ST. PETERSBURG — Even after factoring in the inherent sentimentality of such an occasion, people attending Saturday's memorial service at Al Lang Field had to conclude that George Kissell was the greatest baseball coach nobody ever heard of.
Kissell — who spent 68 years with the St. Louis Cardinals, the longest tenure of anyone in team history — was never a marquee name. Even in uniform, he strolled unmolested past fans who didn't know who he was. There is no plaque for him in Cooperstown.
But baseball people knew what he meant to the game.
"Since 1940, virtually every player in the Cardinals organization has had contact with George Kissell, and they have all been better for it," said team owner William DeWitt Jr., who flew in just for the memorial.
DeWitt read a quote from Hall of Fame outfielder Lou Brock, who couldn't attend:
"He is the gatekeeper of the Cardinal tradition and the reason the Cardinals play the game right."
Kissell first came to St. Petersburg in 1946 for spring training and lived in the city for the last 39 years of his life. He died on Oct. 7 of injuries he had suffered in a car wreck in Pinellas Park the day before. He was 88.
His family said goodbye to him Friday at Bay Pines National Cemetery; on Saturday, family and friends came together at Al Lang, the Cardinals' former spring training home, to talk about what they learned from him.
They set up a stage at home plate and decorated it with memorabilia: his No. 3 jersey, his fungo bat, a stadium seat autographed by five Cardinals greats (Gibson, Musial, etc.), a flower wreath in the shape and colors of a baseball.
The pristine playing field fanned out behind the stage. But for the late afternoon cold, it would have been a beautiful day for a game.
And you could have fielded a good team by choosing from the 200 people in the seats. Former star first baseman Keith Hernandez was there, as were Dal Maxvill, John Mabry, Joe McEwing, Jim Fregosi, Mike DiFelice and manager Tony LaRussa.
"I played the game to make George proud," said McEwing, now a minor league coach, like his mentor.
"Five feet 9 inches tall on a good day, but a giant of a man," said Jim Riggleman, a former big league manager who is now the bench coach for the Washington Nationals. "Maybe the greatest person who ever wore the Cardinals uniform."
"The greatest baseball guy that's probably ever walked the Earth," said Chris Maloney, a minor league manager for the Cardinals.
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George Marshall Kissell was born in Evans Mills, N.Y., on Sept. 9, 1920. Growing up, he milked cows on the family farm and played baseball when he could. In 1940 the Cardinals invited him to Rochester for a tryout. He fielded five ground balls and the scout gave him $20 to become a Cardinal. Yes, twenty bucks. There are no zeroes missing from that figure.
He played two years in the minor leagues, served in the Navy at Guadalcanal, then went back to the minors, kicking up dust on every rocky field from Hamilton, Ontario, to Brunswick, Ga. He finished his playing career in 1955 without ever getting close to the bigs. For the next half-century he coached, mostly in the minors.
Along the way he picked up his bachelor's and master's degrees from Ithaca College, so players called him the Professor. In his baseball teaching he stressed certain themes:
• Learn the game. He told players he wanted them to play "Albert baseball." Albert? "Einstein," he'd say. "Smart baseball."
• Work hard: "Come early, stay late, and you will stick around."
• Be prepared. When a player showed up at the park without his glove, Kissell would say, "A soldier doesn't go into battle without his gun." When somebody left his mitt on the practice field, Kissell would put it in the freezer, or put crackers in the person's shoes.
He wrote countless baseball manuals for the Cardinals. The chapters are titled "Know Game — And Know Yourself," "Suggestions for Outfield Play," "Bent Leg Slide."
The books reflect Kissell's thoroughness and deep knowledge of the game. What should the shortstop do when the opposing batter hits a double to left-center and the runner on first tries to score?
Answer, page 48: "Go to spot in left field in direct line with outfielder and plate."
Kissell had jug ears and a high, excitable voice and he yammered nonstop in the dugout. Mark DeJohn, a minor league manager for the Cardinals, remembered a time when Kissell called out to the opposing batter, "Pop it up! Pop it up!"
When the guy hit a home run, Kissell squeaked, "Not that far!"
Everybody agreed he was a company man. He had a rule that no player could say anything bad about the Cardinals organization. His Christmas card generally featured a picture of a Cardinal perched on a branch.
When he left practice to go to Mass — he was a daily communicant — he kept his Cardinals socks on so he could change into his uniform more quickly when he got back.
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In his later years, Kissell laughed off questions about how long he'd keep coaching. "Pretty soon I'll be pushing up daisies," he would say, or, "I don't buy green bananas anymore."
He all but retired from the game when his wife, Ginny, got sick several years ago. At Saturday's memorial service, his daughter, Kay Kidwell, spoke of how he spent days sitting by Ginny's side in hospitals and nursing homes. Kissell said she was the best girl in the world and deserved the best from him.
She is still living; they had been married 64 years when he died.
Kissell's grandson Tommy said Gramp loved three things: God, his family and baseball.
They were all tied together in his life. One of Kissell's many baseball notebooks contains a page called "TO REMEMBER." It is a list of 13 items, some of them unintelligible to anyone but the author: "Break up delayed steal," "infield warmup drill," "must-bunt sign."
Number One on the list? "Respect for fellow man."
Mike Wilson can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2924.