Few people have experienced as much in the game of baseball as Johnny Goryl. Now 77, the personable Cumberland, R.I., native signed his first professional contract nearly 60 years ago and has worn a uniform ever since. An infielder with the Cubs and Twins from 1957-64, he has spent the last five decades coaching and managing at both the minor- and major-league levels and is currently serving as a special advisor in player development for the Indians. Goryl sat down with Baseball Prospectus to talk about his long career, including time spent around Ernie Banks, Harmon Killebrew and Norm Cash, and why you didn’t want to mess with Bob Gibson.
Johnny Goryl: Yes, and it seems like ages ago, Dave, but it was a wonderful time in my life. I was given an opportunity to pursue something I had dreamed about ever since I was a young kid and I had the good fortune of being in the right spot at the right time with a high school coach who had a contact with Roland Hemond up in Hartford, Conn. He was working that area as an assistant to Charlie Blossenfield, who was the general manager. Roland lined it up for me to be able to play in a Sunday afternoon doubleheader against a Negro team from Philadelphia. At the time I was a 17-year-old high school kid who had played third base. They asked me to play shortstop on this particular day, and fortunately for me I performed pretty good and had a few hits. The rest is history. I got signed the following week. I was underage, so my father had to sign the contract with me, and from there I was off and on my way to start my career in Bluefield, W. Va.
DL: Your career started post-integration, but there was still a lot of segregation in baseball.
JG: Oh my gosh, was there ever. I mean, I can remember even as late as my career with the Twins, as a player, in 1964 — which seems like ages ago — there was still segregation where our black players had to live at a hotel away from the white players in Orlando, Fla. That was the first inkling I had of what was going on as far as the black and white issue was concerned.
DL:You broke into the big leagues with the Cubs, in 1957, and one of your teammates was a pretty good shortstop.
JG: Ernie Banks is one of the greatest human beings you’d ever want to run into, Dave. Ernie never had a bad day in baseball. Every day he wanted to play a doubleheader. He’d always walk into the clubhouse and say, “Let’s play two today,” and that became kind of the theme song for him throughout his career, especially the years I was with him. Ernie was not only a great hitter he was also a dang good shortstop. Had we surrounded him with better players, there is no telling how many pennants the Cubs would have won with him as their shortstop. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, but the times I spent with Ernie as one of my teammates were something I thoroughly enjoyed. He was just a great guy to be friends with.
DL: Was Banks the best player you spent time with?
JG: Boy, nothing against Ernie or anybody else, but I played with a lot of great players. There was Carl Yastrzemski. Hank Aaron was one of my first teammates, in Eau Claire, Wis. We were there in 1952 and what I remember best about Hank is that he hit cross-handed. And it was not only those two guys, but there was Harmon Killebrew, and there was Rod Carew, who I worked endless hours with to teach him how to bunt. There were guys like … oh, my goodness. There was Al Kaline, who I played against. The list goes on and on. I actually had a kid research that for me recently, and he figured out that I’ve been on the field with — either playing with or against, or coaching with or against — 71 Hall of Famers.
DL: You mentioned Harmon Killebrew. With the possible exception of Frank Howard, was he the strongest player you’ve seen?
JG: They were different types of power hitters, Dave. Harmon hit those towering shots that just kept going and going. They were high and mighty and went a long way, where Frank Howard hit line drives for home runs. I saw one day, in the Washington ballpark when he was playing for the Senators, where he hit a line drive that the shortstop actually jumped for, thinking he could catch the ball, and it went into the left-center-field bullpen. That’s how strong Frank was. Boy, they were two great home run hitters.
DL: One of Killebrew’s teammates in Minnesota was a guy who a lot of fans today might not be familiar with, but probably should be. I’m referring to Bob Allison.
JG: Oh, there’s no question about it. He was probably one of the top left fielders in the game in his era, in the early 1960s. He, along with Harmon, led the club to their first American League pennant in 1965 and on to the World Series where they played the Dodgers. Bob was one of those hard-nosed types of guys that played the game the way it should be played. When he slid into second base to try to break up a double play, it was with some intent. And he never was a home run hitter, Dave, in the minor leagues. The highest total that he hit in the minor leagues was eight; you could look that up. Then, in his first year in the big leagues, with the old Washington Senators, who of course became the Minnesota Twins, he hit 28 or 30 home runs. That’s something most people don’t know about Bob.
