SABR

John Herrnstein

This article was written by Brian Engelhardt.

As one of six rookies on the Philadelphia Phillies’ 1964 Opening Day roster, John Herrnstein experienced his finest season in a major-league career that would end two years later. The left-handed native of Chillicothe, Ohio, seemed to be a favorite of Phillies manager Gene Mauch, who moved him about his baseball chessboard frequently during the Phillies’ star-crossed 1964 season.

Appearing in 125 games, Herrnstein was one of nine Phillies to play first base, one of ten to play left field, one of eight to play right field, and one of seven to play center field. Of the 70 games he started (61 at first base – the most of anyone who appeared there – and nine in the outfield), Herrnstein usually ended up playing a different position by the end of the game.

Born in Hampton, Virginia, on March 31, 1938, to Mary and William Herrnstein, John Ellett Herrnstein was the younger of the couple’s two sons. When he was an infant, his father, an electrical engineer, moved the family to Chillicothe, 50 miles south of Columbus, Ohio, for a job opportunity there. Eventually he took a position with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the government agency that became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

John Herrnstein’s athletic accomplishments at Chillicothe High School, from which he graduated in 1955, included being named first team all-state in baseball and football and second team all-state in basketball. Between baseball practices Herrnstein found time to participate in track, where he set a school record with a time of 10.0 seconds in the 100-yard dash. In 1993 Herrnstein was one of the original 16 inductees to the Chillicothe High School Sports Hall of Fame.1

Ohio State booster and Pittsburgh Pirates owner John Galbreath offered to sponsor a full scholarship for Herrnstein at Ohio State University, which was allowed at the time under NCAA rules. Instead, following a family tradition, Herrnstein decided to play at the University of Michigan, where his father and his great-uncle Albert Herrnstein had played. Despite Herrnstein’s sterling high-school achievements and the Wolverine family legacy, Michigan expressed interest in Herrnstein only after his father contacted a former teammate, Michigan football coach Bennie Oosterbaan. “I practically had to beg them to [go] there,” Herrnstein recalled. Because of his family tradition, “I would have felt like a traitor had I not.”2 Apart from that, Herrnstein also took into account that, Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes “played only 11-12 guys a game and I wasn’t sure I would get to play much in that system.”3

Underscoring Michigan’s lukewarm interest in Herrnstein was that he began on an academic scholarship which “was only a half-scholarship, as I didn’t get a full ride – and I had to keep a certain grade-point average to keep it.” This changed during Herrnstein’s sophomore year, when he married his high-school sweetheart, Barbara Sue Harness. When Barbara became pregnant, Herrnstein, knowing that he would now have a family to support, told the athletic department, he could not play football without a full scholarship. He related that, “I got one.”

NCAA rules prevented Herrnstein from playing varsity football as a freshman, but in spring practice the second semester of his freshman year he was able to practice with the varsity and the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Herrnstein excelled, winning honors as the player who showed the most development and potential at spring practice, and as the most promising freshman.4

Herrnstein had an outstanding sophomore season, playing both fullback and linebacker – there was no platooning. His 3.9-yard average gain per carry and seven touchdowns were factors in the Wolverines’ success that season. Led by future NFL stars Ron Kramer and Terry Barr, Michigan finished 7-2 and was ranked seventh in both the AP and UPI polls, and second in the Big Ten. Most importantly for Wolverines fans, they defeated the Ohio State Buckeyes, 19-0.

After his promising sophomore season, a nagging foot injury severely limited Herrnstein’s playing time his junior year. The Wolverines slipped to 5-3 and lost to the Buckeyes. He was elected team captain for his senior year, but his football career ended in the third game of the season, against Navy, when he suffered a knee injury that required surgery.

In baseball, meanwhile, the Wolverines, under coach Ray Fisher, finished 17-7 in 1957 (fourth place in the Big Ten) and 18-12 in 1958 (second). One of Herrnstein’s teammates was future major-league player and manager Steve Boros. During the summer of 1957 Herrnstein was invited to play in the Basin League, a league in the Upper Midwest for premier college players. Playing for the Pierre (South Dakota) Cowboys, Herrnstein recalled playing against Dick Radatz, Ron Perranoski, Frank Howard, and Dick Howser.5

Barbara Herrnstein accompanied John to South Dakota for that summer. It was the first of many places she would accompany him to during a nine-year baseball odyssey when he played for six minor-league and three major-league teams. Herrnstein described Barbara as “an absolute rock” over the course of their marriage.6 The union produced five children: John in 1957, daughters Susan and Karen in 1958 and 1959, son Seth in 1961, and daughter Kristin in 1965. Barbara and the children lived with John during each season, and the couple also tried to establish a home in Chillicothe during the offseason.

