Both men grinned, a couple of Sunshine Boys with baseball tans and guru wrinkles. They had reason to be happy. With Kittle back in the fold, the faculty was again at full strength. Baseballs and epithets were flying again, and the kids outside would soon discover a fundamental truth about the game: that 90% of baseball knowledge is stored in folds of gray matter in the skulls of old men.
"Poodles and parrots," Kissell said. "Can you imagine that?"
Welcome to the College of Cardinals, an equal-opportunity institution with a distinguished faculty and a very low graduation rate. If you are young and aspire to play major league baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals, you will have to play for one of three farm teams: the rookie league Peoria Cardinals, the rookie league Johnson City ( Tenn.) Cardinals or the Class A Hamilton ( Ont.) Red-birds. There you will meet three distinguished professors of baseball, named Kittle and Kissell and Sisler.
You will be tempted to laugh at these old fellows—at the way their bellies stretch their double-knit uniforms, at their liver-spotted hands and barren scalps. You may stifle a yawn when they regale you with obscure tales of men named Pepper or Lefty. But when you take the field and these old-timers start to teach, your amusement will turn to awe; these graybeards carry in their craniums the distilled wisdom of 146 years of professional baseball experience. George Kissell—the little guy with the bug-eyed sunglasses—taught Vince Coleman, Terry Pendleton and Tommy Herr how to switch-hit. Hub Kittle—the character with the white mustache who's yelling all the time—taught J.R. Richard how to throw the change-up. Dick Sisler, 68—the big, heavy man with the sad face and the cigarettes—helped Roger Maris out of hitting slumps.
Players are not the only students. "Those guys teach us guys how to manage and coach," says Dan Radison, the 39-year-old manager of the Springfield (Ill.) Cardinals. "They know everything there is to know about baseball." Kissell alone can claim to have taught Sparky Anderson, Earl Weaver, John McNamara and Hal Lanier "when they were just little guys."
Curiously, these old-timers aren't accorded any special honors; they don't wear scarlet robes and mortarboards. Only Kissell rates a title in the St. Louis media guide: "field coordinator for player development." The comings and goings of the three are not closely followed by the front office; they slip into Johnson City, Peoria or Hamilton for a week or 10 days at a time, do their thing and then return to their homes to dote on grandchildren and work on gardens.
But make no mistake, they are welcome visitors. "The roving instructors are the best thing that ever happened to the minor leagues," says Rick Jacobson, the former Hamilton general manager. "The players see the manager and the coach every day, but these guys take a fatherly or grandfatherly interest in them. And it works."
To understand how and why it works, let's audit a class or two.
Pitching 401: Fundamentals of the Stretch, M-F 4:00. Professor Hub Kittle
"Did you learn anything?" The raspy voice booms across Howard Johnson Field in Johnson City, projected by the bespectacled, white-mustached drill instructor in the dusty, faded red cap. "Eighteen-year-old kid? High school phenom?" The old man's head bobs as he bellows at a young pitcher, "You gotta learn! Practice every damned day!"