George Kissell Honored at Spring Training

The bottom line is, he didn't like milking cows and the rest is history.

Whoever said the only things that are certain in life are death and taxes forgot about George Kissell coming to Cardinal spring training. Earlier this week, the Cardinals rightfully honored Kissell with a plaque permanently hung at their Jupiter, Florida spring roost.

In a copyrighted story by's Matthew Leach, team co-owner Bill DeWitt was quoted as saying "Over the years, 60-plus years, nobody has been as much a part of the Cardinal way and done as much for as many people here as George Kissell". The modest Kissell welled up with emotion in accepting the plaque. "I'll never take the birds off my chest," he said. "When I take them off, that's my last day in baseball. This will go down as one of the greatest days of my life."

The differing talents of people are what lend diversity and beauty to this world. Some people can write or sculpt. Others can perform surgery with superhuman delicacy while others can cook. I have long admired those who can teach. I don't just mean those people with degrees who can stand and lecture. I'm talking about those who have such a passion for their subject that they are bursting at the seams for the opportunity to share what they know and can do it in a way that leaves their students indelible better. People like George Kissell.

When major league managers, coaches, and baseball players are asked to consider who they regard as one of the great teachers of the game, the 84 year old Kissell's is one of the first names to come up. He is legendary as a teacher, mentor, and father-figure in red. He is sacred and iconic to the St. Louis Cardinals and has quietly forged a lineage of students that leads to Cooperstown.

In 1940, Kissell was working on the family farm in New York when a letter arrived from a scout inviting him to a tryout in Rochester. Emblazoned with a piece of paper stuck to his back with the number 385, Kissell demonstrated sufficient infield prowess to a Cardinal scout that he was recommended for a contract. That scout, Pop Kelchner, offered him $20 for expenses. Kissell said he'd spent $19.80 getting to Rochester, so he netted twenty cents.

His first contract offer was for $125 per month. The story goes that Kissell told then-GM Branch Rickey that he wanted $150. "Do you like milking cows," Rickey asked? Kissell allowed that he did not like milking cows. "Then you'd better take $125," was Rickey's reply.

Kissell took the $125 and had a successful 1941 in Mobile, Alabama hitting a robust .310. Unfortunately, history had other plans as World War II loomed. Kissell spent three years in the Navy in the Pacific theater and was being trained for the invasion of Japan when the war ended.

He spent the next several years in the minor league system as a player, then as a manager. Thus began a career that would deny him the opportunity to play major league baseball, but would enshrine him in the hearts of hundreds of grateful players who would ultimately make "The Show" in part or whole because of his tutelage. In the great circle of life, he reportedly told Tony La Russa in 1977 "You can't play – you might as well manage." With that dire outlook, La Russa then accepted his first coaching position with the White Sox AA franchise.

When the Cardinals have a player who has some mechanical problems that they can't iron out locally, George Kissell gets the call. He teaches the mental aspects of the game, not just the physical. One of his favorite lines to players is to tell players they are going to play "Albert" ball. "Who's Albert?" the players will ask. Kissell taps his sun-weathered noggin and replies "Einstein. Smart baseball!" That's the Kissell way.

How respected is George Kissell in baseball? Read on -

"George spans many generations. When Earl Weaver says that George Kissell had the greatest impact on his baseball life, you have to take that seriously. Look at Earl's success, coupled with mine, and then listen to people like Keith Hernandez, Andy Van Slyke, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, and Joe Torre sing his praises, you realize the tremendous impact he had on people's lives." – Tim McCarver in a 1999 interview.

"I don't know anyone in the game who has gained more respect than George Kissell" – Roland Hemond, presenting Kissell with the Roland Hemond Award for excellence in player development in 2003.

"A man named George Kissell, the greatest single instructor I have ever seen on fundamentals in my life. Fifty some years with the Cardinals, and Georgie – he was something special to me." – Sparky Anderson at his Hall of Fame induction in 2000.

"He's like a second father to me. He took me under his wing there in St. Louis, and every day we would work on ground balls. We'd talk about baseball, we'd talk about life, we'd talk about my family. We'd do everything together. He's really deep in my heart. I love him to death." –Fernando Vina, who made duplicates of his Gold Gloves and presented them to Kissell, to the Detroit Free Press.

The love for the octogenarian runs deeply through the minor and major league systems of organized baseball. The respect that is felt for him is ubiquitous and sincere. There will come a day when George Kissell won't be at spring training and the Cardinals won't be able to refer their problems to him. But rest assured that the mark George Kissell has made on this team and on major league baseball will endure for so long as players are being taught and mentored by his students, and their students, and their students………

Rex Duncan

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