It’s one of the most storied franchises in baseball.
Winning the most World Series titles of any National League team (11) will do that. So will one of the most unique uniforms in the game. As will producing colorfully-named editions in baseball’s annals such as the Gas House Gang and El Birdos.
The St Louis Cardinals have added a multitude of memories to baseball lore, not the least of which included these dramatic performances on the game’s biggest stage:
– Grover Cleveland Alexander, after winning Game 6 against the Yankees in the 1926 Series, coming out of the bullpen in Game 7 – allegedly with a hangover – to fan Tony Lazzeri with the sacks jammed as he assembled a three-inning save and secured the Cardinals’ first World Series championship.
– Dizzy Dean going 30-7 with a 2.66 ERA as he led the Redbirds to the 1934 Series title.
-Enos Slaughter’s Mad Dash to score from first on a single in the eighth inning of Game 7 in the 1946 Series to break a 3-3 tie and best the Red Sox.
– Bob Gibson dominating the post-season of his era by winning a record seven straight World Series starts over three Fall Classics (1964, 1967, 1968).
– David Freese, a hometown hero, twice going down to the last strike before tripling home the tying runs in the ninth and then drilling a walk-off home run in the eleventh to claim Game 6 of the 2011 Series.
This is the franchise of Stan Musial, the Hall of Famer who is immediately identified and revered by the mere mention his strikingly simple but well-deserved nickname, The Man.
This is where Rogers Hornsby, the last National Leaguer to hit .400 for the season – and who did it three times (1922, 1924, 1925) – plied his trade as he compiled a .378 career batting average, second in history to Ty Cobb.
Before franchise shifts and expansion, St Louis was both the westernmost and southernmost team in the majors. Thus, its ‘territory’ spread from Georgia to Colorado, literally creating a Cardinal Nation of baseball fans before such a term ever existed. This was no doubt instrumental in forming the backbone of their modern-day ‘nation’ once new media made access to the team and its games ubiquitous.
Cardinal fans have played a key role in shaping the essence of what the franchise has come to be. Often hailed as the ‘best fans in baseball’ – a term that makes most of them wince over the subjectivity of it – their influence has been more than creating a cacophony of cheers at Busch Stadium or a sea of St Louis red at visiting parks.
Much more, in fact, as we shall see.
Here are ten seminal moments that helped to make the Cardinals franchise what it is today:
10. One Season Known as the Perfectos
A pair of sporting entrepreneurs, brothers Stanley and Frank Robison, purchased the St Louis franchise from its founding owner, Chris von der Ahe, before the 1899 season. The club began existence as the Brown Stockings and by then had shortened it to Browns. The club was perpetually mediocre, however, so the brothers sought a fresh start, and better odds of success.
The Robisons were inspired by how the big-city Brooklyn franchise was re-making itself. Brooklyn selected an exotic nickname for quality to promote its newly stocked on-field product in preparation for the 1899 season. It went with Superbas, the Spanish version of superb.
Figuring you’re only as good as who you steal from, the siblings chose a similar Spanish superlative, the moniker ‘Browns’ was ditched, and the Perfectos were branded.
However, in spite of the chicanery you’ll see on the next page, the St Louis team still wasn’t perfecto in 1899. It remained a mediocre Brownish.
9. Cy Young’s Brilliant Career Made A Whistle Stop With the St Louis Perfectos in 1899
Prior to 1900, baseball’s landscape was chaotic, to say the least, so nobody stopped the Robison brothers’ purchase of the St Louis team despite the fact they already owned the Cleveland Spiders, also a National League club.
A conflict of interest? Of course.
The Spiders were a contender, with elite performers such as Denton True Young, whose nickname ‘Cy’ was short for Cyclone, which described his legendary fastball. In contrast, the Browns were perennial also-rans. Fortunately for St Louis, the Robisons saw a better future there and decimated the Spider roster to strengthen their newly acquired team. The chucker who would ultimately win 511 games in his Hall of Fame career thus became a Perfecto.
Plundering players was a tactic that proved successful for the Brooklyn Superbas, who had raided the first incarnation of Baltimore’s Orioles, a haul that included Wee Willie Keeler. Brooklyn’s new nickname promptly proved prophetic, as the club went 101-47 in 1899.
But alas, even with Young in the rotation – he went 26-16 in 1899 – and a fortified roster, the Perfectos still weren’t. Meanwhile, in Cleveland, the hopelessly depleted Spiders slogged through a 20-134 season. It’s by far the worst record in major league history.
What became of the Spiders? They never recovered and folded. Young? He stayed one more year, going 19-19 before moving on to Boston’s franchise in the new American League, which began play in 1901.
