When looking back at a short series, it is often easy to spot the turning point, when one team takes control and becomes the winner. It might be a game, an individual performance, or perhaps even a single play. In 1964, Ken Boyer’s Grand Slam in Game Four of the World Series, with the spectacular relief efforts from Roger Craig and Ron Taylor to make it hold up is one such example. Who can forget the now famous “go crazy folks” call from Jack Buck in the 1985 NLCS ? Mr. Buck recognized it as such long before the baseball had a chance to leave the field of play.
Oh, they can be quite the other thing too. Cardinals fans still lament Don Denkinger’s call near the end of Game Six of the 1985 World Series. After nearly a decade of flawless defense in center field, a Curt Flood miscue in Game Seven of the 1968 World Series gave the title to the Tigers instead of the heavily favored Cardinals. Still fresh in our memories is a fly ball at the end of Game Two of the 2009 National League Divisional Series that if caught would have given the Cardinals a win and some much needed momentum as the series moved to St. Louis. That fly ball was not caught and the Cardinals did not win, and the Redbirds would be soon be swept by the Dodgers.
Trying to apply this to a full 162 game season, the longest in any professional sport, is a nearly p0intless task. There are just two many ebbs and flows as team momentum can switch as quickly as the winds in Oklahoma. Add in injuries that often seem to come in clusters big enough to overflow the trainers office and turning points can be nearly impossible to spot, if they exist at all. When I-70 Baseball founder, Bill Ivie, suggested a few weeks ago in a Blog Talk Radio segment that historians often spend a great deal of [too much] time trying to find these moments that really aren’t there, he’s largely correct. But, and there’s always a but, reading Angela Weinhold’s latest installment in her Cardinals Through Time series brought back memories of three plays that did exactly that for the 1967 Cardinals: they defined the character of a future champion. Not the loss of Bob Gibson or Ray Washburn, it was three plays that ended three games that tell you all you need to know about that special team.
Not so Great Expectations
The April 1967 edition of Baseball Digest previews all twenty teams in both leagues and they don’t give the Cardinals much of a chance in the upcoming season. They criticize the lack of pitching depth, total absence of power and suggest that there will have to be one or two surprises if they are to contend for the National League Pennant. A ninth place (out of ten teams) finish seemed to be the consensus estimate. As we know from Angela’s article, those surprises did in fact happen in the arms of Dick Hughes (they never saw him coming, nor did we), Nelson Briles and Joe Hoerner. They also missed the effervescence and exceptional play of National League MVP, Orlando Cepeda.
May 30 – Imperfection
The schedule makers must has known something as they put together their matchups for the 1967 season. The Cardinals would come into Cincinnati on Memorial Day and play a three game series against the Reds in just two days. Yes, one was a scheduled doubleheader, something that is rarely done today.
In spite of a rather tepid prediction by the staff at Baseball Digest, the Reds were off to a quick start in the season and were currently sitting alone atop the National League. The only team challenging them seriously were the Cardinals. Much would be learned in this short three game, two day series as fans in both cities would be treated to some of the best baseball of first half.
Over 30,000 fans turned out on Memorial Day to see the Cards and Reds split their doubleheader. Bob Gibson won the opener with a heroic 11 inning performance, allowing just 6 hits and striking out 13. Mel Queen, an outfielder turned pitcher, dueled Gibson for the first nine of those innings but the Reds bullpen could not keep the Cardinals from scoring as Tim McCarver and Julian Javier would each double in the top of the 11th inning to give Gibson the 2-1 victory.
The second game would go to the Reds as they got to Cards starter Al Jackson early. The Cardinals would come back, as they would do all throughout the 1967 season, eventually tying it on a 2 run homer by Curt Flood in the seventh inning. In the bottom of the ninth, Cincinnati slugger Tony Perez would lead off with a triple. After walking the bases loaded, future Cardinal Dick Simpson would hit a fly ball to center, allowing pinch runner Chico Ruiz to score the winning run.
Two great games but the standings didn’t change one bit. The Cardinals were still 1 1/2 games behind the Reds.
This brings us to May 30, and the rubber game of the series. Rookie pitcher Dick Hughes (2-1) would face veteran Jim Maloney (3-1) in one of the most exciting games of 1967. Maloney was nearing the end of a fantastic run with the Reds. In the previous four seasons he had gone 23-7, 15-10, 20-9 and 16-8 with an ERA consistently under 3 runs per game. He was still one of the game’s best strikeout men, averaging almost a strikeout per inning. He would be facing a Cardinals pitcher that was two years his senior, but was in his rookie season. Before the end of this game, nobody called Hughes a rookie again – the greatness of Dick Hughes was about to be unleashed on the National League.
Both hurlers got off to a good start, although Maloney had a hard time finding the strike zone early. The Cardinals would get their first run on a solo home run by Bobby Tolan. Tolan was emerging as one of the most exciting young players on the Cardinals roster and would be a big part of both pennant winning seasons. In an odd piece of irony, he would soon be traded to Cincinnati and help the Big Red Machine become one of the most dominant teams in National League history.
