The Missouri Sports Hall of Fame opened its doors and inducted two new members and a new Missouri Sports Legend on May 17, as the shrine welcomed Joe Cunningham, Dick Groat and Missouri Sports Legend Bill Virdon into its fold with a special luncheon in their honor.
Bill Virdon grew up in West Plains and attended Drury College (now Drury University) before embarking on his baseball career. Although he originally signed with the New York Yankees he started his career with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1955 in Rochester.
“Baseball has been the best thing that has ever happened to me as far as life is concerned,” said Virdon. “I couldn't have asked for anything better for my life. I couldn't have played for better organizations then the Cardinals, Houston, Montreal, Yankees and the Pirates.”
Virdon won the 1955 Rookie of the Year award and then was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1956 for Dick Littlefield and Bobby Del Greco. He won a gold glove award in 1962 and was part of the 1960 World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates.
Virdon though was also a very good manager, managing the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1972 and 73, The New York Yankees in 1974 and 75, The Houston Astros from 1975-82 and the Montreal Expos in 1983 and 84. He was named American League Manager of the Year in 1974 and National League Manager of the Year in 1980.
“This guy is an honest person,” said baseball hall of famer Whitey Herzog. “I managed against him with the Yankees when we played in Shea Stadium. I managed against him in Houston, I managed against him in Montreal and he was a helluva manager. I promise you when I get to Cooperstown, and I think I vote in December, I am going to try like hell to get you on the next ballot.”
While recalling his playing days Virdon remembered a time just before he was traded to St. Louis when he was first trying to make the Yankees in 1954.
“I was in spring training with the New York Yankees and we were working out in St. Petersburg,” said Virdon. “I was in my first spring training with the major league club and I was in the outfield with Micky Mantle and Hank Bauer, Gene Woodling, Gus Triandos and two or three other young outfielders, and we were catching fly balls and making throws and fielding ground balls and making throws and it come my turn to come into the field and catch a fly ball and make a throw to the cut off man to show off our arms. I come in fielded the ball and come out throwing, then from somewhere Mr. (Casey) Stengel, who was the manager, got between me and the relay guy and I proceeded to hit him right in the back with my best throw and knocked him on his tail. When I saw what I had done I turned to get in among the other outfielders and their all laying on the ground pointing. Stengel shakes himself and gets up and says 'if you so and so's, and maybe not in those words, would throw that like him you might throw somebody out'. Two weeks later I got traded.”
Virdon led the 1980 Houston Astros to their first division title and came within six outs of getting them to the World Series.
“He was a great center fielder, known for his defensive excellence,” said former Houston Astros genera manager Hal Smith. “I really got to know Bill personally later on during his managerial career. We first became associated in 1974 when Bill was named the manager of the Yankees, it was a short run for both us and we were able to escape what was known then as the Bronx zoo. I was hired as general manager of Houston in August and I got Bill to join shortly thereafter. Through Bill's baseball knowledge and leadership, he took that club and soon molded it to a contending team that came close to winning it in 1979. He delivered to the fans of Houston their first divisional championship and as some of you know, came within six outs of reaching the World Series in 1980.”
Another former Pittsburgh Pirate, Dick Groat, was inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame. He was also part of that 1960 Pirates World Championship team and later would be a part of the 1964 St. Louis Cardinals World Championship team.
Besides baseball, Groat was also an outstanding basketball player at Duke University, where his number 10 has been retired and is hanging in the rafters of Coach K Court in Durham.
“I am an avid follower of Duke basketball,” said Smith. “I have seen a lot of great Duke basketball players over these years but believe me for my money, none have been greater than Dick Groat.”
Groat was a two time all american at Duke in basketball and baseball and in 1952 was signed by Branch Rickey of the Pittsburgh Pirates, later that summer he would be the third player taken in the NBA draft by the Ft. Wayne Pistons.
Groat still remembers his first at bat in the 1960 World Series, because it was the first time that Virdon ever missed a sign during a game.
“In the first game of the World Series against the Yankees I was so nervous I put the hit and run on by accident,” said Groat “I was afraid I might have done that, so I took it off and this was the first time that Bill Virdon ever missed a sign. I was going to take the first pitch and I did and out of the corner of my eye I see Bill attempting to steal second base and I thought I have fouled up on my first at bat in the World Series. Yogi Berra made a perfect throw to second base and the Yankees had already decided because of our reputation as a hit and run ball club that no one was going to cover second base. Bill thought I had to put the hit and run on so Bill and I really out-dumbed the Yankees.”
In 1960, Groat would win the batting title and the National League Most Valuable Player award. Groat was also the first individuel to be inducted in both the NCAA basketball and baseball halls of fame.
In 1949, 17 year old, Joe Cunningham signed a contract to play professional baseball with the St. Louis Cardinals but it would take Cunningham until 1954 to reach the major leagues.
Unfortunately for Cunningham the Cardinals decided to move Stan Musial to first base and Cunningham was sent back down to the minors.
In 1957 Cunningham was brought back up to the Cardinals and in 1959 he finished second to Hank Aaron in the batting race, hitting .345.
Cunningham was traded twice in his carer, first in 1961 to the Chicago White Sox for Minnie Minoso and then to the Washington Senators in 1964 for Bill Skowron, but he never forgot his roots or the Cardinals, even after he was traded away.
“I had a wonderful career playing for the Cardinals and then of course I got traded and went over to the American League and played over there,” said Cunningham. “I got traded for two wonderful ball players, Minnie Minoso and Moose Skowron and I am proud of that fact. I went over to the front office and became Director of Sales for 15 years and then I became Community Relations Director. The St. Louis Cardinals do more than just play baseball, they are very involved in their community and with their fans and that is why they have the best fans in baseball.”