Keith Hernandez Part 1: Road to the MVP

This is Part 1 of a three-part series chronicling Keith Hernandez’s career, which includes Part 2: Champions in ’82, Traded in ’83 and Part 3: Post-Cardinals Career and Legacy.

Even before Keith Hernandez was born, the St. Louis Cardinals figured prominently in his life.

Hernandez’s father, John, had been a left-handed hitting first baseman in the Cardinals’ minor-league system before World War II sent him to Pearl Harbor. There, John continued to play baseball, where he played alongside Stan Musial.

One day while pitching batting practice, John Hernandez decided to test himself against the major leaguer. He threw his hardest fastball, but made one mistake – he threw it down the middle of the plate. Musial sent the ball whistling just a few inches away from his head, convincing Hernandez of the value of pitching to the corners.[1]

After an eye injury ended John Hernandez’s baseball career and he began a new career as a San Francisco fireman, he stayed in touch with Musial. For the rest of his life, Keith Hernandez would remember the days that his father brought him to Candlestick Park to see the Giants host the Cardinals. The tickets, John told his sons, were left by an old Navy buddy.

“I remember the old Cardinal uniform, the baby blue caps,” Keith Hernandez remembered. “We’d sit right over the third-base dugout and I could see (Musial’s) batting stance. I could see that swing. My dad told me Stan coiled like a cobra.”[2]

John Hernandez instructed both his sons – Keith and Gary – in the finer points of baseball. Among other drills, he suspended a tennis ball from the roof of the garage, allowing Keith to practice the stroke that made him one of baseball’s best hitters.

“I would say, ‘The next Joe DiMaggio or Stan Musial is out there somewhere in America. Why not make it you?’” John Hernandez recalled. “I would throw to him for hours. I’d tell him where each pitch was and where he should’ve hit it.”[3]

Due to a disagreement with the baseball coach, Hernandez didn’t play his senior year at Capuchino High School.[4] Instead, he caught the Cardinals’ attention playing summer ball, and they took a flyer on him in the 42nd round of the 1971 draft.

Hernandez had football and baseball scholarship offers from Stanford and Cal,[5] and his initial contract demands were too rich for the Cardinals’ blood.

“My dad insisted they give us a real bonus – $30,000 – or I’d go to Cal,” Keith said.[6]

When Cardinals general manager Bing Devine initially balked at Hernandez’s asking price, scout Bill Sayles and director of player development and player personnel Bob Kennedy both advocated on Hernandez’s behalf. Sayles told Devine that Hernandez was playing even better since he had been drafted and asked that they send someone to give him another look.

In response, Devine sent Kennedy, a 16-year major-league veteran and former manager for the Cubs and Athletics. Upon seeing Hernandez in person, Kennedy wasted no time telling Devine that the 42nd-round pick was the real deal.

“Kennedy called me back right away 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 recalled.[7]

The Cardinals sent Hernandez across the country to their Class A affiliate in St. Petersburg, Florida, to begin his career. In 84 games, the 18-year-old Hernandez hit .256 with five homers and 41 stolen bases, then got a glimpse of Triple-A competition with 11 games at Tulsa, where he hit .241 in 29 at-bats.

In 1973, the Cardinals sent Hernandez to Double-A Arkansas in the Texas League. Despite high expectations, Hernandez hit just .260 with three homers and 52 RBIs. He was shocked when Kennedy responded to his struggles by promoting him to Triple-A.

“If anything, I should have been left to shrivel up in that miserable Texas League or sent down to Single-A,” Hernandez wrote in 2018.[8]

Years later, after Hernandez was an established major leaguer, he asked Kennedy why he had chosen to promote a struggling 19-year-old to Triple-A.

“I knew if I left you in Little Rock, you might have hit .230 and been done,” Kennedy replied. “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.”[9]

The move paid off. In 31 Triple-A games, Hernandez hit .333 with a .394 on-base percentage, five home runs, and 25 RBIs. The following spring, Hernandez was invited to his first big-league camp. He continued to tear up Triple-A pitching, batting .351 with 14 homers and 63 RBIs before getting his first cup of coffee in the majors. In 14 games with the Cardinals, Hernandez went 10-for-34 (.294).

After the season, St. Louis sent a clear message that Hernandez was their man at first base, trading Joe Torre to the New York Mets for Tommy Moore and Ray Sadecki. Unfortunately, Hernandez never seemed to get his footing in the early months of 1975. After hovering around the Mendoza line for most of April and May, the Cardinals sent Hernandez back to Triple-A with a .203 batting average.

Back in Tulsa, Hernandez rediscovered his batting stroke but also created a bit of a stir when he told a reporter that the Cardinals’ clubhouse hadn’t been as welcoming as he had hoped.[10] In August, even as Hernandez was on his way to a .330 batting average in the minors, his old advocate Kennedy had to admit that Hernandez wasn’t pleased to still be in the American Association.

“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.”[11]

Hernandez’s frustrations didn’t appear to impact him on the field. When the Cardinals did call him up in September, he hit .350 to pull his batting average for the season up to .250.

In 1976, Hernandez got another lesson in battling adversity as he opened the season with another slump. As late as July 7, Hernandez was batting below .200. Then a four-game series against the Cubs helped to turn his season around. After going a combined 3-for-6 in the first two games, Hernandez matched up against Cubs right-hander Bill Bonham.

