Vern Rapp, former major league manager with the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds, passed away Thursday December 31, 2015 in Colorado. He was 87.
Rapp, who spent parts of two seasons at the helm of the Cardinals (1977-78) and the Reds (1984), started out as a catcher in the Cardinals minor league system in 1946. After surviving a beaning during his second season, Rapp found himself starting in the playoffs for the Cardinals AAA team in Columbus in 1948 just one step away from the big leagues.
“We had a pitcher by the name of Clarence Beers,” Rapp recalled in 2008. “He could throw all kinds of pitches; he threw knuckleballs, everything. I’ll never forget in the playoffs, we had an old-time umpire by the name of Moore. Clarence threw a knuckle ball to the right and I just stuck out my bare hand and caught it. He said, ‘Well, that’s the first time I ever seen that done.’ I said, ‘Well, it’s done!’”
The promising start for the young catcher was derailed like many others of his era by Uncle Sam. In 1950, Rapp was drafted into the United States Army. He lost two years of his career to his military service, something that he couldn’t recover from.
“I was in the service for two years,” he said in 2008. “They either remember you or forget you. I went in 1950 into the Korean War. Someone else comes along and they forget about you. I had a good chance. You make your own way. The game got different. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. I stayed in the minor leagues until I was 32 and then I went into managing. Those two years, you lose a lot of things. Even though I didn’t go over [seas], I was lucky.”
He played at the AAA level until 1960, but spent most of his remaining time in the minors as a player-manager starting in 1955 with Charleston. At only 27 years old, Rapp was offered the job halfway through the season to replace Danny Murtagh. He quickly asserted himself as the manager, ruffling the feathers of many of the veterans, including the 39-year-old legendary slugger Luke Easter.
“We were in Minneapolis one night and Monte Irvin was with Minneapolis,” he said. “Back in those days, you didn’t talk to the other team before the game, it was always a war.
“We got in to this game in the old Nicollet Park. We had it won about 10-4 and they came back and beat us. I was a tough loser. I blew up in the clubhouse and Luke had a contract with Danny if he hit 30 home runs, he got bonus money. We got into an argument. I was talking about all the fraternization, I don’t buy that. If you are going to be a winner, you think about winning, you can’t be buddy buddy [with the opposition]. You can be buddies off the field, but not when the gates opened. I wasn’t against either one of them, but Luke got all upset. … I said, ‘If you don’t like what I’m doing, I can take care of that real easy.’ He said, ‘I don’t like it.’ So I said to the trainer, ‘Get him a ticket back home, you’re suspended for insubordination.’ He was off the team for three days and we got back to Charleston and the GM said you’ve gotta straighten it out with him. … At the end of the season, they were going to choose the MVP; the writer was going to choose Woody Smith. I said, ‘You can’t do that, this guy hit 30 homers and drove in over 100 runs. If you’re gonna have a MVP on the last place team, you’ve gotta put Luke’s name.’ He did. Luke put his arm around me and said, ‘You might have been mad, [but] you the man.’”
Rapp managed in the minors until through the end of the 1976, even getting a base hit at the age of 48 during that season with Montreal’s Denver farm club. During our interview in 2008, he recalled how and why he put himself in the lineup that day.
“We had a kid that was going to play every position so I started out as a catcher to save a spot in the lineup,” he said. “Hank Edwards was managing the other club and he kind of set me up with a good pitch and I hit a line shot up the middle. I threw a guy out that game. I stayed in shape; I threw batting practice two hours every day.”
In 1977, he replaced the easy going Red Schoendienst as manger of the St. Louis Cardinals. Tactics that he used in the minor leagues to regulate the actions of his players didn’t fare well for him at the major league level. Enforcing strict rules about how the players dressed and forcing players like Al Hrabosky to remove his trademark mustache caused tremendous dissent among the ranks. Shortly after a public spat with catcher Ted Simmons where Rapp referred to him as a “loser,” General Manager Bing Devine fired Rapp after 17 games into his second season.
“The climax could have been averted, but it did appear more or less inevitable,” Devine said in a 1978 Associated Press article. “Frankly, it was a problem, a continuing problem. When it became apparent, we decided, ‘Why wait for something you can’t solve any other way?’”
Rapp quickly got back on his feet, joining the Montreal Expos as a coach from 1979-1983. Just as he was going to retire, the Cincinnati Reds hired him as their manager to start the 1984 season. One of his prized pupils was John Franco, who currently holds the major league record for saves by a left-handed pitcher. Rapp helped encourage Franco’s transition from a starter to a reliever during his rookie season.
“I made him into a relief pitcher,” Rapp said. “I asked [Roy] Hartsfield, how come he couldn’t go past five innings. He said, ‘He’s great a pitcher for five innings.’ I got information. When I saw him in the spring, I could understand. His stature, he wasn’t a big man. He was short and about 170 lbs. I pulled him aside, ‘How about giving it a whack as a short reliever?’ Well, he became a great short reliever. He knew how to pitch inside and wasn’t afraid to.”
His work with Franco was one of his few highlights of his time with the Reds. After posting 50-71 record in which he used 101 different lineups, he was replaced in August by Pete Rose who was acquired from the Expos as a player-manager. It spelled the end of Rapp’s managerial career. He finished with a 140-160 record in parts of three seasons in the majors.
Despite his reputation as a strict manager, Rapp felt a tremendous obligation towards the fans. Well into his retirement he continued to receive autograph requests sent to his home and he proudly fulfilled every one of them.
“I was taught in the old school that you take care of the fans first,” he said.
Some sixty years later, Rapp continued to look at the game through the his managerial lens. He noted how the minor league system has experienced an upheaval in almost every regard possible.
“When I was managing in the minor leagues it was just me,” he said. “Now they have five coaches and they still can’t do it. In those days, you only had nine pitchers. What are you going to do? You can’t take them out every day. Back then, you had a four man staff. Once they gave money to the pitchers, that’s when it changed. We’ve got $2 million in this guy, what are you going to do, wreck his arm? Then there was the development thing; that’s when it changed. They were making decisions on guys 20 innings. How can you judge on 20 innings? In my day, they’d play two-to-three years and pitch over 100 innings to find out if he’s going to be a prospect.”
The million dollar salaries that Rapp felt were affecting player development were a far cry from the peanuts he made at the lowest level of minor league baseball in 1946. The struggles he had to make a dollar stretch during those years ultimately fostered a deeper love for a game that gave back to him for almost the next 40 years.
“I got $150 per month if you were lucky,” he recalled. “We used to get $1 per day in meal money. We used to go to Walgreens for $.35 for breakfast. That was about the only place you could go on the road.
“When I was in Marion, because I wasn’t old enough, a guy from the bar invited me into the kitchen. He gave me a big platter of spaghetti. I’d eat my garlic bread and spaghetti and he’d charge me $.50. You were always looking for ways to get through because you had no money. They had signs in left field and they would give you $5 if you hit it over the sign, and they [home runs] always seemed to come before payday. I had about 15 homeruns, five over the signs. I’d go and take guys for breakfast. That was the love of the game. We didn’t even have showers at the ballpark. We’d go back to my home; I was about 10 blocks from the park. We’d used to just do anything to play the game.”