Bill Bird: Born to be a ballplayer

Bill Bird as a Reds farmhand

Shortstop Bill Bird was a 28th-round draft pick of the Cardinals in June 1972. He bounced around the low minors in the St. Louis organization until early in the 1975 season, when the Reds acquired him and sent him to Eugene of the Northwest League. In 75 games for the Emeralds, he hit .276 with seven home runs and 43 runs batted in. He finished his career in 1976, hitting .204 in 108 games for the Tampa Tarpons (A).

Jim Haught Let’s go into your background and how you got started in the game.

Bill Bird I guess you remember when you were five or six years old, you kind of wanted to play, you know? I just felt like it was the big guy upstairs that, Hey, you need to be playing ball. That’s what you need to do.

JH So you were born to play ball?

BB Yeah. I just felt like that, when I was four or five years old.

JH Was baseball always your sport? Were there are other ones that you played?

BB Yeah, I played basketball and a little bit of football and — but baseball was the sport. The other ones were for fun, and baseball was a career.

JH How early on did you aim that seriously at baseball?

Bill Bird today

BB Seven. Eight.

JH Really? You just knew?

BB Oh yeah!

JH Were you always the shortstop?

BB Yeah.

JH Classic in-the-three-hole, and play short?

BB I did. And I think in Little League, I think our team won the first half, and the coach was so happy, Everybody can hit from the other side of the plate the next game, if they want. So of course, everybody said they were gonna do that, and no one did it but me!

But long story short, I got three at-bats and got two doubles and a homer lefthanded. Never looked back. So I switch-hit forever as a result of that. So, you know, those days were fun, right?

I focused on baseball, and then I remember I had some successes along the way, and I felt — I personally felt gifted, but I didn’t have the gift of speed. Of course, I didn’t know that at that time. I was faster than most guys, but you know, as you get close to the top — the pinnacle …

And I didn’t hit the ball over the wall with consistency. So it was tough from a professional standpoint. Don’t even think I really recognized it, Jim, until I got out of baseball, why I didn’t make it.

I was drafted one year, and the next year Garry Templeton was drafted as a shortstop. Same guy that drafted me in the 28th round, drafted this guy in the first round. And I went to spring training with the Cardinals with him a couple of years. Thought I beat him out. Of course, I didn’t. And management made the right decisions. They took him and not me, but I still thought I was better, right?

JH Well, you might have been, in every way but speed!

BB I couldn’t run like that guy could, but he was gifted.

But anyway, I’ve loved the game. Yeah. I’ve loved the game and I’ve put a lot into it my whole life. Played high school. And played college. Went to a junior college because I was drafted out of high school, but I thought, I’m not ready to go yet. I want to have a little bit more fun. So I went to a JC, as opposed to going to a four-year school, because at that point you couldn’t go pro unless you were 21, or had done your junior year. So opted for the JC.

JH Yeah, because you were 20 years old when you broke into pro ball, right?

BB No, I was younger than that. I was probably 18. Yeah, 18, because I was really young. I graduated at 17 in high school. I was one of the younger guys, so now and then I would play. But just, you know, I loved the game. I’m not sure I worked as hard as I should have at it. Didn’t know what the end result was, but I loved the game.

JH You say you didn’t have speed, but I guess you hit for average? And had a good arm?

BB Well, I think, yeah.

JH Strongest part of your game is? [or] was at that time?

BB Well, of course, I thought the hitting was. The teams I played on in minor league, I always hit third or fifth — every team — until I got to Eugene, and I hit second.

But I thought that probably my arm was my absolute strength. I think my hands – Paul Moskau and I were just talking the other day: Bill, can you still do what you used to do with your hands? I’ve never seen anybody else do that. I’d kind of catch the ball and not really reach into the glove, just playing catch. I could just do this, and the ball would travel to my hand in here, just by hitting it on the inside of your hand. And I kinda did it for show, but it was good because coaches would say, Hey, this guy’s got some pretty good hands.

