KC Royals: The case to retire Whitey Herzog’s number

(Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
(Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images) /

The manager who is second only to Ned Yost in career wins with the KC Royals never took the club to the World Series. But he deserves having his number retired.

Ned Yost won a World Series and two pennants in his almost 10 full seasons as manager of the KC Royals. He owns the highest postseason winning percentage among managers with at least 20 October/November contests and is the winningest field boss in club history.

The latter fact may, frankly, be more a function of Yost’s longevity than of his overall managerial acumen. He managed longer than any other Royals skipper–nine full seasons and part of another–yet had just three winning teams and skippered another to a .500 record. His clubs lost 90 or more games (over 100 twice) in four of his other five full campaigns. (Losing is the flip side of this longevity coin–Yost also has more losses than any KC manager).

Consistently questionable bullpen management (except when the lethal Herrera-Davis-Holland triumvirate required no management) and troublesome in-game strategy and tactics were the primary knocks on Yost. By most accounts, though, his players liked and respected him, no small achievement over 10 seasons. And Yost’s worst years were not entirely of his making: he had to play the roster hands ownership and the front office dealt him, and too many of those hands were bad and folded themselves early in their respective seasons.

All things considered, I won’t argue with the many writers, including my Kings of Kauffman colleague Jordan Foote, who’ve encouraged the Royals to make Yost only the fourth Royal to have his number retired. (The others are George Brett, Frank White and Dick Howser; although Jackie Robinson never played for the KC Royals, his number has been retired across baseball).

But after the club retires Yost’s No. 3, it needs to bestow the same honor on Whitey Herzog, second only to Yost in KC managerial wins. Unlike Yost and Howser, Herzog never took his Royals to the World Series, but he came agonizingly close three straight times and was the first of the team’s managers to win a title of any sort.

Herzog was no stranger to Kansas City or managing when general manager Joe Burke fired Jack McKeon in the midst of a winning 1975 campaign and replaced him with Herzog, who played three years for the old A’s, later made the KC area his home, and skippered the Rangers for part of 1973 and the Angels for part of 1974.

Burke believed so much in the man dubbed “The White Rat” that he dispatched McKeon, a pretty fair manager himself, in late July 1975 when the Royals were 50-46 and in second place in the AL West, albeit 10 games out of first. They gave no ground under Herzog, going 41-25 to close within seven games of Oakland when the season ended. It was the club’s third winning season and the beginning of its first great series of campaigns.

The very next season, Herzog did just what the Royals had in mind–he engineered the team’s first division championship to end Oakland’s half-decade of consecutive division titles. The Royals beat California May 30 to take sole possession of first place for good and edged the A’s by 2½ games to win the AL West.

Unfortunately, the Royals’ postseason debut coincided with the rejuvenation of the Yankees, a team that hadn’t seen the postseason since 1964. KC pushed New York to a final ALCS game but Chris Chambliss walked the Royals out of the postseason with a homer in the bottom of the ninth.

The 1977 KC Royals won a franchise-record 102 games but didn’t get a firm hold on the division as quickly as the 1976 team–it wasn’t until August 20 that they seized it for good, then won it by eight games over Texas. KC again forced the Yankees to a deciding fifth ALCS game but New York ended the Royals’ World Series hopes with three runs in the ninth to win the finale.

The second straight ALCS loss hurt, but the Royals bounced back and won the West again in 1978; they moved into first place July 17, later dropped a half-game back for three games, then held on for their third consecutive title. But the Yankees broke the Royals’ hearts again–despite Brett’s memorable three home runs, New York won Game 4 by a run to take the series.

By then, the Yankees and Royals were bitter rivals, each with no use for the other. Three straight gut-wrenching ALCS losses to New York made avoiding another imperative–the franchise and its fans had come too close, too often. Herzog needed to deliver.

The Royals won their first three 1979 games, then lingered between second and fourth in the division until beating the Yankees August 30 to move into first. But a New York win the very next day dropped KC into second to stay; predictably, it was the Yankees who again foiled the Royals.

Burke fired Herzog two days later. Herzog finished 410-304, 336 wins behind Yost, who managed the club almost twice as long, and six victories ahead of Howser, who managed 55 more KC games than Herzog. Some attribute the firing to differences that rankled the front office and ownership, but his inability to beat the Yankees when it mattered most was probably at least an equal culprit.

His track record against the Yanks aside, no KC manager won a title of any kind before Herzog and none but Herzog have won as many division titles, much less three in a row. That he had such outstanding players–George Brett, Frank White, Amos Otis, Al Cowens, John MayberryFreddie Patek, Dennis Leonard, and Paul Splittorff among them–doesn’t diminish Herzog’s accomplishments. A manager must still manage superbly to win as often as he did.

Herzog went on to win three NL Central titles and a World Series (and lost the 1985 Fall Classic to the Royals) in 11 seasons managing St. Louis and the Cardinals retired his number in 2010. What he accomplished with another club has no bearing, of course, on whether the KC Royals ought to do the same. But they should. The Royals were promising from their inception; Herzog turned the corner with them, showed them how to win consistently and how to win titles. He left a great and unforgettable mark on the franchise and established a standard for his successors.

Next. Bobby Witt Jr. could pose a pleasant problem. dark

The KC Royals retired Dick Howser’s number and will probably soon retire Ned Yost’s. It will then be time to retire the No. 24 of Whitey Herzog, a member of the National and Royals Halls of Fame. He deserves it.