While in the hospital recuperating from his knee operation, Herrnstein signed a contract with scout Tony Lucadello of the Phillies on December 4, 1958, for a reported $35,000 bonus. The offer from the Phillies was “a little too nice to turn down,” he said at the time.7 Herrnstein’s relationship with Lucadello extended over the course of his eight years in the Phillies system; he said Lucadello would make occasional calls to see how things were going.8

After graduating from the University of Michigan with a degree in education, Herrnstein began his professional career with the Des Moines Demons of the Class B Three I (Illinois-Indiana-Iowa) League. Under manager Charlie Kress, the team finished in first place with a record of 78-48. Herrnstein hit ten home runs but batted a modest .244.

In 1960 Herrnstein played left field for the Williamsport Grays of the Class A Eastern League. His .305 average and 85 RBIs led the team. He clubbed 16 home runs, and was named to the league all-star team. Under manager Frank Lucchesi, the Grays compiled a 76-62 record, the best in the league.

Promoted to the Double-A Chattanooga Lookouts of the Southern Association for 1961, again playing under Lucchesi, Herrnstein led the Lookouts with 95 RBIs, batting .292 with 17 home runs and 22 doubles, and was named to the league all-star team. The Lookouts finished 90-62 and won the league championship.

In 1962 Herrnstein moved up to the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons of the International League, managed by Kerby Farrell. Although the Bisons finished the season with a less than stellar record of 73-80, Herrnstein, playing left field, had a fine year, hitting .293 with 23 home runs, 30 doubles, 7 triples, and 83 RBIs. His performance earned him a late season call-up to the Phillies. He made his big-league debut on September 15 in a 5-4 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals at Philadelphia. Herrnstein entered the game as a pinch-hitter in the sixth inning against Ernie Broglio and struck out looking. His first major-league hit was a pinch-single at Connie Mack Stadium off Cal Koonce in a 4-1 loss to the Cubs five days later.

That offseason Herrnstein played winter ball for Arecibo in the Puerto Rican League. He led the league with 14 home runs, but said he had few happy memories of that season. Barbara and his growing family accompanied him, and each of their four children caught the measles and needed to be quarantined over the course of a month and a half. Unable to send anyone home because of the measles, the family remained for the whole season.9

A member of the Phillies’ 28-man Opening Day roster in 1963, Herrnstein went hitless in eight games and was sent to the Phillies’ new Triple-A affiliate, the Arkansas Travelers of the International League.

At Little Rock Herrnstein again had Lucchesi as his manager – the fourth time in his six-year career. Playing left field and first base, he batted.271 with 22 home runs, 19 doubles, and 73 RBIs. When Phillies outfielder Tony Gonzalez was injured in late August, Herrnstein got another call-up. Appearing in seven games, mostly as a pinch-hitter, he went 2-for-6, the most memorable hit being a ninth-inning pinch-hit home run off World Series hero Don Larsen that broke a 4-4 tie in a 5-4 Phillies victory over the Giants in Candlestick Park on September 24.10 The dramatic victory was part of a late-season drive that saw the Phillies win nine of their last 12 games to finish in fourth place with a record of 87-75, the team’s highest finish since 1955 and their best record since 1953.

The Phillies held Herrnstein out of winter ball in 1963, feeling a season-end drop in his production at the plate was caused by fatigue after playing 11 months of baseball. At home in Chillicothe over the winter, he taught school and coached basketball. It was the last time Herrnstein taught.11

Going into spring training, the Phillies hoped that Herrnstein would provide outfield bench strength and possibly share first-base duties with right-handed-hitting veteran Roy Sievers.

After a slow spring training, Herrnstein began to live up to expectations when on April 19 he filled in for center fielder Tony Gonzalez and hit his first home run of the season in an 8-1 Phillies victory over the Chicago Cubs. Four days later, Herrnstein provided the winning hit in a 6-5 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates. Pinch-hitting with two on and two outs and the Phillies trailing 5-4 in the bottom of the ninth inning, Herrnstein lined reliever Roy Face’s first pitch down the left-field line for a two-run double that capped a four-run rally. The next day, in his first start of the season at first base, Herrnstein hit two doubles and a triple in a 10-0 victory over the Cubs. Herrnstein’s strong performance in April – he hit .462 – was a factor in the Phillies going 9-2 in the opening month.

