Anybody who knows the difference between an earned run average and the Equal Rights Amendment is aware that Lou Brock of St. Louis got his 3,000th hit this season. But because of the brouhaha over Brock, not enough attention has been paid to his teammate. First Baseman Keith Hernandez—often condensed to KHrnnz in box scores—who is well on the way to his second Gold Glove and his first batting title.
Hernandez, 25, was hitting .347 through last Sunday and had been leading the National League since Aug. 11. He was the overwhelming choice for NL Player of the Month in August, when he batted .384 and knocked in 21 runs. Not bad for a fellow who was only the Cards' 42nd draft pick in 1971 and the 783rd player selected in the country.
So, O.K., who's Keith Hernandez? For starters, he's no relation to the Dodgers' Enzo Hernandez, who was born in Venezuela, or the Cubs' Guillermo (Puerto Rico) or the Blue Jays' Pedro (Dominican Republic). He's not even Latin American. Keith Hernandez is of English-Scottish and Spanish extraction and was born in San Francisco. His father, San Francisco fireman John Hernandez, hit .301 in the Texas League in 1947. John's career was hindered by two beanings, one the result of a pitched ball, the other the consequence of a bat that slipped out of a hitter's hands. After he became a fireman he had plenty of days off in which to teach his two sons, Gary and Keith, how to hit and play first base.
Gary, now a Bay Area insurance man, was a star at California but had a frustrating two years in the minors. Keith's struggles began earlier. A three-sport star his junior year at Capuchino High in Millbrae, a San Francisco suburb, he saw things go sour his senior year. He was a quarterback, which was just dandy until a new head coach came along and "put in a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust attack. There went all my hopes for a football scholarship."
September 16, 1979
Worse, Hernandez had a dispute with his baseball coach and quit the team, which scared off scouts and accounted for his low standing in the draft. And worse still, after the Cards selected Hernandez, they made no serious effort to sign him. That summer, while waiting to go to Cal on a baseball scholarship, he burned up the local Joe DiMaggio League, as both a first baseman and a pitcher. The Cards came looking again, liked what they saw and upped the ante, signing him for a $30,000 bonus seldom seen by 42nd-round picks.
Hernandez had some problems in the minors, too—a broken forearm here, a torn cartilage there, slow starts almost everywhere—but St. Louis executive Bob Kennedy, now a vice-president of the Cubs, kept watch over him. "He looked out for me, no doubt about it," says Hernandez. "He saved my career."
When Hernandez was with Arkansas of the Double A Texas League in 1973 and had slumped from .300 to .260, Kennedy inexplicably promoted him to Tulsa of the Triple A American Association, where he hit .333 in 31 games and drove in 25 runs.
"That turned my career around," says Hernandez. "I got a hit my first time up and kept hitting. I won the first game of the playoffs with a home run in the bottom of the ninth. The next year I led that league in hitting."
His second full season in the majors, 1977, he hit .291, had 91 RBIs and started dating a beautiful blonde, Sue Broeker, who often sat with her family behind the Cardinal dugout. Now she's his wife. They live on three secluded acres in Chesterfield, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis, with her 6-year-old daughter from a previous marriage.
Although Hernandez won a Gold Glove last season, his hitting fell to .255 because, he feels, he tried to pull the ball too often. After an impressive spring training, he tailed off again this season and was hitting only .237 on May 3.
"Whenever I'm down and out, in a deep slump and don't know what I'm doing wrong, I call my dad," says Hernandez. "He came to St. Louis. In this case he said I was doing nothing wrong. He told me to just keep swinging. It gave me peace of mind to know I was O.K., that it was only momentary."
Pull out of it he did, hitting .340 in May, .369 in June and .333 in July. One reason for his improvement is a change he made in his stance, moving away from the plate a little against righties, while continuing to crowd it against lefties.
Hernandez knows his batting average the way other people know their age, so he exaggerates a bit when he says, "The only statistics I pay close attention to are runs scored and RBIs because those are the production categories. I got my biggest charge from the 91 RBIs in '77."
Through Sunday he had 97 RBIs, five behind the league leader, Dave Winfield of the Padres. In the race for the batting title he had 23 points on closest rival Garry Templeton, whose locker adjoins Hernandez' in the Cardinal clubhouse. The way Hernandez is hitting, that's as close as Templeton is likely to get.