Cooperstown Confidential: Praying For Ed Herrmann

In today’s game, a player like Ed Herrmann in his prime would easily command $6 to $7 million a season. A left-handed hitting catcher with better-than-average power, good receiving skills, and the ability to deftly handle a pitching staff is a valuable commodity. That kind of catcher was valued highly in in the early 1970s, and remains so today.

Yet, there is more to Ed Herrmann than merely above-average player skills. He is good-natured and cooperative, willing to talk about his playing days and all too happy to reminisce about his time in professional baseball. Noted for his work ethic and professionalism, he is universally well-liked by former teammates and onetime opponents, and respected by the coaches and managers who worked with him over the years.

That is why no one is happy to hear that Herrmann is struggling with prostate cancer. He has recently begun chemotherapy treatments, in an effort to stem the spread of the disease. Some of his friends have created a special Facebook page called “Praying for Ed ‘Hoggy’ Herrmann,” which references the nickname by which his friends know him. They realize that Herrmann will do all he can to fight the disease, but they also know that he needs a little bit of help, too.

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The grandson of former big league pitcher Marty Herrmann, Ed began his professional career in 1964, the final season before Major League Baseball instituted its amateur draft. Signing as a free agent with the Milwaukee Braves, Herrmann appeared in 30 games for the team’s entry in the Sarasota Rookie League.

Knowing that he was a prospect and that he might be taken after the season in the old first-year draft, the Braves attempted a bit of unusual subterfuge. They instructed Herrmann, a switch-hitter at the time, to bat only from the right side, his weaker hand.

“The reason for it was that all my power was left-handed,” Herrmann explained to Edgar Munzel of The Sporting News. “I was just a punch-and-Judy hitter from the right side.”

In spite of the Braves-inflicted road block, Herrmann hit a respectable .286, but with virtually no power. The White Sox, specifically scout Hollis “Sloppy” Thurston, were not fooled. Thurston remembered Herrmann from his days scouting him in high school in San Diego.

After the season, Thurston and the Sox saw his name listed among available minor leaguers. On the advice of Thurston, the Sox selected Herrmann in the first-year draft.

Although the White Sox did not have the same kind of catching depth that the Braves possessed, Herrmann did not take immediate advantage. In fact, he struggled at the plate, failing to hit better than .264 at any minor league stop and showing only moderate power while making his way through the White Sox’ chain.

It was not until 1967 that Herrmann earned his first call-up to Chicago, and even that was merely a two-game cup of coffee. He went right back to the minor leagues in 1968, playing for three different teams in two leagues. He hit 12 home runs combined, but his batting average and his ability to make consistent contact continued to lag.

While the White Sox had questions about Herrmann’s bat, they had few doubts about his catching skills. So in 1969 the Sox made Herrmann, who was now strictly a left-handed hitter, one half of their catching platoon, allowing him to split time with veteran catcher Don Pavletich. Herrmann reached base only 31 per cent of the time, but did hit eight home runs in 290 at-bats.

Defensively, Herrmann experienced growing pains in handling a staff of veterans, as he allowed a league-leading 19 passed balls. Some of those passed balls resulted from having to catch reliever Wilbur Wood, whose unpredictable knuckleball and frequent appearances out of the bullpen made life difficult for a 22-year-old catcher.

Still, the Sox saw enough from Herrmann to return him to a platoon role in 1970, this time with Duane Josephson. Herrmann blossomed in his second season. He batted .283, reached base 35 per cent of the time, and clubbed 19 home runs, the latter mark pushing his slugging percentage to .505. Along with Bill Freehan of the Tigers and Thurman Munson of the Yankees, Herrmann had taken his place among the elite catchers in the American League.

As well as Herrmann played in 1970, he was unable to sustain that success. The following summer, his batting average fell off considerably to .214. His body weakened because of an emergency appendectomy, he missed nearly a month of the season. Rather strangely, he drew 11 intentional walks, a high total for a struggling batter but a sign of just how weak the bottom of the White Sox’ order was. Herrmann did hit 11 home runs and walked almost as often as he struck out, but it was not the kind of encore that he wanted after his peak performance of the previous season.