Mauch used Herrnstein as the first baseman against right-handed pitching, and when the Phillies had the lead in late innings, Mauch would move him to left field as a defensive replacement for Wes Covington. On May 17 in the fifth inning during a 2-0 victory over the Houston Colt .45’s at Houston, Herrnstein started “the only triple play I was ever involved in” when, with runners on first and second, he fielded a ground ball by Jerry Grote, threw to shortstop Bobby Wine covering second, received the throw back from Wine to get Grote at first, then threw out Rusty Staub, who was trying to score from second.

Herrnstein ended May on a positive note with three hits in two Phillies wins against the Colt .45’s on the last two days of the month, with the two wins pushing the team a half-game ahead of the Giants. His momentum continued into June, during which he hit.302 pace with three home runs and 10 RBIs. June 21, Father’s Day, was a historic day for the team, being the day Jim Bunning pitched a perfect game against the Mets, the first in baseball in more than 58 years. Herrnstein played the entire game at first base, and had seven putouts. Calling it “a thrill to be involved in something like that,” he added with a laugh, “I tell people, ‘I’m in the Hall of Fame.’ My name is on the lineup card from that game - which is in the Hall of Fame.”

After his robust performance in June, Herrnstein, a self-described streak hitter, slumped in July, hitting just .104 with only one extra-base hit. In a home game on the 25th against the Cardinals, Herrnstein almost wiped away his frustration for the month in one at-bat. With the Phillies trailing 10-2 in the bottom of the ninth inning, the team rallied and the score was 10-8 with no outs when he came up to pinch-hit. Dick Allen was on third and Alex Johnson on first. Hitting what was described as “a terrific smash to deep center,” Herrnstein drove the ball almost to the 447-foot sign in Connie Mack Stadium’s center field.12 The wind held the ball up long enough for Cardinals center fielder Curt Flood to make a running catch. The long out enabled Allen to score from third, making the score 10-9. But Johnson made a base-running error that ended up with his being thrown out at second base, and Gus Triandos popped out to end the game. Reflecting on the cavernous centerfield of Connie Mack Stadium Herrnstein recalled how he “hit a number of long outs there.”

Herrnstein improved in August to a .290 clip with two home runs. But his playing time at first base virtually disappeared when on August 8 the Phillies obtained veteran right-handed slugger Frank Thomas from the Mets to play first base. Herrnstein’s role was reduced to that of pinch-hitter and defensive replacement in left field. Appearing at first base in only one game for the rest of August, and starting one game in left field against the Cubs on August 12, he otherwise did not start a game until September 11, when he started at first base against the Giants after Thomas broke his thumb on September 8.

Mauch tried to fill the gap at first base created by Thomas’s injury with Herrnstein, Vic Power (acquired from the Los Angeles Angels after Thomas was hurt), and rookie Costen Shockley. None of them was able to provide any offensive spark. Herrnstein ended the season in a 2-for-31 slump.

Speaking of the ten-game losing streak the Phillies suffered with a 6½-game lead and 12 games to play, resulting in their finishing a game behind the Cardinals, Herrnstein defended Mauch’s use of starting pitchers Jim Bunning and Chris Short three times during the ten-game streak, telling author Bill Kashatus: “I know Gene was criticized for pitching Bunning and Short on only a few days’ rest. But I’m not sure that‘s fair. Some of the guys had bad arms and refused to take the ball for fear of extending the skid. Mauch did the only thing he could do, which was go with the live arms.” He concluded, “There was no choice with Bunning and Short. Those were the only ones pitching. We had sore arms, and it was almost like they were the only ones who would take the ball, or that Mauch had confidence in to give the ball to pitch.”13

“Out of those ten games we lost, we were in seven of those ten games right up to the end of the game where with a base hit here or a timely hit there, we could have won it. So we were not really blown out in those games, only in about two or three of them. We just couldn’t get over the hump. … “A clutch hit here or there” might have won seven of the ten games, he said.14

Herrnstein described Mauch as “very, very intense … not the best manager for young players to play for. He favored veterans. He’d always go with the hot hand, so you didn’t have a lot of leeway – if you were not going well, then you were not playing.”

In Herrnstein’s 125 games that season, he made 68 appearances at first base, 63 in left field, 4 in center field and 3 in right. In 303 at-bats he batted .234, with 6 home runs, 12 doubles, 4 triples, and 25 runs batted in. It was the best year of his brief big-league career. Herrnstein was the second best pinch-hitter on the team, hitting .333 in 21 at-bats with five RBIs.

