Saturday, June 21, 2014

Players I Love More Than I Should: Outfield: Larry Herndon

More than 18,000 players have appeared in Major League Baseball games since the start of the league.  Some players have short careers that last one at bat or one appearance in the field.  Others have 20+ year careers.  As I read more and more about baseball history there are certain players I find myself enjoying reading about more than others.  It is obviously illogical since many of them retired, or in some cases passed away, long before I was even born.  I have no first hand experience in watching some of them play but for whatever reason their personalities and perseverance strikes me above and beyond the other players I read about.  Over the next few weeks I will be giving you short biographical histories*of some of these players.  Some of them will be Hall of Fame players.  Some of them will be players only casual fans may know.  Regardless, I chose one player from each position for this series to explore.  This week we will explore one of the outfielders I chose for the series: Larry Herndon.

If you are just joining the blog don't miss the other players in the Players I Love More Than I Should series: Yogi BerraHank GreenbergJoe MorganCal Ripken, Frank "Home Run" Baker and Frank Robinson

Growing up in the South
Of all the players in this series of Players I Love More Than I Should, Larry Herndon stands out for a number of reasons.  He is one of only two who are not Hall of Fame players.  He is the only one who never made an All Star appearance. He never won a Gold Glove or a Silver Slugger Award.  In fact very little about Larry Herndon's life is known.  He is still living.   He has been asked many times but he allows very little of himself to be known.

We do know that he was raised by his grandmother.  Born in Sunflower, MS in 1953, Larry moved to Memphis, TN and spent most of his early life there.  The reason he was raised by his grandmother instead of his parents is something Larry has never talked about.  He has said that his grandmother was a wonderful woman who raised him right.  He felt fortunate to be able to grow up under her care and have great brothers and sisters in his life.

Larry never really talked about the racial bigotry he clearly would have suffered from in the south in the 1950's and 1960's.  Being a quiet person Larry simply said that "if you don't argue with someone there can't be an argument."

Regardless of what he suffered Larry showed great promise as a baseball player at Douglass High School in Memphis and attracted attention from the Cardinals.  At 17 Herndon was signed by the Cardinals as a minor leaguer.

Near Miss in St.Louis
Herndon played in the Cardinals Gulf Coast League entry for 1971.  Four other players on the team made the majors, most notably Jerry Mumphrey and Mike Vail.  In 40 games Larry hit only .239 and showed little power with no Home Runs.  In 1972 he started again in rookie ball but was moved to two different A league teams in the Cardinals organization.  Rising through the organization he continued playing with Mumphrey and Vail as well as being a team mate of Keith Hernandez briefly.  He only played a total of 45 games between the three teams that year and still showed no power as he failed to hit a single Home Run.  He was still a young man growing into his body and would not reach his full potential yet.

From there the rise was fairly steady.  1973 he played in A ball St. Petersburg and hit three Home Runs.  1974 was AA Arkansas.  At the end of the 1974 he got a shot at the big time.  He appeared in 12 games, all but one as a pinch runner, and got only one at bat.  He replaced Reggie Smith in Center field in the Top of the 7th in a blow out Cardinals win against the Expos.  With two out Herndon singled back to the pitcher to load the bases.  It was his only plate appearance of his time in the majors with St.Louis.

1975 started in AAA Tulsa with hopes of reaching the majors again.  Then on May 9 came the shock.  Herndon was traded to the Giants organization and spent the rest of the year in Phoenix. 1976 was back to Phoenix to start of but it was a short stay.  After just 14 games in Phoenix he was promoted to play in the majors.

In his official rookie year Herndon started to show his potential.  He hit .288, played good defense, stole 12 bases and, although the Giants were a bad team Herndon looked like a big piece in what the Giants hoped to build.  It was not to be as injuries slowed his career.  He played in just 49 games in 1978.  He continued to work hard and as the Giants moved into the 1980's and Frank Robinson took over as manager he was excited for what Herndon might bring to the team.  Instead the Giants traded Herndon to the Tigers for Mike Chris and pitcher Dan Schatzeder.

