprise Kidwell. He has heard versions of similar episodes spread across the decades with the names and locations interchangeable.
“He just had an innate ability to teach,” Kidwell said. “One of his favorite sayings was ‘there’s a key to every lock and I might not have the key, but somebody does. Our job is to find who has the key.’ There might be another coach who could teach a kid a slider or how to solve a hitch in his swing. He was very proud of being able to find who had the key.
“He looked at each kid as his own and taught each kid as his own. He was tough on them. He undressed me at times in a way that made you get the point that you got what you put in. He also was fond of saying, “you can’t put five cents in the bank and get a dollar out. It just doesn’t work that way.’
“He taught through examples and sayings. He had a saying for everything. He went to Catholic church every Sunday, but he would wear his uniform socks under his church clothes so he wouldn’t waste any time getting dressed when he got to the ballpark.”
Out of respect for his grandfather, Kidwell and his wife will be in Cooperstown this summer when Torre and La Russa are officially inducted into the Hall of Fame. It will be his first trip there.
“I would drag him up there with me if he was still here,” Kidwell said. “Nobody would be prouder of those guys than my grandfather.
“He is pretty much the glue to it all. Twenty years from now when none of the players who were with him are still around, I still think it’s going to be important to the history of the Cardinals. You really only remember the players and managers. Sometimes you don’t even remember the coaches, and that’s at the major-league level. There may have been others who were as important to the Cardinals, but there wasn’t anybody who was ever more important to the Cardinals than George Kissell.”
That is exactly why Kissell should have been included in the team’s inaugural Hall of Fame class along with Jim Edmonds, Willie McGee (voted in by fans), Marty Marion (chosen by a select committee) and Mike Shannon (the management choice). At least there is always the hope it can happen next year.
“He was just so good at everything he did,” said Lee Thomas, who spent much of the 1980s working with Kissell when he was the Cardinals’ director of player development. “He knew the game as well as anybody. He respected the game and the players. Everybody needs a George Kissell, but unfortunately there’s hardly any left.
“I know Stan Musial was Mr. Cardinal, and Red Schoendienst was Mr. Cardinal. But George Kissell was Mr. Cardinal too.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains