Wednesday, October 08, 2008

RIP: George Kissell (1920-2008)

It's a sad time for Cardinal fans. We mourn the passing of George Kissell, who died following an an automobile accident that left him in critical condition.
Early one morning several years ago, George Kissell, the baseball sage known as "The Professor," made his return to spring training, and Cardinals coaches conspired to make sure he was the last one out of the clubhouse. When he emerged, an ovation awaited from the gathered players who were applauding what was true for generations of men who wore the jersey.

Kissell helped mold them from players into Cardinals.

"I've always been known as a hard-nosed guy, but today you really touched me to the heart," Kissell told the players that morning in February 2005. "I'll never take the birds off my chest. When I take them off, that's my last day in baseball."[...]

For nearly seven decades, Kissell was a creator and curator of what manager Tony La Russa calls the "Cardinal Way."

He joined the organization in 1940, signed by Branch Rickey after a tryout in New York, and served the club in almost every capacity. He managed in the minors, coached in the majors, taught minor-leaguers how to play like major-leaguers and taught major-leaguers how to play new positions. The past several years he had served as the Cardinals' senior field coordinator for player development.

This spring training was his 68th in 69 years as a Cardinal.

"George Kissell should be in the Baseball Hall of Fame," former Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty told Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz in 2000. "He's a treasure in this game. Think of the difference he made in all of those careers, how he's influenced the game of baseball. There's no way to measure his true value."[...]

In 1993, Kissell received the "King of Baseball" award, given by minor-league baseball for service to the game. Those in attendance gave him an eight-minute standing ovation. In 2003, he was inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame. That same year, Baseball America gave him the Roland Hemond award for a lifetime commitment to baseball. Another ovation. The players were already standing that February morning in 2005 when he was the last to come out of the clubhouse.

Once the clapping calmed, Cardinals Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. revealed a plaque that had been affixed to the clubhouse at the team's Jupiter, Fla., campus. It renamed the clubhouse for Kissell.

The plaque read, in part: "Every player in the Cardinals' Organization since 1940 has had contact with George Kissell and they have all been better for it. ... Well known for his emphasis on fundamentals, George taught several generations of Redbirds how to play baseball."

He turned a pitcher named Ken Boyer into a third baseman who went on to win an MVP award. Kissell taught Andy Van Slyke to play the outfield and John Mabry to play the infield, and he shepherded Joe Torre in his shift from catcher to third base. He once told a young Anthony "Tony" La Russa that he was better suited to be a major-league manager than a major-league player. In 1989, Kissell was featured in a Sports Illustrated article titled "The College of Cardinals." He was described as the dean.

Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson, a protégé of Kissell's, once described Kissell as "the greatest baseball fundamentalist I have ever known."

He also described him as the "smartest man in baseball."

"I learned more baseball from George Kissell than from anyone else in my life," Torre told the St. Petersburg Times in 1997. Torre won four World Series titles as manager of the New York Yankees, and in his autobiography he called Kissell his greatest teacher. He told the paper: "A lot of people can play the game, but not as many people can teach the game. And George, to me, was the ultimate. Is the ultimate."

To teach Torre how to play third, Kissell had Torre stand a body's length away from the outfield wall and face it. Kissell would then stand behind Torre and fire baseballs at the wall. Torre improved his reaction by fielding the ricochets. Mabry tells a similar story of what he called "Kissell drills." Kissell, almost half the size of his pupils but twice as intense, ambled out to Mabry at third base and took away the infielder's glove.

He then told Mabry to get on his knees to field grounders.

"Basically, he just took me out there and beat me to death with a fungo," Mabry joked. "I'd be on my knees just looking at the ball coming off the bat — with no glove."

Kissell was renowned for his sayings, his quips, but also his relentlessly encouraging spirit. He once needled players by saying that his wife could bunt better. He called spring training "spring cleaning — a time to knock the dust out of you." Once, while showing Yadier Molina how to improve his bunting, he instructed the catcher: "The bat has no knowledge at all. It does what you tell it to."
May he rest in peace.

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