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“I’ll Never Take The Birds Off My Chest. When I Take Them Off, That’s My Last Day In Baseball.” October 8, 2008

Posted by Edward von Bear in News, Personal Experiences, Sports.
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Late last night, George Kissell, who had been affiliated with the St. Louis Cardinals for almost seven decades, died from injuries suffered in a car accident in Florida. He was famous for teaching the basebal fundamentals to players in Spring Training, and was beloved by every spoiled millionaire athlete he ever encountered. His accomplishments are the stuff of legends:

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.”

How beloved was Kissell by the spoiled millionaires he taught every day? The love was so great, the team dedicated their Spring Training locker room to him in 2005. At the ceremony he said the following:

“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.”

On a personal level, I was privileged back in college to spend some time one afternoon with Mr. Kissell. His joie de vivre, along with his love and knowledge of the game floored me. He was warm, intelligent, and could distill the nuances of fielding a bunt better than anybody I ever knew or met.

Rest In Peace, Mr. Kissell.

Comments»

1. Wickedpinto - October 8, 2008

Baseball is a mindset, never heard of this guy, but he GOT IT!

Why do so many people not get it?

Sounds like if any of those people who don’t, spent a day with this man, they would.

He GOT IT!

2. Wickedpinto - October 9, 2008

Off Topic,

So, uh, Peel? whats your situation?

3. BrewFan - October 9, 2008

Nice tribute, eddiebear. The Cardinals have always been a fundamentally strong team and George is the reason. He loved the game and worked hard. He deserves his place on the heavenly All-Star team.

4. Mrs Peel - October 9, 2008

Sounds like a wonderful man. Baseball has suffered a loss.

5. Retired Geezer - October 9, 2008

I’m not much of a sports fan but this story touched me.

6. daveintexas - October 9, 2008

rub some dirt on it.

7. Cathy - October 9, 2008

Great story, Eddie.

8. eddiebear - October 9, 2008

Glad to enlighten folks on one of the greatest teachers the game has ever had. While incredibly sad that Mr. Kissell passed away, especially given the circumstances, he lived every day to the fullest, and touched and improved so many people.

9. eddiebear - October 9, 2008

I’ll look at the the DVD tonight, but IIRC, Mr. Kissell was in the Cardinals’ dugout when they won the 2006 World Series, and he was either the first or second guy LaRussa hugged after the final out.


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