After the season Herrnstein played winter ball in Puerto Rico, this time with Ponce. The season was less dramatic than it had been two years earlier. Herrnstein roomed with pitchers Dennis Bennett and Ferguson Jenkins and Phillies pitching coach Al Widmar (there to tutor Jenkins and Bennett). 15 Neither he nor any of his roommates caught the measles.

Aside from the money he could make, Herrnstein saw playing winter ball as a way to deal with the aftermath of the team’s collapse. “I think we all tried to put the ’64 season out of our minds right away and as best we could, and to build on that experience.,” he said. He saw playing winter ball as helping him and others to “chase the demons away, like getting back up on the horse after falling off.” Still, he said, “We never achieved that level of success again during my time in Philadelphia.”

In 1965 it was clear that Herrnstein’s role would be reduced with the Phillies’ offseason acquisition of right-handed slugger Dick Stuart from the Boston Red Sox with the idea that he would be the team’s everyday first baseman. Herrnstein did not have his first at-bat until the sixth game of the season, and his first hit didn’t come until a month later. By then he had appeared in only 12 games, with seven at-bats. His finally started a game, at first base, on June 17.

Herrnstein’s high point at the plate in 1965 came on July 17 when he went 3-for-6 against Cincinnati, hitting his only home run of the season in a 14-7 Phillies victory. He ended the year with 85 at-bats in 63 games, a .200 batting average, and five runs batted in.

Despite frustrations Herrnstein may have experienced in 1965 with his diminished role, he experienced what he described as “my favorite baseball memory,” which, he added with a laugh, “wasn’t about baseball.” This took place before the Phillies’ opening game against the newly renamed Houston Astros in the new Astrodome, when all of the Mercury astronauts came out on the field.

Herrnstein said he had “a real interest in the space program” because of his father’s position as an engineer for NASA. “I was in the dugout all by myself before the game started,” he recalled. “None of my teammates were there, but I wanted to see the ceremonies and the astronauts. Then this fellow walked into the dugout and just started talking to me and we talked for 10 or 15 minutes. He was one of the newer astronauts – the second wave in training at that time. Then he had to get back up and onto the field – and he said, ‘It’s been nice talking to you. My name’s Neil Armstrong.’ I said, ‘Well, it’s nice to meet you, too.’ ” He found Armstrong to be a “modest person” with a “very shy demeanor.” Later that evening he told Barbara, “ ‘He said his name is Neil Armstrong. Now help me remember that name, will you?’ ”

Years later, Herrnstein contacted Armstrong and “just wrote him a letter about meeting him before that game, and I mentioned how proud I was of all his accomplishments.” Herrnstein received what he termed “a very nice personal reply from him, which I didn’t expect.” He called the letter “very personal,” and said he considered it “kind of icing on the cake for the memory.” Herrnstein said he “always admired the astronauts and the courage that it must have taken to get on those rockets and go,” and declared, “They’re real heroes in my book.”

Herrnstein’s hopes for more playing time in 1966 were buoyed by a spring training in which he tied for the team lead with four Grapefruit League home runs. In the season opener in St. Louis (the scheduled April 12 opener was rained out), his pinch-single in the top of the 12th inning drove home the winning run in a 3-2 Phillies victory. He started the next two games in left field, but found himself back on the bench after striking out in seven of his next eight plate appearances. Herrnstein became friends with Phillies catcher Bob Uecker, acquired from the Cardinals in the offseason, whose clubhouse locker was near his. Uecker, he said, was responsible for precarious situations with manager Mauch: “With Mauch, you didn’t dare even think about laughing after a loss. Bob knew he could crack me up just by looking at me. So after any loss I always tried to avoid looking at him.”

On April 21, 1966, in one of the worst trades in Phillies history, Herrnstein was traded to the Cubs along with outfielder Adolfo Phillips and future Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins for veteran pitchers Larry Jackson, who had another couple of years left in his arm, and Bob Buhl, who didn’t. In Herrnstein’s first week with the Cubs, he started three games at first base in place of the slumping Ernie Banks. But he played in only six more games before again being traded, on May 29, this time to the Atlanta Braves for outfielder Marty Keough and pitcher Arnold Earley.

At that point in the season between his time with the Phillies in the Cubs, Herrnstein had only 30 plate appearances with three hits and three walks. Appearing in 17 games with the Braves either as a pinch-hitter or a defensive replacement, Herrnstein had four singles in 18 at-bats (bringing his overall average for the season up to .178) before being sent to Triple-A Richmond on July 14. He finished the season with Richmond, hitting .134 in 34 games.