8. A Fashion-Conscious Female Knew Her 50 Shades of Red
Part of the Robison brothers’ makeover of the dowdy Browns was a color conversion in their uniform’s livery to a dynamic red. The stark new piping was accentuated by bright red stockings.
Maybe the ‘Perfecto’ hype didn’t work out, but at least the team looked dapper in what passed for sartorial splendor on the diamond in 1899.
Rather than endure wisecracks contrasting Perfectos with poor performance, the Robison brothers decided yet another change was in order. But to what?
It just so happened that sportswriter Willie McHale took notice of a female fan that year who remarked that the red theme the Robisons’ chose was “a lovely shade of cardinal,” He printed it. Other fans loved it.
Anything was better than Perfectos, so the brothers hastily began referring to their team to various hues of red such as the Scarlets and even the Maroons. In the end, though, they decided the customer was always right and settled on the little lady’s accurate eye for detail.
And so it was that the team’s name was coined by a fan. The allusion to birds came later.
7. A Banquet Centerpiece Spawned the Idea for the Birds-on-the-Bat Logo
Sometimes, a firm grasp of the obvious can be rather elusive.
St Louis was still referring to itself as a shade of red when General Manager Branch Rickey was on the off-season rubber chicken tour prior to the 1922 season. One event on his schedule was at a ladies’ social club, where one of its more artistic members adorned a table with a swag featuring two cardinals perched on a tree branch.
Cardinals are plentiful in the Midwest, so this was a common sight. At least, it was everywhere except on the St Louis jerseys.
Rickey soon took care of that. Duly enlightened, he fashioned a design whereby a bat replaced the branch and added ‘Cardinals’ in script below it. First displayed on the team’s jerseys in 1922, this distinctive feature became an immediate success, and with one exception – inexplicably, in 1954 – the Birds-on-the-Bat logo has been a fixture on St Louis uniforms.
It can truly be said that the St Louis fans were at the heart of the team’s name and image.
6. Branch Rickey Created the Farm System So St Louis Could Compete With Big Budget Clubs
Believe it or not, World War I hastened the farm system concept.
Until then, minor league teams were faring well as independents. Pro baseball on the local level was a prime form of summer entertainment, and if a club produced a promising prospect, it could enhance its finances by selling him to a major league club.
But the war’s effects took its toll on talent and disposable income. It was a double-whammy that hit the minors hard. Then came the lawsuit – Federal Baseball Club v National League – that established baseball’s anti-trust exemption. Among other consequences, the majors capped the amount they would be obliged to pay minor league teams for prospects.
Rickey had toyed with the concept of a developmental system while with the St Louis Browns, but they had no money themselves. But when he crossed over to the Cardinals and auto dealership magnate Sam Braden bought the club, Rickey immediately took advantage of the economic climate and purchased two suddenly available teams in Houston and Ft Smith, Arkansas.
At one point, the St Louis system boasted 32 minor league affiliates, producing players like clockwork.
The concept was so successful for the Cardinals that he was said to be “growing players down on the farm like corn.” The term stuck, and the idea spread. Rickey had created a pipeline for home grown talent, thus greatly reducing the need to compete with bigger-market clubs for players.
5. Dizzy Dean Dumbfounds Detroit By Using His Head
The undisputed ace of the 1934 Gas House Gang, Jerome Herman – or Jay Hanna, take your pick; he did – ‘Dizzy’ Dean had a flair for showmanship and a blistering fastball to back it up.
After leading the Cardinals to the World Series against the Detroit Tigers, Dean won Game 1, and as his next start would be Game 5, he was available to pinch run in between. Which is what he did in Game 4.
The next batter bounced into what looked to be a certain double play. In his competitive zeal to make certain that didn’t happen, the hard-charging Dean barreled high into second. These were the days before batting helmets, so when the attempted throw to first nailed him in the head, ol’ Diz was knocked cold. He had to be carried from the field on a stretcher and was immediately dispatched to the hospital.
Fortunately, the tests were negative, giving rise to one of the most famous headlines in baseball history. The Detroit press exclaimed, “X-Rays of Dean’s Head Show Nothing!”
Perhaps not, but his right arm showed enough to win Games 5 and 7, sealing the Series for St Louis.
4. Gussie Busch Beats Baseball’s Ban To Promote His Beer
In these times of sports teams getting sponsorship deals for everything in their vicinity, it’s incredible to conceive there was actually a time when the game’s administrators firmly barred anything of the sort.
