Later this week, most of us will be sitting around a dining room table, gathered with friends and family and enjoying the traditional feast of turkey, stuffing and all of the other goodies that go with it. Something like this …..
Then we excuse ourselves from the table and go watch football. Here in Dallas, that hasn’t exactly been real high on the “thankful” list this year, so I thought I would use this as an opportunity to give thanks for some of the wonderful people associated with the St. Louis Cardinals. At I-70 Baseball, I’ve written an article covering some of the players, so this one is heading off in different direction.
It’s not until you move away from the St. Louis area that you can really appreciate how big Cardinals Nation is. Yes, it is a chicken and egg thing dating back to when the Cardinals made up the western (and believe it or not, southern) border of the Republic of MLB. Couple that with the powerhouse KMOX, broadcasting the games all the way to Proxima Centauri and you have an enormous, somewhat captive market. Throw in some great Gashouse baseball in the 40s and again in the 60s, toss with a bit of Harry Caray and Jack Buck (who we will talk about in a moment) and you now have generations of listeners from the Ohio Valley down to the Gulf of Mexico and west to the Pacific.
What this means for a displaced fan is that you are likely to run into another member of Cardinals Nation at an airport, Starbucks, sports bar and even in the work setting. You’ll recognize them by the clothing – sport shirt of choice is red with the Birds on the Bat proudly displayed. The subtle ones just wear the hat, but a trained eye can spot them several gates over in the airport terminal.
Something like that happened to me just a short while ago. I was talking to colleague about some work things – those things drifted to personal pleasantries and all of a sudden we’re talking Cardinals baseball. Shortly after that we found out that we’d be in St. Louis at the same time for a customer visit, and you know what that means, right ? Yep – Dodgers at Cardinals right after the All Star break. And it was great!
It’s not just a cliche, the players truly get this one right when they thank the fans first.
I suppose that I could broaden this to include other social media technologies, but one stands alone in it’s ability to connect transplanted, relocated or just plain distant fans of the Cardinals, and that’s Twitter. It started with a single conversation with a person that calls himself @FredbirdSTL. Next was the discovery of the #stlcards hashtag. From that point, it quickly ballooned into a genuine community of enthusiastic fans, discussing everything from managerial decisions, trade rumors and the ever disquieting #chickcomments (sorry ladies, Skippy is a brand of peanut butter) – just like we used to do when we were kids listening to Harry and Jack after an evening of backyard baseball.
It has awakened and energized the inner kid in me, and by reading comments of other tweeps, the inner child in them as well. Throw in some nice high bandwidth network access so that you can enjoy high definition video of most of the game broadcasts and it’s almost like being back in St. Louis with my buddies.
The only thing that would make this better is to have more “In Real Life (IRL)” get togethers. The few that I’ve been able to have attended have been very special, and I’m most thankful for the real people behind the twitter avatars that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. More than Twitter, I thank each and every one of you.
August A Busch, Jr (Gussie)
It hardly seems possible today, but in 1953, the Cardinals were a very troubled organization. If Anheuser Busch, under the direction of Mr. Busch, had not bought the team, it might have been the Cardinals moving out of St. Louis instead of the Browns. He set in motion a number of things that changed the franchise forever, and we should take a moment and appreciate them.
- He bought Sportsman’s Park so that the Cardinals had a place to play instead of renting from their cross-town rivals
- He undid the biggest damage done by his predecessor (Fred Saigh) who let Branch Rickey get away by hiring the second greatest executive in the game, Bing Devine
- He let Devine rebuild the farm system and put in place one of the last dynasties of the pre-Free Agent era
- When the team was in trouble in 1980, had the vision and courage to hire Whitey Herzog as both manager and general manager
To be fair, he did run Bing Devine out of town in August 1964 – so Gussie was only human.
Where Gussie differs from so many owners today, he was the teams biggest and most visible fan. I can still hear him telling Harry Caray (and later Jack Buck), “I’ve never been so happy in my live long life”. He said that in 1964, 1967, 1968, 1982 and 1985. I don’t remember hearing from him in 1987, but he probably said it then too. While it was a business, running the Cardinals seemed more like a hobby and he did it with great gusto. Even when hard financial times hit in the 70s, he somehow managed to keep the team in place, albeit with several unpopular trades – Jose Cruz comes to mind. At the darkest time since taking over, he invested again and let The White Rat give the team a much needed makeover that doesn’t even seem possible by today’s standards. If Mr. Busch had lived past 1989, I’m confident that Herzog would have stayed around longer and there would have been more trips to the World Series in the early 90s.
