Just when you thought the 1964 story had played out it’s last comparison, the Cardinals hire Mike Matheny to replace the legendary Tony La Russa. Once more, we will look back at the events in and around the 1964 World Series to see a similar surprise hiring, and it turned out to be one of the best in franchise history.
In 1955, Frank Lane took over as general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. Lane had taken the Chicago White Sox franchise from a cellar dweller to one of the better teams in the American League, but it was how we went about it that cost him his job in St. Louis. Lane’s nickname was “Trader Lane” and he soon went to work on the Cardinals. The first mistake happened on June 14, 1956 when Lane sent Red Schoendienst to the New York Giants in a nine player deal. The trade worked out well for Red as he ended up winning a World Series with the Milwaukee Braves a year later. Between the Giants and Braves, Red collected a league leading 200 hits, hit .309 and struck out just 15 times in 694 plate appearances. It would earn Red his ninth All Star Game invitation and he would end up third behind teammate Henry Aaron and former teammate Stan Musial in the MVP voting.
It was when Gussie Busch learned of Lane’s plan to trade Stan Musial to the Philadelphia Phillies for Robin Roberts that Lane’s Cardinals days came to an end. Nobody trades Stan Musial. Nobody. Busch hired Bing Devine to take over as General Manager and there was no more talk of a Stan Musial trade, at least for the moment.
Devine started his rebuilding program immediately. He too made trades, and lots of them, but they were not just for the sake of moving players around. Each one had its purpose. He added Curt Flood, Julian Javier, Bill White, Dick Groat and Curt Simmons. He signed Bob Gibson, Ray Sadecki, Ray Washburn, Mike Shannon, Dal Maxvill and Tim McCarver. His best decision came on July 6, 1961 when he chose Johnny Keane to replace Solly Hemus as the manager. That was the turning point of the franchise and all signs pointed to a World Championship.
While all of this was taking place, Gussie Busch felt he needed another baseball mind to prevent another Trader Lane situation from happening. Busch wanted to be more hands on and grew distrustful of Devine, so he hired former Cardinals GM and baseball legend, Branch Rickey, as a personal advisor. To work with Bing Devine. But it didn’t work out that way, unfortunately. Rickey had no intentions of working with Devine, he would eventually replace him, either directly or with a man of his choosing.
If this does not sound immediately familiar, consider the recurring speculation that Tony La Russa and John Mozeliak, were in a similar power struggle. Who was the baseball man really calling the shots, Tony or Mo ? The similarities probably end at the individual personalities, Tony being more like Rickey and Mo quietly working diligently behind the scenes to get things done, not unlike Bing Devine. Any power struggle was probably the fabrications of sportswriters and bloggers, trying to fill in a void with anything that sounded plausible.
As the Cardinals fell farther and farther out of first place in the summer of 1964, Gussie Busch made the first of several planned changes in early August. He fired Bing Devine and replaced him with a Branch Rickey protégé, Bob Howsam. Busch was also working behind the scenes to replace Johnny Keane with Leo Durocher as manager. That all fell apart when the Cardinals started winning.
In an interesting and ironic twist, Johnny Keane learned of Busch’s plan to replace him, so he started working on his own exit strategy, and that involved the New York Yankees. The Cardinals kept on winning, and Busch finally gave up on the idea of replacing Keane, but Keane had already made the decision to leave the only organization he’d ever known, following the end of the season.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals kept winning and winning, climbing ever closer to the Phillies. In the last days of the season, they overtook Philadelphia, held off Cincinnati and won the National League. In spite of all the drama behind the scenes, a new NL Championship pennant would be flying proudly at Sportsman’s Park. It would soon be supplemented by a World Series Championship banner as the Cardinals defeated the New York Yankees in a thrilling seven game series. The same Yankees that are about to hire Johnny Keane.
