How Lou Brock and Bob Kennedy helped Keith Hernandez reach his potential

Without the efforts of Bob Kennedy and Lou Brock, Keith Hernandez may never have won the 1979 National League MVP Award – at least, not with the Cardinals.

Hernandez was a 17-year-old out of Capuchino High School in San Bruno, California, when the Cardinals drafted him in the 42nd round of the 1971 draft. Due to a disagreement with his high school coach, Hernandez didn’t play during his senior year of high school, allowing him to slide to the later rounds of the draft. Nonetheless, with recruiters from Cal and Stanford interested in him for both football and baseball,[1] Hernandez had plenty of options if the Cardinals didn’t meet his salary expectations.

Bill Sayles, the Cardinals’ northern California scout, believed strongly in Hernandez’s potential and called general manager Bing Devine to see why the team hadn’t signed him yet.

“I said the kid wanted too much money,” Devine wrote in his 2012 autobiography. “And Bill Sayles said, ‘I think you’re missing the boat. He’s playing even better since you drafted him. Why don’t you send someone up to cross-check him?’ So we sent Bob Kennedy.”[2]

Kennedy was the Cardinals’ director of player development. A 16-year major-league veteran, Kennedy played third base and the outfield for the White Sox, Indians, Orioles, Tigers, and Dodgers.  After his playing days were over, he became a scout and farm system director for the Indians, then coached the Cubs and Athletics before joining the Cardinals organization.

“Kennedy called me back and said, ‘I don’t know about the money. But if you don’t sign this kid, you’ll regret it the rest of your life!’” Devine wrote.[3]

Convinced, Devine signed Hernandez and Kennedy sent him to St. Petersburg of the Class A Florida State League. In 1973, Hernandez played 105 games with the Double-A Arkansas Travelers, batting .260 with three homers and 52 RBIs in 105 games. They weren’t the statistics expected of a player with Hernandez’s potential.

“My numbers in AA were atrocious,” Hernandez wrote in his book, I’m Keith Hernandez. “If anything, I should have been left to shrivel up in that miserable Texas League or sent down to Single-A.”[4]

Instead, Kennedy promoted Hernandez to Triple-A Tulsa, where he hit .333 with five homers and 25 RBIs in 31 games. Suddenly, Hernandez was playing well enough to push for a major-league roster spot in 1974.

Years later, Hernandez had the opportunity to ask Kennedy why he promoted him when he was playing so poorly in Tulsa. As Hernandez recounts, “Kennedy looked at me with a serious gaze – Bob was a man who seldom laughed while in uniform – and said, ‘Keith, I knew if I left you in Little Rock, you might have hit .230 and been done. If I sent you down, it could have destroyed your confidence and you would have been done. So I took a chance because I knew you had the talent.”[5]

Hernandez got his first taste of the majors in 1974, appearing in 14 games. In 1975, however, expectations were far higher. During the offseason, the Cardinals had traded Joe Torre to the Mets for Tommy Moore and Ray Sadecki, leaving Hernandez a clear path to claim the starting job.

National League pitchers, however, were unwilling to cooperate. By June 3, Hernandez was batting just .203 and the Cardinals demoted him back to Tulsa. While Hernandez rediscovered his batting stroke under the tutelage of Ken Boyer, batting .330 with a .440 on-base percentage and .531 slugging percentage, he still had a few things to learn about professional baseball.

Hernandez first caused a stir when he told a reporter in Tulsa that the Cardinals’ clubhouse wasn’t as welcoming as he had hoped it would be. The story was picked up in the St. Louis media and drew the ire of some of the Cardinals’ veterans, including Ken Reitz.[6]

By August, just as it was clear that Hernandez had rediscovered his swing and his confidence, it was also visible to those around him that he had no patience for remaining in Tulsa.

“Keith has been pouting,” Kennedy said. “He feels he has nothing to prove by playing further in the minors. The boy has to grow up.”[7]

Bob Gibson was happy to help Hernandez along with a little tough love. The Cardinals called Hernandez up in September and he joined the team in time for the final two games of a series against the Cubs at Busch Stadium. When a reporter from the St. Louis Globe-Democrat asked for an interview in the dugout during pregame warmups, Hernandez obliged. He was still answering the first question when he was interrupted by Gibson, who shouted at him from the batting cage where the pitchers were just beginning to hit.