So I think, turning a double play, I probably was as good as anyone in the big leagues.

JH Well, if the transfer [of the ball from glove to throwing hand] is pretty quick –

BB Yeah, but you can’t do that in the real game.

JH You didn’t do it in the game?

BB No, no. You couldn’t do that.

JH So you were good around the bag –

BB Defensively, I think I was pretty good. I honestly felt I was connected with the game. Innate experience or an innate sense of kind of where to cheat, who’s going to hit where and what, and how deep. Kind of based on the pitcher and the hitter, and I just was connected.

JH Were there other ballplayers in your family? Did it come from being in a baseball environment, or was all on your own?

BB It was born — I just really feel it was just innate with me. It was just something — I loved it, and I like to win. And if you had to cheat over a couple of steps to make sure this guy’s going to hit it —

I just felt like I was there picking off people. We loved picking off guys. I talked to the runners behind their back. Don’t worry about the pitcher; he’s ok. And I’d worked with pitchers as to how to pick guys off — period. As soon as you see me take a step, just turn and throw to the base, because I’ll be there before you get the ball there.

JH The daylight play?

BB Pretty much. I would just be behind [the runner]. And as soon as I took a fast step, turn and throw, because I would be there before the ball. But I had to position myself in a manner that as soon as the pitcher saw me go, he was to turn and throw. I had to be there, because I wanted him to have the confidence: don’t worry about anything. I move that way, you turn and throw.

JH Otherwise, the ball’s going into center field.

BB That’s right. Yeah. That’s the only way you can pick a guy off. And it was very successful. Frank Pastore — I mean all the pitchers couldn’t wait — every time we were together, we’d pick some guys off. So that was awful fun to me.

I probably was more of a — I wasn’t as serious, maybe, as I should have been. You know, I probably — but I wouldn’t have made it anyway. I didn’t have the over-the-wall power.

JH Power was, in the scouts’ mind or management’s mind, the biggest thing that held you back?

BB No. Speed. I had enough power to hit it out, but I wasn’t a power hitter. I always go back to, if you’re going play in the big leagues, you’ve got to have one of two things.

JH Speed or power?

BB Either one. I may have known the game as well or better than probably most, but that’s not enough.

Having a good arm, having been a good hitter, being a good defensive guy, being a good leader, that’s not enough.

JH Well, the Reds were so big on speed in those days –

Larry Herndon as a Cardinal

BB Well, I was with the Cardinals before that. So you had Jerry Mumphrey and Larry Herndon and all these guys and it was all — everybody flew. Everybody flew. So again, I look back and I go, wow, I didn’t really recognize the dynamics of what it takes to get to the pinnacle.

JH What did it take to go from the Cardinals to the Reds? How did that work?

BB Well, I was unhappy with the Cardinals. Really, really unhappy, because of what happened: Templeton came in, all of a sudden I moved to third base, and now I don’t want to be at third base. And I probably thought I was better than I was. So I talked to the farm directors: I don’t want to play here anymore; I’ll find somewhere else to go because if I can’t play short, I’m not going to — I don’t want to do it.

JH That’s a shortstop for ya! [laughter]

BB So then Ron Plaza, I talked to him because he was in Tampa and I was in St. Pete. He picked me up and I played right away with the Reds. Then I went up to Eugene; that’s how I got up there.

But yeah, baseball was everything. The whole world surrounded. I was kind of arrogant. I liked to be flashy. That’s what made me feel good. I wasn’t as solid as I should’ve been.

JH In 1975 at Eugene, .276, seven home runs, 43 driven in — pretty good for a short season. There were 22 errors.

BB I made a few, I made a few.

JH But you know, you’re a young kid.

BB Those were probably throwing errors.

JH So the hands were still good.

BB It was always throwing errors. I really liked to show the arm off. So I would throw it from every angle, from every body position. I’d like to do things other people couldn’t do. So if I could do it one out of three times or two out of three times, I felt that was successful — that was going to show the true talent of this guy: we’ll just get him under control when he gets older.

