Cardinals icons pay tribute to Herzog

April 18th, 2024

This story was excerpted from John Denton's Cardinals Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

ST. LOUIS -- On those rare instances when Ozzie Smith would have a day off from the wizardry he regularly and routinely created with his glove at shortstop, he liked to sit back in the Cardinals’ dugout and admire the handiwork of another master craftsman at work.

It was there that Hall of Fame manager Whitey Herzog would manipulate baseball games like a puppeteer lurking high above Busch Stadium. He’d see the game playing out two to three innings prior to it even happening, making moves in the fifth and sixth innings that would dictate high-leverage situations to come in the eighth and ninth innings.

Smith already had loads of respect for Herzog as the manager/general manager who lured him to St. Louis under the premise that he could finally reach his potential as a superstar player and win a World Series ring -- both of which happened in 1982. But Smith would often look on in awe at how Herzog could leave his fingerprints all over a game without leaving the dugout, with his familiar foot perched up on the first step.

“He was always a step ahead, and that’s another thing that made him so special,” Smith told about Herzog, who passed away at the age of 92 on Tuesday. “I didn’t have a lot of days off, but on the days that I did, I’d watch and see how Whitey was a master manipulator.

“He would find situations he wanted and the situations he was looking for, and he was always able to get us in those situations and it gave us huge advantages. We knew late in games, if it was close, we had the edge because Whitey would get the game exactly where he wanted it.”

In many ways, Herzog was to talent evaluation and managerial maneuvering as Smith was to playing shortstop. Their minds and baseball IQs were off the charts to the extent that they could seemingly see scenarios before they transpired. Center field great Willie McGee likes to tell the story about how Smith would kid him about not having to cover much ground because the 13-time Gold Glove-winning shortstop would often be on the move before balls were even hit, allowing him to gobble up everything between McGee in center field and third basemen Ken Oberkfell and Terry Pendleton.

Herzog was the same as a manager, getting games right where he wanted them with his deft handling of the bullpen and the crafty employment of his reserves. Pitcher John Stuper, who played for the Cardinals from 1982-84 and later went on to manage at Yale University for 30 seasons, said he sometimes wondered if Herzog was some sort of witch, given how he could envision scenarios arising before they even happened.

“As a [college] coach for 30 years, I always made sure I had somebody ready in the bullpen -- not when trouble started, but before -- because that’s what Whitey would do,” Stuper said. “Whitey would walk through the dugout and tell Steve Braun or Gene Tenace in the sixth inning, ‘If this happens and this happens, you’re going to hit for so-and-so in the eighth.’ He was just so far ahead of the game, and he could see what might happen.

“Even as a young player, you could tell this guy knows what the hell he’s doing, and he knows what he’s doing better than the guy across the way. It’s an overused cliché, but he was playing chess while everyone else was playing checkers.”

Former players impacted by Herzog’s genius as a manager offered up story after story on the Hall of Famer’s brilliance following his death. Still an avid baseball watcher, Herzog was at Busch Stadium one last time on April 4 for Opening Day festivities, though his illness prevented him from getting in a vehicle that circled the track. He still had “encouraging words” for current manager Oliver Marmol, who appreciated Herzog’s calls last season when the team was struggling.

The greatest appreciation of all comes from Smith, who always felt a kinship with Herzog after the skipper talked Smith out of his no-trade clause with the Padres and convinced him to make the leap to the Cardinals -- a move that proved to be the launching pad for Smith’s Hall of Fame career.

“He believed in me, and he told me if I came and played for the Cardinals, there was no reason that we couldn’t win it all,” said Smith, whose massive popularity in St. Louis could only be rivaled by Herzog’s. “He told me I was the missing piece to the puzzle, and any time you are shown that type of belief, it meant so much. He allowed me to play with no restrictions, and he allowed me to become what I became.”