PITTSBURGH — Bill Virdon, the steady center fielder who won the 1955 National League Rookie of the Year for St. Louis and guided the Houston Astros to three straight postseason appearances as a manager, has died. He was 90.
Virdon died at the Lester E. Cox Medical Center in Springfield, Missouri, according to Virdon’s wife Shirley. No cause of death was given.
Virdon was a career .267 hitter in 12 seasons with St. Louis and Pittsburgh, winning a World Series in 1960 with the Pirates and a Gold Glove in 1962. He retired for good in 1968 and went into coaching, going 995-921 during a 13-year managerial career that featured stints with Pittsburgh, the New York Yankees, Houston and Montreal.
His greatest success came during an eight-year run with the Astros from 1975-82, when he led the franchise to its first two postseason appearances, both ending with five-game losses. Houston lost to Philadelphia in the 1980 NL Championship Series and to the Los Angeles Dodgers in an NL Division Series prompted by the 1981 players’ strike.
Virdon remains Houston’s career wins leader as a manager (544). He was voted NL Manager of the Year in 1980 after guiding the Astros to the NL West title, one they secured after defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers in a one-game playoff.
“His impact on the Astros organization will never be forgotten,” the Astros said in a statement. “He was respected throughout baseball for his intensity and knowledge of the game.”
Virdon was signed by the Yankees in 1950 and traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in April 1954 in a deal that sent star outfielder Enos Slaughter to New York.
The left-handed-hitting Virdon reached the majors in 1955. Taking over for Hall of Famer Stan Musial in center, Virdon hit .281 with 17 home runs and 68 RBIs while serving as one of the few bright spots for a team that finished next to last in the NL.
The Cardinals dealt Virdon to Pittsburgh in May 1955, and he flourished. By the time 1960 arrived, the Pirates’ fortunes had turned thanks in part to an outfield that included Virdon in centerfield and Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente in right.
Pittsburgh reached the 1960 World Series and Virdon played a key role in the Pirates’ stunning upset of the Yankees. Virdon hit .241 in the seven-game series, including a pair of hits in Game 7. His sharp single to shortstop in the seventh inning helped the Pirates rally after falling behind 7-4.
“Bill Virdon was a man who took such great pride in being a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates family,” Pirates chairman Bob Nutting said in a statement. “Every fan who followed our 1960 team will always remember the instrumental role that he played to bring a third World Series championship to the city of Pittsburgh.”
Virdon finished with 1,596 hits, including 91 home runs and 502 RBIs in 12 seasons. He won a second World Series with Pittsburgh in 1971 while serving as a coach under manager Danny Murtaugh. He replaced Murtaugh as manager in 1972, beginning a somewhat nomadic career. He took the Pirates to the playoffs in 1972 but was fired before the end of the 1973 season.
He surprisingly found himself as the manager of the Yankees in 1974 after American League president Joe Cronin nixed New York’s attempt to sign Dick Williams from the Oakland Athletics. Virdon led the Yankees to a second-place finish behind Baltimore in 1974 but found himself out of a job by the middle of 1975 when New York hired Billy Martin.
Houston promptly signed Virdon and he ended up spending eight years with the Astros. Fueled by a pitching staff that included Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan and stars Joe Niekro and J.R. Richard, Virdon molded the Astros into contenders. They reached the playoffs for the first time in 1980 after going 93-80, the last victory a 7-1 triumph over the Dodgers a a tiebreaker game.
Houston reached the postseason again during the strike-shortened 1981 season and his tenure with the Astros ended a year later. Virdon spent two more years managing the Montreal Expos in 1983-84. While he interviewed for several managerial positions after the Expos fired him, he worked primarily as a coach for several organizations over the next two decades before stepping away from coaching for good in 2002.
Virdon remained an active part of Pittsburgh’s alumni program following his retirement, often attending spring training as a special instructor.
“Hate to hear about the passing of Bill “Quail” Virdon,” former Pirates star Andrew McCutchen posted on Twitter. “He hit me ground balls as long as his body would let him. Time would pass and Id (sic) catch him sitting on bucket. Id (sic) tease him and tell him to get up. His response, ‘Old age can kiss my (butt).”
Virdon was born on June 9, 1931, in Hazel Park, Michigan. He is survived by wife Shirley, three daughters, seven grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.