JH That’s a good plan.

BB But they were generally all throwing errors.

JH Soft hands?

BB Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.

JH So was that a given? Did you have to work on your hands?

BB No. You’re born with these things, I think.

JH I’ve asked other guys who had good hands, and hardly anybody seems to be able to explain how they got –

BB You don’t, you don’t learn it. You don’t know — you don’t acquire it or learn it, I don’t think. I personally don’t think that. I kind of think it’s like running; either you can run or you can’t. I really, truly believe that. But hands, yeah, it’s kind of a natural thing, I think. You can see it with guys that have soft hands. It’s — there’s no effort.

Being part of the 1975 Emeralds has made a lasting impression on Bill, and he was anxious to discuss it.

BB I’ve got to get into this team. This team was pretty special for me. We all are pretty much individuals and did our thing; everybody had their road to success to get drafted or whatnot. But it was pretty special.

JH So let’s go to 1975. And you get connected with Greg in Eugene. Did he “polish” you?

BB Uh, no.

JH Just let you play?

BB Yes. Amen.

JH Did he foster an atmosphere of let’s have a good time doing this, but let’s win the game?

BB Yeah.

JH So the emphasis is on player development even so much more than winning sometimes. How did all that work? What made you — as a player, how did you feel coming into that?

BB First and foremost, I think it’s like anything: you meet an individual and you draw conclusions pretty quickly whether you like them or you don’t like them; you almost know, right? Inherent! Give yourself two, three minutes. I can listen to this guy.

But Greg had ultimate respect from all the players without trying to gather their respect.

Ron Plaza as a Seattle coach

JH So it wasn’t fear-based, like some guys?

BB No, absolutely not fear-based at all.

JH When you said Ron Plaza –

That’s totally, totally different guys.

JH You’re talking about polar opposites.

BB Well, I think Greg’s connection with the players was unprecedented. You just don’t find a manager that can keep the separation, but yet allow the little bit of goof-off, a little bit of fun time, but still expect you to perform.

He wanted effort. Greg always wanted 100-percent effort. The results would take care of themselves. But what I found with me, and I can only speak about the team as a whole, was an incredibly good athletic team. They really were. That doesn’t mean you win, right?

JH No.

BB You got to play together, but you have to have a leader. Greg was the leader. I respected him utmost for his professional and personal ways about himself. I felt like he knew the game. He allowed you to play the game.

But what I really enjoyed about him was, he didn’t try to change everybody. He allowed them to be who they were. And Greg respected his players, which in turn gave him twice as much respect, from my standpoint. Greg did not pick out a favorite; while he may have had a favorite or two or three, you didn’t know it.

He didn’t critique talent, and try to chart people’s abilities. You didn’t know if you were the best or the worst, which fostered a relationship within the community of players that allowed everybody to play for the team, not for themselves.

JH Pretty unusual. I mean, in the low minors, especially if everybody’s gung ho to advance –

BB That was the difference. I played on a lot of teams, and we were all concerned about ourselves. We didn’t need that guy getting a hit ahead of us or making a great play or just — no, I want his job. No, not on this team. You really want to win because, Jim, you wanted to please Greg!

For the first time in my life, I played for a team rather than myself, and that’s what I will always take out of that relationship.on the 1975 Emeralds

JH There must be others who feel the same way, because why else would you have stayed in touch and keep coming back to these reunions, all these years later?

BB You hit it on the nose. Yeah. These are good guys. Greg allowed us to flourish on the field. And he allowed us to fail without feeling like a failure. You know, it’s baseball. You’re never, never gonna be perfect. It’s like anything in life.

JH It’s a failure-based game.

BB It sure is. I mean you’re getting out seven out of 10 times and –

JH Not me! [laughter] I was about 8-1/2!

