Posted on 21 December 2010.
When the St. Louis Cardinals added veteran Lance Berkman to an already potent offense, my mind raced immediately to the 1982 Milwaukee Brewers. They were an amazing bunch of characters that simply hit the cover off the baseball for about three years, winning their division in the strike shortened 1981 season and coming within a few outs of winning the 1982 World Series. If the Cardinals were a precision unit, the Brewers looked like they just rolled out of a local bar well past closing time. Abner Doubleday couldn’t have chosen two better teams to face each other in the 1982 World Series.
Building the core
The nucleus of the 1982 team was a group of players the Brewers drafted and developed in their farm system. The two stars of this program were Hall of Famers Paul Molitor and Robin Yount. Yount would spend his entire 20 year career with the Brewers while Molitor played in Milwaukee for the first 15 of his 21 seasons. Between the two of then, they collected 6,461 hits, and 411 would come in the 1982 season. Yount’s bushy hair and enormous mustache fit in well with the rest of the team while Molitor’s clean cut looks made him look like a player from a different time. As a pair, they locked down the left side of the infield defensively and became a feared 1-2 punch at the top of the batting order.
Gorman Thomas was another Brewers minor league product and had broken into the major league shortly before Yount and Molitor. Thomas was an average center fielder defensively, but the man could hit the ball. And hard. He was the right-handed Adam Dunn of his era, or maybe more precisely the Dave Kingman of the American League. He would lead the league in home runs twice, 45 in 1979 and 39 in 1982, but didn’t hit above .250 in either of those seasons. Of all of the players on the Brewers roster, Thomas was the one that Cardinals fans feared most because he delivered a significant power threat at the bottom of the batting order.
Charlie Moore came up about the same time as Thomas. His biggest contribution that he made it possible for the Brewers to trade away Darrell Porter in a huge deal that brought them lefty Bob McClure, who had a career year in 1982. Moore would spend most of the 1970s behind the plate, but would move to right field when the Brewers acquired Ted Simmons prior to the 1981 season. He was an inconsistent hitter, but even in a down year, he was a better hitter than most of the 8th or 9th place hitters in the National League.
Jim Gantner was the last of the Brewers minor league prospects. He would flirt with a .300 batting average a few times in his career, his highest average coming in 1982, but his value was a steady glove on the right side of the infield. Ganter, Molitor and Yount would rotate positions early in their career, but once they settled into Molitor at third base, Yount at shortstop and Gantner at second base, good things started happening. Gantner’s most memorable moment came in Game Seven of the 1982 World Series when he got into a shouting match with Joaquin Andujar after Andujar made a spectacular defensive play to squelch a potentially game changing rally.
The missing pieces
To bolster the young core of Paul Molitor, Robin Yount, Gorman Thomas and Jim Gantner, the Brewers made several deals in 1977 and 1978 that got them very close to their championship goal.
Mike Caldwell had been a sometimes brilliant but equally inconsistent pitcher with the San Francisco Giants and San Diego Padres. He came to the Brewers in 1977 and struggled in his first year. Not so in 1978 when he turned in a career year going 22-9 with 23 complete games, 6 shutouts and one save. His ERA of 2.36 might have earned him the AL Cy Young Award in just about any other year. Unfortunately for Caldwell, Ron Guidry of the New York Yankees also chose 1978 to turn in a career season, finishing with an unbelievable 25-3 record and an ERA of 1.75. Guidry would win the Cy Young Award and Caldwell would come in second. Although his numbers would steadily decline, Caldwell continued to be a productive starter for the Brewers until his retirement following the 1984 season. He saved his best performance for the 1982 World Series as he would dominate the Cardinals, shutting them out in Game One and going 8 1/3 innings in Game Five for his second win. The Cardinals would finally get to him in relief, late in Game Seven, scoring two important runs in the bottom of the 8th inning to give Bruce Sutter some breathing room. Those two runs turned out to be important as it allowed Sutter to challenge the Brewer hitters more than he might have in a one run game.
Cecil Cooper also came to the Brewers in 1977. As good as Paul Molitor and Robin Yount were, Cecil Cooper was the hitting star of the Brewers through the 1983 season. A dependable .300 hitter, you could also count on Cooper to hit 25-30 homers and drive in over 100 runs. He did just a bit better in 1982, finishing the season with a .313 average with 32 homers and 121 RBIs. While we marvel at his offensive production, his glove was just as good, winning the Gold Glove award twice. In many respects, Cooper was the Brewers equivalent of Keith Hernandez.
Left fielder Ben Oglivie was another piece that was added in 1978. Oglivie was a streaky bat that could produce some high batting averages and occasionally some frightening home run numbers. He would lead the league in 1980, but his production fell off after that. Even so, he still managed 34 homers and 102 RBIs in 1982, plus a huge home run in both the ALCS and World Series.
