Orel Hershiser with the Dodgers in 2000. (Tom Gannam / Associated…)
BASEBALL URBAN LEGEND: Orel Hershiser was cut by his high school baseball team.
Orel Hershiser's tale of success as a Major League pitcher is certainly one of an underdog succeeding against great odds.
When the Dodgers drafted Hershiser out of Bowling Green in the 17th round of the 1979 MLB Draft, he was the 440th player taken overall and the 195th pitcher. That is well past the time a team would realistically expect to find a quality Major Leaguer and yet after Hershiser retired in 2000 he ended up winning more games than any other pitcher taken in that draft.
When Hershiser was dominating in 1988 by setting a new record for the most consecutive scoreless innings pitched (en route to winning the National League Cy Young and both the National League Championship Series Most Valuable Player Award and the World Series Most Valuable Player Award), his underdog status was discussed in article after article.
One topic that was discussed frequently was the fact that Hershiser was cut by both his college baseball team and his high school baseball team! He definitely was cut by his college baseball team (he eventually made the college team in his junior year) but what about his high school team? It is a trickier answer than you might expect.
The story came up so often in 1988 that this very paper took it upon themselves to address the claim after the 1988 season. In the October 21, 1988 Los Angeles Times Morning Briefing, it was written, "Was Orel Hershiser really cut from his high school baseball team? It's news to the kid who caught him. Rick Santarone, Hershiser's batterymate at Cherry Hill East (N.J.) High School, told USA Today: 'I don't know how that got started. He made the team all 4 years. He was 9-1 as a senior and holds a lot of school records.'"
Hershiser did, indeed, pitch for Cherry Hill East in all four years and was an All-Conference pitcher during his senior year. So that settles that, then, right? Partially, yes. If you are sticking to the strict wording of the question, "Was Orel Hershiser cut from his high school baseball team?" then the answer is no.
However, there is a reason that Hershiser himself is fine with the blurb for his 2001 autobiography (well, as Hershiser notes, he is too young for an "autobiography," so instead it is a series of life principles taken from his own experiences, co-written with Robert Wolgemuth), Between the Lines: Nine Principles to Live By to say, "From a man who was twice cut from his high school baseball team and yet rose to the pinnacle of success, BETWEEN THE LINES is an entertaining read filled with good things to inspire and encourage you" (emphasis added).
The confusion lies in the same basis for the famous urban legend, "Was Michael Jordan really cut from his high school basketball team?" (a legend that I explored here).
You see, high school sports teams often have a varsity team and a Junior Varsity team. The Varsity is for the school's very best players and the junior varsity is for the second best group of players. The varsity team typically consists mostly of juniors and seniors, simply because they're more physically mature. However, if you're an especially talented freshman or sophomore, you could theoretically be chosen for the varsity team. It is not an especially rare phenomenon, it is just that the majority of the players are going to be upper classmen.
Cherry Hill East, though, has a varsity team, a junior varsity team and a team for freshmen and sophomores. There is only one tryout during the Spring. You would try out for Varsity. If you made varsity, obviously you made varsity. If you didn't, then you were either deemed good enough to play on junior varsity or you were put on the freshman team if you were a freshman and the sophomore team if you were a sophomore.
During his freshman year, Hershiser tried out and failed to make either varsity or junior varsity. As Hershiser recalled in Between The Lines, it was like being cut twice. During his sophomore year, Hershiser tried out again. Once more he failed to make varsity but this time he made junior varsity. In his Junior year he finally made varsity (although he wasn't a major factor on the team). During his senior year, however, Hershiser's body finally developed to the point where he was a major contributor to the team. He made all-conference and drew enough attention for Bowling Green to offer him a partial scholarship.
So there you have it. He did, indeed, play high school baseball for four years, but he failed to make the barsity team his first two years. In Hershiser's eyes, that is the same thing as being cut from the team. So that is clearly where the story comes from (it persists to this very day, at least in part because Hershiser continues to mentions it on occasion).
The legend is... STATUS: Technically False, but I Suppose the Spirit of the Legend is True.
Thanks to the Los Angeles Times for their initial debunking and thanks to Orel Hershiser and Robert Wolgemuth for the info from Orel's book.
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