Why the 1964 Cardinals should give every baseball fan hope


Before the era of free agency, baseball executives would work feverishly during the off season, trading players under their control in the hopes of finding that unique combination of personalities that can win a championship.   Ever since Andy Messersmith got that big pay day from Atlanta in April 1976, free agent signings provided an additional source of talent that might make help take a team into post-season play.  In either case, the fortunes of a team were largely established as they broke camp in spring training and headed off to start their regular season.

Not so with the 1964 Cardinals.  In fact, quite the opposite.   Even though they had put on quite a show in the late 1963 pennant race, that feisty bunch of Redbirds were the least likely group of players to win a championship.  They only did so thanks to some of the most active and creative executive work done by Bing Devine, which ironically would cost him his job in August.    And let’s not forget Johnny Keane who pulled more rabbits out of a hat than all of the magicians in the world, combined.

A Solid Core

Oh, the 1964 Cardinals had some talent.  Quite a bit, in fact.  Since taking over as General Manager in 1957, Bing Devine had been systematically upgrading the talent on the major league squad, while scouting the best amateur players to fill up the farm system.   By any measure, he had been successful, even though the team trophy case remained bare.

The entire Cardinals infield (Ken Boyer, Dick Groat, Julian Javier, Bill White) started the 1963 All Star Game, and they were still together as a unit in 1964, and just as productive.  Not only was Curt Flood a defensive star in the National League, he was quickly becoming a singles machine at the top of the batting order.  Throw in a 22 year old catcher who could hit and run in Tim McCarver, and you have the beginnings of a winning lineup card.

But that’s only six players.   What about the other two starters ?

That would be Charlie James in left field and Johnny Lewis over in right.   James had been given ample opportunity to seize any of the three outfield spots since being called up in August 1960, but a lack of consistent hitting kept him on the bench nearly as often as he was in the field.   1964 would be no different, except that it would be his last year in St. Louis.

Lewis would be one of the youngsters making the club out of spring training.  He would join Dal Maxvill, Mike Shannon, Jerry Buchek and Jeoff Long.   The question for Keane and Devine – which of these players would still be Cardinals when the final roster trimming happened in mid-May ?  They chose Lewis over Shannon, Buchek over Maxvill, and Long because of the number of positions he could play, if needed.   By mid-May, Maxvill and Shannon would be in Jacksonville (AAA), waiting for their next callup – which would happen before the heat and humidity of August turned Sportsman’s Park into an oven.

The remainder of Keane’s bench in 1964 were Phil Gagliano (IF), Bob Uecker (c), Carl Warwick (OF) and Doug Clemens (OF).   Carl Warwick was obtained from the Houston Colt 45s in a trade just before the start of spring training.  Uecker was a late pickup in a trade with the Milwaukee Braves, just before the start of the regular season.   Both were added to give some veteran depth to what was suddenly turning into a very young and inexperienced bench. Warwick was the key here as he developed into a pinch hitting specialist, which would come in handy if the Cardinals made it to the World Series.

Does any of this sound familiar ?  Yeah, I thought so.

Let’s tie all of this up before we look at the pitching situation.

Johnny Keane’s 1964 Cardinals started the season with a solid infield, catcher and center fielder.   His corner outfielders were question marks at best- certainly unproven, and their offensive production was somewhat below that you would hope to get from either position.

Bullpen, What Bullpen ?

Keane’s outfield worries were nothing compared to what he had to deal with in the bullpen.  There was no bullpen, because there was no well defined starting rotation.  Oh, there were starters: Ernie Broglio, Bob Gibson and Curt Simmons.   Eventually Ray Sadecki and Roger Craig would work their way into the rotation, but at the very beginning, things were very fluid between the starters and bullpen.

Not counting Sadecki and Craig, Keane started the season with a bullpen of Bobby Shantz, Ron Taylor, Harry Fanok, and Lew Burdette.   Only one of these pitchers would still be in the bullpen in October – Ron Taylor.

Trader Bing ?

What happens next is beyond belief.  Bing Devine is going to re-tool the Cardinals in the middle of the season.   And not just a bit here and there.   2/3 of the outfield, key players on the bench, and nearly the entire pitching staff is about to get a makeover.  This is the equivalent of doing a valve job on a high performance sports car – while it is running at 70 miles per hour down an interstate highway.

Harry Fanok would be the first casualty of 1964.   He hadn’t pitched poorly in his few appearances, but a healthy Ray Washburn tearing up the International League meant an immediate and significant upgrade to the rotation.   Health had been a question with Washburn since injuring his arm early in the 1962 season, but his two starts for Jacksonville were impressive enough to bring him up to the big club.  He would be inserted into the rotation in early May with Fanok going back to Jacksonville.   The other move associated with Washburn’s promotion was Roger Craig going back to the bullpen.  That would not last for long – for either of them.

