October 1, 1974 – The End of an Era

Our man Red

Of all the St. Louis managers over the last half century, Red Schoendienst had the toughest job.  By a long shot.  Not even close.  All of the others inherited a team in disarray, and while the hopes were high, the expectations were something else entirely.   Johnny Keane took over a dysfunctional group, but they had a core group of players with unbelievable talent.  It was just a matter of getting them to realize their potential.  In the 1980s, Whitey Herzog blew apart the major league roster and replaced them with a combination young players from the farm system and some carefully selected veterans.  Tony La Russa did similarly, but with more of a focus on veteran players, and maybe with a bit less care.

The selection of Red as manager instead of Leo Durocher might have been the smartest decision that Bob Howsam and Gussie Busch ever made.  His local folk hero status allowed him to survive a brutal rebuilding program that took nearly two years to complete.   The result was one of the greatest rosters, if not THE greatest in Cardinals history – the 1967 and 1968 team.

Oh so close

Hopes were high in 1969, coming off a second consecutive National League Pennant.  Most of the starting rotation had returned, the only loss being Larry Jaster.  He would be taken by the Montreal Expos in the expansion draft.   For baseball trivia fans, Jaster would get  the start against his former club when Montreal played their first home game – the first regular season game played outside the United States.

Vada Pinson

To replace Roger Maris, the Cardinals made an off-season deal with the Cincinnati Reds to bring Vada Pinson over for a pair of young prospects.  Pinson was the perfect choice – a plus defender, still in his prime, and lots of great veteran leadership.  He also brought a nagging injury that would cost him nearly the entire month of May.   When combined with Curt Flood’s struggles and Dal Maxvill’s regression to the mean (he would hit just .175), it was just too much and the Cardinals failed to return to the post-season.

Closer Yet

Things started getting rather strange in 1970.   Gussie Busch reacted strongly to players wanting to be paid more, and Curt Flood became the first victim.   He would be shipped out of town in a blockbuster deal that brought a volatile, but undeniably talented player to St. Louis.   He would only last a single season, but Richie (soon to be rebranded as Dick) Allen thrilled the Cardinals crowds with an offensive barrage that we had not seen in a long time.   We wouldn’t see anything like that again until Jack Clark arrived in 1985.

Mike Torrez

The pitching staff, one of the strengths of the team in recent years, was starting to fall apart.  In particular, Nelson Briles had a tough year.  But a pair of youngsters, Mike Torrez and Jerry Reuss, gave Cardinals fans a glimpse of what might be the next Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton.   Unfortunately, Gussie would run both of them out of town long before they could help the team.   Steve Carlton would be the next victim, and that would be the straw that broke the Cardinal’s back, but not before he nearly pitched the Cardinals into post-season in 1971.

Richie Allen was gone, but the player we got in return, Ted Sizemore, took over for Julian Javier.  Ted Simmons had established himself as one of the best offensive catchers in the game.  Jose Cardenal had replaced Vada Pinson, and was a marginal upgrade.    Systematically, the aging members of Bing Devine’s 1960 core were being replaced.   One at a time.

The Cardinals came oh so close in 1971.   If Vada Pinson’s injury was the difference in 1969, Bob Gibson’s 3 weeks on the disabled list in late May and early June sealed the Cardinals fate before the calendar turned over into summer.   Still, the team played well and Red was able to put 90 marks down in the win column.

A Lost Cause

The Cardinals were never able to recover following the devastating trade that sent Steve Carlton to the Phillies.   Like Neil Allen a decade later, there was nothing that Rick Wise could have done to win over the fans.  Every time he took the mound, he reminded us that our favorite left-hander was no longer on the team.   But that was not the only weakness in the Cardinals roster.   Right field continued to be a problem.    Bernie Carbo would get the bulk of the playing time, but Red threw about anybody that had a glove out there at one time or another.

Then there was the bullpen.  Tony La Russa would have adored them.   They were old, and they were very scrappy.   They were also terribly ineffective, and the ERA’s skyrocketed.   Except for one young left-hander that we would learn to love.  A 22 year old, wacky, max-effort guy with a delivery that looked like the business end of an egg beater.   Yes, I am talking about Al Hrabosky.

