Baseball great Bill Virdon dies at 90, leaves his mark on Missouri sports

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The last thing David Jerome said to Bill Virdon before he left him was that he loved him.

Jérôme received in return a sweet “I love you too”.

When Jerome started writing Virdon’s biography several months ago, the writer didn’t expect to end up liking the man, but that’s the kind of impact Virdon had on people.

With Virdon’s kindness, remarkable storytelling, a strong handshake, a heart for family, and a dry sense of humor, anyone who spent time couldn’t help but love him.

These will be among the many things we will miss the most.

Virdon died at age 90 earlier this week. He was surrounded by his family at the time of his death.

Former St. Louis Cardinals Bill Virdon waves to the crowd as he stands next to Springfield Cardinals general manager Matt Gifford before Virdon throws the first pitch of the Springfield Cardinals home opener at Hammons Field on Thursday April 3, 2014.

For those who did not know Virdon the man, he will be remembered as one of the most iconic sports figures of the Ozarks.

The West Plains High graduate and former Drury Panther had a remarkable career in baseball in the majors as a player and manager. He notably won Rookie of the Year with the Cardinals in 1955, a World Series victory in 1960, a Golden Glove in 1962 and several nominations as National League Manager of the Year.

But those who had the pleasure of knowing him will remember the heart he showed to everyone he met.

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“He was just a really good, likeable person who was one of us,” legendary Ozarks sports reporter Ned Reynolds said. “There was no air or pretension about this guy. He just behaved like the man we knew.”

Virdon was not the type to attract attention. He loved his Springfield home and attended baseball and softball games for his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, including the Merceds who were recently notable athletes at Kickapoo.

Shirley and Bill Virdon

Back in his days as a big league coach, he would go back to southwest Missouri and get involved in the local sports community when no one expected it. He loved to be a part of it with baseball and even basketball.

He wanted to be like everyone else. His phone number, for a long time, was listed in the phone book with the rest of the public. He didn’t think about it.

In his later years, fans still discovered his mailing address and sent him baseballs and cards. He signed everything as his incredibly sweet wife, Shirley, made her routine trips to the post office to mail the signed keepsakes and pick up the next batch to take home for her husband to sign.

“I think the whole community associated with Bill Virdon because he was that kind of guy,” said Keith Guttin, longtime Missouri state baseball coach. “Very humble and generous person. Great family. Just a great guy. I think anyone who has ever met Bill or had an association with him couldn’t have a better opinion of him as a person.”

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FILE - Pittsburgh Pirates spring training special coach Bill Virdon watches a baseball spring training practice in Bradenton, Fla. On Thursday, February 26, 2015. Virdon, the winning stable center the National League rookie of the year title in 1955 for St. Louis as a player, then guided the Houston Astros to three consecutive playoff appearances as a manager, has passed away.  He was 90 years old.  The Cardinals and Pirates confirmed Virdon's passing on Tuesday, November 23, 2021. (AP Photo / Gene J. Puskar, File)

Bill and Shirley Virdon recently celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary. Reynolds visited the two in a celebration Sunday before Bill passed away in the next 48 hours.

Bill had this dry sense of humor as he made jokes with those around him. Reynolds said “Bill, 70?” as the former baseball manager laughed and said, “Well my share was 35 because I was only here half the time.”

He was everything you would have wanted from one of the region’s most iconic sports figures.

“When someone’s legacy far exceeds their career, it really is a sign of the important legacy they have left,” said region’s iconic sports broadcaster Art Hains. “He was just a great man. He was a firm and kind man. I always looked forward to him being here.”

FILE - Former Pittsburgh Pirates player and manager Bill Virdon is seen before a spring practice exhibition baseball game against the Detroit Tigers in Bradenton, Fla. On Wednesday, March 18, 2015. Virdon, the stable center who won the 1955 National League Year rookie title for St. Louis as a player and then guided the Houston Astros to three straight playoff appearances as a manager, has died.  He was 90 years old.  The Cardinals and Pirates confirmed Virdon's passing on Tuesday, November 23, 2021. (AP Photo / Carlos Osorio, File)

Virdon’s impact on the sports community will last forever.

It won’t just be because of his performances on the baseball field or the way he handled the dugout players. It will also be because of the way he represented the area and did it with the love he showed towards everyone.

With Virdon’s passing, the southwestern Missouri sports scene lost a piece of its heart.

“He meant how people of his caliber in life should act in public,” Reynolds said. “He knew he was a public figure. He never went out of his way to seek the limelight, but when he was pushed into his presence he knew how to handle it and he knew how to handle it in gentlemanly and articulate.

“He just wanted to say it all. He was one of us.”

Wyatt D. Wheeler is a reporter and columnist for the Springfield News-Leader. You can contact him at 417-371-6987, email [email protected] or Twitter at @WyattWheeler_NL. He is also the co-host of Sports Talk on Jock Radio weekdays from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.



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