In a press conference on October 17, Gussie Busch was set to announce a contract extension offer when Keane upstaged the event with an announcement of his own. He told the stunned crowd of reporters of his plan to leave the Cardinals and manage the Yankees in 1965. That left Busch with a gigantic PR nightmare, one that he would have to deal with immediately.
The first thing he did was fire Branch Rickey. That happened two days later, on October 19. His next task would be to find a manager, one that would help him climb out of this terrible hole he had created. Bob Howsam recommended Charlie Metro, but Gussie had a better idea, and it only took him one more day to get it done.
The $300M problem
While all of this was going on, Gussie had a $300 million dollar problem of his own. That’s the 2011 adjusted value of the construction of the new Busch Stadium and nearby Gateway Arch. Both had broken ground during the 1964 season. The late season heroics of the Cardinals brought an enthusiasm for the downtown projects that Busch did not want to lose. He needed to hire a manager that would give him some public relations cover for the Keane debacle as well as during the remainder of construction for these expensive facilities.
He found the perfect person in long time fan favorite, Red Schoendienst. Schoendienst had been one of the Cardinals greats, playing alongside Stan Musial until traded away by Frank Lane. He had finished his playing days with the Cardinals and stayed on as a coach in 1964. The players all knew and respected Red, and he was able to maintain some degree of continuity with Keane’s success. At the same time, the local press also loved Red, or if they didn’t, at least they realized their readers did, and that gave Gussie Busch and Bob Howsam the time they needed to retool the team into another winner. By the time that Schoendienst’s honeymoon with the press was over, the Cardinals were well on their way to not one, but two NL Championships. What a way to celebrate a new stadium.
Deja Vu – All Over Again
Let’s zoom ahead to 2011. While there was no drama to match that of the Branch Rickey and Bing Devine power struggle, there was always the question of whether Tony La Russa would return for the 2012 season. We now know that he made the decision to retire, as Keane did, some time in September. Also like Keane, La Russa kept that decision private, giving no hint that these would be his last days in a Cardinals uniform. The situations were somewhat different in that Keane was being pushed out initially and there was no evidence of that with La Russa. Keane was also much younger and had a desire to continue managing.
Bill DeWitt Jr. and John Mozeliak find themselves in nearly the same situation as Bob Howsam in Gussie Busch in 1964. The team was coming off one of the greatest comebacks in baseball history, winning the World Series in a thrilling manner. With so many players returning, expectations are high, perhaps unrealistically so, for the next season. Anything short of stampeding their way into postseason will be seen as a failure and could be compounded by the team’s new dynamic pricing system. There’s also the question about the future of Albert Pujols, their $300 million dollar problem to solve.
Terry Francona is the Leo Durocher of 2011. Although he doesn’t have the direct ties to the Cardinals as Durocher did, his father, Tito, spent two years in St. Louis – ironically in 1965 and 1966. Francona would represent the safe choice in a manager, but like Durocher, would offer little to no coverage in the event that things turn ugly in 2012.
Instead, they chose Mike Matheny, a former Cardinals catcher with no managerial experience. Like Red Schoendienst, Matheny is a fan favorite and earned that reputation by playing the game the right way. He was never a good hitter, but his defensive skills were second to none. He was also a smart signal caller, showing that he could understand the dynamics of a game, even during a championship run. He doesn’t quite have Red’s Cardinals resume, but in the era of free agency, Matheny is about as Play like a Cardinal as it gets.
A number of things work in Matheny’s favor.
- He is highly respected by both the current management as well as the players
- He played five season in St. Louis, all during Tony La Russa’s time as manager
- Also played for Jim Fergosi, Phil Garner and Felipe Alou
- He was a big part of the 2004 team that went to the World Series
- Dave Duncan is probably the best person in baseball to mentor a rookie manager
- If Jose Oquendo or Joe Pettini also stay on, even better
- There is nobody better suited to deal with Yadier Molina’s (and Tony Cruz) future
- A four time Gold Glove winner might put some extra emphasis on middle difference
- Red Schoendienst also played with the team he went on to manage, and was successful
All of that will help him survive his first season as the manager of the reigning World Champions.
