1969: What Went Wrong ?

After two trips to the World Series in 1967 and 1968, what happened to the Cardinals in 1969 ?  How did it end so suddenly, and what can that tell us about the future of the current franchise ?

The Amazin’ Mets

They were truly amazing.   The Mets trailed the Chicago Cubs by 10 games as late as August 13 and then just caught fire.    Two winning streaks of 6 games, another one of 9 games and a huge 10 game streak propelled the Mets to their first 100 win season after being the punching bag of the National League for most of the decade.  If the Mets had done this in 1968, they might have faced Denny McLain and Mickey Lolich instead of the Cardinals.

Maybe it was as simple as that, after all.   The Cardinals had gone 12-6 against New York in 1968, but the Mets flipped that around, winning 12 of their 18 games in 1969.   That six game differential was nearly half of the number of games the Cardinals finished behind the Mets in ’69.


And here’s the other half.  In 1969, the National League added teams in San Diego and Montreal.   Today, expansion teams begin building a minor league system several years before they join the league.  They get to participate in the amateur draft, Rule 5 draft  and begin minor league play well in advance of their first major league game.  If that wasn’t enough, expansion teams can acquire star players through free agency.  Maybe they don’t start out as the New York Yankees, but they are hardly the Bad News Bears.

In 1969, a city would be awarded a team and they would fill out their roster by way of the major league draft – utility players and a few veterans that were not protected by their team.  Most expansion teams were little more than AAA level when they started playing the next year.  As such, they were frequently fodder for the stronger teams in the league, and may spend several seasons losing 100 or more games.   In 1969, both the San Diego Padres and Montreal Expos would lose 110 games.

The Mets took advantage of both expansion teams, going 13-5 against the Expos and an amazing 11-1 against the Padres, including two sweeps during the late season race to the division title.

The Cardinals had winning records against both teams, but nothing like the pounding given by the Mets.    The Cardinals would win 8 of the 12 games played against the Padres and just 11 of the 18 games with the Expos.    If the Cardinals had played the two expansion teams as well as the Mets, they would have been fighting for the division lead in the last days of the season.

The First Deal is the Deadliest

The reality is that the 1969 Cardinals fate was sealed just days after the Tigers won the World Series.   The first trade, made on October 11, was a complete disaster.   It is rarely talked about in the list of bad trades, but this one helped one team build a dynasty while the other lingered in a prolonged purgatory for the next decade.   The mastermind behind this deal – none other than the former General Manager of the Cardinals, Bob Howsam, now with the Cincinnati Reds.

The Cardinals were looking for a veteran right fielder to replace Roger Maris, even though they had a very talented young player already on the roster, in Bobby Tolan.   Howsam had already stolen Alex Johnson from the Cardinals, and he had turned into an impact player,  hitting .312 in 1968 and would hit .315 in 1969.    After that, Johnson would be traded to the California Angels for another former Cardinal and Howsam draftee, Pedro Borbon.  Howsam wanted Tolan, and a deal was worked out, sending the veteran Vada Pinson to the Cardinals.

Vada Pinson was the Justin Heyward of 1958, just in a 5ft 11in frame.  At age 19, he broke camp with the Reds until rosters were trimmed down to 25 men in May.  He would get a callup in September and continue to impress the Reds management.  At age 20, he would turn in an amazing rookie season, hitting .316 with 84 RBIs.  He would lead the league in runs scored and doubles.   He would also be invited to play in the 1959 All Star game.   And this was just the beginning.    Four times Pinson would collect over 200 hits, topping out with a .343 batting average in 1961.   Pinson was a star, but played most of his career in the shadow of Frank Robinson, perhaps the game’s most underrated player.

Pinson was exactly what the Cardinals were looking for – the next Roger Maris.   He was still a young man, just 30 years old, but was also in his 11th full season.  His offensive production numbers were beginning to decline, as they would for the rest of Pinson’s career.  That was fine because the Cardinals were replacing Roger Maris, not Orlando Cepeda.   That would come later.

Pinson would last just one season in St. Louis.   He would hit .255 with 70 RBIs – hardly an upgrade over the last two seasons from Maris.

Tolan ?  He was one that got away.  Just take a look.

1969 104 93 26 .305 .347 .474 .821
1970 112 80 57 .316 .384 .475 .860
1972 112 80 42 .283 .334 .386 .720

Wouldn’t those numbers have looked good in the Cardinals box scores ?  Certainly a lot better than the lone Pinson season.

