The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Sports

July 14, 2013

Virdon selected for Independence baseball shrine

INDEPENDENCE, Kan. — Bill Virdon broke into professional baseball in 1950 with the Independence Yankees of the Class D KOM League.

Virdon, who’s lived in Springfield (Mo.) for more than 50 years, returned to southeast Kansas last Saturday for only the second time since 1950. The previous visit came in 1996 during a KOM League reunion engineered by league historian John G. Hall of Columbia.

Virdon, who was accompanied by wife Shirley, was inducted into the Independence Baseball Hall of Fame to highlight a Baseball Game Luncheon at the Independence Historical Museum & Art Center, 8th and Myrtle.

Virdon never played for the Yankees. He was traded to the Cardinals and was the National League Rookie of the Year in 1955. He was dealt to the Pirates early in the 1956 season. The left-handed batting, right-handed throwing Virdon patrolled center field for the Pirates most of the time through the 1965 campaign.

Guests last week, in addition to the Virdons, included longtime University of Kansas sports voice Bob Davis and Ban Johnson players Charles Stepp and Merle Blair. Also, seated up front for the meal of hot dogs, peanuts and cracker jacks were researchers Jan Johnson and Mike Webber.

Virdon, who answered several questions from the audience, had at least one very pleasant surprise in the crowd.

Bill Robinson, who lives in Wichita, and his late wife Virginia housed Virdon and another player in Independence.

“I don’t know anything negative about Bill Virdon,” Robinson said. “I never played baseball. We had a pleasant time.

“I’m 94. I do my own driving. I’m going to break Social Security,” Robinson quipped.

“We lived on North 11th St.,” Robinson said. “Our family ran Robinson Supply. I’ve been living in Wichita six years. We make it to Independence every three or four months.”

Virdon, naturally happy to see Robinson, said he couldn’t recall the name of the roommate.

“I don’t have a clue,” Virdon, 82, said with a laugh.

Virdon, who played Ban Johnson baseball for two summers at Clay Center (Kan.) before signing with Tom Greenwade and New York for $1,800, had no problem with Independence’s role in his development as a player.

“I found a position,” Virdon said. “I wanted to be a shortstop. Bunny (player/manager Bunny Mick) put me in center field.”

Just three players on the 1950 Independence Yankees reached the major leagues — Virdon, Don Taussig, another outfielder, and pitcher John Gabler.

The Independence roster was sprinkled liberally with southwest Missouri youths (a testament to Greenwade).

Bill Drake, a 1948 Joplin High School graduate, was a right-handed pitcher on the club. Drake, who played American Legion baseball in the summer, starred in football for the Eagles for Russ Kaminsky and in track for K.E. “Doc” Baker.

“Bill’s strength, first, was as a defensive player,” Drake said of Virdon. “He was a good overall player, of course. The thing I remember as much as anything about him was simply he was a good man. He was a gentleman. I respected him.”

Drake, also a Baxter Springs Whiz Kid, continued playing baseball after his professional stint as a third baseman/pitcher with such semi-pro teams as the Miami-based Tri-State Miners and Home Street Garage of Kansas City to supplement his income.

Drake, 83, said he once hit four consecutive home runs in a game for Home Street Garage. He lives in Raytown.

Virdon was Virdon last week, indicated museum coordinator Sylvia Augustine, with his accommodating manner.

“He always has been that way, I understand,” she said. “He signed everything that was brought to him.”

Virdon, a manager of the year in both the American League (Yankees) and National League (Astros), joined individuals Mickey Mantle, Ralph Terry, Glenn Wright, Bill Walker, Cy Blanton and Eugene Packard in the Independence shrine: The Independence Producers of 1921 and 1930 also have been honored.

The Western Association Producers of 1930 claim the first night game in organized baseball on April 28 at Shulthis Stadium in Riverside Park.

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