It’s My Team Now
The biggest similarity between the two managerial hires is that they both solidified the general manager’s leadership of the team. Gussie accomplished that in 1964 when he fired Branch Rickey, leaving Bob Howsam in complete control. There were a lot of things not to like about Howsam’s time as a general manager, but you cannot question his ability to build a winning franchise. The 1967 and 1968 championship teams were put together on Howsam’s watch, just as ’64 was built by Bing Devine. It is a shame that neither were around to enjoy the results of their efforts. If any more evidence is needed, after leaving St. Louis, Howsam did that again in Cincinnati, ironically using a lot of the young talent he helped develop while in charge of the Cardinals.
The situation is a little bit different in 2011, but the end result is the same. This is now John Mozeliak’s team, win or lose. Mozeliak brought Matheny back into the organization as a special assistant, and he has a unique insider’s view that the other candidates did not have. There is one other difference that should not be overlooked. The way John Mozeliak built and retooled the Cardinals in 2011 should earn him a lot of respect, enough to give him a free pass over this hire. It could all go horribly wrong, but until it does, Mo has earned enough that we should all wait until it does before criticizing the decision.
Things didn’t start off too well. A number of players were already well into their declining years, and a house cleaning was about to take place. Ken Boyer, Bill White and Dick Groat would be traded away. The big trade that started turning things around took place midway through the 1966 season, sending Ray Sadecki to San Francisco for Orlando Cepeda. From that point on, the team played better and gave fans hope that a championship might be returning to St. Louis soon.
Of course we know that happened in 1967 and 1968. Red pushed all of the right buttons, especially in 1967 when the Cardinals lost Ray Washburn and Bob Gibson to injury. He also got an anemic offense to the seventh game of the World Series in 1968. While the Cardinals didn’t return to postseason until 1982, they got close a number of times. A surprise run by the Bing Devine retooled New York Mets in 1969 combined by a down year by a couple of Cardinals players doomed the Cardinals postseason chances in the first year of the new two divisional alignment.
Red’s teams also came close again in 1971, 1973 and within a couple of outs in 1974. Some day history will give Red the credit he deserves for managing these teams successfully, in spite of an owner that that continually punished players and rebelled against a system that was changing the balance of power (free agency).
Could the same thing happen with Mike Matheny ?
Absolutely. He inherits a team with few deficiencies and should be the favorite to repeat as NL Central Champions in 2012. The veterans on the team don’t necessarily need a big time manager to come in and lead them, while the younger players should all look up to Matheny and respect what he did as a player and as assistant to the organization. It is a rather unique win/win situation that does not come along often, although it would have been the same with Jose Oquendo or Chris Maloney.
Even if Albert Pujols signs with another team, the Cardinals will have enough offense, and the pitching should be far far better. The emergence of Allen Craig, Daniel Descalso, Lance Lynn, Fernando Salas and Eduardo Sanchez give Matheny a solid core to build around, and with Matt Adams, Ryan Jackson, Tony Cruz, Shelby Miller and others not far behind, there is every reason to believe he will be successful not just in 2012, but for some time to come.
There is the thought that you don’t want to be the guy that replaces the guy, but the guy that replaces that guy. OK, that’s sort of a mouthful. The idea is that it is much harder to replace a legend (La Russa) than somebody who failed to replace the legend. If it were anybody other than Mike Matheny, I could buy into that a little bit – perhaps a one or two year trial until the guy they really want (Joe Maddon speculation) comes along. Matheny is too well respected to be some sort of sacrificial goat. He is the real choice, the one Bill DeWitt and John Mozeliak think will give the Cardinals the best chance of winning (with a nod to the air cover his persona brings along). At this point, I can go with that, and hope that this last piece of 1964 repeats itself, but without the 2 year downturn.