PINELLAS PARK — George Kissell didn't draw second glances from the average guy on the street. He was a nice older gentleman, red St. Louis Cardinals cap, full and cheeky smile.
The truth would have caused shrieks.
Mr. Kissell, a St. Louis Cardinals coach, instructor and manager for almost 70 years, was the steady hand behind some of baseball's legends. Widely regarded as "the Professor," he taught shop to countless well-known players
Joe Torre, for instance.
"He probably taught me more about baseball and helped me mature more than anybody else," Torre said Wednesday, on the road managing the Los Angeles Dodgers in the playoffs. "He was like a father to me."
Mr. Kissell was injured Monday in a Pinellas Park car crash. He died Tuesday night. He was 88.
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Summertime 1940. Young George and his dad drove from their rural New York farm to Cardinals' tryout camp in Rochester.
He played impressive shortstop and made the minors. He eventually signed a contract for $125 a month (but he wanted $150).
Mr. Kissell had the skills, but never made it to the majors. Instead, he detoured into the military, spending almost four years with the Navy in Guadalcanal. He came back, worked as a playing manager and earned two college degrees. He planted home base in St. Petersburg, where the Cardinals then held spring training.
Mr. Kissell traveled to games with his beloved wife, Virginia. His world was split between home and the road, between awkward upstarts and sports superstars.
He kept going. And going. And going.
"If you had to vote for the greatest Cardinal, it'd be hard to choose," said team manager Tony La Russa. "It's a rich and colorful history. But people should understand he's in the conversation for one of the greatest Cardinals of all time."
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Mr. Kissell called the players "kids." They listened like students.
Bats don't have brains. Balls don't stop themselves. Never copy another player's style. Throw a ball like Sugar Ray would throw a punch.
"I'm kind of a picturesque minded guy," he told the St. Petersburg Times in 1967. "I try to build a picture of what I'm trying to get across to the kids. If they can see it, they believe it."
He could come off stern, sometimes demanding. The kids knew his voice — machine gun steady, passionate, focused. On the field, Mr. Kissell didn't go unnoticed.
"He had tremendous credibility because he was very honest," said La Russa. "He never tried to lie to anybody. That's what a player wants. You want an honest evaluation."
Quick as he could humble an ego, he could improve a mood. Mr. Kissell sneaked into locker rooms, popped buttons, tied pant legs and crushed crackers in shoes.
"He had a gruff exterior and was soft as a peach on the inside," said his grandson, Tommy Kidwell. "He loved people more than he would ever let on, but then he would have moments when he would tell them how much he loved them."
He built his grandsons batting cages from the ground up and taught them how to swing. When they played in school, he watched their games.
"I remember going to some high school fields when I watched his grandsons play," said his friend Don Zimmer, the Tampa Bay Rays' senior adviser. "I'd see George sitting down there like a proud peacock."
Though he never officially retired his spot on the team, he slowed down, devoting more time to his family. He lived at the Mainlands in Pinellas Park and attended Catholic Mass every morning.
His grandson still took him to Cardinals spring training. In 2005, the team honored Mr. Kissell with a plaque outside its Jupiter clubhouse — the George Kissell Clubhouse.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8857.