Vern Rapp, the former Cardinals manager whose disciplinary ways led to a clean-shaven Al Hrabosky, died of natural causes Thursday in Broomfield, Colo. He was 87.
Rapp, who was born in St. Louis in May 1928 and attended Cleveland High School, signed his first playing contract with the Cardinals in 1945. His $100-per-month deal never turned into playing time for the Redbirds but did start a winding path that led to him managing the club.
A catcher who paused his career to serve in the Korean War in 1951 and 1952, Rapp didn’t make it beyond the Class AAA level as a player. But the two decades of playing and managing in the minors led to a major-league return to his hometown. The Cardinals hired him as Red Schoendienst’s replacement before the 1977 season.
Rapp, then 49, steered the team to an 83-79 record and a third-place finish that marked an 11-game improvement from 1976. But the hard-nosed managerial tactics he found success with in the minors didn’t always mesh with his players in the majors.
“With Vern, it was such a big transition,” former Cardinals pitcher Bob Forsch once told the Post-Dispatch. Forsch died in 2011. “From laid-back Red to Vern. Vern was more military, where he’d say, ‘I’ll even tell you how to dress.’ He stood (coach) Sonny Ruberto on a trunk in spring training and said, ‘This is how to wear your uniforms.’”
Long hair wasn’t an option. Faces had to be shaved. Jackets and ties on the road. No blue jeans.
Tension entered the clubhouse. An argument with star catcher Ted Simmons went public, among other incidents. Rapp was fired after the Cardinals went 6-11 to begin the 1978 season.
The strict baseball man had a softer side, though. He is survived by his wife, Audrey, four daughters, a brother, 15 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.
“He was a very devoted husband and father,” said Beth Ackerson, a daughter. “Family, that was his No. 1 game. We would go to spring training, and we would all travel to wherever he was in the summer. We would make a home there. That was really important to him.”
Rapp’s second stint as a major-league manager came with Cincinnati in 1984. The Reds started 51-70 before he was replaced by player-manager Pete Rose. Rapp then retired to Colorado, where he found a new hobby — fly-fishing.
Rapp’s most memorable moment, at least in the eyes of Cardinal Nation, came when he clashed with Hrabosky, nicknamed the “The Mad Hungarian”, over the relief pitcher’s beloved Fu Manchu. Hrabosky parted with the mustache, but later said he felt like a soldier without his rifle. Time has since healed the shaving wounds.
“He’s part of the baseball family,” said Hrabosky, now a commentator for Fox Sports Midwest. “How rare to be a manager at the major-league level and he was a successful coach, a teacher and everything else. He just had a way about himself that kind of rubbed some people wrong. Our personalities, they clashed. But I had no ill will against the man, and there have been many times I’ve thought about him, and wondered how he was doing.”