The additions of Cooper, Caldwell and Oglivie helped the Brewers become a legitimate contender by the end of the 1970′s. They managed to win 90 or more games for the first two times in their short franchise history, but they were still missing a few players to be able to make it to post-season. Specifically, they needed a productive catcher, a staff ace and a closer. They would get all three in one of the biggest trades in Cardinals history, the one that defined General Manager Whitey Herzog’s legacy. On December 12, 1980, the Cardinals sent newly acquired reliever Rollie Fingers, catcher Ted Simmons and pitching prospect Pete Vukovich to the Milwaukee Brewers for pitchers Dave LaPoint and Lary Sorensen and outfielders Sixto Lezcano and David Green. Just 4 days earlier, Fingers had come to the Cardinals in a massive 11 player deal with the San Diego Padres. We were still trying to image a bullpen with 2 future Fall of Fame closers when this deal went down.
While this was primarily a player dump by Herzog, the Cardinals did get some useful players in the trade. Dave LaPoint became a dependable arm in the starting rotation, and occasionally in the bullpen. His contributions would continue when he would be traded to San Francisco in 1985 for slugger Jack Clark. Lezcano became the next in a long line of disappointing corner outfielders, but would be part of the Garry Templeton for Ozzie Smith trade prior to the 1982 season. David Green was the player that Herzog really wanted. A big man with great speed, a good arm and some serious pop in his bat would be a welcome addition to the Cardinals outfield. Injuries would take a toll on Green and he would never develop into the player Herzog had hoped he would be, but a minor league deal that flew under the radar brought that player to the Cardinals from the Yankees system. That player was Willie McGee.
The Brewers couldn’t have been happier with their deal with the Cardinals. These new players made their presence felt immediately and the Brewers responded with their first division title in the strike shortened 1981 season. They would lose the first AL Divisional Series to the New York Yankees, but would return to post-season again in 1982, beating a very solid California Angels team in an exciting 5 game series.
Ted Simmons had a bit of difficulty adjusting to a new league in 1981. He rebounded in 1982, hitting 23 home runs and driving in 97 runs, approaching career highs in both categories. Simba was adapting to the American League style of play quite nicely. His numbers would even get better in 1983, but then the 13 years of wear and tear behind the plate would start taking it’s toll and Simmons would finish out his career as a backup in Atlanta.
Rollie Fingers would lead the American League in saves with 28 while his counterpart in St. Louis did the same – Bruce Sutter would save 25 games in the short season. Even scarier than Finger’s 28 saves was his 1.04 ERA, earning the mustached one both the AL MVP and Cy Young Award. He was nearly as good in 1982, until a severe muscle tear in September would end his season. This one injury may have been enough to tip the World Series balance in favor of the Cardinals. Fingers would sit out all of 1983, but would come back for one more monster season in 1984. Unfortunately for Fingers, the aging Brewers pitching staff was largely ineffective and they slipped back to the bottom of the AL East.
As important as Fingers and Simmons were, the real win for the Brewers came in the person of Pete Vukovich. He’d been a wild hard thrower early in his career with the White Sox and Blue Jays. He began to turn heads as a starter for the Cardinals, winning 15 games in 1979 and 12 in 1980. When he moved to the American League, Vukovich became an overnight sensation. He would go 14-4 in the short 1981 season and then follow that up with a team leading 18-6 record in 1982. That was good enough to earn him the AL Cy Young Award in 1982.
Vukovich was a perfect fit for the Brewers. He was a character with big bushy and uncombed hair. He looked like he had been wearing the same uniform since the start of the season and that it hadn’t been washed in months. He would also frustrate opposing batters by coming up with all sorts of equipment failures, generally as a reliever starts warming up in the bullpen. On a perfectly clear day, his cleats would suddenly be clogged by mud. His belt would fall apart, requiring the equipment manager to bring out a replacement. And my personal favorite, his shoes never seemed to be tied properly. Add to that a scary facial expression and tendency to throw high and inside, Vukovich became an intimidating hurler.
Like his equipment issues, his pitching was also about deception. While he had a good fastball early in his career, arm troubles limited it’s effectiveness in 1982, but he would show it enough to make his devastating change-up a world class out-pitch. We would later learn that Vukovich had torn his rotator cuff during the season and continued to pitch through the pain, rather than resting it and possibly costing his team a trip to the World Series. That would catch up to the former Cardinal as he would only start 3 games in 1983 before being shut down. He would pitch two more ineffective seasons, never coming close to his 1981 and 1982 performance.
