By AMANDA BEAM
NEW ALBANY —
Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series about the people and events that have shaped the 200-year history of New Albany. Read all installments by clicking on the bicentennial link under the “seasonal content” header at newsandtribune.com
You don’t have to understand the game of baseball to realize New Albany native Billy Herman had talent. Just look at his career. During his 16 years in the Major League, Herman had a .304 career batting average, drove in 839 runs, was declared a National League all-star 10 times, won four NL pennants and played in the World Series on four separate occasions. For 80 years, his NL record for most putouts in a season by a second basemen still reigns supreme.
And did we mention Herman hung with Ernest Hemingway, enlisted in the military during WWII and shared the diamond with Babe Ruth?
That’s a pretty exciting life for a boy who got his start on a quiet farm in Southern Indiana. Born in New Albany on July 7, 1909, Herman took to baseball at a young age. At times, his mother would send him on errands only to wait hours for his return. Throwing the ball around at the park on his way home would later prove to have been a worthwhile diversion for the future big leaguer.
“Every chance I got I’d sneak away and find some kids to play with and I’d spend the whole day playing,” Herman said in the Aug. 26, 1975 Courier Journal. “If I didn’t have anyone to play with, I’d take a rubber ball or something, throw it against the barn and play the hops off the barn by the hour.”
While Herman credits his father with introducing him to the game at the age of 5, a teacher increased his opportunities to play. An Oct. 23, 1946 Pittsburgh Post article described how this woman helped to inspire his love of America’s favorite pastime.
“She was Rose Madlung, a 40ish school teacher, who taught at county school No. 6 in New Albany. Miss Madlung, an avid advocate of reading, writing, and baserunning, bought the school’s baseball equipment at her own expense. The county schools had no allotment for recreation in those days,” the article said. “Fascinated by the new glove, mask and chest protector, the 10-year-old Billy decided he wanted to be a catcher.”
Catching didn’t catch on with the growing boy. After entering New Albany High School at the ripe age of 13, Herman played third base. By 17, Herman left NAHS following his junior year but still played ball in both civic and commercial teams around town. He’d later receive an honorary degree from the school. One baseball venture earned him the reward of watching the Pirates and Yankees play at the 1927 World Series, the same year he started in the minors for the Louisville Colonels.
“If he was awed by the slugging feats of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, he didn’t let it influence his own style. A right-handed hitter, he specialized in hitting the ball to right field behind the runner. Many can do it if they get an outside pitch to hit. But Billy was equally adept on the inside pitches,” said journalist Ron Coons in an Aug. 17, 1975 Courier Journal story.
Something, though, did need changing for Herman to catch his break. “Cap” William Neal, the manager of the Louisville club, switched Herman over to second base, a position in which he described as “natural” for the New Albany native. The shift worked and in 1931 the Chicago Cubs bought his contract from Louisville for $50,000. Following a decade with the team, he was traded to the Brooklyn Dodgers where he stayed until he enlisted in the military in 1944. At the end of the war, he once again returned to the Dodgers in 1946, and after a trade played for the Boston Braves for the remainder of the season.
As a batter, Herman excelled at the hit and run. Rumor has it he also could steal an opponent’s signals like there was no tomorrow.
“It wouldn’t take Billy long to break a code,” said fellow Dodgers’ player Pee Wee Reese in the Aug. 17, 1975 Courier Journal. “As he took his lead from second base, he’d stay down or crouch to tell the hitter a fast ball was coming or stand straight up for a curve. That made it a lot easier for the hitter.”
Herman didn’t just play the game; he coached it albeit with lesser success. From 1952-1957, the Dodgers were under his command. It was here in 1955 that he would earn his only World Series title as either a coach or player. Other managerial and coaching positions opened up for Herman, but he rarely stayed at any of them for longer than a few years.
For all his effort on the diamond, Herman was elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1975. New Albany held a celebration, which he attended, to honor the induction. Later, after his death from cancer at the age of 83, a New Albany park would be named after the legend.
“He did not talk so much about his accomplishments. But the great thing about him was he was a great storyteller. He would talk about things that would happen on bus rides and traveling with the team,” said Herman's granddaughter Cheri Daniels in a July 4, 2009 News and Tribune story by Kevin Harris. “He had a great sense of humor. He was so happy to play professional baseball, and he knew how fortunate he was to be able to do that.”