On the other side of the diamond, Hughes was a machine, setting down Reds batters as soon as they came up to the plate. This was not your garden variety sixth starter/long reliever, not with a mid to upper 90 mile per hour fastball and a slider that might even be better than Bob Gibson’s. Hughes had retired the first 21 Red hitters, striking out 12 and allowing only 3 balls to reach the outfield. He also endured a rather long rain delay, which makes his performance even more unbelievable.
In the bottom of the eighth, Hughes would lose the perfect game and shutout as he gave up just three hits: yet another lead off triple from the bat of Tony Perez, a double by future Cardinal Vada Pinson and single to Leo Cardinas. This gave the Reds a slim 2-1 lead, with one inning to play.
This brings us to the ninth inning, and first of our three defining plays.
Orlando Cepeda would lead off the Cardinals ninth with a single to center. Tim McCarver would follow that up with a single to right, which allowed Cepeda to move to third. Cincinnati Manager, Dave Bristol, would go to his bullpen and bring in veteran Don Nottebart to face the light hitting Phil Gagliano. Like Dal Maxvill, Gagliano could barely hit his weight, but somehow seemed to come through in situations like these. The Cards’ third baseman hits the ball to Leo Cardinas at shortstop and the Reds concede the tying run to prevent a big inning as they choose to go 6-4-3 for the double play. Cepeda forgot the first rule of baseball, the home team always plays for the tie and not the win. When Tommy Helms pivots to make the throw to first base, it seemed like an eternity passes before Cepeda decides to break for the plate. A quick throw from first baseman Deron Johnson beats Cepeda to the plate and he is tagged out completing the game ending triple play. What moments earlier had looked like a pr0mising rally, perhaps to pull the Cardinals within a half game of the Reds had just turned into a devastating loss. The Cardinals were now 2 1/2 games out, and the Reds were the ones with the much needed momentum.
A lesser team might have folded at this point, but not the 1967 Cardinals. They did struggle for the next few games, falling as far back as 4 1/2 games after an embarrassing 17-1 blowout at the hands of the Houston Astros. As he would do so many times in his career, Bob Gibson played the role of stopper with a pitching performance that put the Redbirds back on the winning path.
Do It Yourself
After the embarrassment against the Astros, the Cardinals would play some inspired baseball. A four game sweep at home against the Dodgers was just what the Cardinals needed as they embarked on a brutal roadtrip that would take them to Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Houston and finally Los Angeles. The Cardinals took 2 of 3 from both the both Pirates and Giants to start the trip. That would bring us to June 19, and the second of our three plays.
The series opener in Houston would feature two teammates, one already firmly established as star, and one working very hard at becoming one. Bob Gibson would take the ball for the Cardinals against former Redbird, Mike Cuellar. Both hurlers brought their A games, so we knew this was going to be a good one.
The Astros struck first in the home half of the third inning when Mike Cuellar practically came out of his shoes, swinging at a Gibson pitch. It would bang around the right field corner long enough for Cuellar to make it all the way to third. Former Cardinal Julio Gotay would drive in the Houston pitcher with a triple of his own, this time in the left field corner. That’s all Gibson would allow, but against Cuellar, that might be enough.
It wasn’t though as the Cardinals would take the lead in the sixth inning. The big blow was a 2 RBI single from Orlando Cepeda, scoring Dal Maxvill and Curt Flood, who had both reached base with singles.
The heart of the Astros order would get those two runs back very quickly. Jimmy “the Toy Cannon” Wynn would lead off the home half of the inning with a double. Rusty “le Grande Orange” Staub would follow that up with a 2 run homer. The Astros were back on top by the score of 3-2.
Cuellar would begin to tire in the eighth inning, and that’s when the Cardinals would retake the lead. Phil Gagliano, victimized in the earlier triple play, would pinch hit for Bob Gibson. He would coax a walk out of Cuellar. Lou Brock would follow that up with a double, easily scoring Gagliano with the tying run. Julian Javier would sacrifice Brock to third, and Curt Flood would drive Brock in with a single. The Cardinals had a 4-3 lead, if the bullpen could just hold it.
They almost did. Joe Hoerner worked a quick eighth inning, but got into trouble in the bottom of the ninth. Bob Aspromonte, who always seemed to kill the Cardinals in these situations, leads off with a double. The light hitting Bob Lillis sacrifices Aspromonte to third. Red goes to his bullpen for the hard throwing right hander, Nelson Briles. Briles strikes out Joe Morgan, but Julio Gotay drives in the tying run with a single.
Off to extra innings we go. Barry Latman was now the pitcher for the Astros. Both he and Briles had starting experience, so they were probably going to be in there for a while.
It didn’t feel like much of a rally, but in the span of about 2 minutes in the 11th inning, the Cardinals took the lead. It was just a single off the bat of Tim McCarver and a double from Roger Maris, but it was just enough to give the Cardinals a chance for a much needed win.
And now we are to the second of our key plays in 1967, and a most unusual one it was.