The Tigers were building something special but it would be a few more years before it all came together.  Having built from their minor leagues with Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Jack Morris, Lance Parrish and Kirk Gibson the Tigers made some smart trades to bring the rest of the team together. Herndon was an important part of that process.

While his power numbers were never great in St.Louis or San Francisco, Herndon hit 23 in his first year in Detroit.  Although the Brewers and Orioles were at the top of the division the Tigers were getting ready to pounce.  1983 was a career year for Herndon as he hit over  .300 and drove in over 90 while hitting 20 Home Runs.

Quietly Great
The start to the season for the 1984 Tigers was an amazing thing.  They had signed Darrell Evans as a big free agent but he struggled.  Herndon's power numbers were down (he did not hit his first Home Run until June 21).  Yet while these two important pieces of the puzzle were struggling, the team was mauling the competition.  They started 35-5 and blew the competition away.  Because Herndon's numbers were below his regular pace Sparky Anderson started to platoon Herndon, Johnny Grubb and newly acquired Ruppert Jones.  Herndon's playing time decreased.  Nevertheless, the Tigers fought off a late charge by the Blue Jays and advanced to the League Championship Series against the Royals.

In game 1 Herndon led off the 4th inning with the Tigers already ahead 2-0.  Facing the Royals young pitcher Bud Black, Herndon took the first pitch for ball one.  On the second pitch of the at bat Herndon made everyone forget about the decreased power numbers in the regular season when he launched a Home Run to put the Tigers up 3-0.  It would be Herndon's only hit of the series.  After the game the press, as it does now, waited to talk to Herndon.  Larry wanted nothing to do with the press.  As far as he was concerned he had done his job plain and simple.  Talk to Morris and Trammell.  It was their game more than his.  He showered, dressed and snuck out the back before anyone had a chance to notice he had left.

The Tigers faced the Padres in the World Series and although the Tigers were heavily favored the Padres took a 2-1 lead in Game 1.  Entering the fifth inning Alan Trammell flew out to Tony Gwynn in right field.  Kirk Gibson walked but was caught stealing second and with two outs Lance Parrish doubled to let.  The quiet big man watched the first pitch for a called strike.  Then ball one.  Ball two.  Ball three.  Herndon swung at the fifth pitch of the at bat.  The pitch was on the outside of the plate and in the lower part of the zone.  Herndon reached out and swung hard.  The ball took off towards the right field fence and Tony Gwynn looked up just in time to see the ball drop over the fence for a Home Run.  It provided the margin of victory.  Again, Herndon shunned the spotlight.  He dressed quickly, left the locker room and let Jack Morris take credit for the victory.  In the World Series every base hit is crucial and Herndon would have four more hits in the series.  None were more crucial than that Home Run.  The Tigers won that World Series 4 games to 1.  Ernie Harwell called the final out when he exclaimed "fly ball to Herndon" before being drowned out by the multitude of Tigers fans.

The Tigers could not duplicate the magic of 1984 in the next two seasons.  They struggled and Herndon struggled along with them.  His knees were going bad and his numbers fell.  He didn't complain in the press when his playing time fell off.  He kept working hard and did his job.  He was released by the Tigers after the 1986 season but he resigned before the start of the 1987 season and Tigers would be happy he did.

On opening day of 1987 Herndon displayed his power in grand fashion.  Many felt that the ball, crushed to Center Field, would have left the stadium if it hadn't hit the stadium first.  By all eye witness accounts the ball was still on the way up when it hit the upper deck in center field.  Herndon would play in 89 games that year and hit 9 home runs. The first was that monster blast to center field. The last one was in the 162nd game of the Tigers season.  The Tigers had come from 3.5 games behind with ten games to play and were facing Toronto on the last day of the season. If the Tigers won they would clinch the division.  If they lost they would face Toronto in a one game playoff for the division lead.  The Blue Jays sent their young ace Jimmy Key, with a17-7 record, to the mound.  Lou Whitaker led off the bottom of the first with a single but a Bill Madlock double play ball and a Kirk Gibson pop to short ended the first.  After having sent six men to the plate in the first without scoring, the Blue Jays' second started with future Tiger star Cecil Fielder lining out to right field followed by two more quick outs.  The Tigers second started with Alan Trammell trying to sneak a bunt to third for a base hit but Garth Iorg was ready for it and Trammell was retired.  Herndon then launched a Home Run that would score the only run of the game.  Larry Herndon had sent the Tigers to the ALCS to face the Twins.

