George Kissell, a native of Evans Mills, about eight miles northeast of Watertown, is one of the most famous sports figures you’ve never heard of – unless maybe if you’re a St. Louis Cardinals fan. Conversely, here are some baseball names you might be familiar with: Earl Weaver, Tony LaRussa, Steve Carlton, Joe Torre, Whitey Herzog, Sparky Anderson, Don Zimmer – and to go way back, let’s include Branch Rickey.
For a bit of perspective, listen to what they had to say about George Kissell (who is in no way related to the recent troubles in the Cardinals organization). Hall of Famer Earl Weaver called him one of the biggest influences on Weaver’s career. In Tony LaRussa’s first press conference after being voted into the Hall of Fame, Kissell was mentioned as a primary influence in his baseball life. Another Hall of Famer, Joe Torre, did the same, having noted earlier that, “Kissell taught me more baseball than anybody I’ve ever met in my life.”
Accepting an award from the Baseball Writers Association of America, Hall of Famer Steve Carlton first and foremost thanked George Kissell. As manager of the Cincinnati Reds and the Detroit Tigers, Sparky Anderson offered him coaching positions, but Kissell, Sparky’s roommate long ago in the minor leagues, declined. Years later, when Anderson was inducted into the Hall of Fame, he honored his old friend. “A man named George Kissell, the greatest single instructor I ever seen on fundamentals in my life. Fifty-some years with the Cardinals. And Georgie . . . he was something special to me.”
Crusty old Don Zimmer said, “Everybody doesn’t love somebody, but nobody doesn’t love Kissell…. you try to find someone who has a bad word for George. There’s nobody.” Hall of Famer Whitey Herzog said, “I always admired him,” but another comment by Herzog became oft-quoted and legendary in baseball circles: “George Kissell is the only man I know who can talk for 15 minutes about a ground ball.”
Whitey couldn’t have said it any better. That, in a nutshell, epitomizes Kissell’s baseball life. Branch Rickey, on the other hand, was taken with George’s work ethic. “This fellow, George Kissell, is a doubtless good manager and all that. But he is also a darn good employee. He looks after details. He is a ‘cleaner-upper.’ First man out, last man in. Impresses me as having a sense of responsibility for anything and everything…. I would hire him in any camp.”
It was Rickey who launched George’s career, signing him as a minor-leaguer in the St. Louis Cardinals organization in 1940. He played a few years, but like so many promising sports careers, his was interrupted by World War II. After a three-year stint in the military, he returned to baseball in 1946 at the age of 26. Again he played in the minors, but soon became a player-manager who was quite good at both. It took nerve and confidence to insert himself into the lineup at just the right time, but he did so successfully on many occasions.
Following the 1957 season, he became a Cardinal scout for five years, and then spent another five years managing in the minors. The organization valued him more and more each year, realizing what a tremendous teacher he had become. In 1968, he began working as a roving instructor, and the following year he joined the major league club as a coach, staying there through 1975.
In 1976 he was back in the minors. After more than thirty years of service, he had become indispensable to the system that produced future champions. Within the organization, things are done “The Cardinal Way”—by the book. There actually is a book, based on information compiled and written by Kissell (rhymes with whistle, by the way) back in 1969. That information was carried forward from year to year, updated by George, and is now published as a manual that is distributed to all minor-league players in the Cardinal organization. It helps instruct each player not only how to do things, but why, letting them soak up the valued wisdom of Kissell and others who so often achieved success.
In 2008, at the age of 88, George Kissell was killed in a Florida car accident, prematurely ending his Cardinal career after 69 years. He achieved so much in life that what you’ve seen here barely scratches the surface. From bottom to top, minor leagues to majors, he affected the game of baseball perhaps as much as anyone. He was a feisty manager, a great teacher, and a man loved and respected by many.
Though his life ended tragically, there were a number of highlights, like the creation in 2002 of the George Kissell Award to recognize excellence in player development—guided, naturally, by The Cardinal Way. There was also the naming of the Cardinals’ clubhouse in Jupiter, Florida, after George in 2005, and many other accolades.
But few honors could equal the 1993 selection of Kissell by Minor League Baseball as the recipient of their annual King of Baseball Award. A crown, robe, and engraved bat are given to winners, shining a light on longstanding devotion to and love for the game. Never were an award and a title more fitting.
In 2015, George Kissell was inducted into the St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame. Among the North Country boys and girls who have made good in the world of sports, he’s up there with the best of ’em.
Photos: George Kissell; the Cardinal Way (Cardinals press photos)