During the offseason, on learning that he had been dealt by the Braves to the Boston Red Sox in a Triple-A transaction, Herrnstein said, “I just notified them that I was going to retire. … I think I was just convinced after being traded a couple of times, my heart just wasn’t in it. It always bothered me to be away from my family so much. It was just getting tired of baseball – life on the road and life away from the family. I needed to get on with my life.” He was also discouraged by the demotion to Richmond. “Minor leagues are fine if you are on your way up. But if you’ve been there … and you’re back down there now, that’s different,” he said.

With Barbara and their five children living with him during his time in Philadelphia, Chicago, then Atlanta, Herrnstein’s family went back home to Chillicothe when he was sent to Richmond. It was a tough time; he was “continually paying on leases on houses for the summer – and then having to break them.” By the end of the 1966 season, in addition to paying for his apartment in Richmond, “I had three rents – rent here – rent there – plus I was paying on the house I was buying at home (in Chillicothe).”

“If I was making the salaries they make today, that would have been different,” Herrnstein said. “Back then it was just self-defeating. When I tell people now that some of these players now make as much money in one at-bat as we made in an entire season, they look at me like I’m nuts. I say, ‘Well, it’s the truth.’ It makes a difference – with the income they can make now you might decide to be away from your family.”

Herrnstein worked briefly in sales for a paper company in Chillicothe, then began a successful career in what he called “the investment business,” then moved to banking. He said he “went through a number of mergers in the banking business, and survived all of them” until he lost his job as a result of a 1990 merger of his bank. He “decided to go back into the brokerage business,” from which he retired in 2011 after a successful run. Besides their five children John and Barbara Herrnstein had as of 2013 15 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. (However, the Herrnstein family pipeline to Michigan football was broken; son Seth played football for Ohio State, and grandson Justin as of 2013 played for Tiffin University in Tiffin, Ohio.)

Reflecting on his careers in baseball, banking, and the financial world, Herrnstein said he has “done a lot of different things and …enjoyed them all.” After he left baseball he “never missed the travel, hotels, restaurants, the big cities, and all that, but I did miss the close associations you develop with your teammates.” In 1989 Herrnstein attended a reunion in Philadelphia for the 1964 Phillies and enjoyed seeing his former teammates, but has not had contact with any of them since then.

From Herrnstein’s perspective, being a member of the 1964 Phillies was “both a high point and a low point to me, rather than any particular thing I did as an individual. The fact we led the league most of the entire season – we weren’t expected to be a contender at all – with a large contingent of mostly younger players … who all contributed in various ways, was really neat. The collapse at year end was naturally a major disappointment – to both the players and the fans.”

In interviews for this article Herrnstein was modest about his accomplishments and candid throughout. His perspective was indeed that of someone who has “done a lot of different things and … enjoyed them all.”

Last revised: August 27, 2014

 

This biography is included in the book "The Year of the Blue Snow: The 1964 Philadelphia Phillies" (SABR, 2013), edited by Mel Marmer and Bill Nowlin. For more information or to purchase the book in e-book or paperback form, click here.

 

Notes

1 Mike Shannon, Baseball in Chillicothe (Columbia, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2005), 17.

2 John Herrnstein interview with author, September 29, 2010. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from Herrnstein come from this interview or another one done on July 15, 2012.

3 Aaron Korte, “BC’s Herrnstein following in the family’s footsteps,” Tiffin (Ohio) Advertiser-Tribune, November 19, 2011. http://www.advertiser-tribune.com/page/content.detail/id/542157/BC-s-Herrnstein-following-in-the-family-s-footsteps.html?nav=5238 accessed January 25, 2013.

4 “University of Michigan Athletic History – Football” 1956-1958,” Bentley Historical Library, http://bentley.umich.edu/athdept/football/football.htm, accessed January 25, 2013.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 “Phillies Sign John Herrnstein,” Toledo Blade, December 4, 1958, 24.

8 Herrnstein interview, September 29, 2010.

9 Ibid.

10 Ray Kelly, “Herrnstein HR As ‘Late Hunch’ Slays Giants,” Philadelphia Bulletin, September 25, 1963.

11 Herrnstein interview, September 29, 2010.

12 Allen Lewis, “Phils Walk Zany Path to Win – Even Dizzier Trail to Defeat,” The Sporting News, August 8, 1964, 10.

13 William C. Kashatus, September Swoon (University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004), 138-9.

14 John P. Rossi, The 1964 Phillies: The Story of Baseball’s Most Memorable Collapse (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2005), 59, 140.

15 Herrnstein interview, September 29, 2010.

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