But that was the state of play when Anheuser-Busch tycoon August A “Gussie” Busch Jr. saved the club from insolvency by purchasing it in 1953. In the process, he threw the full force and power of the St Louis-based mega-brewery behind the Cardinals. Quite logically, he saw the team as a strong promotional vehicle for its products.
One of Busch’s first moves was to pour money into upgrading rickety Sportsman’s Park, home to both the Cardinals and the cash-strapped Browns. In return, he wanted to name it Budweiser Park in honor of his brewery’s best-selling brand. But Commissioner Ford Frick would have none of it.
Well, then, Busch countered, could he name the stadium after himself? After all, he’d saved the team. Frick agreed and allowed it. Busch Stadium came to be.
And soon thereafter, the brewery announced the rollout of a new brand.
Busch Beer. Available at Busch Stadium and quality stores everywhere.
3. The 1963 All-Star Game Featured An All-Cardinal Starting Infield
It’s never been done before or since. Not by any of the Yankee dynasties, the Big Red Machine, or the Swingin’ A’s. Not even by the Cincinnati fans who became infamous for stuffing ballot boxes in 1957, prompting Commissioner Frick to place All-Star selection solely in the hands of the players, coaches, and managers for the next 12 years.
When the National League All-Stars took the field at Cleveland Stadium on 9 July 1963, here’s how the all-Cardinal infield stacked up:
1b – Bill White … .304 avg / 27 hr / 109 rbi / .991 fielding pct
2b – Julian Javier … .263 / 9 / 46 / .969
SS – Dick Groat … .319 / 6 / 70 / .964
3b – Ken Boyer … .285 / 24 / 111 / .925
There was one caveat. The Pirates’ Bill Mazeroski won the vote at second base, but he pulled a hamstring in the days prior to the All-Star game. Giants’ manager Alvin Dark thus had discretion to name a replacement, and he bypassed the runner-up, the Cubs’ Ken Hubbs, in favor of Javier. Dark’s reasoning was Javier gave the National League a better chance of winning.
He meant it. Javier played the entire game, along with White and Groat. Three double-plays were turned, including a game-ending bang-bang at first that sealed a 5-3 win. Groat drove home the game’s first run with a single, and White later singled, stole second, and scored on a single by Ron Santo, one of the most popular Cubs of all time, who replaced Boyer.
St Louis finished behind the Dodgers in 1963, but this unit was instrumental in their pennant and World Series title the following year.
2. Bob Gibson’s 1968 Season Was Exhibit A For MLB Lowering The Pitcher’s Mound
It’s been said that 1968 was the Year of the Pitcher, just possibly the most important season in modern-day baseball after Jackie Robinson’s historic 1947 campaign, where he proved he belonged by earning Rookie of the Year honors.
But 1968 was seminal. Hurlers dominated. Detroit’s Mickey Lolich became the first 30-game winner since Dizzy Dean in 1934. Don Drysdale strung together a then-record 58⅔ scoreless innings. And Bob Gibson had a season for the ages.
Needing only a heater and biting slider, Gibson posted 13 shutouts in a mind-boggling 28 complete games. For most chuckers, those would be great career totals. And remember, four-man rotations were still the norm in 1968.
These were the clues to the statistic that pops eyeballs: Gibson’s earned run average of 1.12 was the lowest since the Dead Ball era and the third-lowest overall. It became the numerical symbol of total and utter dominance.
And that was the marker that convinced MLB the pendulum had swung too far in the pitchers’ favor. The mound was immediately lowered from 15 inches to 10, where it remains to this day. Accordingly, no pitcher has since come close to Gibson’s accomplishments.
1. The Cardinals Drew A Team-Record 3.5 Million-Plus Fans In 2007
This could be the most telling statistic in the team’s illustrious history.
In this era of free agency, with small-market teams using Moneyball strategies to remain competitive, it’s often forgotten that St Louis is a small-market team itself.
Both Oakland and Tampa Bay – the poster teams for low-revenue operations – are larger metro areas than St Louis. But therein lies the distinction. The Cardinals may be small-market, but they are definitely not low revenue.
And that’s down to Cardinal Nation.
According to Forbes, the Cardinals are the eighth-highest-valued franchise in baseball at $820 million. Strong attendance accounts for more of their budget than many clubs, and its faithful dutifully responds. The team has drawn over 3 million fans for nine straight years. Revenue per fan is $87, and the consistently strong local television ratings were baseball’s second-highest in 2013.
Thus, how the club took shape is how it continues. The St Louis Cardinals are as much a product of their fans as they are of the luminaries who have directed and/or played for them. The fans know it and take their role seriously.
It’s the main reason they shouldn’t have to wince when they’re called the best in baseball.
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