One of the top flychasers of his time, Virdon had a lengthy career with the Pittsburgh Pirates. The bespectacled center fielder was known for his ballhawking abilities and triples hitting. He was a member of the famous 1960 World Champion Pirates and after his playing days he coached and later managed with the Pirates. However, as a manager, Virdon is best associated with the Houston Astros. He was the first skipper to lead Houston to the postseason.
Virdon was originally signed by the New York Yankees but before he was called up he was traded to the Cardinals for Hall of Fame veteran Enos Slaughter. Bill, who grew up in southern Missouri, was affectionately referred to as “Quail,” had a terrific freshman season with the Redbirds in 1955. He hit .281 and clubbed 17 homeruns on his way to the Rookie of the Year Award. But St. Louis made a rash trade early in 1956 and sent their reigning ROTY champ to the Pirates for Bobby Del Greco and Dick Littlefield. Bill only hit .211 in 24 early season games for the Cardinals but after the deal he hit .334 for the Bucs. He led the NL in games played, finished fifth in triples and had the second best fielding percentage among center fielders.
Although Virdon hit 17 homeruns as a rookie and ten in 1956, he never again reached double-digits in long balls. He instead became a triples hitter and posted three straight seasons of double-digit three baggers. From 1957 to 1959, Quail finished in the Top Three among outfielders in putouts. He helped lead the Pirates to an NL pennant in 1960 and they stunned the Yankees with an improbable World Series victory. Bill smacked three doubles and drove in five runs for the Pirates in the World Series. The Pirates fell back to their usual ways in 1961 and in ’62 Bill led the National League in triples and won a Gold Glove Award.
In 1963 he posted his third consecutive season with 200 or more total bases. After a down year in 1964 in which he hit just .247, Virdon redeemed himself by raising his batting average back up to .279 in 1965. Although he wasn’t of the same ilk as Mantle, Mays and Snider, Quail was a solid player who possessed far superior leadership skills. After a fairly productive ’65 season, Bill took to managing in the minors. He was later summoned by the Pirates to serve as a coach in 1968 and the veteran even had a few pinch hit appearances that year. However, after that season, he focused primarily on coaching.
Virdon succeeded Pirates legend Danny Murtaugh as skipper in 1972 and won the NL East flag his first year as skipper. His Bucs went 96-59 as they were clearly the best offensive team in all of baseball. The ’72 Pirates were the only team in the Majors to eclipse 1,400 combined base hits–they finished with 1,505 and a Majors best team batting average of .274. However, during the off-season, tragedy struck the team as their star right fielder Roberto Clemente was killed in a plane accident. Bill tried to rally his troops but to no avail and he was replaced by Murtaugh near the end of the 1973 season.
Not unemployed long, George Steinbrenner hired Bill as skipper for the Yankees in 1974. He improved the Yankees from fourth place to second place but that wasn’t good enough for the cantankerous Big Stein who canned Bil in 1975 and replaced him with Billy Martin. He didn’t have to look long for work as the Astros fired Preston Gomez in order to open up their managerial post for Quail. He would have a long association with the Houston Astros and managed the club for the better part of a decade. The Astros finished dead last in 1975 as Bill managed the last 34 games of the season. They only had one way to go in ’76 and Virdon took them there, finishing third in the NL West. The team ERA in ’75 had been 4.04 but Virdon helped trim it to 3.56 in 1976.
The Astros finished at .500 in 1977 and in 1978 they owned the National League’s top strikeout staff, thanks largely to J.R. Richard. Big Richard served as the staff ace as Astros pitchers led the National League in combined shutouts in 1979. Offensively, Virdon had to be more creative. He didn’t have too much power so he employed the hit-and-run and his club responded in kind. His 1979 Astros led the National League in combined stolen bases as Bill had four men who posted over 30 steals: Enos Cabell, Cesar Cedeno, Jose Cruz and Terry Puhl. The Astros finally had an identity and they finished second in the NL West that year.
The Astros copped their first division title behind the leadership of Virdon in 1980. The team scored 583 runs in their second place finish of ’79 and raised that total to 637 in 1980. Thanks to pitchers Richard, Nolan Ryan and Joe Niekro, Houston led the NL in combined strikeouts but Richard suffered a stroke during the season and was lost for the postseason. Had the imposing right-hander been able to take his turn in the rotation, it is likely that Houston would have beat the Phillies in the NLCS. But the Phillies won and were the eventual World Champs. Undeterred, Houston made the Playoffs again in 1981 with the National League’s best staff ERA. But they couldn’t get passed the Division Series and would have to wait until 1986 for another shot at postseason play. Virdon, however, was fired after a rough start in 1982. His last managerial stint came with the Montreal Expos. In 1983 he replaced Jim Fanning as Expos skipper but when he was canned in ’84, Montreal gave the job back to Fanning.
G 1,583/R 735/H 1,596/2B 237/3B 81/HR 91/RBI 502/SB 47/BB 442/SO 647/BA .267/OBP .316/SA .379
W 995/L 921/PCT .519: Three divisional titles