Guide to the UCB Greatest Cardinals Team Finals

Some of our favorite United Cardinal Blogger (UCB) writers have been playing a brackets game to pass the final few weeks of the off-season. Now that opening day has arrived, it is time for the final two teams to meet, face to face. I can’t begin to tell you how happy I am that the two finalists are the 1967 and 1968 Cardinals, because they truly were the two greatest teams in my lifetime.

1967 – Viva El Birdos

Even though the lineup is essentially unchanged, the two teams were as different as night and day.   The 1967 Go Go El Birdos shocked the baseball world when they roared into first place on June 19, thanks to a spectacular play by Curt Flood, ending the extra inning game in Houston with an unassisted double play.   Like the Carlos Marmol wild pitch on September 24, 2011, there was something about that play that just said, “Destiny.”

Oh, this was a club that overcame many obstacles on their road to the World Series, perhaps more than any other Cardinals championship team.  The loss of Bob Gibson in July is well documented, but just a few days after the miraculous play by Curt Flood, the Cardinals were dealt a bigger blow, in the loss of Ray Washburn.  When healthy, Washburn was a game changer, and could dominate an opposing batting order.  He flirted with a perfect game early in his career, and would pitch a no hitter in 1968.  Ask the Cincinnati Reds about Washburn as they faced him and Bob Gibson early in May.  Over those two games, they managed just four hits.  Total.  Two against Gibson and two against Washburn.  The two also recorded seventeen strikeouts over those two games.

The ’67 Cardinals also had to overcome their own mistakes.  On May 30, Dick Hughes made everybody hold their breath as he flirted with a perfect game in Cincinnati.  Moments later, we had to hold our noses as the Cardinals killed a rally, that eerily mimicked the September 24 “Game of Destiny” last year.  Instead of winning that game, Orlando Cepeda broke late off third base and was thrown out at home, completing a game ending triple play.

In the end, I think that’s why the ’67 Cardinals hold such a special place in our hearts.  Like the 2011 team, they overcame every challenge that was thrown at them, large and small.  Go Go El Birdos was the Happy Flight of that era, and as Nelson Briles emerged as a legitimate starter in the absence of Bob Gibson, that became a daily battle cry.   They didn’t need a Rally Squirrel or Torty because they had all of that, and more, in the persona of Orlando Cepeda.   It was as if by sheer will, he lifted the Cardinals out of every hole they dug them selves into, and safely deposited them on the other side.  Curt Flood, Lou Brock, Tim McCarver and Julian Javier also turned in some of the best numbers of their career in the 1967 campaign.

If you want a well balanced team without a lot of flaws, the 1967 Cardinals should be your pick.  Those 101 wins were no accident.  A 15-2 run in June, just as tragedy started hitting, and another big run, to the tune of 13-2 in Bob Gibson’s absence, tells you all you need to know about these feisty birds.

But ……

1968 – Yawn, another NL Pennant

The 1968 team was actually the better ball club.   They didn’t have nearly the adversity to play through, but they did have to defend their title, which was probably harder to accomplish.  They caught everybody by surprise the previous year, with experts having them finish in the middle of the pack …… in the bottom of the NL.  That’s right, the experts had them finishing 9th or so.

Not so in 1968.  After holding on to beat another team of destiny, the 1967 Boston Red Sox, opposing teams came well prepared to play the Cardinals of 1968.   They also had something of a game plan, thanks to the 1967 San Francisco Giants, as the Cardinals seemed to have a bit of trouble with left handed pitching.   It didn’t necessarily show up in the offensive statistics, but lefties (especially those pesky Giants) gave both the ’67 and ’68 Cardinals fits.

Where the ’67 Cardinals played with a lot of emotion and style, the 1968 Cardinals were like a steamroller, flattening everything that came in their path.  Oh, there was a lot of flash and some feigned emotion, but this was a ball club that knew they were Champions, played like it, and completely expected to repeat as such.  There was no “holy cow, we won”, it was more like “OK, we won, who do we play tomorrow, and what’s for dinner?”.

With the exception of a fast start by Houston and San Francisco, and a short losing spell at the end of May, the Cardinals methodically worked their way to their second consecutive NL Pennant.  The Cardinals were in first place for all but 13 games, and never more three games out (at the of the 1-7 losing spell in May).  14 losses in September, after the rest of the league had long since surrendered, is the difference between the 101 wins in 1967 and 97 in 1968.

Much is made of the offensive struggles during 1968, especially those of Orlando Cepeda, and rightfully so.  At the same time, we have to keep in mind that the offensive juggernaut from ’67 did not have to face their own staff, in either season.  In defeating the 1967 Red Sox, it is important to remember that Boston only had one legitimate ace in their rotation, Jim Lonborg.   The rest of the rotation was something of a patchwork assembly, led by a surprising Jose Santiago (12-4 with something of a high ERA) and a mid-season pickup in Gary Bell.  Hardly the 1-2 punch the Cardinals had to face in 1968 (Denny McLain 31-6, Mickey Lolich 17-9).  Oh, and need I remind you that Lolich was a …… lefty.