But you’ve got a half-dozen guys who made the big leagues [from the 1975 Emeralds] — you know, that’s 25 percent of the roster. A lot of these other rosters, you will look through and find maybe one or two players who made it.

BB That’s right. We had some players — we had some players. I mean, we really did.

JH Mario Soto, Paul Moskau, Lynn Jones, Geoff Combe, Larry Rothschild.

BB Yeah, yeah. We had some guys on the bump. We had all — yeah, it was a good team.

JH And yet though, the sense that I’m getting is that it was a real team.

BB It was a real team. I think that all the players respected each other. All the players didn’t want to let the other player down. You just wanted to do the best you could do for the big part, the big picture. The team and getting the respect from Greg was really important to me personally.

I’m sure [the other players] had similar feelings. That’s why everybody produced: for the leader. You know they tried, and so you’re right: that’s why we came back.

I mean, I can tell you that every day I’d go into the clubhouse, I looked forward to seeing Greg. He was the first point of contact. You have your buddies, you walk in, Greg would be around somewhere, and you didn’t know. He was going to tell you a quick, brief story, a quick joke, a smile, a fine, whatever.

JH Why, you got fined? [mock surprise]

BB I got fined a few times. You had to wear socks.

JH Oh, you were the no-socks guy! Didn’t he try to fine you yesterday for coming into the reunion with no socks?

BB Yeah. He got me yesterday.

Greg Riddoch: You had to wear a collared shirt to the ballpark, and socks – The Cincinnati Reds Way. They didn’t want you looking like those college guys, coming to the ballpark in flip-flops and cutoffs. And at least once a homestand, he would come into my office to talk. He’d sit on the couch, put his feet up, and I had to tell him that’s two bucks! No socks! And he’d laugh and walk out.

BB That was always a fun way to go to the clubhouse, Jim, because he was always looking for my socks. I wouldn’t wear them on purpose, just so I could have a little sit-down and talk with him for a couple minutes and some jokes.

It was always a good conversation. I mean, it would break the ice and everybody would have fun. The whole clubhouse was in on it.

So Greg — I think you have to respect a person as a person, number one. So I respected him as a person. I liked his aura right away, when I got to Eugene: I like this guy’s aura.

I’m not sure he recognized how good he was at that point, because he was a young guy too. I don’t know if you really can put it together, under age 40, how to handle people. I really don’t know that to this day. Sometimes you have it, sometimes you don’t. I don’t know. It’s hard for me to determine how calculating he was.

I’m not thinking it was calculating; I’m thinking he just was good at what he did. And he had an open — his communication skills were off the charts, and his smile. And he was supportive.

JH He’s not trying to tear you down.

I think it always gets back to who you are inside, and what you project out is what you get back. — Bill Bird, on Eugene manager Greg Riddoch

BB Never! I didn’t hear him ever try and tear anyone down. Now, you may hear different stories. I don’t remember him ever trying to tear anyone down. But I think it always gets back, Jim, to who you are inside, and what you project out is what you get back. And I felt his strengths were off the charts in those areas, which really made me want to play for him. And then baseball was a byproduct of who this guy was.

JH He always says that he considers himself a teacher first and foremost, beyond — baseball was the subject, but he had always wanted to be — from about the same age you wanted to be a ballplayer, he wanted to be a teacher. And he was, in public school and all the rest of that. The baseball and the coaching was an adjunct to that.

BB Right.

JH But fundamentally –

BB You’ve got to communicate, don’t you? In the proper manner with different people, different times. I feel that way too with Greg. In fact, I’m still here waiting for him to tell me, Bill, I think you’re the best shortstop I ever had. Now, he hasn’t said that yet. But I’m still waiting. I’m still waiting.

JH You can’t pry that out of him? [laughter]

BB I won’t ask him!

Greg Riddoch: He’s tied for first. He would have been #1 if he could have remembered to wear socks to the ballpark!

JH Are there games, bus trips, things that stand out –

BB I remember the big picture. I am not good at the details.

