The Cardinals In Time: Whiteyball
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 a rather dreary portion of Cardinal baseball. The team was young and had a lot to learn, but they had some talent as well. Could it all come together?
When owner Gussie Busch went looking for the next guy he thought could maybe be the one to lead his team back to the top, he found a man so similar that he wondered where this man had been hiding all these years. He found Whitey Herzog. Kenny Boyer had been managing at the beginning of 1980, but once Gussie met Herzog he handed the team over. Herzog was actually both the manager and general manager for a good portion of the season, before realizing that he needed to step back from the field to figure out what was going on with this crazy team.
You see, in 1980, the team led the league in runs scored, but was second to last in runs allowed. Usually that is not a winning combination. But pitching was not really the problem. Hitting, defense, pitching, baserunning… all are obviously important, but when your clubhouse is in shambles, you have to start there. Herzog stepped back from the field to evaluate, but what he saw was not pretty.
In Whitey’s words, the team had, “…a bunch of prima donnas, overpaid SOBs who ain’t ever going to win a <expletive-deleted> thing. You’ve got a bunch of mean people, some sorry human beings. It’s the first time I’ve ever been scared to walk through my own clubhouse. We’ve got drug problems, we’ve got ego problems, and we ain’t ever going anywhere.” Quite a grim look the new guy in town was handing down to the boss.
Whitey knew what had to be done. He went through the minors and found players that would be able to play in Busch Stadium’s big playing area. Speedy guys with good defensive capabilities – that is what Whitey needed. 1980 was another in a long line of lost seasons, finishing at 74-88, going nowhere fast. Herzog cleaned out the locker room, starting to burn up the phone lines before the last pitch of the postseason was over. Gussie let him do as he pleased, with one caveat – if Herzog wanted to trade for a big money player, a different big money player had to go. Herzog could play by that rule, and so many names went in and out of the payroll over the next few months, snappy headline writers had no choice but to run pieces with names like, “Whitey Shuffles The Cards.” Some players were in and out the door without ever putting on the birds on the bat! It was time for a change, and Whitey was the guy to do it.
The big pieces to move would be the loss of Ted Simmons, who had become an institution in St. Louis, in place of Darrell Porter, who had been one of the first to admit a drug habit and go through rehab, as well as Joaquin Andujar, who was – to put it bluntly – sort of a nut job (Bob Netherton has two fantastic pieces about Andujar’s rise and fall in baseball). Cardinal fans were confused, but they were also intrigued. What would this new look group of players look like on the field?
To put it shortly – they looked good. The hitters did not have a ton of power, but they sped around the bases and scored runs early and often. The pitching rotation also looked much more stable under veteran Bob Forsch and new closer Bruce Sutter, swiped out from under the Cubs in one of Whitey’s many offseason maneuvers.
1981 was an interesting year in that there was a strike that knocked out the middle third of the season due to the unresolved issue of free agency. When play resumed, the owners decided to split the season into two halves, and the winners of the first half and second half from each league would play each other to decide who went to the World Series. Would you believe the Cardinals were the best team in the National League East for the whole of the season, but were not permitted to play in the postseason? That is exactly how it went down. They were a game and a half back of the Phillies in the first half, and half a game back of the Expos in the second half. It was a cruel twist of fate, but that’s baseball.
The biggest disappointment had to come in the form of shortstop Garry Templeton. Templeton had become a prima donna in a major way – constantly feigning tired when there was a day game after a night game and refusing to play. When Herzog forced him out on to the field for a Ladies Day game, Templeton moped and lazily played the first few innings, then made a couple of lewd gestures to a capacity crowd, much to the chagrin of Whitey, Gussie, and all of the Cardinals organization. Shortly afterward, Templeton was suspended and entered a hospital for a “chemical imbalance,” which was the press’s way of toning down the three weeks he was in drug rehab. Once out of rehab, Templeton asked for a trade, and the still-angry Herzog gladly obliged. He made calls, but at first no one was willing to take the obviously imbalanced shortstop off his hands. That is, until San Diego Padres’ GM Jack McKeon became angry at the agent of his shortstop and told Herzog that he would swap the two players even up.
Who was that Padres’ shortstop? Ozzie Smith. It became a landmark deal for the Cardinals, bringing in a player who would spend the next fifteen years charming St. Louis and backflipping his way into the Hall of Fame.
The last two pieces of the 1982 team came by trade – first a young outfielder named Willie McGee was plucked out of the Yankees farm system, then a speedy outfielder named Lonnie Smith was picked up from the Phillies. Smith was an interesting fielder, but he could run the bases like a rabbit. The team had wheels, and they were going to use them. Cardinal fans now lovingly refer to this type of baseball as ‘Whiteyball.’
A twelve game winning streak in April launched the Cardinals into first place, and they rarely looked back, never really running away with the division, but never letting anyone catch them for more than a game or two. They ran and ran and ran some more, swiping 200 bases, racking up 52 triples, and being a general nuisance to pitchers everywhere. What about the pitching staff? Two years previous they were almost last in the league in every statistical category, but in ’82 they were at or near the top in runs, saves, wins and ERA. They ran their way straight to the World Series against the Milwaukee Brewers.
The two teams traded blows through six games, being tied at 1-1, 2-2 and then 3-3 to lead up to game seven. The Brewers were the polar opposites of the Cardinals, pitting their big sluggers against the Cards’ slick fielding and flying feet. Andujar was announced as the game seven starter, and Cardinal Nation collectively scratched their heads. The man nicknamed “One Tough Dominican” had last been seen on crutches, having been carried off the field during game three after being hit in the leg with a line drive. How he was pitching no one knew, but he gritted through seven innings and gave up only three runs. The Cardinals smashed fifteen hits and six runs, and with Bruce Sutter on for the two inning save, the Cardinals had reached the top of the pile for the first time since 1967. (For more on this game be sure to check out Bob’s way more in depth take on it here)
What could the team do for an encore in 1983? Well… they could stink. Badly. The highest WAR for the team on the year was Darryl Porter at 3.7 – the lowest since 1906. Halfway through the year Herzog got fed up with Keith Hernandez’s lackadaisical attitude (among other things) and shipped him off to the Mets. Somehow the team was actually in first place towards the end of July, but went 26-33 over the last two months, which dropped them down the standings into fourth, checking in at 79-83.
What went wrong? You need pitching to win ballgames, but when the pitching lets you down things fall apart quickly. The speedsters were still running but their bats were not putting them on base enough for them to really score runs like they needed to. They were a half game out of first on Labor Day, then went 3-12 on a brutal 15 game road trip, and that ended them.
Could it get worse? Yes it could. In 1984 the team quit hitting altogether. They were still speedy, leading the league in stolen bases yet again, but their hitting tanked. Bruce Sutter had a return to form after a crummy 1983, as did Andujar. Sutter had 45 saves and Andujar had his first 20 win season. Several players had managed to kick their drug habits, but it cost them their drive and will to win on the field, unfortunately. A new bright spot popped up in the form of Terry Pendleton, who turned in a fine third of a season for the team after being called up on July 18.
Overall the team finished a distant third at 84-78, but it felt like they were going nowhere fast. Was Whiteyball already a thing of the past?