For all of the offensive troubles, there were a few bright spots.  Dal Maxvill turned in a career year at the plate, and for his efforts he was awarded a Gold Glove.  Defensively, he was one of the best, but his .253 batting average was about .50 points higher than his career average, and his on-base percentage was second on the club, just behind Curt Flood.  Mike Shannon led the Cardinals offense with 79 RBIs, and Lou Brock led the team in doubles and stolen bases, with a whopping 62 thefts.  Julian Javier also turned in a good season, both at the plate and in the field.

The story of the 68 Cardinals was pitching, but it was far more than just Bob Gibson.  While Gibby was rewriting the record books with all those scoreless innings in the heat of the summer, the rest of the staff was doing just fine, thank you very much.  30 combined shutouts and 31 more with just a single run allowed where the Cardinals somehow lost 5 (Gibson twice, Carlton, Briles and Jaster each once).  Add another 21 games where the Cardinals pitchers allowed just 2 runs, and that is half of the season.  It doesn’t take much offense when your pitching is that good, and the pitching was that good.  If the Cardinals needed to get into the bullpen, Joe Hoerner was nearly automatic and a young hard throwing right-hander by the name of Wayne Granger was most impressive.   Once Granger mastered the sinker, he would go on to win the next two Fireman of the Year awards, unfortunately with Cincinnati and not in St. Louis.

How to Choose ?

Sentimentally, this one is easy.  After 44 years, it is time to forgive the 1968 Cardinals for not defeating the Tigers in the World Series.   As they had done the year before, they battled a very good American League opponent through seven memorable games.   A bad play on wet turf by one of the best defensive outfielders might have been the difference between winning and losing the World Series.  At the same time, credit really needs to go to Norm Cash, Willie Horton, Jim Northrup and Bill Freehan for that two out rally in the seventh inning of Game Seven – that was truly the difference in the series.  Credit also needs to go to the World Series MVP, Mickey Lolich, for making that lead hold up.

If you want to get all scientific about this, the difference is in the two rotations, and it’s very subtle.  The two batting orders were the same, and believe it or not, the ’68 Cardinals outhit the ’67 club in post-season.   Only three batters hit over .250 against the Red Sox, and five accomplished that feat (including Dal Maxvill) in ’68.  They got more hits, extra base hits, home runs, scored more runs and stole more bases.   Slight nod to the ’68 crew.

So let’s look at that rotation.

Pitcher (67) W L ERA Pitcher (68) W L ERA
Gibson 13 7 2.98 Gibson 22 9 1.12
Washburn 10 7 3.53 Washburn 14 8 2.26
Hughes 16 6 2.67 Briles 19 11 2.81
Carlton 14 9 2.98 Carlton 13 11 2.99
Jaster 9 7 3.01 Jaster 9 13 3.51

Steve Carlton (yet to master the slider) was a wash, as was Larry Jaster.  The difference between the two rotations was in Nelson Briles, who actually out-pitched 1967 co-Rookie of the Year, Dick Hughes.   But more than that, take a look at Ray Washburn’s ERA from 1968 – that is the untold story of the season.  Finally healthy, making all of his starts, Washburn pitched up to his expectations, like we knew he could.   And he rewarded our loyalty with a brilliant no-hitter in San Francisco.

But what about the bullpens ?

Pitcher (67) W L ERA Pitcher (68) W L ERA
Hoerner 4 4 2.59 Hoerner 8 2 1.47
Willis 6 4 2.67 Willis 2 3 3.39
Woodeshick 2 1 5.18 Nelson 2 1 2.91
Jackson 9 4 3.95 Granger 4 2 2.25
Briles 14 5 2.43 Hughes 2 2 3.53

It should be noted that both Al Jackson and Nelson Briles split duty between the bullpen and rotation in 1967. Jackson was a spot starter and Briles took Bob Gibson’s place when he was on the disabled list. Briles pitched so effectively that he stayed in the rotation, forcing both Jackson and Larry Jaster into the bullpen.   It should also be noted that Dick Hughes pitched with a torn muscle in his shoulder during the entire 1968 season, ending his career – talk about one tough hombre.  Wow.

Nobody was better than the tandem of Wayne Granger and Joe Hoerner in 1968.   It took another pair of closers, Ken Dayley and Todd Worrell in 1985, to recapture the magic of this righty/lefty pairing, and we haven’t seen another duo like that since.

Cast Your Vote

Please run over to the UCB web site to cast your vote, and thank you for participating in this fun game. A vote for either team makes this old Cardinals fan happy, but if I had to pick a favorite between the two, it would be the 1968 team – easily the most dominating group of players I have ever seen play the game of baseball.  After casting your vote (for 1968), please give a big round of applause for Nick at Pitchers Hit Eighth for coming up with the idea, and Bill, Daniel and Christine for running their regionals.   Thanks to all that participated, and learned a little bit about the history of this great organization.

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