There was one game that I wanted to ask Bill about. Early in the 1975 season, the Ems lost a game 13-12 in 11 innings, leaving 21 runners on base. But earlier in the game …

JH It was the sixth game of the 1975 season, against Boise. Apparently, you and the Boise first-baseman [Dan Argee] collided at the bag after you hit a ground ball. And it started a big fight that the park police had to break up. [laughter] Tell me about that!

BB I do kind of remember [more laughter]. You know, I can’t even tell you why it happened; just outta being competitive. I think you know, what happened was, it was a tight game or something. And I hit a ground ball somewhere, and they threw it to the first-baseman and he had to jump to get it — up in the air. And you know, I think I just ran into him when he was in the air intentionally, because I didn’t want him coming down and because I didn’t want to be out.

I think we had a run that was going to be scored if I was safe, and so on. But I don’t think the first-baseman and I were on good terms —

JH Apparently not! [laughter]

BB I think he tagged me pretty hard on a pickoff the game before or something, and I didn’t like  that too much. So I think we kinda got into it. It was allowable, almost, at that time.

You’re just trying to win, you know? And if you don’t like the other guy so much, and he then doesn’t like you, it just becomes a little more fiery, right?

JH There’s some elbows that get thrown in, and a few things.

BB Yeah, exactly, exactly.

JH I pulled the game story on it, just to find out — what in the world was this all about? And all it says was, there was a collision on a play at first base that ended up having to be broken up by the park police. But there was a little more going on in that game that — I mean, 21 left on base!

BB I can’t even tell you if I was safe or out!

JH No excessive violence was had on that?

BB Nothing crazy, no. The egos, you know, the ego thing.

Boise figured prominently in another 1975 memory:

BB I remember he got on us one day out in Boise. We lost the game and we’re out in the outfield and we had a doubleheader or something, and we lost the first game. And I’m not sure what happened, but he really got right up us. And we had some guys who were looking at the planes going over as he was talking, and he turned a little bit red. First time I ever saw that. And he made a big production out of how we lost and now we’re not paying attention.

And the next game, we just crushed these guys. I mean, it was off the charts.

I just remember things like that.

Bill liked Greg’s in-game strategy, too.

BB You know what I remember about Greg? He made all the right calls at the right times during the game: Coach, we have to be hitting-and-running. He’d do a hit-and-run. He had the calls — he knew the game. And I remember always being in tune with him before he did it or we needed to — I was always in the same mode he was in. I don’t ever remember being in tune with coaches like that. Managers like that, you know.

Bill also impressed Greg with his toughness.

BB One time I got a ball — the fastest guy in the league was stealing. And I knew that no matter what, I just didn’t like him. I wanted to make sure we got him out. And so I was ready for a bad throw from Marlon Styles before he threw it, because he wanted him out just as bad as I did.

But Marlon could be a little wild with his throws to second. And I said to myself before this, I don’t care where this ball is; I’m catching it. I don’t care what happens. I’m getting this guy out. And I’m ready for a bad throw. But the ball hit the lip of the infield, about seven feet in front of me.

So when it hit this little lip, it came up so fast and hit me dead in the mouth.

Flipped the top four teeth parallel and the bottom four teeth parallel, and knocked one tooth out. And I mean, the ball didn’t glance off me. The ball even had blood on it! I mean, it was a direct hit, right in my face. One of those things where you didn’t feel it, because it was so massive, so fast. Blood was everywhere.

Oh, by the way: the guy was safe! [laughter]

Right then they took me off the field, I went into the oral surgeon, and he goes, this is gonna hurt. And he pulled my teeth back up. They’re in sockets, right? I lost one and I was wired up for about three weeks. I couldn’t eat – just go to IHOP and get pancakes and malts and stuff.

So I was wired up, and [former MLB player and manager] Alvin Dark’s son was the dentist. He took care of me and whatnot. And I went back to the park the next day, and I was devastated: I’m going to be out, you know.