1972 was a lost cause, and the Cardinals would finish under .500.   With the emergence of Ken Reitz to secure third base, and Mike Tyson to take over for Dal Maxvill at short, the transformation of the infield was complete.   1973 was a bit better, an even .500 record.   Now all that remained was to find a center and right fielder.

Red’s Last Stand

"Shake and Bake" McBride

Red would get both in the 1974 season, one from within and one from outside.   The center fielder was a kid named  Bake McBride.  Oh, he could run.   He could also forget what day it was, but that generally wasn’t important as he went from first to third on a single, or stole a base.   And he could hit.   His .309 batting average and 30 stolen bases were enough to earn him the 1974 Rookie of the Year.   He would only get better, but that would mostly happen in a Phillies uniform.

For the first time since Roger Maris, the Cardinals had a big time right fielder.  In a deal with the Red Sox that finally ended the tragic Steve Carlton chapter, the Cardinals sent Rick Wise to Boston forReggie Smith.  Oh, we remember Smith – the cocky youngster that tormented Cardinals pitchers in the 1967 World Series.   He was a much different player now.  Not the skinny arrogant kid that was a triples machine, he was a muscle bound line drive hitter that was perfect for the cavernous Busch Stadium outfield.   He also had a cannon of an arm that he would occasionally show off.   In two full seasons in St. Louis, he would hit over .300 both times and earn two All Star Game invitations.

Lynn McGlothen

Another missing piece also came over from the Red Sox.  Right hander Lynn McGlothen had been a highly touted pitching prospect, but had struggled in Boston.   He was very talented, but also had a bit of an attitude problem that caused people to question his work ethic and desire to win.  Boston cut their losses, and the Cardinals sent over a similarly disappointing prospect, Reggie Cleveland.  Both pitchers did well in their new surroundings, but it was McGlothen’s first half in 1974 that gave us hope for another playoff chance.   The big right hander had run his record to 12-3 in early July, enough to get an invitation to pitch in the mid-summer classic.   It would be his only All Star Game invitation.  Whatever problems he had in Boston, stayed in Boston.

The load of innings had started wearing out McGlothen, and he struggled in the heat of July, dropping his record to 12-7 before getting his second wind.   After the All Star Break, he would go back to his winning ways before running out of gas again in September.  He would finish the season with a 16-12 record, but looking back, he pitched well enough to easily have won another 3 or 4 games.   That was very important because the end of Bob Gibson’s career was just around the corner.

Another youngster would make his major league debut, and soon write his name into the record books.  Bob Forsch had a very impressive rookie season.   His win/loss record was not terribly impressive, but the rest of his metrics suggested that he would be a good one.   And he was.   For a long time.

With the infield completely retooled and a pair of stars joining Lou Brock in the outfield, 1974 could be a very good year for St. Louis.

October 1, 1974 – St. Louis at Montreal and Chicago at Pittsburgh

The Cardinals had battled the Philadelphia Phillies early in the season, and remained either in first place, or just a few games behind all summer.   As the Phillies faded, the Pittsburgh Pirates came out of nowhere to put on a run that would make the 2011 Brewers blush.   On the final game of the 1974 season, the Pirates and Cardinals were tied for first place.

The Cardinals would be facing the Montreal Expos, in Montreal.   The Expos were not the pushover they had been in previous years, but this was a game that favored the Cardinals.   There was never a question of who would pitch this season finale.  Red Schoendienst would give the ball to Bob Gibson.   Even though he had struggled for most of the season, and was on three days rest, if you needed one win one game, you still gave the ball to Gibson.    And Gibby did not disappoint.

His opponent, former Cardinal Mike Torrez.  As if this wasn’t enough, another former Cardinal, Jerry Reuss, was on the mound for Pittsburgh.    Oh, this should be fun.

The Pirates and Cubs got underway just a bit before the Cardinals did in Montreal.  Both were keeping one eye on the scoreboard, keep track of what the other team was doing.

Gibson struggled with his command in the first few innings.   The Expos were not coming close to hitting Gibson, but his inability to find the strike zone gave Montreal some excellent scoring chances early.   As quickly as they happened, the future Hall of Famer shut them down.

