The Cardinals In Time: Not Enough To Reach The Top
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 “Cha-Cha” Cepeda and the El Birdos, Gibson’s incredible pitching which led to consecutive pennants in 1967 and 1968, before Gussie Busch demoralized the team in 1969 and caused them to stumble. Would their volatile owner hold them back?
Moral was low, emotions were high, and the Cardinals that were so good two years in a row had been cut down to fourth place in 1969. Red Schoendienst was trying to hold the team together, but then the team lost their voice. After twenty-four years in the Cardinals’ broadcast booth, Harry Caray was fired and bounced to the Oakland A’s, Chicago White Sox, and finally Chicago Cubs, where he stayed until his death in 1998. Fortunately for Cardinal fans, Jack Buck stepped in to become the voice of the franchise, and no one can argue that this was a poor choice in broadcasters!
1970 brought newcomer Dick Allen, who came as part of the infamous Curt Flood trade with the Philadelphia Phillies. Players shifted around the diamond to accommodate the slugging first baseman, with Joe Torre moving from first to catcher and replacing Tim McCarver, who had been sent to Philadelphia in the same trade. He and Torre were really the only players who could be considered sluggers on the team, as they hit 55 of the 113 team home runs on the year.
Thank goodness for Bob Gibson, as he was literally the only pitcher on the staff with a winning percentage over .500, checking in at .767 with a 23-7 record and 3.12 ERA. The team as a whole could not get it together, and sat twelve and a half games back on July 29. August, however, brought an inexplicable hot streak, as the team went 19-11 and suddenly sat just five and a half back on the morning of September 1! Stranger things had happened before…
…but not this time. Dick Allen tore a hamstring sliding into second base, and the slide extended to the team, as they finished September/October at 12-17, which left them 76-86, thirteen games back of the Pittsburgh Pirates for the NL East division crown.
1971’s high points must include Joe Torre and Steve Carlton at the top of the list. Torre captured the MVP award, hitting a torrid .363/.421/.555 while making another jump in field positioning, this time to third base. Carlton showed another glimpse of what was to come, going 20-9 with a 3.56 ERA, all while picking up his third All-Star selection in his age 27 season.
The Cardinals as a whole were a contender, although the 90-72 record looks almost falsified on paper when looking at the numbers. There were no real sluggers on the team outside of Torre, who slammed 24. They were small ball players who slapped out singles and relied on stringing them together to get players home. Lou Brock swiped 64 bases, but the next highest total on the team was right fielder Jose Cardenal, who nabbed a mere 12. To be perfectly honest, this team does not look like one that should have finished second in the division, but stranger things have happened.
A fun tidbit? 1971 was the year that the team switched from button up uniforms to the t-shirt style tops that they would use until 1992.
Sparks flew in the offseason when contract negotiations with Steve Carlton became ugly. There was a $10,000 gap between Gussie Busch’s offer and Carlton’s demands, and Busch, citing a government-mandate that people try to cost-control wages, informed his star pitcher that he was being “unpatriotic.” Busch turned to general manager Bing Devine to trade Carlton away, and Devine, knowing it was trade the man or collect unemployment himself, sent Carlton to Philadelphia for fellow pitcher Rick Wise. A second casualty to the rotation came when Gussie Busch looked at big lefthander Jerry Reuss and demanded that he cut off his mustache. Reuss refused. See ya later. Reuss was sent off to Houston for pitcher Scipio Spinks. Spinks could have been something, but after hurting himself sliding across the plate his star faded quickly.
Because of that, the Cardinals took a rather large dip in 1972. While Bob Gibson would have perhaps his last great season (a 19-11 record with a 2.46 ERA), the pitcher brought in to replace Carlton – Wise – would go 16-16, and fellow youngster Reggie Cleveland went 14-15. Hard to replace a twenty game winner with guys floating around the .500 mark. But Busch was not about to let a young gun tell him what to do, so he let a Hall of Famer go over $10,000.
The lineup in 1972 was all or nothing. Half of the starting eight were hitting roughly .300 or better, and the other half were kind of floundering, with light hitting shortstop Dal Maxvill hitting an anemic .221/.299/.261. Want to know how to have a lower slugging percentage than on-base percentage? Ask Maxvill – he did it every single year of his fourteen year career. Singles please!
After perhaps overperforming in 1971, the team dipped back down to fourth in the NL East in 1972, rounding out with a 75-81 record.
1973 was a ridiculous roller coaster of a year for the team. After a beyond abysmal 3-15 record in April, the team found themselves already eleven and a half games back by May 15! They then turned on the jets, going 53-33 over the course of the next three months. By August 7, the Cardinals were 5 games up on the Amazin’ Mets. Of course, they then dropped eight straight games and tumbled down to second. The Mets were amazing for a reason. They hung around the .500 mark most of the year, then turned on the jets in the final month of the season, going 20-8 and taking the NL East crown by a mere one and a half games over the Cardinals.
What happened? The team’s pitching staff could go toe-to-toe with anyone in the league and come out victorious, but then their heart and soul – Bob Gibson – went down with torn cartilage in his knee, and the team folded, losing 29 of their last 47 games. An 81-81 record felt like a slap in the face to a team that had battled back from such a terrible start. They lost one run game after one run game, never having the hitter in place to knock in all the baserunners. It was frustrating to say the least.
1974 was a year for some of the younger players on the team to really get their feet wet. 24 year old pitchers Bob Forsch and Al Hrabosky were rising to the surface. Catcher Ted Simmons was only 24, but he was already going into his seventh season (fifth full season) by this time, and had already established himself as perennial .300 hitter with a decent arm behind the plate. Two more players – Bake McBride and Reggie Smith – joined the team to add both pop in the lineup and speed on the bases.
Speed was one thing this team had plenty of. Lou Brock, at age 35, went absolutely crazy on the basepaths, burning up the bases like they were going to evaporate. His 118 stolen bases stood as a record until 1982, when Rickey Henderson surpassed him. McBride had 30 thefts of his own, but the team finally had a little bit of power too. Smith and Simmons both turned in 20+ home run seasons, and RBI totals were climbing out of the 50’s into a more reasonable range. The pitchers finally felt like they could give up more than one or two runs and still have a chance to win.
The team battled back and forth with the Pittsburgh Pirates all season long for the division crown. Willie Stargell led a team that could beat you eight different ways, and found ways to win late in the game constantly. It went down to the final series of the season, with the Cardinals up in Montreal facing the Expos. A freak pop-up that no one called cost the team a game. Pittsburgh lost their last game of the season, and if the Cardinals won, it would push them into a tie, and send them to Pittsburgh for a one game playoff. Unfortunately, the team was playing in 36 degree weather with sleet coming down. Gibson tried to grit out a win, but an eighth inning pitch to Expo Mike Jorgensen found the bleachers, and the Cardinals in turn found their couches to watch the playoffs on TV.
Mediocrity is maddening, but losing on the last day of the season is a wound that does not heal overnight.