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 Cardinal teams that could never quite put it all together. Unfortunately, the trend would continue…
What do you say to an aging superstar who has obviously seen better days but is not convinced that it is time to hang up the spikes? If you are the Cardinals, and your aging superstar is Bob Gibson, the answer is this: not one word. 1974 had been brutal to him, and his statistics were across the board the worst he had seen since 1960, when Solly Hemus was making his life miserable by jerking him from the rotation to the bullpen and refusing to put his talent to good use. But after his marriage broke up, Gibson had nothing to lose, and shuffled back out on the mound in 1975. He needed one more year of baseball. He could not walk away.
Life was miserable for Gibby in ’75. He had lost control and velocity. Walks, hits and ERA soared, strikeouts tanked, and the once great pitcher had become a mere mortal. At the All-Star break the big righty was shipped to the bullpen. In early September he came in to a game and gave up a grand slam to journeyman Pete LaCock. Gibson was mortified. Manager Red Schoendienst came out to get the ball, and Gibson walked off the mound with his head down. He never pitched another ball in the majors. It was a sad end to a truly Hall of Fame worthy career.
The team as a whole felt unremarkable, finishing at 82-80, ten and a half games back of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Catcher Ted Simmons was the catalyst of the lineup, leading the team in almost every statistical category, as well as calling 157 games behind the plate, all at age 25. The pitching staff had a couple of names that jumped off the page – Bob Forsch and Al Hrabosky. The pair of 25 year olds were the leaders of the staff. Forsch went 15-10 with a 2.86 ERA over 240 innings. “The Mad Hungarian” was something else – turning in a career year by posting a 13-3 record, 22 saves, a 1.66 ERA and a 1.079 WHIP, which earned him a third place finish in the NL Cy Young Award voting.
The Cardinals in 1976 were young. Only four players on the roster were older than 30, and only two (37 year old Lou Brock and 33 year old Don Kessinger) had any significant playing time. So how did the kids do? Not very well. They were not strong hitters, scored very few runs, were dead last in the league in home runs, and that was just the hitters! Their pitchers were eleventh out of twelve in strikeouts, tenth in wins and walks, and just seemed to fall flat everywhere. Nothing was remarkable about this team, and a 72-90 finish, good enough for fifth in the six team NL East, just validates that thought.
Owner Gussie Busch was, once again, getting very impatient. It had been 8 full seasons since his team last saw a pennant flag rise above Busch Stadium, and that was just unacceptable to the beer baron. He decided that Schoendienst was just too soft on his players, and booted him out for Vern Rapp, a man that Gussie saw as someone who would be tough and get the boys to grind out the wins.
Rapp had been a career minor league catcher, playing for parts of sixteen seasons from coast to coast, never sticking with one team for long, and even being a player manager for a little one year. He had eleven seasons of managing in the minors (with a relative measure of success) before getting the call to St. Louis. He brought a no-nonsense, extremely conservative and yet stern look to a team that was not looking for someone to treat them like Marines. He installed a strict curfew, forced the players to cut off all facial hair, and held team meetings just to yell at various players who needed to lose a few pounds or cut their hair.
Players wanted to mutiny. Keith Hernandez’s star was on the rise in baseball, but he felt like his team was fighting against not only the rest of the National League, but the front office and managing staff of their own team as well! Despite it all, the team as a whole rebounded from their abysmal 1976 campaign, and went 83-79, to push them back up to third in the East. The team still did not have any real firepower, landing in the cellar in home runs (for the hitters) and strikeouts (for the pitchers). Ted Simmons , Keith Hernandez, and Garry Templeton were all hitting, but there were not enough pieces in place to make a strong enough dent in the standings.
Things got worse. Rapp was out of control, suspending his closer in Hrabrosky because Al refused to cut his hair and Fu Manchu and calling fan darling Simmons “a loser.” Gussie realized that this was not going to work out, and sent Rapp packing a mere seventeen games into the 1978 season. In to replace him was the amiable Kenny Boyer. While Rapp was harsh and cruel, Boyer fit a lot more into the Schoendienst model of nurturer and letting the boys play. Unfortunately, the record shows that Boyer fared no better than Rapp in the standings. It is hard to find positives about a team that finished 69-93, but here goes nothing…
Keith Hernandez won his first Gold Glove. Starters John Denny and Pete Vuckovich both pitched well, despite less than stellar W-L records of 14-11 and 12-12, respectively. Possibly the most important thing that happened was that Boyer installed Hernandez as the everyday first baseman, rain or shine, slump or hot streak. This played an important role in 1979.
Hernandez was feeling down at the beginning of the season, hitting an anemic .232 for the month of April. Boyer went to his still young (25) player and told him that no matter what, he would be the third place hitter for the season. The solidarity of that statement spurred him on to have his best year in the majors, hitting .344/.417/.513. He was in the top five in every major offensive statistical category, and led the league in batting average, runs, and doubles. Boyer had helped install a confidence that pushed a young player from a .232 first month of the season to an MVP award.
Despite bringing in very few new faces in 1979, the team as a whole fared better. Whether it was getting all of the players a year older, wiser or better or they just all happened to have better seasons that year is unknown, but one thing that is seen easily is that the bats are what carried them back up to third place in the East with a record of 86-76. Cardinal hitters were first in the National League in hits, doubles, triples and batting average over the course of the season. They took few walks, but they slapped the ball around and ran with it. Hernandez was the star, but guys like Templeton, Simmons, and “Silent George” Hendrick all had strong seasons at the plate as well. Even 40 year old Lou Brock, in his last year in baseball, put together a .304/.342/.398 batting line before hanging them up.
Maybe, once the kids all started growing up and really becoming ballplayers, things would turn around and push the team back to the top…