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Herzog's KC success helped pave way to Hall

Herzog's KC success helped pave way to Hall

KANSAS CITY -- The story is told that in the wee hours of Oct. 2, 1976, a small contingent of reporters and broadcasters, along with hitting coach Charlie Lau and pitcher Steve Busby, kept the lights burning in the Royals Stadium press box. The Royals already had lost, 4-3, to the Twins, and everyone else had left.

Manager Whitey Herzog was home in bed. But the boys in the press box had a telephone line hooked up to the broadcast of the A's-Angels game out in Oakland. If the A's lost, it meant the Royals would win their first American League West title. The West Coast game trudged scorelessly into the 12th inning as the handful of Kansas Citians listened to broadcaster Fred White relay the news from Angels broadcasters Don Drysdale and Dick Enberg.

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"Rusty Torres, who had played for the Royals and was a very unlikely guy to hit a home run, hit one that beat the A's," White remembered. "I just said to Charlie and Busby, 'You won the West. How does it feel?' "

According to writer Steve Cameron's account in his book "Moments, Memories, Miracles," champagne was found and the cry went up, "Let's go see The Rat!" That would be Herzog, snoozing a few miles away in Independence, Mo. They piled in cars and, before long, the celebration was under way. Lau led the way into Herzog's house.

"I remember Charlie coming in, had a bottle of champagne and he popped the cork and I think he put a hole in my drywall ceiling and we had to get that fixed," Herzog recalled.

"I was sound asleep, but we didn't get much sleep the rest of the night."

That was the launching point for Herzog's ascendancy to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, which he will join along with slugger Andre Dawson and umpire Doug Harvey on Sunday at Cooperstown, N.Y.

Herzog gained his greatest fame for rebuilding the Cardinals into a power at St. Louis, not far from his hometown of New Athens, Ill. But his managerial reputation began building across the state of Missouri in Kansas City.

No Royals manager has won more games than Herzog, whose 410-304 record is also the best by percentage, at .574.

His teams would win West Division titles in 1976, '77 and '78, starting a rich tradition of winning that culminated in the world championship of '85. Curiously, by then Herzog was managing the Cardinals, victims of the Royals in that World Series.

Herzog has a lot of history in Kansas City. In fact, he was an outfielder for the old Kansas City A's from 1958-60, a period in which the team was known derisively as a "farm club" for the mighty Yankees, after dealing off top players to New York.

"In Kansas City they never won nothing," Herzog said. "They went through the Arnold Johnson regime where they were almost like a Yankees farm club. I played there at that time and I never had two good weeks in Kansas City where I could've gone off to New York as a player."

Indeed, he was a .268 hitter in his three years with the K.C. A's, with a mere nine homers in his 209 games.

As manager, though, he became known for clearing the fences in terms of victories.

George Brett was there when Herzog took over the Royals from Jack McKeon midway through the 1975 season. It was apparent right away that Herzog was a man of decision.

"I can only tell you what he told me," Brett said. "He says, 'I've seen you play. You're playing third and batting third every day as long as I'm manager.' "

That was a huge boost for Brett, then in his second full season with the Royals.

"That made me feel like if I went 0-for-4, I didn't have to worry about being in the lineup the next day or didn't have to feel I'd be hitting eighth or ninth. Just go out there and relax and play."

Brett took off toward a Hall of Fame career under Herzog.

"We got along great," Brett said. "I think I was his kind of player because Whitey played the game the same way I did -- if I hit a ground ball, I ran it out; if I hit a ball in the gap, I'd try for two. Sometimes if I hit it right at an outfielder, I'd try for two if the situation called for it. He made it where you wanted to give him a hundred per cent."

This week, Brett had planned on taking his wife, Leslie, on a cruise to Sweden and Norway. But when Herzog was named to the Hall, those plans were changed. Instead, the Bretts and John and Nancy Wathan are joining their old manager at Cooperstown.

Wathan, a third-string catcher for Herzog in 1976, felt the Herzog touch in a crucial game on Sept. 29 that year at Oakland. Herzog had to bring left-hander Larry Gura out of the bullpen to make a spot start.

"He asked Larry who he wanted to catch and [Gura] said me," Wathan said. "A lot of managers would've said, 'Naw, we've got Buck Martinez and Bob Stinson, who are veteran guys.' But he let me catch. The funny part was that Gura, being from Joliet (Ill.), his parents were listening to the White Sox game and Harry Caray said, 'Whitey Herzog's lost his mind. Gura's pitching and Wathan's catching.' They heard that on the air and it turned out to be one of the biggest games of my career."

That's because Wathan caught Gura's four-hit shutout over the second-place A's, and the 4-0 victory clinched at least a tie for the division title for the Royals.

Wathan learned a lot from Herzog and eventually became manager of the Royals himself.

"He was tough if he had to be," Wathan said. "He could be fire-and-brimstone many a time, but he was very kind and caring about the players."

The Royals hired Herzog instead of, among others, Tommy Lasorda. Herzog gave Kansas City its first three division titles but lost all three AL Championship Series to the Yankees.

"I got in there at a very good time with a very good team and they changed my whole career around," Herzog said after being elected to the Hall. "I really had a great team and we played the Yankees tough."

Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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