Devine’s next move would be to add another starter.   Ray Washburn was impressive in his first three starts, but a pair of early exits in his next two raised a bit of a red flag.  At the same time, former 20 game winner, Ernie Broglio was struggling, so adding a starter as insurance seemed like a good idea.   On June 2, veteran reliever Lew Burdette was sent to the Chicago Cubs for Glen Hobbie.    Hobbie would pitch well in his first two starts, including a brilliant 2 hitter against the San Francisco Giants, but a pair of rough outings sent him to the bullpen.   By the end of July, he would be in Jacksonville, pitching in the minors.

Frustrated with the lack of production from the corner outfield, Bing Devine made two trades in mid-June.   The first of these was on June 13, acquiring veteran Bob Skinner from the Cincinnati Reds.   He would immediately take over right field, at least for the moment.

The second of these trades is the one that turned around the fortunes of Cardinals franchise for not only 1964, but for the next 16 years.  On June 15, he sent veteran starter Ernie Broglio, reliever Bobby Shantz and outfielder Doug Clemens to the Chicago Cubs for Lou Brock.   The Cardinals also received Paul Toth (originally drafted by the Cardinals) and Jack Spring, but neither had any impact on the 1964 season.

The free swinging and blindingly fast Brock took over duties in left field, and the National League was never the same again.    The change in scenery was just what Brock needed as he started hitting, and with authority.  In 103 games with the Cardinals, Brock would hit .348, slug .527 (9 triples and 12 home runs).  He would add 44 RBIs, most of those being Curt Flood who was hitting ahead of him in the batting order, and 33 stolen bases.

The Cardinals had just gotten what they needed most – a catalyst that sent the team’s operational tempo into overdrive.    And that’s exactly how they played in August, September and October 1964. “Catch us if you can” became the mantra of the team as the summer wore on, and Gene Mauch’s Phillies wore down.

To fill the Burdette’s vacancy in the bullpen, Mike Cuellar was called up from Jacksonville.  The entire International League sent General Manager Bing Devine a giant cookie bouquet for taking that action.  In 10 starts, Cuellar was averaging nearly 8 innings per outing, had a 6-1 record and a nearly invisible ERA of 1.78.  While he wouldn’t have quite the same success in the big leagues, he did prove to be a valuable arm, absorbing a lot of important innings.   The fiery left hander would eventually take Glen Hobbie’s spot in the rotation for a few turns before returning to the pen as a long reliever and spot starter.

Ernie Broglio’s spot would initially be filled by Doug Bakenhaster, but an unimpressive debut sent him back to Jacksonville in favor of Bobby Humphreys.  Humphreys turned out to be one of the most important arms in the bullpen, appearing in 28 games.   He would post a 2-0 record with 2 saves.   More important was that 2.53 ERA which meant he was keeping the score close, allowing the big bats to rally late.   And they did.   Often.

When the Cardinals had finally given up on Glen Hobbie, and sent him back to Jacksonville, they called up left hander Gordie Richardson to take his place.   Richardson would turn out to be the portside complement to Bobby Humphreys, matching him outing for outing.  In Richardson’s 19 appearances, including 6 starts – 2 of them being at the height of the pennant race, the little lefty would post a 4-2 record with 1 save.  He would best Humprey’s ERA by a few points, at 2.30.

With Lou Brock firmly established as the every day left fielder, it was time for Bing Devine to turn his attention to right field.  Bob Skinner had been playing there regularly since his acquisition in June.  He had played well, but the lower part of the Cardinals batting order could do with a jolt.   They would get that and more on July 9 when Mike Shannon was recalled from Jacksonville to take the place of Jeoff Long, who had just been sent to the Chicago White Sox.  Like Brock and Flood, Shannon played the game exceptionally hard, more like a football player than typical baseball player.  He would dive at balls, make spectacular catches while rolling over in the grass, and could always be counted on to take an extra base.  That was exactly what the Cardinals needed to start lower batting order rallies, and Shannon delivered the goods.

There was one more position player to add, and that would happen late in July.  With Jerry Buchek struggling at the plate, Dal Maxvill was recalled from Jacksonville to provide some defensive insurance.  He would replace a young utility infielder named Phil Gagliano.  Gagliano would play a huge role in the next two pennant races, but he would finish 1964 in Jacksonville.

