WEST PLAINS, Mo. (KY3) – Baseball legend Bill Virdon and his wife Shirley touched base with their hometown of West Plains, Mo., Friday. The Virdons greeted fans of all ages as they made the rounds.
The first stop on the Virdon’s West Plains visit was at the West Plains High School, where the big-league player met with Zizzer baseball players with big-league aspirations of their own.
When a player asked, “Do you think it helped you, being a multi-sport athlete?” Virdon responded with a resounding, “Oh, yes.” Virdon ran track and played football at West Plains High School–but not baseball. In the late 40s–Virdon graduated in 1949–his high school did not have a baseball team. He played in city leagues, then moved up to the minor leagues after high school.
A young boy, no older than four, asked Virdon who he thought was the best batter in baseball history. When Virdon replied, “I think probably Henry Aaron,” the youngster said, “Who’s he?” Shirley Virdon responded, “Hank Aaron. Do you know who he is?” The boy looked confused. He shook his head, “No.”
Another Zizzer player asked Virdon to recall his favorite moment as a player, he did not hesitate to reply, “1960. World Series. We beat the Yankees.” His face lit up with a big smile, as he basked in the eternal glory of being a key player in the series as a centerfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates. “Bill was very instrumental in winning the first and fourth games of that series,” said his pastor and long-time friend, David Gerome. “He made big plays in center field, and his batting was key to those victories.”
A couple of years ago, Gerome was shocked to learn that nobody had ever written a book about this Ozarks legend of a man. So, he decided to take on the project. He currently is writing Virdon’s biography, with a working title, “Bill Virdon: I Guess I Did That.” “Bill is a very humble, soft-spoken man who never brags about himself,” said Gerome. “Everybody I talked with, especially those who have known him a long time, laugh when they hear the title. ‘Yep, that fits him,’ they say.” Gerome hopes to have the book out in about a year.
Gerome’s son-in-law, Mark Topping, is producing a mini-documentary about Virdon to help promote the book. He said the more he learns about Virdon, the more impressed he becomes. “He’s the all-time winningest manager in the Houston Astros’ history, and the first manager ever hired and fired by George Steinbrenner with the Yankees,” said Topping.
Virdon has a long list of accomplishments and career highlights. (For a complete history–read the upcoming biography). He was chosen “Rookie of the Year” when he played for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1955. The Cardinals traded him to the Pittsburgh Pirates, where he played for eleven years before venturing into coaching and managing. “He was the most efficient and effective center fielders, to me, there ever was,” said Gerome. “He rated up with Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and others.
When asked whether he preferred playing or managing, Virdon answered, “Playing. Managing was a pain.”
After Virdon finished signing autographs and chatting with the Zizzer players, he and Shirley headed over to the West Plains Welcome Center, where another appreciative group of hometown fans had a chance to meet and greet the small-town boy who made it to the big time.
Laurel Thompson was in the same high school class as Virdon, and played softball with him. “I just felt that Bill could do whatever he wanted to do because we all knew what a great ballplayer he was,” said Thompson.
Even though Virdon worked for many different teams in many different states, the Virdons always kept their home in Springfield, Mo., about 100 miles from where they met in high school. They wanted to raise their three daughters there, and besides, according to Virdon, there’s really nowhere he’d rather live. Out of all of the places he’s played, coached and managed teams, Virdon says there really is no place like home. “It’s just really a great place,” he said.
Bill Virdon will be 90 years old on June 9, 2021. He and Shirley will celebrate their 70th anniversary in November. When asked how they managed to stay together all those years, Bill immediately piped in, “Because I put up with her! “ Shirley burst out in laughter, smiled, and said, “He says because he was gone all the time,” to which Bill replied, “Yep, I figure it’s really only been about 35 years.”
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