DL: Just how good of a hitter was Tony Oliva?
JG: Tony could hit in a snowstorm. We’d go into spring training and Tony would take his first round of batting practice and be peppering line drives all over the place. Tony, had he stayed healthy, would have put up marks that a lot of hitters in the game would have envied. He would have been putting up numbers the same as Yastrzemski and all of those great hitters.
DL: It was a different game back when you coached with the Twins in the late 1960s.
JG: To put a perspective on the way the game was back then, all you have to do is look at Bob Gibson’s numbers in 1968. He probably did the greatest single feat of any pitcher in the history of the game when he had an ERA just over 1.00. And the thing I remember best about Bob Gibson is that he was a fierce competitor. You knew when you went up to hit against Bob Gibson that it wasn’t going to be an easy at-bat. I can remember one September, which is when you’d bring up some young players to finish up the season and take a look at them. This one young kid came up with us, with the Cubs, and Bob was pitching against us. The kid got in the box and was digging a hole to get his foot in for a good toe-hold, and Bob is standing on the mound with his arms folded. He was looking in and checking this kid out, and then finally, when he got in the box, Bob walked halfway toward home plate and said, “Do you have that hole deep enough to get in there and hit?” The kid didn’t say anything, and Bob turned back around and said, “Well, I’m going to bury you in that hole.” The kid started scraping dirt back into it to try to keep Bob from following up on what he wanted to do.
DL: Gibson had a reputation as being a tough S.O.B., as did the manager you coached under with the Twins in 1969.
JG: Billy Martin was an outstanding major-league manager, probably one of the smartest men in the game that I’ve come across. He was one of those guys who always gambled and it seemed like he always made the right calls on a lot of things. He just did a terrific job for us in 1969, and unfortunately we ran into Baltimore in the playoffs and they beat us three in a row. But that was quite a season. It was an interesting season and I really loved coaching for Billy. Unfortunately, there was a misunderstanding between him and Mr. (Calvin) Griffith, who was the owner at that time. Billy was a man of his own convictions, and Mr. Griffith sent him packing. But I’ll tell you what: there were a lot of people in Minnesota who weren’t very happy about that.
DL: You went on to manage the Twins for parts of the 1980 and 1981 seasons.
JG: Yes, I replaced Gene Mauch, God love him. Gene was the manager at the time, and his wife got cancer — apparently it was terminal cancer — and he elected to go home to spend time with her. That gave me the opportunity to step in and finish out the season for Gene, and in the process I guess I did a pretty good job. I think we won 12 in a row at one point and Mr. Griffith thought it would be nice if I could come back for another year, which I did. At the time, I was probably not very prepared to do that, Dave, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. I accepted the challenge, but we got off to a bad start that season and I was replaced in late May by Billy Gardner.
DL: From Minnesota you moved on to the Indians organization, and in 1997 you were Mike Hargrove‘s bench coach. That was a bittersweet season in Indians history.
JG: Yes, we went into the seventh game (of the World Series) and took a 3-2 lead into the bottom of the ninth inning, down in Miami, and unfortunately gave up the lead. They tied up the game 3-3 and then (Edgar) Renteria singled in the 11th inning to beat us 4-3. That was probably the biggest disappointment in my life, but it was also one of the most rewarding parts of my career as a baseball man.
DL: The Indians, in what didn’t turn out to be one of their better trades, once dealt a young Norm Cash to the Detroit Tigers. I understand you have a good Norm Cash story.
JG: Oh yes. Norm was a character, and what a tremendous guy he was as well. Norm had a quick wit and a great sense of humor, and we had a pitcher by the name of Jim Merritt when I was with the Twins and Norm was with the Tigers. Well, he got on base and was taking his lead, and Jimmy Merritt had a great balk move, and he picked Norm dead to rights. Before the first baseman could tag him out, Norm threw up his hands and tried to call time out to the umpire on first base. The umpire hesitated before he made his call, so it was a comical scene, to say the least.