Bill Virdon spent eleven seasons in a Pirates uniform, playing from 1956 until 1965, before coming back briefly during the 1968 season. He was nicknamed Quail for his propensity to hit balls just over the infielders head, commonly referred to as “dying quails”. Born on June 9,1931 in Michigan, he was originally signed by the New York Yankees in 1950.
Bill started his pro career in class-D ball, playing for Independence, where he hit .267 in 119 games. He received a late season promotion to AAA Kansas City, hitting .341 in 14 games. It seemed like he was close to the majors after just one season but the Yankees were a loaded team, even at AAA during that time. In 1951 New York had two pretty good center fielders in the majors named Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, leaving no room for Virdon, who went to class-B ball, playing for Norfolk of the Piedmont League. He spent the entire year there, hitting .286 in 118 games. The next season he was moved up to A-ball, hitting .261 in 122 games for Binghamton of the Eastern League. Bill hit .261 again the next season, splitting the year between AA and AAA, but he never made it to the majors with New York.
On April 11,1954, the Yankees traded Virdon, along with two other players, to the St Louis Cardinals in exchange for future Hall of Fame outfielder, Enos Slaughter. Virdon spent that first season in AAA, where he hit .333 with 22 homers and 98 RBI’s for Rochester of the International League. The next season, Bill was with the Cardinals on Opening Day, making his major league debut that day, playing center field and batting second in the lineup between Wally Moon and Stan Musial. He went 2-4, collecting an infield single off the Cubs Paul Minner his first time up in the majors. Virdon would hit .281 in 144 games that rookie season, hitting 17 homers with 68 RBI’s and 58 runs scored, on his way to the NL Rookie of the Year award. The next season, Bill got off to a slow start and after just a month, he was dealt to the Pirates for outfielder Bobby del Greco and pitcher Dick Littlefield.
Virdon turned things around right away in Pittsburgh. He claimed to have changed his approach at the plate when he moved to Forbes Field, going from a hard swinging pull hitter, to a spray hitter that used the whole field. Thanks to the timing of the trade, he was able to play a league leading 157 games that year, hitting .319 on the season, .334 as a Pirate. Bill hit ten homers that year, the last time he would reach double digits in his career.
In his first full season for Pittsburgh, he established himself as one of the better defensive outfielders in the game. He hit just .251 with 47 extra base hits and 50 RBI’s, but what he lacked in strong offensive numbers, he made up for with his glove. He finished third in the league among center fielders in putouts, assists and second in range factor. That 1957 season was the first in a string of three straight years that he played exactly 144 games. The second year of that stretch, he hit .267 with a .712 OPS and 75 runs scored. Bill finished third in the league in putouts again among center fielders, while also ending up second with his .993 fielding percentage. His 1959 season though, would likely be considered his best defensive year.
Going into the 1959 season, the Pirates were starting to inch closer to the top of the league after 32 seasons since their last World Series appearance. Virdon hit .254 with 55 walks and 67 runs scored. On defense he led NL center fielders in assists, range factor and finished second in putouts. The Pirates though, slipped from 84-70 in 1958, to 78-76 in 1959, dropping two spots in the standings down to fourth place. In 1960, Virdon would play just 120 games, getting benched briefly at one point when his average was below .200 in mid-June. He blamed the hitting on a switch to contact lenses he made, going back to glasses and turning things around. His finished the season off with a .732 OPS, the highest he had in any season after his first year in Pittsburgh.
The Pirates went to the World Series in 1960, defeating the Yankees in seven games, with Virdon hitting .241 (7-29) with three doubles and five RBI’s. He drove home two runs in the second inning of game seven to give the Pirates a 4-0 lead.
In 1961, Virdon hit .260 with 58 RBI’s, his highest total while with the Pirates. He also scored 81 runs, which stood as his high mark for one season, topping it by one the following year. Besides the career high in runs, Bill also had two of his better accomplishments during that 1962 season. He led the league with ten triples and he won his only Gold Glove award, which at the time was said to be a long overdue acknowledgement of his fielding prowess.
Virdon continued his solid play in 1963, then saw his numbers really drop off the following season. In 1964, his average was down to a career low of .243 with an OPS under .600 in 145 games. He rebounded to hit .279 in 1965, but he was starting to show the signs of slowing down but on offense and defense. At age 34, Virdon decided to retire to take up managing. He spent two seasons managing in the Mets system before returning to Pittsburgh as a coach.
In 1968, Bill officially finishing out his major league career with six more games for the Pirates. In his next to last career AB on July 23,1968, Virdon hit a two-run pinch hit homer in the bottom of the ninth off Reds reliever Ted Abernathy to tie the score, sending the game into extra innings. He would play his last game eight days later, then return to full-time coaching duty for the Pirates through the end of their 1971 Wold Series winning season.
In 1972, Danny Murtaugh stepped down from the Pirates managerial job, leaving Virdon as his replacement. The Pirates went to the playoffs his first year, but were below .500 late in the 1973 season when Murtaugh returned to take over the team with 26 games left. Virdon moved on to manage two seasons with the Yankees, then eight in Houston before finishing with two more in Montreal. He returned to the Pirates in 1986 as a bench coach and has been with the team in some capacity for most of the time since then, including Spring Training, where he still works with the outfielders on defense as a special instructor.
Virdon managed 1918 major league games, going to the playoffs three times and winning 995 games. He played a total of 12 seasons in the majors, playing 1583 games. He was a career .267 hitter with 735 runs scored, 1596 hits and 502 RBI’s. Bill is 11th all-time on the Pirates games played list with 1415, four games ahead of Hall of Fame shortstop Arky Vaughan, and one spot behind Hall of Fame outfielder Fred Clarke.