In 1972, pitchers showed Herrmann even more respect, as they walked him intentionally 19 times, putting him in the American League lead. Again, it wasn’t so much that Herrmann struck fear in pitchers; with weak links like Rich Morales and Luis Alvarado batting behind him, hurlers gave Herrmann few hittable pitches within the strike zone.

When he did swing the bat, he fared better than in 1971. Lifting his batting average to .249, he again reached double figures in home runs and walked more than he struck out. Defensively, Herrmann emerged as a force behind the plate. Despite a reputation for a below-average throwing arm, he threw out a staggering 50 per cent of opposing basest alders. In completely shutting down the running game, he became a subtle contributor to an improved White Sox team that challenged the A’s for supremacy in the AL West.

By now, scouts confirmed Herrmann’s reputation as a defensive stalwart. Built like a “block of granite,” as he was once described in The Sporting News, Herrmann became an impenetrable force to baserunners hoping to score. Tigers scout Jack Tighe described Herrmann as the game’s best catcher at blocking the plate. It was little wonder that some of his teammates referred to him as “Fort Herrmann.”

Even more importantly, Herrmann had become skilled at catching the knuckleballs thrown by staff ace Wilbur Wood and veteran reliever Eddie Fisher. Despite high passed balls total during the early seventies, Herrmann handled the knuckler as well as any major league catcher. He drew the highest praise from Tigers executive and Hall of Fame catcher Rick Ferrell, who claimed that Herrmann was the best catcher he had ever seen at handling the knuckleball. Ferrell would have known, having caught four knuckleball pitchers on the same staff with the Washington Senators.

On a lighter note, Herrmann also earned a reputation as one of the game’s slowest runners. With his thick legs and bowling ball build, he could beat few other players in a foot race. (Over his 11-year career, he accumulated a total of four triples.) Herrmann also developed a distinctive appearance. In contrast to the clean-cut look of his early years in Chicago, he grew a mustache and a pointed goatee, and let his hair become long and wavy, making him one of the game’s most recognizable players.

In a statistical oddity, Herrmann put up identical home run and RBI totals (with 10 and 49, respectively) in 1973 and ‘74. He also remained a lynchpin behind the plate, which helped him earn him his first and only All-Star Game selection in 1974. But in the spring of 1975, he ran afoul of management when he refused to sign the White Sox’ contract offer and held out at the beginning of spring training.

The White Sox’ front office did not forgive him. With rumors circulating of a trade that would send him to the Yankees, the White Sox finally pulled the trigger on April 1. They sent him to New York for a package of $20,000 and four minor leaguers, which sounds like a lot, but amounted to little real talent. None of the four minor leaguers (catcher Terry Quinn, first baseman John Narron, outfielder Ken Bennett, and pitcher Fred Anyzeski) were regarded as prospects and none would ever make a major league roster. The cash-starved Sox were far more interested in the money than the players that came their way from the Yankees.

Several of the White Sox’ players became visibly upset when they learned that the popular Herrmann had been traded. On one front, they looked to Herrmann, the team’s player representative, for advice when it came to issues involving the Players Association. On another front, White Sox pitchers looked to Herrmann for guidance in calling a game and leading the staff.

In leaving the White Sox and joining the Yankees, Herrmann became a backup for the first time in his professional career. He didn’t even became the No. 2 catcher, instead settling for a role as the third-string catcher behind Munson and a young Rick Dempsey. The Yankees used Herrmann only occasionally as a catcher, instead opting to give him more frequent duty as a DH.

Herrmann did well in his lone season with the Yankees, but he longed to play closer to his home and family in California. He asked the Yankees to trade him; GM Gabe Paul accommodated him, sending him to the Angels for cash in February of 1976.

The Angels planned a platoon of veterans behind the plate, Herrmann and Andy Etchebarren, but the plan did not last long. Herrmann hit so poorly that the Angels dealt him about a week before the trading deadline, sending him to the Astros for fellow catcher Terry Humphrey and right-handed reliever Mike Barlow.