But that’s not the end of the story.   There was another player in that trade: Wayne Granger.   Granger was a young hard throwing reliever that almost made the club out of spring training in 1968.  He was disappointed when he didn’t make the final cut, and that might have had something to do with the trade.  He did get called up in June and pitched well in relief for the Cardinals, ending with a 4-2 record, and an ERA of 2.25.

How did Granger do for the Reds ?   You almost don’t want to know.

Year Games Wins Losses Saves ERA Awards
1969 90 9 6 27 2.80 NL Fireman of the Year
1970 67 6 5 35 2.66 NL Fireman of the Year
1971 70 7 6 11 3.33

Not only did we lose Tolan, but we also lost one of the best young closers in the early 1970s.

Granger was 25 years old.  Tolan was just 23.

Does any of this sound familiar ?

Oh, but not to worry.  We still had Steve Carlton and Willie Montanez was lighting up the minor leagues.   Um, that’s what we thought too.   At least the Cardinals did draft Al Hrabosky in the middle of this horrific deal.

Swapping MVPs

Just before the start of the 1969 season, the Cardinals made one more big deal.  This time it was a good one.  Disappointed by Orlando Cepeda’s performance in 1968, the former MVP was sent to the Atlanta Braves for Joe Torre.   Torre had been a star catcher since breaking in the major leagues in 1961.  He had been a perennial All Star, and had even earned a gold glove.  He missed a lot of time early in 1968 with an injury, and it was hoped that moving to first base would extend his career and wake up his bat.   He would go back behind the plate after the Tim McCarver trade in 1970, but would move to third base when Ted Simmons finally reached the big club.  As for waking up his bat – that would be an understatement.   Torre’s league leading .363 average with 137 RBIs would earn him the league MVP in 1971.

Cepeda struggled with the Braves in 1969, but turned in a very good year in 1970, almost matching his offense performance from his MVP year with the Cardinals in 1967.

In the tradition of Bing Devine, this was a trade that benefited both clubs.

What about the Core ?

Many of the core players from the three championship teams were still playing well in St. Louis.  There were a few notable exceptions.

Dal Maxvill had a career year in 1968, hitting a whopping .253.  He would also earn a gold glove.   He laid somewhat of an egg in 1969 though, dropping the average all the way down to .175.  Can we say Brendan Ryan in 2010 ?

Curt Flood had been one of the most productive Cardinals of the 1960.  He would earn his 6th straight gold glove in 1968, and another one in 1969.   In 1968, he would be the only regular player to hit .300 for the Cardinals, finishing with a .301 average.  He would struggle in ’69 and his batting average would drop down to .285, but what he lost in hits, he actually made with more walks, so that drop in production is somewhat misleading.   The reason for the increased walks ?   Pitchers were far less fearful of Vada Pinson hitting third in 69 than Maris the previous two years.   We didn’t know it at the time, but 1969 would be the last time we would see the great Curt Flood.

On the plus side, Julian Javier had a career year, raising his batting average to .283.

But the pitching …. and Bob Gibson

As for the pitching staff, they were good – just not as good as they were in 1968.  Ok, there hasn’t been a pitching staff anywhere in baseball since that could rival that ’68 rotation and bullpen.   But the ’69 Cardinals were close.

Bob Gibson had a typical Gibson year, finishing with a 20-13 record, an ERA of 2.18 in 314 innings.  He would also strike out 269 batters.    Steve Carlton was right there beside Gibby, going 17-11 with a 2.17 ERA, 236 innings and 210 strikeouts.  Nelson Briles stuggled a bit, but finished on the plus side at 15-13 with a 3.52 ERA.  He was still logging a huge number of innings at 227 2/3.   Ray Washburn pitched well, but didn’t received much run support.   His 3.06 ERA didn’t deserve the 3-8 record he finished with.

The surprise of 1969 was young Mike Torrez.  A towering figure on the mound, he threw the ball as hard as Gibson, just not as well.  He turned in a fine rookie season at 10-4 with a 3.59 ERA.  Control issues would plague Torrez most of his career, but he would reinvent himself several times and have  breakout years.  Just not with the Cardinals.

The big difference between 1968 and 1969 was in the bullpen.   Joe Hoerner was good, but not as sharp as he’d been the previous season.  He would earn 15 saves, only blowing 2, but his ERA had crept up to almost 3 runs a game.  Can anybody say, Ryan Franklin ?

Chuck Taylor, returning to the Cardinals in the Mike Cuellar deal, was a pleasant surprise, first in the bullpen and later in the starting rotation.