“There you are, Hernandez, always talking! Talk, talk, talk! Why don’t you just shut up and get your rookie ass out here to shag some balls!”[8]

Brock took a more diplomatic approach to helping Hernandez reach his potential. During one game against the Phillies in 1976, the 22-year-old Hernandez struck out during a pinch-hit appearance. Frustrated, Hernandez sat at the end of the bench and, by his own admission, sulked.

The 37-year-old Brock sat down next to Hernandez. As Hernandez recalled:

He very gently said: What the hell are you poutin’ about? No one’s gonna feel sorry for you. You getting mad and feeling sorry for yourself? Who’s making you mad? You see that guy on the mound? He’s making you mad. Get him. Take it out on him. He’s the one who’s gonna put you into a day job. You wanna go to work nine to five and have two weeks off a year? Then go ahead and do what you’re doing. Or get mad at him. He’s the one who’s gonna take the job away from you.[9]

With that, baseball’s stolen base leader stood back up and returned to the other end of the dugout.

Brock’s assistance went beyond merely teaching Hernandez to conduct himself like a professional. That same season, Brock saw that the left-handed hitting Hernandez continued to struggle against left-handers, particularly when they threw the breaking ball on the outer half of the plate. Brock recommended that Hernandez crowd the plate.

“You’re going to go around the league for at least a month, they will see you on top of the plate, and they are going to throw you inside,” Brock said. “Look for it and rip it! Pitchers can’t relate to hitting. They don’t know you’re looking in there. It doesn’t matter if you make an out or pull it foul, just hit it hard. Establish the inside pitch as your pitch. Each time you do this, they’re going to say, ‘Hey, that’s my best fastball and he hit the dog out of it. Maybe I can’t get in there …’ That’s when you have them! Because they’re going to throw right into your strength – the outside corner, with the barrel of your bat in full coverage.”[10]

The adjustment worked exactly as Brock described. In 1977, Hernandez actually hit better against left-handers (.313 batting average with eight homers and 39 RBIs) than against right-handers (.279 with seven homers and 52 RBIs). For his career, Hernandez would bat .291 against left-handed pitching with a .370 on-base percentage.

In 1979, Brock’s final season, Hernandez put it all together, leading the league with a .344 batting average, 116 runs scored, and 48 doubles. Along the way, he hit 11 home runs and drove in 105. In November, Hernandez was named the National League’s co-MVP alongside Willie Stargell, who helped lead the Pirates to the World Series championship. Hernandez made it a point to thank Brock for helping him along the way.

“Lou is very unselfish,” he said. “He’s done more for me than just about anybody. He always had a pat on the back at the right time, and he was there with encouragement in my moments of self-doubt, reminding me to think positive.”[11]


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[1] Keith Hernandez and Joan Ryan (2018), I’m Keith Hernandez, Hachette Book Group, Inc., New York, N.Y, Location 344 (Kindle Android version).

[2] Bing Devine and Tom Wheatley (2004), The Memoirs of Bing Devine: Stealing Lou Brock and Other Winning Moves by a Master GM, Sports Publishing, New York, N.Y., Location 157 (Kindle Android version).

[3] Bing Devine and Tom Wheatley (2004), The Memoirs of Bing Devine: Stealing Lou Brock and Other Winning Moves by a Master GM, Sports Publishing, New York, N.Y., Location 157 (Kindle Android version).

[4] Keith Hernandez and Joan Ryan (2018), I’m Keith Hernandez, Hachette Book Group, Inc., New York, N.Y, Location 855 (Kindle Android version).

[5] Keith Hernandez and Joan Ryan (2018), I’m Keith Hernandez, Hachette Book Group, Inc., New York, N.Y, Location 855 (Kindle Android version).

[6] Keith Hernandez and Joan Ryan (2018), I’m Keith Hernandez, Hachette Book Group, Inc., New York, N.Y, Location 2493 (Kindle Android version).

[7] Neal Russo, “Hernandez Pouting In Tulsa,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 8, 1975: Page C1.

[8] Keith Hernandez and Joan Ryan (2018), I’m Keith Hernandez, Hachette Book Group, Inc., New York, N.Y, Location 2535 (Kindle Android version).

[9] Keith Hernandez and Joan Ryan (2018), I’m Keith Hernandez, Hachette Book Group, Inc., New York, N.Y, Location 2963 (Kindle Android version).

[10] Keith Hernandez and Joan Ryan (2018), I’m Keith Hernandez, Hachette Book Group, Inc., New York, N.Y, Location 3268 (Kindle Android version).

[11] Arnold Irish, “Hernandez: Garage To Co-MVP,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 14, 1979: Page B1.

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