As if directed by Gussie from somewhere in heaven, the brewery sold the Cardinals to one of the best baseball men, Bill De Witt, Jr. Say what you will about the rest of the executive team, De Witt, Jr and his father, De Witt, Sr have ties back to the Branch Rickey era of the Cardinals and their glory days of the Gashouse era. And, as if to scream out “irony”, the cross-town rival, St. Louis Browns. Certainly more business than hobby, the Cardinals are in good hands with the De Witt family.
Sometimes I don’t think we appreciate how close the Cardinals came to being another Pittsburgh Pirates or Cincinnati Reds. Not once, but several times. Thanks to Gussie, that didn’t happen. And we should remember to thank him more often than we probably do.
If Gussie Busch was the biggest Cardinals fan, Harry Caray would have been the second. Nobody, and I mean nobody, called a game like Harry Caray. You might lose track of who is on base, the current count, and sometimes even the score. But Harry called it they way he saw it and completely unfiltered by any pretense that he was supposed to be objective and analytic. He was pure emotion, and it would ebb and flow throughout the game, just as the fans were doing in the stadium. And when he saw something he didn’t agree with, he’d let the fans know. “do you ….. would you believe?”, “how could that be?” and the now famous “there’s a drive …. it might be, it could be, it is *huge breath* a home ….. run”.
On September 30, 1964, the Cardinals were tied with the Cincinnati Reds with 3 games to play. The Cardinals won their game giving them a half game lead over the Reds, who were at home playing the Pirates. Caray relayed the progress in the Cincinnati-Pittsburgh game to anxious Cards fans listening on KMOX. By telephone. Until the 16th inning when the Pirates won the game on a suicide squeeze play at 1am, St. Louis time. It is one of the most amazing broadcasts. Today we would just flip over to another audio or video feed and think nothing of it. But in 1964, Caray was on the phone with the Pittsburgh broadcasters. Simply unbelievable.
If your only association with Harry Caray is from his Chicago Cubs days on WGN, know that he was something altogether different when sitting behind the microphone in St. Louis. A great many of us owe our love of the team to Caray’s enthusiastic game calling.
Johnny Keane, Whitey Herzog and Tony La Russa
Three times in the last half decade, the Cardinals have been one step from becoming a perpetual cellar dweller in the National League. Earlier we gave thanks to Gussie Busch for rescuing the team in each of these situations. Now is the time to thank the field generals who really orchestrated the turn-around. Specifically, Johnny Keane, Whitey Herzog and yes ….. Tony La Russa.
Herzog and La Russa’s stories are probably well known, so I’ll focus on Keane. While Bing Devine was busy assembling all of the pieces in what would eventually become World Champions in 1964, 1967 and NL Pennant winner in 1968, manager Solly Hemus was having a hard time getting the individuals to play as a cohesive team. He was a hard-nosed ballplayer, and by all accounts, he was just as tough as a manager. The problem wasn’t one of discipline, it was that his team was afraid to fail. In the Hemus era, if you failed, you sat on the bench. Players became uncertain of their roles and played too conservatively. Bob Gibson found himself in the bullpen instead of in the starting rotation.
All of this changed midway through the 1961 season. Enter Johnny Keane. He was another hard-nosed manager, but the difference was that he gave the players a role and let them fail. Every failure became an opportunity to improve, and that’s just what his team did. The Cardinals posted a winning record in every year under Keane. They came up just short of winning the NL Pennant in 1963 and won the World Series in 1964. He had posted back to back 90+ win seasons for the first time since their World Series win in 1946. Keane had brought gashouse baseball back to St. Louis, but more importantly he gave players like Curt Flood, Julian Javier, Lou Brock and Bob Gibson the chance to become superstars, and most of them did exactly that.
Whitey Herzog did that two decades later with his brand of baseball, as did Tony La Russa a decade later. We are still enjoying the rewards of the La Russa era. This makes it easy to be a Cardinals fan. We discover the rich history of the franchise as a result of the recent success. If the team was hapless and floundering around the bottom of the NL Central, we might not be as interested in learning about the Wille McGee era, how Bob Gibson slayed an entire league of batters, and of course, Stan the Man – the greatest of them all. Oh sure, there would be some. But en0ugh to fill a stadium demanding that the ambassador to the city be given a presidential medal ? Perhaps not.
There is certainly much more to be thankful for. These were a few of the people whom I will give thanks this year. Who are some of yours ?