Jim Landis would lead off the inning with a single. Playing for the tie, Bob Aspromonte lays down a perfect bunt, moving Landis to second base with just one out. Bob Lillis follows that with what first looked like a game tying RBI single to center. There was no way that Curt Flood was going to get to the looping liner, so Landis took off running for the plate. But the ball hung up just long enough for Flood to make a remarkable shoestring catch, and without breaking stride, he ran all the way to second base to complete the game ending unassisted double play.
The Houston crowd was silenced and the Cardinals all ran to congratulate Flood on the most remarkable play. That win put the Cardinals in a first place tie with the Reds, but only for a few hours as the Giants would defeat Cincinnati, leaving the Cardinals alone atop the leader board.
Some Bad Breaks
Then tragedy would strike, first in Los Angeles, just two days later. With Ray Washburn in cruise control against Don Drysdale and the Los Angeles Dodgers, a line drive off the bat of Johnny Roseboro would hit Washburn’s pitching hand, breaking his little finger. It would require surgery to repair and he would miss the next month. Just as Washburn returns from the disabled list, Bob Gibson goes down with a badly broken leg, suffered in a game on July 15 against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Gibson would be out for the next two months.
Any one of these would have derailed a lesser team, but not the plucky 1967 El Birdos. Youngsters stepped up, veterans provided leadership, and an emergency deal bringing Jack Lamabe over from the Mets stabilized a bullpen that might have become a liability. Instead it became one of the Cardinals greatest assets.
A Savage Play
That brings us to the third, and last of “the plays”.
The date is July 25 and this would be the middle of a three game home series against the Cubs. It is not yet August, but the fate of the National League will be settled in this series, and this game would prove to be pivotal. The Cubs had won the opener the day before, and were now tied with the Cardinals for first place. The lead that the Cardinals had taken with the Flood miracle catch in Houston was now gone.
In this game, the Cardinals would get out to a quick lead, scoring 3 runs before Chicago starter Rob Gardner could record the second out. The Cardinals would add another run later, for a 4-0 lead. The Cubs would get two of those back in the sixth inning, but Cards starter Ray Washburn would limit the damage.
Before describing the final play, some background on one of the player is required. Ted Savage had been in the Cardinals farm system for several years, but had been unable to stay with the big club for any length of time. He was the Joe Mather of his era, lots of tools, but never managed to put them together. He made the team out of spring training, but would be a casualty when rosters were trimmed to their final 25 players in May. Savage refused his reassignment to Tulsa (AAA) and asked that the Cardinals trade him to a team where he might have a chance of playing. The Cubs would buy out his minor league contract and he was soon wearing blue pinstripes on the north side of Chicago.
Now, back to our game, and “the play”. In the top of the ninth, Ernie Banks would lead off with a single. Red Schoendienst would go to his bullpen and bring in the left hander, Hal Woodeshick. Woodeshick hits Ted Savage, not intentionally by any means, but it did put the tying run on base.
Red would again go to his bullpen and call for his go-to right hander, the hard throwing side armer, Ron Willis. Willis would get the first two men as Randy Hundley flied out to left and Adolfo Phillips popped out to short. Al Spangler would step to the plate. On a 3-2 count with two outs, the Cubs start their runners and Al Spangler hits a single to center. Savage was flying around the bases and was being waved home on the play. A perfect throw from Bobby Tolan to the cutoff man, Julian Javier and then a perfect relay to Tim McCarver got the speedy Savage and the Cardinals had a 4-3 win, and a one game lead in National League. One that they would not surrender for the rest of the year. A heads up play by the Reds in May put some doubt in minds of Cardinals fans. A defensive miracle in Houston gave us hope. Now, a spectacular defensive play in July put any remaining concerns aside.
The Cardinals would go on to win the third game and widen their lead en route to a 101-60 finish, 41 games over .500. Many consider this the finest team in franchise history, and I tend to agree. This was a team that did not have adversity in their vocabulary. What they had instead were World Series rings.
But Wait, There’s More
After taking two of three against the Cubs in July, and retaking the lead in the National League, the Cardinals would soon travel to Chicago and take 3 of 4, the only loss being a heart-breaker against Fergie Jenkins on August 1. By the next time the Cubs came into St. Louis, the Cardinals had managed to extend their lead to 8 1/2 games and were firmly in control of the National League. That would be the first of a three game series on August 14. Al Jackson pitched his heart out in three innings of relief, but was trailing 5-3 as the Cardinals came to bat in the ninth inning.
At this point in the season, the Redbirds were playing with so much confidence, a 2 run deficit in their last at bat didn’t seem to be much of a problem. And it wouldn’t be in this game, but not before one more exciting play involving Ted Savage. Bobby Tolan would lead off with a walk. Alex Johnson would ground out, moving Tolan to second. Lou Brock would follow that with single, scoring Tolan to make the score 5-4. One run at a time, no sense of urgency – no mistakes. Curt Flood would follow that with a single, putting the tying run on third with one out.
That brings Roger Maris to the plate, and he was exactly the person you would want batting in this situation. Maris delivers, as he did so many times in 1967. Roger smacks a single to right field. Ted Savage, who was called out on that bang-bang play to end the the game on July 25, bobbles the ball and allows Flood to score the winning run all the way from first base. The Cardinals would go on the sweep the series, building their lead to a staggering 10 1/2 games.