Talking ball with Ed Herrmann

Playing for five teams over a 12-year career that spanned from 1967 to 1978, Ed Herrmann established a reputation as one of the era’s better defensive catchers. Burly with tree-trunk legs, Herrmann spent the bulk of his career with the White Sox, for whom he enjoyed a career year in 1970. Hermann batted .283 with a career-high 19 home runs as Chicago’s No. 1 receiver. Two years later, he led all American League catchers in baserunners caught stealing. In 1974, Herrmann was selected to his first and only All-Star team.

A contract dispute with the White Sox led to his eventual departure from the Windy City. As a left-handed hitter with occasional power, Herrmann had some trade value. In 1975, the Sox sent him to the Yankees for four minor league prospects; he served New York as the third-string catcher behind Thurman Munson and Rick Dempsey. After a lone season in the Bronx, the Yankees sold him to the Angels in February of 1976. He spent a half season platooning with Andy Etchebarren before being traded to the Astros. Herrmann succeeded Milt May as the Astros’ starting catcher, giving him the chance to catch Larry Dierker’s no-hitter. Herrmann then finished his career as the understudy to Gary Carter in Montreal.

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Personable and outgoing, Herrmann has remained in baseball since his playing days. He worked as a scout for the Royals before becoming a manager of youth travel teams. Based in Southern California, Herrmann has led four teams of elite players 13-and-older to national titles. He also serves as a volunteer coach for the Rock Academy, a religiously based school located in San Diego.

This week, I talked to the accommodating Herrmann about his playing days, his experiences with the late Chuck Tanner, and the work he does with youth travel teams.

Markusen: As a catcher, was your approach always defense first, hitting second?

Herrmann: Defense came first in everything. First, you have to lead the pitching staff. And second, the first year that I was in the big leagues in 1967, Eddie Stanky was the manager. He made sure that all of his catchers were known as defensive catchers. And when Chuck Tanner came in, we basically stayed that way under Chuck. He got rid of all the offensive catchers and kept the defensive catchers when he became manager.

Markusen: You were known as an exceptional blocker of the plate. That’s not something that you practice. Why do you think you were so good at it?

Herrmann: I played high school football; I was a middle linebacker. A lot of meanness was instilled me in that position. And I transferred that to the catching position.

Markusen: Were you a good football player?

Herrmann: I was very good at football. I chose baseball instead of football because of my grandfather. He played in the major leagues. His name was Marty (Herrmann). He talked me into pursuing a career in baseball, said that I would have more long-term success. In fact, I have his first contract as a baseball player. He was paid two dollars and fifty cents a month!

Markusen: You caught three knuckleballers, at various times in Chicago, Wilbur Wood, Hoyt Wilhelm, and Eddie Fisher. How did you survive that scenario?

Herrmann: Actually, what I did was put it up as a challenge. I made it a challenge to myself to catch every ball that was thrown by them, knowing that it was impossible. But that was my goal, to catch every ball they threw. That was my goal to catch every ball. Some days I did very well. Other days it got to the point where it drove me crazy.

Hoyt’s was the toughest of the three to catch. You never knew where it was going. He didn’t either. Fisher’s knuckleball was more predictable. Wood could work in and out, so you had a pretty idea of where it was going. Of all the knuckleballers, even the Niekros, Joe and Phil, Wilhelm is still the master of it. His had the most movement.

Markusen: You had a chance to play with some real characters and strong personalities in Chicago: Dick Allen, Ron Santo, Walt “No Neck” Williams, Jay Johnstone, Wilbur Wood, Moe Drabowsky. What was that experience like for you?

Herrmann: I really enjoyed it. The more personality differences on the club, I thought the better the club was. Richie (Allen) was a person you could rely on to carry the club for weeks at a time. We called Johnstone “Moon.” We were never sure what he would do. You had a serious one in Bill Melton. He was very serious, took the game very seriously.

Markusen: How about Drabowsky with his practical jokes? Did he ever get you with one of his pranks?

Herrmann: Moe got everybody that he’s ever been around. A good one that he did: He would put a combination lock through the eye of a dress jacket. The only way to get that lock off the jacket was to cut the jacket. So you’re basically ruining the jacket. He did that to many people. He would put analgesic balm on jockstraps, superglue cleats to lockers, things like that. Everybody knew it was a joke. Everybody on the team took it well. The ones that laughed the hardest were usually the next target of one of Moe‘s pranks.

Markusen: What was Walt “No Neck” Williams like?

Herrmann: Walt was a very good guy. He put as much of his ability into the field as he could get out of it. He was never a great player, with a lot of natural ability. He had a below-average arm. But he could run, and he worked hard.

Markusen: Was he bothered by the “No Neck” nickname?

Herrmann: No, not at all. What happened was this. When a doctor gave him a shot early in his life, it actually stunted the growth in his neck. That’s why his neck was like that.

Markusen: Dick Allen, or Richie Allen as he used to be called, had an incredible year in 1972. For those who weren’t around, how good was Allen that summer?