Maxie was not expected to hit, but if called upon, Devine knew his glove would be golden.   In a galactic sized bit of irony, it would be Dal Maxvill, playing for an injured Julian Javier, that drove in the winning run that sent the Cardinals to the World Series. Devine would be long gone by the time that happened, but he had to smile when Maxie got the most important hit of his young career.

At the same time, another young utility player would be called up.   Unfortunately, he would take the place of Ray Washburn, who was not as healthy as we all had hoped.  With all of the pitchers added recently, a much needed utility bench player was added to the roster, and Ed Speizio, father of future Cardinal Scott Spiezio, would soon join the Cardinals.   Spiezio would be used sparingly as a pinch hitter for the remainder of the season.

There was one more roster move to be made, and it was perhaps the boldest of them all.  In the beginning of the season, the bullpen was loaded with veteran hurlers with decades of big game experience.   In the blink of an eye, they were all gone, replaced by a bunch of kids that were overachieving on a nightly basis.  How long would it last, especially when September was beginning to look like an endless string of big games ?

At the end of July, the Cardinals called up a veteran knuckleballer who had been working hard at AAA to extend his career.   Barney Schultz would soon rejoin the club he broke in with in 1955, but this time as a most unusual closer.   Not many teams could boast a knuckleballer as their closer.   Schultz had been lights out for Jacksonville, posting an 8-5 record with a 1.05 ERA in 42 appearances.   He was also averaging more than a strikeout per inning.   Even more unusual was his eerie pinpoint control.  Schultz was one of the few that could control the floater, and he had managed a K/BB ratio over 3 (3.18) – totally unheard of for a knuckeballer.

In the last two months of the season, Schultz would put up nearly identical numbers with the big club.  In 30 appearances, he would post a 1-3 record with 14 sames and an ERA of 1.64.  If you take away out one terrible outing in early September, Schultz would only have allowed 4 earned runs over those two months.   Does this sounds like anybody we recognize – Ryan Franklin maybe ?

More important than his record was Schultz’s demeanor when the season was on the line.  The veteran hurler had been around the block and knew not to get too far up when things were going well, and not too far down when they didn’t.  When interviewed minutes after saving the game that would send the Cardinals to the World Series, Schultz sounded more a radio announcer giving the hog future prices than a baseball player who was going to the World Series.  It was all just a matter of fact, doing my day job, nothing more.  Schultz turned out to be the perfect player to settle down a young and excitable bullpen, and send the Cardinals to the Fall Classic.

Recap

The number of changes that Bing Devine made throughout the 1964 season was mind-boggling.  These were not just calling up a youngster from the farm system to replace an injured player – these were systematic and calculated upgrades, hoping to complement a very talented core and create a World Champion.   Not all of the deals worked out (Glen Hobbie, Bob Skinner), but at least one of them made history (Lou Brock).   It was also Devine and Keane’s trust in the young players that kept coming up from Jacksonville that kept them contributing, night after night.

What about 2011 ?

All of this really did happen in 1964.  Could it happen in 2011 ?

Sure, but there are a few complications.

Bing Devine had built one of the best farm systems in baseball.  He knew what he had in Gordie Richardson, Bobby Humphreys, Mike Shannon and Dal Maxvill.   There’s every reason to hope that Eduardo Sanchez, Lance Lynn, Matt Carpenter and Adron Chambers could make the same contributions, if called upon this summer – but make no mistake, the Cardinals farm system today is nothing like it was in the 1960s.

If anything, Manager Tony La Russa would be the biggest obstacle.  Based on the last few years in St. Louis, La Russa would have continued to run Charlie James and Bob Skinner to the outfield, game after game, instead of turning those duties over to a pair of unknown kids (Brock, Shannon).   His track record with pitchers is somewhat better, but still a long way from the trust that Keane showed in his young players.

Then there is the issue of salaries.   Thanks to free agency, teams pay a lot more for talent today than they did in Keane’s era.  When you spend $8M for an outfielder like Lance Berkman, it is very hard to admit that he is not working out and cut your losses.   That’s exactly what Devine did with Johnny Lewis, Charlie James and to a lesser degree, Bob Skinner.   I just don’t see that happening with a player like Lance Berkman – so let’s hope he has a very good year.

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One Response to Why the 1964 Cardinals should give every baseball fan hope

  1. William says:

    And it was this team that broke the Yankee dynasty. 1964 was the last gasp for Mantle, Ford and the Yankees. The Cardinals beat them and they were never the same. Keane ended up managing some of those awful teams of the 1960s…the seasons I became a Yankee fan. The 1964 World Series was the first that I actually remember. I remember it was there that my hate for Bob Gibson started. Heh.

    A wonderful trip down memory lane, Bob. A great read and one I really enjoyed.

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