The Cardinals In Time: Gibby And El Birdos
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 the Cardinals steady climb back to the top of the National League thanks to players like the strong arm of Bob Gibson; the swift feet of Lou Brock; and the big bats of Ken Boyer, Curt Flood, and Bill White. They put it all together and won the World Series in 1964. Would the good times roll for a while?
People often talk about “going out on top,” but rarely do people walk away from a championship team so they escape getting fired. That is exactly what Cardinals’ manager Johnny Keane did at the end of 1964. Gussie Busch had been keeping him wringing his hands constantly over the past few months, so Keane decided that win or lose, he was leaving the Cardinals after the ’64 Series. When he won, what was surprising is that he went on to the Yankees – the same team that the Cardinals had just finished beating not days before!
When Keane left, Busch was dismayed. He had finally realized that Keane was good, and losing him stung the franchise. He made two brilliant moves, installing Stan Musial as the vice president of the team and turning to an old friend to run the team in Red Schoendienst. Red came in and ran things for the next twelve years, plus a few more random appearances as interim manager later on. This makes him the second longest tenured manager in Cardinal history, after current manager Tony LaRussa.
1965 was a black eye for the team that had finally risen back to the top the previous year. Injuries abounded, resentment at general manager Bob Howsam ran rampant, and things just never clicked. Lou Brock had his shoulder broken from a pitch by Sandy Koufax after bunting for a hit, swiping a base and scoring in his previous at bat. Bill White got hurt. Runs batted in for the sluggers fell across the board. Players were irritated at how Howsam was trying to cut salaries the year after winning the Series.
Throw all those issues out on to the field and it is no surprise that the team free-falled in the standings, tumbling all the way down to seventh and turning in a measly 80-81 record. If fans were upset at the team’s play in ’65, they were about turn their resentment from the play on the field to the moves of the front office. In a series of offseason salary dump moves, Howsam sent not only back-up catcher Bob Uecker and aging shortstop Dick Groat away in trades, but also dumped All-Stars and fan-favorites Bill White and Ken Boyer.
To make matters worse, Howsam made the mistake of not speaking kindly about the players being traded away. To White he was especially cruel, stating that he was very obviously old and probably older than his listed age. This cut the highly respected veteran deep, to the point where he acted very out of character and called the GM a liar publicly. The fans were outraged, and rightfully so.
There was a move made in 1966 that had nothing to do with payroll, players, or the product on the field. It did have to do with the field though, as the team moved out of steamy, creaky, and leaky Sportsman’s park into the nice new Busch Memorial Stadium. It was quite a switch for the players and fans. People were farther from the field and felt more disconnected, and players loved the amenities but kind of missed the intimacy with the fans. It was a stadium, while Sportsman’s Park actually felt like a ballpark.
Too bad the team had no way to really put the cavernous new field to good use. The trades of Boyer and White had left the team with no real powerhouses, and it was one low-scoring game loss after another all season long. The pitching was not really the problem. Seven different pitchers put up ERA’s of better than 3.75 with 70+ innings pitched. Nelson Briles went a rather forlorn 4-15, but had a 3.21 ERA over 154 innings. Ray Washburn and Larry Jaster both tossed out 11 wins, but the only big winner on the team was Bob Gibson at 21-12. Gibby had 21 starts where he allowed two runs or less, and needed every single one of them, or the team’s 83-79 record would have been much worse.
Time for some bright spots, and although these were few and far between in 1966, they were there. Howsam did know that he had swapped out his power, but he had a glut of pitchers. He made a move in May, sending pitcher Ray Sadecki to San Francisco Giants in exchange for recovering slugger Orlando Cepeda. “Cha-Cha” had been battling bad knees throughout most of ’65, but the Cardinals took a gamble, and it paid off in a big way. The other main bright spot was the emergence of Steve Carlton for nine starts towards the end of the season. The twenty-one year old lefty logged 52 innings and showed the beginning of what would become a Hall of Fame career.
Gussie was incensed by the fall his briefly mighty club had taken. He kicked Howsam out the door and decided to insert Musial into the GM’s position. People were unsure he had the qualities of a general manager, but the legend showed his moxie early but trading for Roger Maris in December of 1966. Maris was obviously on the decline, and the Yankees had been treating him like crap for years, lying to him about x-rays revealing he had broken his hand so they could keep him on the field, and trading him away when he fully intended to retire.
Maris brought experience, a still strong arm, and a relative amount of speed to a team that had now assembled a rather memorable outfield in Cardinals’ history. Maris was the last piece of the puzzle, joining Flood and Brock. The team had a spark according to pitcher Nelson Briles, attacking teams on the field like junkyard dogs and staying loose in the clubhouse with jokes, singing, and holding clubhouse meetings every night to award that day’s ‘hero of the game.’
Leading the clubhouse charge was fun-loving “Cha-Cha” Cepeda, nicknaming the team ‘El Birdos’ and hitting a monstrous .325/.399/.524, including a team-leading 25 HR and 111 RBI. Curt Flood also had a career year, hitting .338/.378/.414. The real stories of the season had to include the pitching staff. Ray Washburn was lost for a month after taking a line drive off of his pitching hand and severely breaking a finger. Before Washburn even made it back, Bob Gibson took an even worse smash, as his leg was broken by a screaming line drive off the bat of Roberto Clemente. Gibson was so tough he got up and pitched to another batter before crumpling to the ground and being carried from the field!
