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 Gussie Busch’s takeover of a team that was hitting a long stretch of down seasons. He was determined to bring winning back to St. Louis, but did he have the firepower?
Gussie Busch had a mind of his own, and he rarely enlisted the help of more than one person at a time. When he realized that he was investing a truckload of money into this team and not seeing much in the standings, he decided to put someone else in charge of the team in the general manager position. The only person on his staff at Anheuser-Busch that actually had any baseball experience was Dick Meyer. Meyer’s experience with baseball only extended to playing first base for Concordia Seminary in St. Louis while he was a student there.
He took the job, but was not a fan of being in the public eye, so he passed the job off as soon as possible. Meyer wanted Bing Devine to take the job. Devine had been running the Cardinals Triple A team in Rochester for six years and had been doing good things there. He wanted Bing to come in and do what he had been doing there in St. Louis. What Meyer did not know was that Gussie had gone out and talked to a friend of his in Chicago who told him that Frank Lane, the general manager of the White Sox, was on his way out of town, and if Gussie was smart he would pick him up.
Meyer was in a bind. He had hired Devine to come in and take over as GM, but Gussie went behind him to get Lane. Luckily for the Cardinals Bing was a patient man, and hung around with the team. Frank Lane was in charge, and he was making his “Trader Lane” moniker very apparent. Whereas Branch Rickey always wanted to trade a player a year too early than a year too late, Lane just wanted to make trades anytime, anywhere, and with anyone.
In Lane, the Cardinals had a GM that was willing to sell the farm for a group of wily vets or sell his stars for a bunch of kids, depending on his mood. At one point he had a trade in his mind for getting rid of Stan Musial, but thankfully Gussie Busch would have none of it. While the Cardinals were horrible in 1955, winding up in seventh, they still had some good players, one of which was named Bill Virdon. Virdon had a fantastic rookie season for a lackluster team, so good that he won the Rookie of the Year award. For whatever reason, Lane turned around and traded him 24 games into the 1956 season, claiming that his eyesight was going bad and Virdon would wash out of baseball quickly. Eleven seasons later Virdon retired with a career .267/.316/.379 line. Washing out of baseball indeed…
The other key rookie to the 1955 season was Ken Boyer. Boyer stepped into the lineup as the everyday third baseman, a position he would hold down for eleven years with St. Louis. Going into 1956 Boyer was poised to have a breakout season, and breakout he did – quickly becoming one of the team leaders along with stalwart Stan Musial and the solid Wally Moon. Together, along with the arms of Vinegar Bend Mizell, Murry Dickson and Herm Wehmeier helped the Cardinals climb out of the National League basement, finishing around .500 and back up to fourth place.
“Trader Lane” kept up his busy ways in 1957, but Gussie Busch was growing tired of being left out of the loop. He wanted to know what was going on behind the scenes, and felt that, as owner (not to mention the guy who writes the checks) he had a right to be told who was being traded away/for before it happened. When Lane continued to try to fly under the radar of the boisterous owner, Gussie grew more and more frustrated.
Finally Lane put together a trade that broke everything into the open. He made plans with the Philadelphia Phillies to trade Boyer and Harvey Haddix for Phillies icon Richie Ashburn and another player. Busch flipped his lid and absolutely refused to let Lane make the trade. When Lane realized he was being handcuffed, he just up and quit, walking away and right into the GM job for the Cleveland Indians. Bing Devine, hidden away in the Cardinals’ front office for almost three full years, was ready and waiting to step in. His first act? Cancel out that Boyer trade before it went public!
Having succeeded there, he looked to see how the Cardinals could continue to improve on the 87-67 finish they had in 1957. At this point there were several solid players on the club beyond Musial (who kept on in his incredible career and finished second in the 1957 MVP race) and Boyer. Wally Moon and Joe Cunningham both had solid years, at the plate, Larry Jackson, Lindy McDaniel and Sam Jones were holding up the rotation, and the Cardinals were starting to look like they were contenders again.
In December of 1957, Devine made his first big trade, swapping pitchers Willard Schmidt, Ted Wieand and Marty Kutyna to the Cincinnati Reds for outfielders Curt Flood and Joe Taylor. If you have never heard of any of those players besides Flood, you are not alone, as none of the other four would really ever make a name for themselves. Flood would not really break out as a solid player until 1961, but keep his name in mind, as it will become important.
The team at the time was a very close-knit bunch. Players ate together after the game, there were really no loaners, and in a city like St. Louis which was still very segregated everyone on the team made sure that the black players were accepted and welcomed. No matter who you were on the team, from superstars like Stan Musial to young kids like Curt Flood, you worked with your teammates and passed along any wisdom you could.
The Cards’ manager at the time was Fred Hutchinson. “Hutch” did a great job making sure the team worked together cohesively; unfortunately he could not get them to put runs up on that scoreboard. At one point the team went forty-two innings without scoring a run! Poor Hutch could not pull wins out of that team, and Gussie Busch was becoming impatient. He fired his manager with just ten games left in the 1958 season, and the team limped to a 72-78 finish, sliding back down to fifth in the National League.
Bing Devine and others were frustrated with Gussie’s impatience and eventual removal of Hutchinson as manager, but they could not argue against the beer baron’s wishes. Gussie decided that he wanted Solly Hemus as manager for 1959. Hemus had spent parts of eight seasons playing in the birds on the bat, and when he left to play for Philadelphia in one of “Trader Lane’s” famous traders he personally thanked Gussie for his years in St. Louis and said he would come back anytime. Gussie was impressed by that statement and it convinced him that Hemus would be a great manager for the Cardinals.
Wrong. The following two and a half seasons were borderline traumatic for St. Louis fans, as Hemus made one boneheaded decision after another. He was a solid baseball man, but his incapability to use his black players was not a great move for the team or the city. He refused to use a young Bob Gibson after becoming convinced that the lanky pitcher would never amount to anything. The worst offense, however, was far and away his decision to bench Musial.
That was not an erroneous statement: Hemus started benching Stan the Man. Musial had a down year in 1959, hitting a rather mortal .255/.364/.428, but part of that was the way Hemus utilized both him and Boyer – having them bunt and hit behind the runner rather than just play the game the way they knew how. The thought of not playing the man every day had everyone up in arms, and the actualization of it was worse. How could a manager who so refused to play some of his most talented players for one reason or another expect to be around very long? The team floundered to a 71-83 finished, back down to seventh in the National League.
More change was coming for the Cardinals. Better days had to be coming… right?