Putting it together in 1982
Now that we know a bit about the players, let’s take a look at their production in 1982. As a team, they led the American League in wins, runs, home runs, slugging and OPS. They would finish second to the Kansas City Royals in hits and batting average. Even though they had a free swinger in Gorman Thomas, with his 143 strikeouts, as a team they were next to last in strikeouts. Yes, the 1982 Milwaukee Brewers were one scary team.
That’s what the Cardinals had to face in post-season. George Hendrick led the Cardinals with 19 home runs. If you combine Don Money and Roy Howell as a platooned designated hitter, only two Brewers regulars hit fewer home runs than Hendrick: Charlie Moore in right field and Jim Gantner at second base. Only one Cardinal (George Gendrick) had over 100 RBIs, the Brewers had 4, and Ted Simmons was knocking on the door with 97. The 1982 World Series was really going to be David vs Goliath, and David won that battle, didn’t he ?
Ahhh, but the Cardinals had the running game, right ? That’s true, but the Brewers did a bit of running on their own. Paul Molitor was threat on the bases and would steal 41 bases. Lonnie Smith was the only Cardinal that would steal more – 68. The Cardinals did more running up and down the order, but the Brewers could be aggressive on the bases when they needed to be. That would ultimately cost them in Game Seven of the World Series when Robin Yount would be thrown out at third in a game changing throw from George Hendrick.
How did the Cardinals win ?
It may be as simple as Rollie Fingers and Gorman Thomas.
The arm injury that kept Rollie Fingers out of the World Series caused manager Harvey Kuenn to juggle his bullpen and use several pitchers in a different role. After demolishing the Cardinals in Game One, Game Two was a tight affair until the very end. In a tie game in the 8th inning, Kuenn had to go to Pete Ladd instead of Rollie Fingers. Ladd walked the bases loaded and then walked in the eventual winning run on a controversial ball four call. After a long rain delay, the Brewers bullpen was again victimized in Game Six. And finally, in a close Game Seven, Rollie Fingers might have been able to keep it a one run game which might have changed how the ninth inning was played out. Bob McClure, who had taken the loss in Game Two, would give up two important runs and the Cardinals had some breathing room for the last inning of the World Series.
Robin Yount, Paul Molitor, Cecil Cooper and Jim Gantner all hit the ball well in the World Series, each posting a batting average over .330. The DH platoon was largely ineffective and even though he hit 2 home runs, Ted Simmons was not much of a factor, other than knocking Joaquin Andujar out of a game by lining a ball of his leg. The one batter that we feared most in the Brewers lineup had an atrocious series: Gorman Thomas. Perhaps it is fitting that he struck out for the final out, Thomas would only manage 3 hits in the series, all singles.
More than Fingers and Thomas, team speed ultimately made the difference in the series. It is no surprise that the Brewers took two of the three games at County Stadium in Milwaukee. It is an older stadium and the infield and outfield grass was relatively slow. In the smaller and slower park, the Brewers bats became more potent. Things were much different in the cavernous Busch Stadium. Balls that got through the Brewers defense were gobbled up by Ken Oberkfell, Ozzie Smith, Tommy Herr and Keith Hernandez. A ball hit in the gap that got past Gorman Thomas, Ben Olglivie and former catcher Charlie Moore would be cut off by Lonnie Smith, Willie McGee or George Hendrick. While good pitching can defeat monstrous hitting, the real difference in the 1982 World Series was good defense from the Brewers being beaten by exceptional defense from the Cardinals.
And we had Bruce Sutter and they didn’t have Rollie Fingers
What does this mean for the 2011 Cardinals ?
An outfield of Lance Berkman, Colby Rasmus and Matt Holliday is beginning to look a lot like Charlie Moore, Gorman Thomas and Ben Oglivie. Did I mention that Thomas routinely led the league in strikeouts ? They produced a huge amount of offense, but they needed to because they didn’t prevent a lot of it from their opponents. The Brewers also had a respectable infield, but other than Cooper nobody was an above average defender. That sounds a lot like what the Cardinals will field with David Freese, Ryan Theriot, Skip Schumaker (or Daniel Descalso) and Albert Pujols.
The Brewers clubbed their way to the World Series. If the Cardinals want to do the same, they too will have to thump their way through the National League. That just got a little bit harder with Philadelphia’s signing of Cliff Lee and Milwaukee’s acquisition of Zack Greinke, but it can be done. Fortunately, there aren’t too many teams these days like the 1982 Cardinals and there are no stadiums like old Busch, so anything can happen.
Bob Netherton covers Cardinals history for i70baseball.com and writes at Throatwarbler’s Blog. You may follow Bob on Twitter here or on Facebook here.