Bonham walked Hernandez in their first match-up, but in the third inning, Bonham got ahead of Hernandez with a 1-2 count. Hernandez was almost certain Bonham would attack him with an inside fastball to attempt to finish the at-bat, but with two strikes, he had to defend the whole plate. When Hernandez got the inside fastball he was looking for, he turned on it, sending it back up the middle.

“As the ball shot up the middle, I understood that I’d still had enough time to adjust if the pitch had been somewhere else,” Hernandez wrote in 2018. “That knowledge – You have enough time, Keith – was like being handed a trump card at a blackjack table: no matter what the pitcher dealt, I had an answer.”[12]

Hernandez also benefited from a tip from Lou Brock, whom he looked to as a second father.[13] Brock recommended that Hernandez move closer to the plate against left-handers. Then, when pitchers looked to attack him inside, Hernandez would be ready for it. When pitchers eventually adapted and pitched him on the outside part of the plate, they would be pitching to Hernandez’s strength.[14]

Hernandez boosted his batting average to .289 in 1976, and he hit .291 while playing in 161 games the following year. While his average dipped to .255 in 1978, he also won his first career Gold Glove Award, the first of 11 such awards he would win over his career.

In 1979, Hernandez enjoyed the best season of his career, hitting a league-leading .344 with 11 homers and 105 RBIs. His 116 runs and 48 doubles also led the National League.

As he had in previous seasons, Hernandez got off to a slow start, hitting as low as .213 heading into a May 3 contest against the Astros. It wasn’t until his father recommended that he extend his hands from his body that Hernandez rediscovered his stroke. He hit .356 in May, .373 in June, and had his best month in August, when he batted .384 with 21 RBIs.

Unlike other left-handed hitters, even left-handed pitchers couldn’t keep Hernandez off base. In 1979, Hernandez hit .332 with six homers and 50 RBIs in 247 at-bats against left-handers, compared with a .353 batting average with five homers and 55 RBIs in 363 at-bats against righties.

Late in the season, Pete Rose made a furious push to challenge Hernandez for the batting title, raising his average from .312 to .333. It wasn’t until the final days of the regular season that Hernandez clinched the batting crown, becoming the eighth Cardinal since 1900 to do so. With the feat, he joined Jesse Burkett, Rogers Hornsby, Chick Hafey, Joe Medwick, Johnny Mize, Musial, and Torre.

Hernandez shared the 1979 National League MVP Award with Pittsburgh’s Willie Stargell, who had batted .281 with 32 homers and 82 RBIs in 126 games. It was the first tie in MVP voting history. With two writers covering each team receiving a vote, Stargell received 10 of 24 first-place votes while Hernandez and Dave Winfield each received four. Hernandez, who ranked in the top five on every ballot, was the only player named on all 24 ballots.

“Willie’s a great man and it’s an honor just for me to have my name next to his,” Hernandez said at the time.[15]

Years later, Hernandez admitted that part of him felt that Stargell didn’t deserve co-MVP honors that season, as he only started 105 games that season. In his 2018 autobiography, Hernandez wrote, “I started to think that maybe I’d won the award outright and the powers that be were making it up to the twice-a-bridesmaid Stargell … and if that were true – if the writers had produced such a convenient outcome – I couldn’t help but wonder if my last name had made it easier for them.”[16]

This is Part 1 of a three-part series chronicling Keith Hernandez’s career, which includes Part 2: Champions in ’82, Traded in ’83 and Part 3: Post-Cardinals Career and Legacy.


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[1] George Vecsey (2011), Stan Musial, Kindle Android Version, retrieved from Amazon.com, Location 1775.

[2] George Vecsey (2011), Stan Musial, Kindle Android Version, retrieved from Amazon.com, Location 1780.

[3] Joe Klein, “Two Cheers for Keith Hernandez,” GQ, April 1986.

[4] Keith Hernandez (2018), I’m Keith Hernandez, Kindle Android version, retrieved from Amazon.com, Location 344.

[5] Keith Hernandez (2018), I’m Keith Hernandez, Kindle Android version, retrieved from Amazon.com, Location 344.

[6] Joe Klein, “Two Cheers for Keith Hernandez,” GQ, April 1986.

[7] Bing Devine (2012), The Memoirs of Bing Devine: Stealing Lou Brock and Other Winning Moves by a Master GM, Kindle Android version, retrieved from Amazon.com, Location 157.

[8] Keith Hernandez (2018), I’m Keith Hernandez, Kindle Android version, retrieved from Amazon.com, Location 855.

[9] Keith Hernandez (2018), I’m Keith Hernandez, Kindle Android version, retrieved from Amazon.com, Location 855.

[10] Keith Hernandez (2018), I’m Keith Hernandez, Kindle Android version, retrieved from Amazon.com, Location 2493.

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

[12] Keith Hernandez (2018), I’m Keith Hernandez, Kindle Android version, retrieved from Amazon.com, Location 3319.

[13] Keith Hernandez (2018), I’m Keith Hernandez, Kindle Android version, retrieved from Amazon.com, Location 4514.

[14] Keith Hernandez (2018), I’m Keith Hernandez, Kindle Android version, retrieved from Amazon.com, Location 3268.

[15] Joseph Durso, “M.V.P. Tie: Stargell, Hernandez,” New York Times, November 14, 1979.

[16] Keith Hernandez (2018), I’m Keith Hernandez, Kindle Android version, retrieved from Amazon.com, Location 4109.

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