In my last blog, I listed the top five players that I would have liked to have seen in a Cardinals uniform. As I was trying to decide whether or not to include Ted Abernathy (he only played in 11 games as a Cardinal), I started thinking about some of the players that made too brief an appearance in the gateway city. Some were players that got away – Bobby Tolan, Wayne Granger, Bake McBride, Lance Johnson and Jose Cruz. A few arrived late in their career, well beyond their glory days – Claude Osteen, Danny Jackson, Moe Drabowsky, Jim “Mudcat” Grant, Jim Kaat.
A precious few came through the Gateway City and excited huge crowds with their heroics. Here are my top five Cardinals that just weren’t in St. Louis long enough.
#5 Steve Carlton (1965 – 1988) – SP
252-182 3.25 ERA 3,185 strikeouts – after he left the Cardinals in 1972. 329-244 overall with 4,136 strikeouts.
“Lefty” is the poster child for “the one that got away”, and it didn’t need to be that way. His exit from St. Louis was the result of a contract holdout and a small difference in salary expectations – less than the tip on a Dez Bryant dinner. What Gussie Busch did not understand is that Carlton had reached the stage in his career where he was a better and more valuable pitcher than Bob Gibson, and he deserved to be compensated accordingly. As if to accentuate the point, Carlton went out and won 27 games the season following his trade to Philadelphia. And he kept winning, and winning. And striking hitters out from both sides of the plate. Meanwhile the Cardinals drifted into a decade long purgatory of unremarkable baseball.
#4 Reggie Smith (1966 – 1982) RF-1B
17 seasons 2,020 hits 314 home runs, 1,092 RBIs .287 career batting average. One Gold Glove
In my opinion, Reggie Smith is one of the best players that is not yet in the Hall of Fame. I still don’t understand how Jim Rice can be in the Hall, but not Smith. For those that want Jim Edmonds in the Hall, get in line behind Smith and Curt Flood.
We got our first taste of Reggie Smith in the 1967 World Series, and it wasn’t pretty. He would hit a meaningless home run off Nelson Briles in Game Three. Next, Smith would be part of an unfortunate historic event when he would join Rico Petrocelli and Carl Yastrzemski as they hit three home runs off Dick Hughes in the 4th inning of Game Six. They were all solo shots and the Cardinals would come back a few innings later to tie the game, but a bullpen failure would extend the series to a seventh game.
In his younger days, Smith could run like the wind. He would frequently lead the league in doubles, to go with a reliable 20 home runs a season, and 80 or more RBIs. In two full seasons with the Cardinals, he turned in All Star worthy performances, and would be rewarded accordingly both times. Injuries slowed him down in 1976, and he would be part of a mid-season trade to help the Los Angeles Dodgers in their divisional championship run. They would fall short that year, but big years from Smith would propel them to the top of the division the next two years, and again in 1981.
#3 Richie Allen (1963 – 1977) – 1B
15 seasons 1,848 hits 351 home runs 1,119 RBIs .292 career batting average, .534 slugging percentage. Rookie of the Year, AL MVP
Forget all of the controversy surrounding Richie Allen, he was one of the most exciting players in his era. Reggie Jackson is credited with making the strikeout acceptable, but it was Richie Allen doing that long before Jackson. In several seasons, he would accumulate more strikeouts than hits. That is largely forgiven because the slugger turned in Albert Pujols-like numbers for more than half of his career. In his younger days, he was a triples hitting machine. As his legs wore out, he became a home run machine.
Allen played just one season in St. Louis – 1970. I’ve never seen the ball jump off anybody’s bat quite like his. I still remember seeing him hit a home run over the Stadium Club, a feat that only happened a few times in Busch Stadium.
The fans warmed up to Richie (soon to be Dick) Allen rather quickly, and we were all disappointed when he was traded at the end of the 1970 season. We were really looking forward to the duo of Allen and Joe Torre, tearing up pitchers for the first half of the decade. It did not come to be, but Allen did become huge star for the White Sox in three amazing seasons, one of which was cut short due to an injury.
#2 Larry Walker (1989 – 2005) – RF
17 seasons, 2,160 hits. 383 home runs 1,311 RBIs. .313 career batting average and a .965 career OPS. 7 Gold Gloves, NL MVP
Even though he had to take regular cortisone injections just be be able to play, we saw a glimmer of the greatness that was Larry Walker in the year and 2 months that he was with the Cardinals – and that left us wanting more. It was unfortunate that he couldn’t last another season and pick up a World Series ring with the Redbirds in 2006.
Let’s just take the whole hitting in Colorado thing off the table. Walker was putting up some obscene numbers in Montreal before moving to Colorado as a free agent in 1995. The man was just a hitting machine (and should make a spectacular hitting coach some day). Batting averages of .366, .363, .379, .309 in a season he missed half of with an injury, back to .350 and .338. There was not a better hitter in his era.
If Matt Holliday can get anywhere near this level of production, and there is some indication that he can, it is going to be a wonderful decade for Cardinals Nation.
#1 Mike Cuellar (1959 – 1977) – SP
15 seasons, 185-130 3.14 ERA 4 20+ win seasons, 18 wins twice more Cy Young Award
Originally drafted by the Cincinnati Reds (the Redlegs back then), Cuellar bounced around in several different minor league systems before finding a home in St. Louis. Many teams had given up on Cuellar (Reds. Tigers, Indians – and unfortunately the Cardinals).
In the early part of his career, he was an undisciplined hard throwing lefty. A low strikeout rate, high number of walks, and just too many balls left over the plate landed Cuellar back in AAA after the ’64 season. In two seasons at Jacksonville, Cuellar became a regular Sandy Koufax, posting a 6-1 and 9-1 records with ERAs of 1.78 and 2.51 respectively. With a surplus of young arms, especially much younger lefties (Larry Jaster, Steve Carlton), Cuellar was sent to Houston where he would begin to show what he was capable of, winning 12 games in ’66, 18 in ’67 and only 8 in ’68 but with a miniscule 2.74 ERA – more a reflection on how poorly Houston played than on Cuellar’s pitching.
It was about this time that Cuellar mastered the screwball, a curve ball with the opposite rotation. This gave him a huge advantage when pitching against right handed hitters, as the ball broke like a curve would from a right hander. And Cuellar had the best in the game. He would lead an amazing Baltimore Orioles staff to three consecutive World Series, winning in 1970. They would also win two more division titles in 1973 and 1974. All of this coming after Cuellar was 32 years old.
Given how close the Cardinals came to winning their division several times in the early 1970s, having a Mike Cuellar in the rotation might have sent the Cardinals to the World Series three or four more times before Whitey Herzog came to town.
These are my top five Cardinals that I wish had been in St. Louis longer than they were. Who are some of yours ?