The Tigers won only one game in the series.  Down 2 games to 0 in game 3 Herndon started the game on the bench.  The Tigers had Dave Bergman as the DH who flew out to left in his first at bat.  As the bottom of the third started a double, single and walk loaded the bases with no one out.  A ground ball out scored one and the Tigers took the lead.  A balk scored another run, a single scored a third and the Tigers were ahead 3-0.  Chet Lemon walked and it was Bergman's turn at bat.  The Twins removed starter Les Straker and put in Dan Schatzeder, the same Dan Schatzeder the Tigers had sent to the Giants for Herndon.  As Schatzeder warmed up on the mound, Herndon stepped to the on deck circle to hit for Bergman. Larry connected for a two run double and the Tigers were ahead 5-0.  Herndon was again at the center of the only game the Tigers won in the series.

Quiet Dignity 
During the off season Herndon was again released by the Tigers but was resigned before the start of the season.  Herndon played in just 76 games, his fewest since his injury plagued year in San Francisco, and his numbers were not what he would have liked.  He played mostly at DH and split time with an aging Darrell Evans as the Tigers tried to make one more push with their core group.  In an amazingly tight American League East race, where the top five spots were separated by just 3.5 games, the Tigers came up one game short.

At the end of the season Herndon walked away.  He was gone for four years before Sparky Anderson asked him to return as the hitting coach.  He worked with young Tiger hitters like Travis Fryman, Tony Clark and Bobby Higginson but as the Tigers struggled in the standings it was clear that Sparky Anderson was not going to be fired.  The Tigers needed a change and Herndon became the target.  Herndon has since rejoined the Tigers as a minor league hitting instructor and is receiving great reviews for his work.

Herndon has passed his simple philosophy onto others, including the Lakeland Tigers manager Andy Barkett: "He told me that throughout his career, when he stepped on the field for either practice or a game, he treated every day like he was preparing to play in the seventh game of the World Series.  Playoff baseball is wonderful.  Why not approach it like that every day?"

*This is not intended as a full biography and due to space I have done my best to summarize the life of the players in this series.  For further information on Larry Herndon please check out

Ken Burns Baseball
1984 Detroit Tigers World Series Collectors Edition
The Official World Series Film Collection


Wire to Wire: Inside the 1984 Detroit Tigers World Championship Season by George Cantor and Chet Lemon
Detroit Tigers 1984: What A Start! What a Finish! by Mark Pattison, David Raglin, Gary Gillette and Richard L. Shook

In 14 years in the Major Leagues Larry Herndon hit .274.  As you can see from today's article, Herndon had a knack for coming up big in the post season.  What was Herndon's career post season batting average?

Answer to Last Week's Trivia Question:
Frank Robinson's record as a manager was 1065-1176.


  1. I don't think I had heard of Larry Herndon, but I like his approach to "fame". I would be guarded too. You're there to do a job and that's it. It doesn't matter what you did or how your life was before that. Sure, some life experiences have shaped certain players, but it seems like Larry's philosophy of playing each day to the fullest worked just well for him without making his life public knowledge.

  2. I always thought Larry Herndon was better than his stats indicate. He just seemed to get the clutch hit. I will always remember him catching the last out in the '84 world series. When I think back I think he was one of my all-time favorite tigers. That he was so humble is such a great feeling. From what I can summarize he was a fantastic person.
    My guess on the trivia is .305.



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