Herrmann: Well, he’s still Richie to me. He’ll always be Richie to me. He was probably the best player in baseball that year. He was what you would call a full ballplayer. He even stole bases, not for statistical purposes, but when the club needed him to do it. Tremendous power. He was also a leader. It was a phenomenal year.

When he was presented the MVP (during the spring of ‘73), it was actually presented by him back to the White Sox’ trainer in honor of all the guys on the club. That’s the kind of guy that he was. He was never a player that worried about statistics. He just wanted to win.

Markusen: An interesting statistical anomaly happened in 1972, when you led the American League in intentional walks with 19. Any thoughts on why that happened?

Herrmann: It’s due to Chuck Tanner and the way he set up the lineup. I usually batted seventh or eighth, and with an open base, I would be intentionally walked in front of the pitcher. When Chuck was with the White Sox, A’s and Pirates, all throughout his career, he set up the lineup to benefit the club. He set up the lineup to put as many runners on base as possible. It worked wherever he went.

Markusen: Why was Tanner so good as a manager?

Herrmann: You go back and you try to analyze years after the fact what he did (strategically), and you understand why he did it. Here’s an example. He batted Richie first for quite a few games. (In 1974, Tanner used Allen out of the leadoff spot in three games.) In Chuck’s mind, he wanted his best hitter to have as many chances as possible to swing the bat.

I’ll use his terminology: 25 players on a club, 25 different personalities. It was his job to take every personality and mold it to fit in with the rest of the team. He was great at that.

Overall, he was the best manager I played for. Eddie Stanky might have had a little bit more knowledge. You see, (Stanky) had to manage without the DH. Chuck managed mostly with the DH, so he never had to worry about pinch-hitting for the pitcher.

Markusen: What was it like playing for Billy Martin during the second half of the 1975 season?

Herrmann: Probably as memorable a time as I’ll ever have. Quite a different manager than Chuck Tanner (laughing). The thing that was funny was watching him and George (Steinbrenner) yell at each other in front of us, even during the game. George would yell at Billy from his box in the stadium. It was quite amusing. Billy was a very good manager. But he didn’t get along with some of the front office personnel and the media.

Markusen: I’ve heard he was tough on catchers?

Herrmann: He was a second guesser, yes. With me, and when I was there with Thurman (Munson) in 1975, he made us realize that the pitch that we called was not the right pitch. It wasn’t a case of him chewing us out in front of the team, he tried to explain why the pitch that we called was the wrong one.

Markusen: There has been some criticism of catching in the major leagues today, specifically as to a lack of depth. How would you assess the state of catching in today’s game?

Herrmann: Probably as weak as I’ve seen it in quite awhile. Not only from an offensive standpoint, but also a defensive standpoint. People have gotten away from the defensive side of the game. Every one wants to hit, and hit home runs. But not everyone is going to be a Johnny Bench.

I met with Nick Hundley, the catcher with the Padres, during spring training this year and we talked. His comment was, that when he played in high school and college, he just played the game, and then when he got to the big leagues, he had to start thinking. A lot of the players don’t have to think in high school and college, because the pitches are being called for them. And in some of the minor league systems, the managers call the pitches for them, too.

Markusen: As someone who coaches, what are the points you emphasize with young catchers?

Herrmann: To have good grades, use athletics to get a scholarship, get your education, and if things work out, then try to play pro ball. The ones that make the big money are so few and far between.

From a technical standpoint (with catchers), I emphasize a lot three things: framing the pitches, blocking the ball, and throwing it properly. You need to be a full catcher.

Of the players today, Pudge (Rodriguez) still impresses me, as old as he is. He does a very good job. Even though he gets criticized a lot because of his personality, I think A.J. (Pierczynski) does a great job. Just look at the success of the pitching staff in Chicago. I like the way he calls a ballgame. He’s caught some no-hitters. You don’t do that by just putting some fingers down.

Markusen: You have coached four travel teams to national titles. Has one of your teams ever traveled to Cooperstown?

Herrmann: No, I coach the older kids (3 up to college age). Many of the kids that played for me played in Cooperstown earlier. In fact, I was in Cooperstown like six times during my career. (Twice) I played in the Hall of Fame Game. (Herrmann played for the White Sox in 1970 and ‘74, when they traveled to Cooperstown for the annual exhibition game.)

I love the trees that are around Cooperstown, it’s just a very beautiful place. And then the Hall of Fame. I think it’s a three-to-four day trip if you want to see all of the Hall of Fame.

Markusen: What is the largest challenge you face in coaching travel baseball?

Herrmann: The dedication to the game of baseball. With the electronics available to kids today, it’s hard to get them to practice on their own. Most of the time they’re in front of a Play Station, or they’re texting. They have so many outside interests. That I find is the biggest fault of today, because of all the electronics. Because of this, I think we’re also losing two and three-sport athletes.

Markusen: A final question: do people ever confuse you with the actor, Edward Herrmann, who once played Branch Rickey in the film, “Soul of the Game”?

Herrmann: Yeah, one time in spring training, these people thought I was him. I got to meet him once. I don’t think people realize what a good actor he is, how good he is as a technical actor.

For more on Ed Herrmann and his work as a coach, adviser, and tutor, visit his web site at http://www.edherrmann.com.

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