Losing the two veterans of a pitching staff is never good, but the youngsters took over. Despite an average age of 24.2 years old, the combination of Carlton, Briles, Larry Jaster, Dick Hughes, and Jim Cosman would turn a good team into a great one. All had ERA’s right around 2.50 to 3.10. Briles especially had to work his tail off, since he was the one filling in for Gibby. Briles, Carlton, and Hughes were a combined 19-6 while waiting for the big righty to mend. By the time their ace returned in September, the team was ten games up on the Mets for the lead in the National League. Maybe they did not need him after all.
Jokes, people. Jokes.
The team finished with a resounding 101 wins in 1967, and good ol’ Cha-Cha won the NL MVP unanimously, the first time this had ever happened in the history of the National League. El Birdos danced their way into the Fall Classic, where the “Impossible Dream” Boston Red Sox were waiting with big bats.
Gibson won the first game, giving up one run and scattering six hits, while striking out ten. The Sox struck back in the second, winning 5-0 but starter Jim Lonborg knocked down or plunked three or four Cardinals in the process. When Dick Hughes did not respond, the players turned to game three starter Nelson Briles to send a message. Briles was shaking like a leaf, but he delivered the message, plunking superstar slugger Carl Yastrzemski in the first inning. This enraged Boston fans, who sent Briles hundreds of telegrams and messages warning him not to come back to Boston and threatening his life.
Of course, Bob Gibson probably did not help matters when he blanked the Sox in game four and gave the Cards a 3-1 Series lead.
Boston was not going down without a fight, and tied the Series at three games apiece, despite a solid start by Carlton in game five and the Cardinals managing to scrape out four runs in game six. It all came down to the deciding seventh, and who better to have on the mound than Bob Gibson. The tall righty came in and bore down, pitching a two run complete game, and even contributing to his cause but hitting a home run in the fifth. Gibson was the Series MVP, and the Cardinals were back on top.
An old friend came back in 1968. Gussie Busch finally admitted he had made a mistake, and rehired Bing Devine to be the general manager of the team, after Stan Musial admitted that he did not want the job anymore.
The ’68 team could not score runs to save their lives. The pitchers pleaded with them – score some runs. Multiple runs would be nice. One run… just one! Something! No one on the team had 80 RBI, the leader in HR was Cepeda with 16, and only one player even made it to a .300 BA (Flood), with the next closest checking in at .279 (Brock).
The Cardinals simply could not have survived without their pitchers. Four of their five starters had an ERA under 3.00. They combined to throw 63 complete games and 27 shutouts. The real story here is Gibson. He turned into a freak of nature, compiling the following totals: 28 complete games, 13 shutouts, 304.2 innings pitched, a 22-9 record, a 0.853 WHIP, and a 1.12 ERA. That is not a typo. He really was that good. He was the runaway winner of both the Cy Young and the MVP award.
The strong arms of Gibson and company led the Cardinals to a 97-65 and second consecutive NL crown. They marched on to face the Detroit Tigers in the World Series, and the country was buzzing about the matchup of Gibson and 31 game winner Denny McLain. McLain did not stand a chance in game one, as Gibson not only went the distance, but struck out a Series record 17 Tigers in the process. Gibson had another incredible Series, pitching 27 innings, giving up a mere 2 runs, and yet still finding himself on the losing end of a 1-0 deciding game seven. Frustrating to be sure, but Gibson knew that storyline well. The Cardinals jumped out to a 3-1 Series lead, and looked to be dominating, but the bats just up and died. Detroit won the next three in a row and took the title home. The Cardinals went home with their tails between their legs.
Gussie Busch was not making friends with the players, especially after his team brought home consecutive pennants. They wanted to be paid, and when Busch called a press conference to basically demoralize the players, all the air went out of the room. The team was proud of themselves and their skills on the field, but when their owner called them selfish and questioned their integrity and how he could not believe they had the nerve to hold out, the players were struck dumb. They no longer believed they worked for the best organization in baseball. They knew the truth: they were livestock. They could be replaced. They better watch their backs.
Changes were coming in baseball as a whole. After a ‘year of the pitcher,’ where batting averages and ERA’s hit all-time lows, the mound was lowered to give hitters a better chance. Pitchers everywhere suffered, and many lost their edge. The Cardinals never had an edge. Veterans came out in the papers, saying they were frustrated that the front office had ordered manager Red Schoendienst to play younger players and sit the veterans. The front office shot back that they were just afraid of losing their jobs. You complained, you got traded. That was the way it was.
Curt Flood was the most vocal, and sure enough, he was traded, but those of you that know baseball history already know of the now infamous situation. He refused the trade, declared himself a free agent, and eventually history was changed in baseball. Flood became a pioneer, but the rest of his team was left floundering. The club struggled to a 87-75 record, and started in on what has almost become a lost time in Cardinals’ history.