'He had all the tools': Young Whitey Herzog was key player for 1948 New Athens team

News-DemocratJune 5, 2014 

The spring of 1948 was a big one for New Athens High School baseball, which had a talented junior center fielder and pitcher named Dorrel Norman "Relly" Herzog.

Led by Herzog in his pre-Whitey days and good friend Bud Wirth, another outstanding player, the Yellow Jackets made it all the way to the state baseball championship game at Caterpillar Field in East Peoria.

"In 1948 you didn't have classifications and there was no divisions," said the 82-year-old Herzog, the former St. Louis Cardinals manager who was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2010. "You had to win a district and then we had to go to the regional and sectional and then state. In 1948, I know we beat two teams that had more teachers than we had students at New Athens.

"One was Peoria Central and the other was Downers Grove from Chicago."

After coming all that way, the Yellow Jackets found themselves playing metro-east regional neighbor Granite City for the state title. Granite City beat New Athens 4-1 to win the state championship.

Herzog found himself in a big at-bat for New Athens, coming to the plate in the bottom of the seventh inning with one out and the bases loaded.

Herzog, 0-for-4 that night, lined into a double play. New Athens was shut out for the final seven innings of the nine-inning game.

"We had a group of kids that started playing together when we were in seventh grade," Herzog said. "People today don't realize how much baseball we used to play, not just in New Athens but all the towns around.

"We'd be out there playing baseball all day, that's the way it was. I often told my kids and grandkids that we used to bat more in one day than they do all season in the Little Leagues."

Herzog signed with the New York Yankees after his senior year of high school and went on to become a Hall of Fame manager for the Cardinals, Kansas City Royals, California Angels and Texas Rangers.

"He could hit the heck out of the baseball," said Babe Champion, a sophomore left fielder on the 1948 Granite City state champs. "He had all the tools because he batted left-handed, could throw and run."

Herzog was a junior in 1948 and hit .548 for New Athens. His younger brother, Herman Herzog, was also on that team.

"The best team in the state that year was Belleville Township, they had about six or seven guys that signed professional contracts," Herzog said, noting Belleville's state baseball championships in 1947 and 1949.

Herzog recalled New Athens beating Belleville in an 11-inning playoff game in 1948, then losing to the same team the following year in extra innings.

"The next year when I was a senior, they beat us and they won the state," Herzog said.

One of Herzog's least favorite athletic memories was losing a long fly ball in the lights in the 1948 state title game. It wound up being a two-run triple by Granite City star and future major leaguer Carl Linhart, but there were extenuating circumstances.

"We got to the finals and we had to play a night game," Herzog said. "We had never played a ballgame under the lights, because they certainly didn't have any lights in New Athens.

"The ball went (above and) beyond the light towers and I took my eye off the ball wondering where it was coming down. I turned around to catch Linhart's ball and I couldn't find it. It was beyond the lights and it went for a two-run triple."

Champion didn't realize at the time he was on the same field as a future Hall of Famer.

"I'm just a 15-year old player and not really realizing much going on," Champion said. "He did not misjudge the ball, he never saw it."

Champion said Granite City was 3-8 headed into district play and seeded well behind teams like Edwardsville and Alton. The Warriors beat Madison, then stunned Belleville and kept moving on until they won a state title.

"We weren't even supposed to get out of the districts," Champion said.

The state title game included two future major leaguers in Herzog and Linhart, with Linhart hitting a pair of triples. Linhart, born in the Czech Republic, was hitless in two at-bats and played in three games for the 1952 Detroit Tigers.

Wirth struck out 10 in the '48 title game. He also signed a pro contract, but was sidelined by an injury.

"We were a good team and Buddy Wirth was just an outstanding pitcher and he hit cleanup," Herzog said. "I hit third and when I didn't pitch I played in center field."

As talented as he was in baseball, Herzog was just as good or better in basketball. His seven basketball scholarship offers included a chance to play both sports at Illinois along with basketball offers from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Northeast Missouri State, Bradley and Millikin.

"In those days, I wanted to be a baseball player," Herzog said. "A college education wasn't as important as it is now. A high school diploma is what you needed to go get a job."

Herzog got a $1,500 bonus and $150 a month to sign with the Yankees after his senior year at New Athens.

"I was kind of awed by the scout telling me stories about Joe DiMaggio getting older," Herzog said.

Before signing, Herzog also fielded inquiries from the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Browns. The Browns invited Herzog and his mother to visit Sportsman's Park to meet with owner Bill DeWitt Sr., and the farm director.

"They saw me throw a no-hitter against East St. Louis Lincoln and I struck out 21 batters," Herzog said. "They wanted to sign me as a left-handed pitcher and send me to Marshall, Texas, a Class C team at the time."

What happened next was classic shoot-from-the-hip Whitey Herzog.

"I said to Mr. DeWitt, 'Now I know why you guys are in last place if you want to sign me as a pitcher,''' Herzog said. "I told (current Cardinals owner) Bill DeWitt Jr. about that and he laughed like hell. That was pretty brash for me to say that to the owner of the Browns."

Contact reporter Norm Sanders at 239-2454, nsanders@bnd.com or follow him on Twitter: @NormSanders

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