The Cardinals In Time: Hanging On By The Man
During the offseason we have been taking a look at the past, giving readers a timeline of St. Louis baseball throughout history. Last time we learned about Enos Slaughter’s mad dash in the 1946 World Series and how the Cardinals reacted to Jackie Robinson’s arrival in the majors.
What can be said about the Cardinals in this time period besides: they were not very good. After winning 95 games in 1949 and fighting down to the last game of the season for the pennant with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the team tumbled, bumbled, and crumbled to a measly 78-75 record in 1950. After four strong years as the skipper for the Cardinals, Eddie Dyer was so embarrassed by his team’s performance in his fifth year that he quit before owner Fred Saigh could think to fire him.
The only bright spot was, of course, Stan Musial. Musial was on a tear, winning his fourth batting title in just his age 29 season, and turning in a second place finish (all while on a fifth place club) in the MVP race. While Stan was putting up a .346/.437/.596 tear, no one else on the team made it about a .290 batting average and no pitcher could make it to even 15 wins and an ERA under 3.15.
Coming into 1951, Saigh handed the reigns of the team over to longtime shortstop Marty Marion. While only 33, Marion was already feeling the end of his playing career. His one season managing the Cardinals was actually his last full season playing as well as his last in St. Louis. Despite having someone the rest of the team respected leading the charge, the team itself was just not that good. They did improve from the year before and finished with an 81-73 record, and while this did propel them from fifth to third in the National League, they were still fifteen and a half games out of first.
The ace of the staff in 1951 was Gerry Staley. Allow me to read your mind by saying, “WHO?” Really, who were these guys in the Cardinals rotation? The only names that still had relevance were Max Lanier of the Mexican League fame and Harry “the Cat” Breechen, but both of them were 35+. Howie Pollet’s best days were behind him. No other pitchers are even noteworthy for something small.
1952 brought a third manager in as many years in Eddie Stanky. Stanky was on the tail end of a solid playing career spent with the Cubs, Dodgers, Braves, Giants, and Cardinals. He spent three plus years at the helm for the Cardinals, but never finished above third place in any of those years. Besides Stanky playing bits of the season from the bench, the only remarkable name on the Cardinals’ bench was Gene Mauch. Yes, that Gene Mauch who went on to manage for 27 years with the Phillies, Expos, Twins and Angels. His one season wearing the birds on the bat was completely unremarkable, as he only appeared in seven games and had four plate appearances, but he was there!
The team again climbed a bit in the standings, again finishing third at 88-66, but this time only eight and a half back from the Dodgers. Interesting names on the team (or at least interesting to me) included Vinegar Bend Mizell and Lefty Chambers, who pitched, outfielder Peanuts Lowrey, and backup shortstop Virgil Stallcup. Regulars Musial, Enos Slaughter, and Red Schoendienst were the stalwarts of the lineup, all hitting over .300 and trying to keep the lineup afloat, but they were outmanned by teams like the Dodgers and Giants who had long since broken the color barrier on their team.
At the end of the 1952 season, Fred Saigh got himself in hot water with the IRS, who claimed that Saigh had evaded paying income tax. He was sentenced to fifteen months in a federal prison, and decided to sell the team. While he received many lucrative offers from groups in Milwaukee and Houston, Saigh wanted the team to stay in St. Louis, so he sold the team to Gussie Busch, owner of Anheuser-Busch Brewing Company. While Saigh was hurt that his honor had been taken, he did get the last laugh, as he purchased stock in Anheuser-Busch after selling the team. Forty years later, the roughly $6 million dollars he invested in the company had been turned into closer to $60 million dollars!
Gussie Busch was a character. While his original plan to rename Sportsman’s Park “Budweiser Park” was thwarted, he countered with Busch Memorial Stadium, a name that has now graced the façades of three different stadiums for the Cardinals. When he came in, he wanted to do anything and everything to win, and was willing to spend whatever it took. He quickly dropped over $300,000 on three players:
Memo Luna was purchased from Mexico. He was so excited that he was becoming a Cardinal that he pitched a doubleheader that night, and never pitched a full game afterward. Alex Grammas was purchased as part of a trade with the Reds, and never came to be anything more than a good field/no-hit shortstop. The real piece here was Tom Alston, a first baseman from San Diego Padres, who were at the time a Pacific Coast League Triple A team.
Alston was an interesting case in that he became the first African-American player that ever wore the birds on the bat. He was supposed to be a star, or at least that was what Gussie Busch thought. He was never really interested in scouting or looking for good talent, instead taking the word of the first person that talked to him and dropping the money to get the player.
Alston was not ready for 1953, but based on his career 91 games spread out over four seasons, he would not have made a difference. One of the real stories of the 1953 season was the emergence of Harvey Haddix, who came out of nowhere to win 20 games as a 27 year old with only seven games experience in the majors before the year started. Alas, Haddix and Staley, who won 18 games in his best professional season of his career, could not keep an entire pitching staff afloat.
Likewise, Musial and Schoendienst could not prop up an otherwise lackluster lineup. Red had probably his most productive year in his career, actually swiping the team batting title away from Musial for the first time in years. The team finished at 83-71, again in third, where they seemed to have become quite cozy.
Third would have been a dream in 1954, as the team tumbled to a 72-82 record and sixth place in the eight team National League. This was their worst finish since 1932, in which the team finished with the same record under Gabby Street.
The real story in 1954 was a young outfielder by the name Wally Moon. While not a great fielder, his bat did the talking for him, as he was a contact hitter with just enough pop to make him noticeable. His arrival in St. Louis was controversial as Busch and company sent longtime fan favorite Enos Slaughter off to the Yankees to make room for Moon on the roster. In his very first at bat, he arrived to the plate with chants of “We want Slaughter” raining down on him. His response was to hit a home run right then and there. He carried that strong bat all the way to the Rookie of the Year award, winning out over other notables of Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, and Gene Conley.
How far could Moon, Musial and company carry the team? Could they haul them back into contention?