But I go, hey Greg, I’m ready to play!

You’re ready to play, like that? You’re playing.

He played me the next day.

JH Wow!

BB Yeah. And I’ll never, never, never — I told him just yesterday down here [at the 2019 reunion], I go, I’ll always remember that you let me get right back out there. And not many people would do that, you know? And it wasn’t because they needed me to win; it was because –

JH He just liked the desire.

BB I guess. I don’t know. But I thanked him just the other day for that — a little thing in your life, you remember — you know?

Bill’s playing career ended after a disappointing 1976 season.

JH You played one more year after 1975. It looked to me like the offense was kind of down compared to other years [.204/1/26 at Tampa]. What happened at the end? How did that work for you? Did you just say I’ve had enough or did you get released, or did they not look on you as a prospect anymore?

BB I had a girlfriend back home, and it just seemed like it wasn’t going in my direction, quite frankly. And it just was getting too monotonous and too old, and it wasn’t it wasn’t looking like I was going to get to the big leagues. And that was a hard realization. I still felt I was good enough, but in retrospect I look back and I just wasn’t fast enough — period, end of story.

I was in spring training I think with the AA or AAA club the next year [1977]. They wanted me to be a player-coach and they kind of kept Ron Oester around, as opposed to me. They were going to drop me down and be a player coach in AA at Three Rivers, Canada. And I knew at that point, it was obvious that there were no longer any plans for my future in the game.

JH When they start throwing player-coach at you, that’s a pretty good sign that they think you’ve gone as far as you’re going to as a player.

BB Yeah. I think they liked my fire and my knowledge of the game. And maybe possibly a little bit of leadership here and there, but more than anything, it just told me they had no more plans. And I wasn’t willing to fight through it anymore.

You battle your whole life, and at some point you finally just go the other way, and you just can’t fight it any longer. And I realized the guys who were making it could run a lot faster. And that was kind of important in the 1970s, because everything was AstroTurf.

I wish someone early in my career would have said, Hey, why don’t we lift some weights and put you over at third? And let’s see what we can do.

But things worked out for Bill. He learned some valuable life lessons, and for many years he has operated Executive Moving Systems in Southern California (www.ExecutiveMovingSystems.com) with his sons Ryan and Justin.

BB But you know what? It all worked out for the best. What it really meant for me in life was, you really learn how to compete and keep your head up and keep putting your boots back on. Because I lost what was the most important thing in my life to me at that point: baseball. That’s all I lived for. But when that goes, there’s a fire that stays with you, I think, forever. And I was able to transfer it to life in general. And I credit that for running a successful business to date.

I think guys like Greg Riddoch help you understand that it’s not the end of the world [when baseball is done]; it’s part of life. Baseball was very important to me, and it hurt [when it was over]. But I still have it in me today — that competition and competing.

JH If you’re fundamentally a competitor, that that’s probably gonna carry through. You either have that drive or you don’t, and it’s good that you were able to find an outlet for it, because boy, some guys really struggle with not being able to find an outlet for their drive and their competitive nature when they can no longer play ball.

Bill summed up his feelings about the 1975 Emeralds and his manager:

BB We all were blessed to be with Greg at that time. And for whatever reasons, everything from the players to the coaches to the trainers, the leadership of Greg allowed it all to happen, and I’m grateful for that. The guy was certainly a mentor, an enabler, and an encourager. At the same time, you know, you’ve got to get your work done. You better get it done. You’re not going to be a — don’t be thinking you’re not going to give an effort and give less than 100 percent. Because you know if you’re only giving 99.

And it’s hard — at that age, it’s hard to find people who can guide you without guiding you. And I do think that that’s a God-given talent, too, on some level. So he probably touched me. I mean, I’m sure he touched everybody, but I know he’s probably touched me more than he knows.

It was just a beautiful two-and-a-half months.

Excerpted form my upcoming book The Little Red Wagon: The Amazing Story of the 1975 Eugene Emeralds