The problem was at the bottom of the bullpen.  Ron Willis, Gary Waslewskli and veteran Mudcat Grant all struggled, although Grant ended the year on the plus side in the win-loss column.   Fortunately, with Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton and Nelson Briles leading the league in complete games, they weren’t called on too often.

To sum up 1969, the Cardinals had the best pitching staff, but couldn’t score any runs (10th out of 12, last in home runs).   Does this sound familiar ?

To Mediocrity and Beyond

The biggest problem with the 1969 season was that it set in motion a pattern that we would see played out year after year, until the arrival of Whitey Herzog.  The Cardinals management was always looking for that one veteran player that would bring the World Series back to St. Louis, all the while giving up on some exceptional young talent.  No, this doesn’t sound at all familiar.

To deal with the home run deficiency in St. Louis, the Cardinals would acquire Richie Allen from the Philadelphia Phillies in 1970.   This turned out to be an exceptional trade as Allen lit up the National League pitchers in a way that we had not seen in the cavernous Busch Stadium, but when Curt Flood refused to report it cost the Cardinals their top minor league prospect, Willie Montanez.   Too make matters worse,  Allen would last a single season as he would be traded to Los Angeles the next year for Ted Sizemore.  Sizemore was a great player, and played the Cardinals brand of baseball, but he was no Richie Allen.

Vada Pinson would be traded after the 1969 season for another scrappy veteran (although just 26 years old), Jose Cardenal.   Cardenal had a decent season in 1970, hitting .293 with 74 RBIs.  After a season and a half, he would be traded for Ted Kubiak, a Dal Maxvill like utility infielder.   Cardenal would reinvent himself as a big time contributor later with the Chicago Cubs.    Do we see the pattern ?

Steve Carlton would be traded for Rich Wise.   Carlton would win 27 games the next year and Rick Wise would win just a few more games than that in his TWO seasons with the Cardinals.   Carlton would go to Cooperstown, Rick Wise would go to Boston for Reggie Smith.

Reggie Smith would have two All Star season in St. Louis, but after an injury, he would be traded to Los Angeles for Joe Ferguson.  Smith would have several All Star seasons with the Dodgers, including a rather Albert Pujols like 1977.    Ferguson would be a part time catcher, and eventually be traded for Larry Dierker’s last professional season and a returning player, Jerry Davanon.

While all of this is going on, Steve Carlton, Mike Torrez, Jose Cruz, Willie Montanez and Jerry Reuss would all have great careers – after being traded away from St. Louis.

What does this mean for 2010 ?

The 1969 Cardinals were a former juggernaut that kept trying to recapture the magic, but just found themselves chasing veteran players around the rainbow.  There was no pot of gold at the end of these deals, but a lot of talent was surrendered that might have helped rescue a team in serious decline.

That same thing could happen to the Cardinals in the next few years, if the front office isn’t careful.  The farm system is being stocked and developed – and there are quite a few exciting young players on the horizon: Shelby Miller, Eduardo Sanchez, Matt Carpenter, Zack Cox.   I hope these become the next Keith Hernandez and Tommy Herr and not Jose Cruz or Willie Montanez.

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4 Responses to 1969: What Went Wrong ?

  1. Erika says:

    Mudcat Grant?! Now THAT is quite a name! 😉

    how do we get this history lesson into the right hands in the Cardinals offices? 🙂

    the blind belief that stacking the deck w/ castoff veterans hasn’t worked this year. I’d sure hate to see it be the game plan again for 2011!


    • Jim “Mudcat” Grant was a blast. He was a big time pitcher in the early 60s for Cleveland and then Minnesota. Won 20 for the Twins in ’65 and took them to the World Series. Used to watch him as a kid on Game of the Week. It was incredible to see him in a Cardinals uniform, even near the end of his career.

      I think you’re seeing the pattern developing – and it’s a really scary one. The Cleveland GM has done to John Mozeliak exactly what Bob Howsam did to Stan Musial – stole the best young talent for a short term rental of a scrappy veteran that the no longer needed (and didn’t fit in their long term plans). Doesn’t that Tolan/Granger for Pinson deal feel just like Perez/Todd for Mark DeRosa ?

      I sure hope that John Mozeliak manages this offseason wisely.


  2. Pingback: Putting the Lance Berkman deal in (Historical) Perspective « Throatwarbler's Blog

  3. Pingback: The Cardinals In Time: Gibby And El Birdos | I-70 Baseball

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