Herman, William Jennings (“Billy”)
Herman, William Jennings (“Billy”)
(b. 7 July 1909 near New Albany, Indiana; d. 5 September 1992 in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida), baseball player, manager, and coach best known as a hard-hitting second baseman and All-Star team member in the 1930s; ranked as one of the National League’s fifty greatest players.
Herman was the ninth often children of a farming family. Named after the three-time Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan, Herman was occasionally given the additional nickname “Bryan.” He attended New Albany High School and pitched his church team to a league championship, for which he won a trip to Pittsburgh to see the first two games of the 1927 World Series. On 31 August 1927 he married Hazel Jean Steproe. Although he first followed his southpaw father as a pitcher, the five-foot, eleven-inch Herman began his minor league career as a second baseman for Vicksburg, Mississippi (Cotton States League), and Louisville, Kentucky (American Association), in 1928. After stints with Dayton, Ohio (Central League), and again with Louisville from 1929 through 1931, he embarked on a fifteen-year major league career in August 1931, when the Chicago Cubs purchased his contract from Louisville for $50,000. At second base Herman replaced the player-manager Rogers Hornsby, who was suffering from
ailing feet and legs. Herman played in only twenty-seven games in 1931, but his .327 batting average earned him a salary of $7,000 for 1932. He was only the tenth player to make 200 hits in his first major league season. With the Cubs he played in three World Series, 1932, 1935, and 1938. Herman played on the day of Babe Ruth’s famous “called” home run against Charlie Root in the 1932 World Series and cast his vote against the myth. When Ruth pointed after taking two strikes, Herman claimed, he was pointing in a warning fashion at Root rather than at the centerfield stands.
Soon after the 1941 season opened the Cubs were in New York to play the Giants. Herman received a phone call in his Commodore Hotel room on 6 May at 2:30 A.M., from the Cubs owner Larry MacPhail, who announced that he had traded Herman to the Brooklyn Dodgers. Herman went first to the Polo Grounds to pick up his gear and then headed directly to Ebbets Field, where he was four for four in his first game, a good start to his major contribution to Brooklyn’s first pennant in twenty-one years. During spring training with the Dodgers in 1942 Herman and his teammates Hugh Casey, Larry French, and Augie Galan spent an evening with Ernest Hemingway, first at Hemingway’s gun club and then at his home in Havana, Cuba. Each left with an autographed copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) as well as vivid memories of heavy drinking with their host. Hemingway challenged Casey to box and, after being whipped by the burly pitcher, challenged him to a duel the following day either with pistols or swords. Herman reported that the next morning a sobered Hemingway, who came with his wife to the ballpark, expressed embarrassment over his behavior.
Herman volunteered for the U.S. Navy after the 1943 season and played service ball first with Johnny Mize, Walker Cooper, and “Schoolboy” Rowe on a Great Lakes team coached by Mickey Cochrane. Starting in 1944 he played in an army-navy league in Honolulu, Hawaii, with Stan Musial, Bob Lemon, and “Cookie” Lavagetto. Herman returned to spring training with the Dodgers in 1946. He played for the Dodgers until he received another late-night phone call in his hotel room on 15 June at 2:00 A.M. from Branch Rickey; he had been traded to the Boston Braves. Again in proof of his zest for the game, Herman organized his affairs and arrived in Boston in time to play in a doubleheader that same day. On 6 September 1946 he and three other players were traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Bob Elliott, who became the National League’s most valuable player in 1947, and the catcher Hank Camilli.
During his major league career Herman played in 1,922 games, made 2,345 hits, slugged 486 doubles, scored 1,163 runs, and had 839 runs batted in while compiling an impressive .304 lifetime batting average. He batted .433 in ten All-Star games, a major league record at the time of his retirement, and he held National League records at his position for the most years leading in putouts (seven), the most putouts in a doubleheader (sixteen on 28 June 1933), and the most seasons handling at least 900 chances (1932–1933, 1935-1936, 1938). Herman was named to the National League All-Star team ten times, seven times while with Chicago (1934-1940) and three while with Brooklyn (1941-1943). In 1943 he was named to the Sporting News Major League All-Star team.
Herman served as player-manager for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1947 and for Minneapolis (American Association) in 1948. He played for Oakland, California (Pacific Coast League), in 1950. He also managed Richmond, Virginia (Piedmont League), in 1951; the Boston Red Sox from 1964 to 1966; Bradenton, Florida (Gulf Coast Rookie League), in 1968; and Tri-City (Northwest League) in 1969. The major league teams he managed won 189 games and lost 274, perennially finishing in the second division. His major league coaching assignments included stints with the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1952 to 1957, the Milwaukee Braves in 1958 and 1959, the Boston Red Sox from 1960 to 1964, the California Angels in 1967, and the San Diego Padres in 1978 and 1979. The Oakland Athletics hired him as a scout from 1968 through 1974. He retired from baseball in 1975 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame the same year.
Herman had a reputation as one of the best players of his day. An excellent hit-and-run man and a driving force on four pennant winners, Herman was lauded by Casey Stengel as “one of the . . . smartest players ever to come into the National League.” Attempting to establish the American Baseball Guild to address labor concerns within baseball following World War II, Robert Murphy advocated a strike by the Pittsburgh Pirates and tried to organize the Boston Braves. Herman was named one of three Braves players to meet with the owner Lou Perini to discuss the guild’s platform, then he was chosen as one of six player representatives to join the owners in the landmark meeting of the Joint Major League Committee on 27 August 1946.
Herman and his first wife divorced in 1960. He wed Frances Ann Antonucci on 23 May 1961. They had one son. After 1968 he was a resident of Palm Beach Gardens, where he died of cancer.
Herman had a superlative career and is remembered as one of the best second baseman ever to put on a major league uniform. In 1935 he was voted the National League’s second baseman of the year and Player of the Year. His abilities as a slugger in the regular season and especially in the All-Star games still command respect decades after his retirement, and his dedication to the game continues to inspire new generations of ballplayers.
For further information on Herman see Gene Karst and Martin J. Jones, Jr., Who’s Who in Professional Baseball (1973); Donald Honig, Baseball When the Grass Was Real: Baseball from the Twenties to the Forties Told by the Men Who Played It (1975) ; The Sporting News Hall of Fame Fact Boo/ (1983); Charles F. Faber, comp., Baseball Ratings: The All-Time Best Players at Each Position (1985); Richard M. Cohen and David S. Neft, comps., The World Series: Complete Play-by-Play of Every Game, 1903-1985 (1986); David L. Porter, ed., Biographical Dictionary of American Sports: Baseball (1987); David Quentin Voigt, Baseball: An Illustrated History (1987); and William Marshall, Baseball’s Pivotal Era, 1945-1951 (1999). An obituary is in the New York Times (7 Sept. 1992).