Herrmann found his second wind in Houston. Although he didn’t hit at all, putting up a dreadful OPS of .541, he excelled behind the plate. The highlight of his summer came when he caught Larry Dierker’s no-hitter. Emerging as a mentor to a young group of Astros pitchers, Herrmann helped young pitchers like Joaquin Andujar, Dan Larson, and Bo McLaughlin become competent starters. With Herrmann guiding the staff, the surprising Astros came within two games of .500 during the summer of ‘76.

Relegated to backup duty behind Joe Ferguson in 1977, Herrmann excelled in a bench role. Appearing in 56 games, he hit .291 and lifted his OPS to .707.

As the Astros struggled at the start of the 1978 season, Herrmann grew concerned with the team’s attitude. He especially fretted about the attitude of some of the veterans, who seemed to have given in to losing. In an interview with beat writer Harry Shattuck, the usually diplomatic Herrmann said he no longer wanted to play “on a club that doesn’t want to win. I don’t want to walk on the field and play with six guys who want to play and three who don’t.”

Herrmann predicted that the Astros, largely because of their poor mental approach, might lose 100 games. Astros management did not appreciate Herrmann’s rare outburst of outspoken honesty. Just a few days later, Astros GM Tal Smith sold the veteran backstop to Montreal.

The Expos wanted a left-handed hitting backup to their resident star, Gary Carter. But Herrmann played sparingly, hit below .200, and clashed with his new manager, the fiery Dick Williams. Right after the season, the Expos released Herrmann, ending his big league career at the age of 32.

After his retirement, Herrmann returned to his native Southern California. He worked for awhile as a scout for the Royals, but his true loved involved coaching and tutoring young players, particularly budding catchers. He later became a longtime coach of an elite travel team, leading four of his clubs to national championships.

It was a position that he held for nearly two decades, until the diagnosis of prostate cancer forced him to step aside.

Unfortunately, I have had second-hand experience with prostate cancer. It was the disease that took my father’s life in 1997. He lived with the disease for about six years, battled it well, seemed to be winning the struggle, but then passed away at the age of 79.

Ed Herrmann is stronger physically than my father, and I suppose that helps. He is also younger, only 66 years of age, and that must be some kind of advantage, too. By all rights, Ed should still be coaching that travel team, something he loves to do and something at which he excels.

Let’s hope that Ed gets that second chance to coach.

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Comments

  1. 87 Cards said...

    I’m on the prayer warrior team for Ed and all prostate cancer people.

    Men, lets do our job as fans, fathers and husbands, suck it up and see the doctor and get the prostrate screened for cancer.

    Ed Herrmann and Wilbur Wood strung together some great years from 1971 to 1974.  Wood knuckleballed to four straight twenty-win seasons with Herrmann his main catcher. 

    In 1972, Wood floated a 24-17 record with Herrmann behind the dish for all 49 of his starts, the battery record for for the 20th century.  Wood had a career high in wild pitches that year with 11 while Fort Herrmann was tagged with only eight errors, a number that would satisfy any knuckleball receiver.  The 1972 Sox had eight games chopped off the schedule due to labor strife perhaps costing the duo a 50th start and 25th win.  Those White Sox finished second, 5.5 games behind the World Champion Oakland Athletics.

    In 1972, Hermann, hitting in the eighth slot,  was the shocking AL leader in intentional walks.  Though the Sox led the league in strikeouts, their opponents likely did not want to mess with Dick Allen, Carlos May and Bill Melton (injured some of 1972 but coming off 33 HRs/86 RBIs in ‘71).  Sox pitchers hit .144 and struck out 40% of their at-bats in the final year before the AL designated hitter. Hermann took 19 ceremonial 90-feet strolls out of all this.

    Hermann also caught another knuckler in his career. In his big league debut in 1967, he backstopped Hoyt Wilhelm for three innings (Ed also popped an run-scoring double in his first MLB AB and later scored).

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