The Cardinals would score first on a solo home run by Reggie Smith in the fourth.   A look up at the scoreboard showed that Chicago had also taken a 1-0 lead over Pittsburgh.    The Cardinals would continue their rally after the Smith blast, but an inning ending double play kept the score at just 1-0.   Oh, those darn double plays.   We hated them back then too.

A leadoff double by Bob Bailey in the home half of the sixth inning would tie the game at 1 run apiece when he came scored on a Willie Davis groundout.   The game would not stay tied for long.   A leadoff walk to Bake McBride came back to haunt Torrez as the speedy Cardinals outfielder would quickly swipe both second and third base.   A Mike Tyson 2 out single scored McBride, and the Cardinals had a 2-1 lead.

Another look at the scoreboard sent a huge roar across the midwest.   Chicago had just knocked Jerry Reuss out of the game, and had taken a 5-3 lead.   The Cardinals were just two innings away from returning to post-season.

Bob Gibson was cruising at this point.   He didn’t show any signs of fatigue in the cool Montreal air.   It seemed that Red’s decision not to lift him for a pinch hitter in the seventh was the right call.

All of a sudden, there was trouble in Pittsburgh.   Trailing 5-4 in the eighth inning, a pinch hit 2 run homer off the bat of Bob Robertson gave the Buccos a 6-5 lead.   Moments later, disaster struck in Montreal.    With the Cardinals still holding on to a slim 2-1 lead, a two out single by Willie Davis in the eighth brought Mike Jorgensen to the plate.    Davis would steal second, to get into scoring position.   Then the unthinkable – Gibby leaves a pitch to Jorgensen over the plate, and the big Montreal first baseman sent the ball deep into the Jarry Park seats.   Pittsburgh had just won their game, and Montreal had taken a one run lead.

That’s where the 1974 season ended.   Had Jorgensen not hit the home run, there might have been a one game playoff.    But he did, and that’s when the fortunes of the Red Schoendienst era came to an end.

What happened ?

We can play that as a fun double entendre.  In the first meaning, how did the Cardinals let the 1974 season get away ?   It all started on September 10, with Lou Brock breaking the single season stolen base record (105).   It was THE game to go to in 1974, and a huge crowd turned out to see Brock’s historic moment.   But the Cardinals lost that game and they fell to 3 1/2 games out of first place.

The next night was a 25 inning marathon in New York.   Claude Osteen was masterful in over 9 innings of scoreless relief.   The Cardinals refused to lose, and eventually won the game.   In the process, the bullpen got wiped out.  Two days later, the Cardinals would play 17 innings in Philadelphia.   3 days later, 13 innings in Pittsburgh.   The Cardinals would win all three, including the three regulation games in between, for six straight victories.   They would also jump back into first place.   But the veteran arms in the bullpen (Osteen, Siebert) were out of gas.

Another pair of extra inning games and a 19-4 blowout against the Cubs the following week chewed up what was left of the bullpen, and that’s what ultimately cost the Cardinals the 1974 NL East title.

It was a fun September to be a Cardinals fan, but once again there would be no joy in October.

As for the other meaning of what happened, the front office started dismantling the team in an all out rebuilding mode.   Bob Gibson’s career would come to an end in 1975.   A series of fragile young pitchers would come up, and then disappear.  Red Schoendienst would eventually turn the reigns of the team over to Vern Rapp, who ruled with something of an iron fist.   He would lose his job, being replaced by another Cardinals legend, Ken Boyer.   But health issues would force Boyer from the post.   Throughout all of these changes, the Cardinals never managed to put together much of a winning season.   They had far more individual talent than the teams before them, but the pieces just did not fit together properly for the way the game was being played.

Yes, I am talking about the late 1970s.   I think.   I’m not so sure any more.

For the Cardinals to return to post-season, it would take a bull in a china cabinet by the name of Dorrel Norman Elvert “Whitey” Herzog, who came in and blew up the roster.   What we, as fans, have to figure out about the 2011 Cardinals, is whether this is the real deala dress rehearsal or the end of an era.

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