Legendary Cardinals instructor George Kissell deserves a spot in the Hall of Fame
ST. LOUIS — As soon as the 2014 Hall of Fame class is announced Wednesday afternoon, ranting and raving will commence across the land about all the alleged injustices.
Without knowing the outcome of the voting, count on the noise sounding something like this: Who in the world could not have voted for Greg Maddux? Frank Thomas made it and Barry Bonds didn’t? Tom Glavine yes, Roger Clemens no? How could that be? If the baseball writers are going to be such idiots, why let them vote? And on and on.
Meanwhile, once again, nary a word will be uttered about a man who absolutely, positively, undeniably deserves to be recognized by the Hall of Fame.
That would be George Kissell, of course. Actually, that would be Kissell and all of the other deserving coaches and scouts who do not have an avenue into Cooperstown.
But the focus here is on Kissell, the late, great Cardinals coach who, more than anyone, is responsible for the Cardinals Way. After all, when the Hall of Fame introduced its newest members last month, Kissell was the only person singled out by both Tony La Russa and Joe Torre as one of their greatest influences.
"He was like a father to me, like he was to many," La Russa said.
"There were a lot of things I never thought to think about until really I associated with Kissell," said Torre, who as a player, converted from catcher to third base under Kissell’s direction.
A couple of weeks after the Hall of Fame presser, La Russa told me the best advice he received about a managing career came from Kissell in 1977, the lone season La Russa spent as a player in the Cardinals’ organization. Kissell at the time already was 37 years into what would finish as a 68-year career with the Cardinals, widely believed to be a record for staying with the same franchise.
Kissell did not offer La Russa any magical knowledge. He simply told La Russa not to bother with coaching or managing unless he truly had the desire.
"He asked do you sincerely love the game and do you have a sincere desire to learn it because they go together," La Russa remembered recently. "He told me, unless you really get into learning every aspect of it, you’re not cut out for coaching or managing. I was starting to get the bug and that was a real straightforward way to make a decision."
Kissell, of course, had caught the baseball bug long ago. He never rose above Class B as a minor-league infielder but he still went on to care for, work with and, generally, "touch as many lives as anybody who’s ever been in uniform in this game," says La Russa.
"Whenever George was around and a visiting team came over, the number of people who would come around and give him a hug or talk to him was amazing," La Russa said.
Kissell wanted them all to love the game the way he did. When they didn’t, he could take it hard. Cardinals special assistant Mike Jorgensen, in his fourth decade with the club, was coaching with Kissell in the instructional league in the fall of 1993 when the topic of that morning’s clubhouse circle was cutoffs and relays.
The night before, the Phillies had pulled off a relay to near perfection in the NLCS, so flawlessly that Kissell used it as his example when talking to the young players in his morning lesson.
"He explained this whole play exactly the way it happened and as he is walking around, he caught a dazed look on a bunch of the kids’ faces," Jorgensen says. "He said, ‘Wait a minute, how many guys watched the game last night?’ We probably had 35 kids in the room and about five of them raised their hand. Poor George, he was heartbroken. He couldn’t go on with his lesson for a little while. All day long, he was walking around the diamonds, talking to these kids, trying to make sure they would watch the game that night."
At 5-foot-8, Kissell did not have the size of a hard-nosed disciplinarian, nor the personality. Still, Jorgensen remembers that Kissell had no problems getting his point across. Kissell ruled the instructional league, that time of year when teaching becomes more important than winning. He would gather the troops first thing every morning to teach some baseball, and he had his own way of making sure everyone was on time.
Jorgensen explains: "He’d sit on a little stool and everybody would gather around in the clubhouse, all the players, all the staff, and he’d have a different subject that he would talk about every day. A lot of those kids were in their first year in the organization and didn’t have everything figured out.
"Well, George had this huge box full of old alarm clocks back in the storage room. The old wind ’em up, tick-tock kind, probably $6.99 at the drug store. Invariably, of course, someone was late at the beginning and the first kid who was got one of those alarm clocks. Their gift from George. He’d read them the riot act and then give them an alarm clock. They weren’t late after that. Hardly anybody was."
Kissell’s passion was teaching, and no one taught switch-hitting and bunting any better. Remember the number of switch-hitters on the pennant-winning Cardinals in 1985? Kissell worked with them all, Tom Herr, Willie McGee, Vince Coleman, Terry Pendleton and even Ozzie Smith, who came up with the Padres. And his work paid off.
"He truly was the biggest influence on me as far as teaching me the correct way to play the game," Herr wrote in an email. "Baseball is a game of repetition and he understood the importance of creating perfect habits through perfect practice. He was also great at imparting his knowledge of game situations and the correct way to defend them. He left no stone un-turned."
What endeared Kissell to so many was his willingness to share his knowledge. Whitey Herzog once said Kissell was the only person he knew who could spend 15 minutes talking about a ground ball. And he would enjoy every second.
Tim Wilken, now a special assistant to the GM/president with the Cubs, was just beginning his career as a scout with the Blue Jays in the early 1980s when he visited the Cardinals’ complex. Hailing from nearby Dunedin, Wilken remembers showing up in St. Petersburg several days in a row, just observing. Kissell, obviously paying attention to who was on his grounds, approached Wilken one day.
"You want to come into my office and talk some baseball," asked Kissell, who had pulled up by Wilken in the golf cart that served as his office.
Wilken climbed in and Kissell, by then known as a top coach, asked if he had any questions. "Sure," said Wilken, who, having done his homework, asked Kissell how he had such success teaching players how to switch hit.
Kissell explained that he would take a right-handed hitter, put him on the left side and flip him pitches. After several pitches, Kissell then would toss one firmly right at the player’s ribs.
"If he raised his bat and tried to duck away from the pitch, then he knew the player didn’t have a chance of switch-hitting," Wilken recalled. "But if he kept in his stance and tried to turn on the pitch, then George would say, ‘He has a chance of being a decent switch-hitter.’ "
Kissell worked for the Cardinals until he died in October, 2008, about a month after he was injured in a car wreck near his home in the St. Petersburg area. He was 88, and already had seen the Cardinals name their spring-training clubhouse in Jupiter after him and already had received a lifetime accomplishment award from minor league baseball.
Hope remains that Kissell some day also will be recognized by the Hall of Fame. About the only way he could get in under today’s rules would be to win the Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award, which is awarded, at most, every three years.
Such an award might be out of reach for someone who spent their career in the minor leagues but a Hall spokesman agreed that Kissell is worthy of consideration. According to the Hall, Kissell — or anyone — can be nominated by anyone who writes a letter on their behalf.
According to La Russa, the Hall also is considering another way to honor coaches and scouts. One such possibility would be recognizing one scout and/or coach every year, similar to what it does with writers and broadcasters.
"Now that I have a chance to be a part of it, I’m definitely going to throw my two cents in there," said La Russa, who often talks about how his career benefitted from working with "the game’s greatest pitching coach," Dave Duncan, "and the greatest hitting coach," Charley Lau.
"Coaches should be recognized and that would be easier (than the O’Neil award)," La Russa said. "I’m hopeful we can get some kind of coaching recognition."
In the meantime, when you hear all the griping about who is and isn’t voted in Wednesday, take a moment to think about George Kissell. He deserves that much, and more.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.