In a World Divided, We Need a Nation United
- March 22, 2023
Several weeks ago, news was received of the death of former Pirate, Yankees, and Astros manager Bill Virdon at the age of 90. Virdon has a strong Williamsport connection. He managed the 1966 Williamsport Mets, and later his grandson played for the Williamsport Crosscutters. Virdon was an accomplished major league player in his own right.
Several weeks ago, news was received of the death of former Pirate, Yankees, and Astros manager Bill Virdon at the age of 90. Virdon has a strong Williamsport connection. He managed the 1966 Williamsport Mets, and later his grandson played for the Williamsport Crosscutters.
Virdon was an accomplished major league player in his own right. He was a standout centerfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates, narrowly losing the National League batting title in 1956 to the great Hall of Famer, Hank Aaron.
One of Virdon’s most memorable baseball moments came in the climactic seventh game of the 1960 World Series against the Yankees. He hit a ground ball that struck Yankees shortstop Tony Kubek in the throat after taking an unpredictable bounce, enabling Virdon to reach base safely. This started a rally for the Pirates that culminated in Bill Mazeroski’s home run that won the series for Pittsburgh.
After retiring as a player following the 1965 season, he became a coach and manager in the Mets organization. His first managerial assignment was here in 1966 with the Williamsport Mets.
On paper, the 1966 Williamsport Mets were a team of considerable promise. Several returning veterans from the ‘65 club were expected to anchor and spark a pennant-contending team. Included among these key Mets’ players were Hank McGraw, Bernie Smith, Lloyd Flodin, Bob Schmidt, and “Bunky” Warren, just to name a few. Unfortunately, even their experience and leadership within the clubhouse failed to offset Williamsport’s streaky performance during the ‘66 campaign. Though the season was punctuated by several excellent pitching performances by the Mets’ pitching staff, they were too few-and-far-between to make the team truly competitive.
Virdon had to insert himself into the line-up on a couple of occasions when injuries left the Mets depleted. Most observers agreed that Virdon did a competent and professional job as the Mets’ manager. He recalled his time with Williamsport with great fondness and remembered Williamsport baseball fans as being very knowledgeable. I talked to Virdon about this in 2004 when his grandson Brent Holmes was playing for the Crosscutters. Virdon said he really liked the fans of Williamsport, and he enjoyed his experience here.
One of the most interesting sidebars to the 1966 season included the brief, but memorable, appearance of future Hall-of-Famer Nolan Ryan in a Williamsport uniform. Like his famed fastball, the legendary “Ryan Express,” his time in Williamsport was all-too fleeting. Ryan was on the Williamsport roster for a little less than two weeks; nevertheless, he showcased some of the talent that destined him for greatness at the major league level. He arrived in Williamsport as a fresh-faced, wiry Texan (only nineteen) from Greenville, South Carolina, where he had thoroughly dominated the Western Carolina League, leading the league in wins (17) and strikeouts (272).
Virdon later went back to the Pirate organization, where he was a coach on the 1971 World Championship team.
He succeeded the legendary Danny Murtagh as Pirate manager. He went on to managerial stints with the Yankees, the Astros, and the Expos.
He left behind an enviable record and reputation and was the ultimate baseball lifer.
On a completely unrelated note, I must note my sorrow and anger that former outstanding Williamsport Grays and Phillies slugger, Dick Allen, was again passed over for induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, as in 2017, he missed by one excruciating vote. This is a crying shame that hopefully will be rectified the next time the Golden Age of Baseball Committee meets in five years.