Some champions are worshiped for the ease of their conquest. So it was last week. Two fabulous young sprinters named Sime and Morrow floated away from all opposition to equal world records. Fabius, son of Citation, disdained such folderol as stirring stretch drives and won his Preakness early. Meanwhile his sire's money-winning record was falling beneath the businesslike thunder of Nashua's hoofs. And Sugar Ray needed only one brief burst of his old flamboyant fury to keep his world championship.
There are also those who acquire grateful loyalty by the fire, the color, the explosive defiance with which they win or lose. Cut of such gaudy cloth are the St. Louis Cardinals.
They are fighting for first place in the National League. They lead the league's team batting averages by some 10 points. They had two (Rip Repulski and Ken Boyer) of the only four men batting over .400 in the major leagues last week. The whirlwind trades of their spectacular general manager have set fans alight with speculation or irritation. These are the St. Louis Cardinals, one of the thrilling names in baseball, who this season look as if they might, for the first time in years, come close to living up to the reputation handed down by their great teams of past decades.
When he was fired as manager of the Cardinals last May 28, Eddie Stanky remarked rather ruefully, "I'd manage this club for nothing next year, if they'd let me. That's how great I think they're going to be."
They didn't let him, needless to say. They didn't even let Harry Walker, who succeeded Stanky as manager. Instead, the Cardinals, refurbishing their front office, hired the volatile Frank Lane as general manager; and Lane, dismissing Walker, chose Fred Hutchinson to take over the job and spend a happy season at the head of Eddie's "great" club.
Stanky, of course, is given to grand statements grandly made, much in the manner of his early idol, later model and everlasting prototype, Leo Durocher. Like Durocher ("Nice guys finish last"), Stanky can make a casual remark or a general comment cement itself into the memory as an eternal truth, whether or not there is actually much factual basis for it.
But on this occasion Stanky, truth to tell, had considerable support. The St. Louis Cardinals last year certainly appeared to have the makings of a wonderful baseball team. When they stumbled home in seventh place people were shocked. How could a team utilizing the skills of such as Stan Musial and Red Schoendienst and Wally Moon and Rip Repulski possibly finish that badly? A bromide was promptly whipped up: no one knows the phrasemaker who said it first but within a few months of the end of the 1955 season almost everybody had a go at calling the Cardinals "the best seventh-place team in baseball history." It was a consoling thought. The implication was plain. Never mind where you finished, this is a good ball club.
Frank Lane, who assumed the general manager's post shortly after the disastrous season ended, rejected the consolation early this spring when he declared that as far as he was concerned he'd a hell of a lot rather have the worst first-place team in history than the best seventh-place club.
And the new manager, Freddy Hutchinson, who does not say very much but who says what he thinks when he does, stated flatly that a club finishes in seventh place because it isn't any better than that.
Nevertheless, during spring training the assorted travelers, raconteurs and wits who between beach and bar write about baseball landed feet first on the Cardinals as The Team to Watch. Everyone (all right, almost everyone) picked the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers as the teams most likely to win the American and National League pennants. But a sportswriter loves to come up with a long shot, and St. Louis has always been a popular favorite. Every sports page in the country had at least one story that warned, "Look out for the Cards. They're loaded."
When the 1956 season began and the Cardinals immediately climbed up into the top echelon of the National League and dominated the lists of the league's leading batters and run scorers and run makers (in X-RAY this week—see page 46—Cardinal players are first, third and fifth in runs produced), Eddie Stanky's words were recalled as brilliantly prophetic, and baseball writers who long since had decided that predicting pennant races was a foolish business began once again to appreciate their own acute powers of observation and judgment.
The Cardinals were indeed hot. They burned not with a sudden flare-up of victories gained at the expense of weak teams, but steadily, as a good team should. They lost at least once to every team, but they beat everyone, too.
They raced along at a nice, lively clip, reacting to defeat with victory, often gaudily. They'd lose two games in a row, then win two; lose one or two, then win three in a row. They've been like that all spring, gaining a surplus of victories over defeats, maintaining that surplus, and then increasing it.
Baseball is a game of consistency; springtime flare-ups and late-season drives mean little or nothing if a good winning pace cannot be maintained the rest of the time. This is so in pitching and in batting, and in team standings, too. Last year the Dodgers and the Chicago Cubs soared high in the spring. The Cubs then collapsed and fell from second to sixth, but Brooklyn continued to play steady, if not spectacular or Cardinal-like, winning baseball and won the pennant.
THE BIZARRE CARDINALS
The Cardinals this season are demonstrating in a rather bizarre way that same valuable consistency, and it is a strange thing because such a record is supposed to characterize a team with good pitching.
But the Cardinals have no stopper, that is, no star pitcher who can be relied upon to step in, win his game and break up any looming losing streak. Indeed, they have not had much of a pitching staff at all. Their pride and joy is Wilmer David Mizell, a lovely long (6 feet 3½ inches) left-hander with a blazing fast ball, a drawl, a crooked grin and a home town called Leakesville. Leakesville, Miss. (pop. 834) is as nicely named a home town as a left-hander could ordinarily hope to have, but, joy of joys, not 15 miles down the Mississippi & Alabama Railroad lies the hamlet of Vinegar Bend, Ala. (pop. 50) which is, of course, an absolute must home town for a lefthander with a blazing fast ball, a drawl and a crooked grin. It was near enough to be adopted. And so...Wilmer David became Vinegar Bend Mizell.
It is certain that Mizell's personality and nickname have combined to place an inordinate responsibility on him. St. Louis fans expect him to behave like Dizzy Dean who, along with drawling and grinning and blazing fast balls, won 18, 20, 30, 28 and 24 games for the Cardinals in one five-year stretch in the '30s. Mizell is not that good. He has a whipping fast ball that moves in a little on left-handed batters and a good fast curve that breaks down and away from them. But he has a little trouble with his control and a little trouble with base runners. He has a distressing habit of letting runners get a big lead off first base as he delivers his pitch to the plate, with the result that they are beginning to steal on him.
Thus, it can be said that Mizell, though potentially a superb pitcher, is still learning his trade. He won a couple of games early in the season, then lost a couple, then started two others in which he received credit for neither victory nor defeat. When he beat the Giants Monday it was the first complete game he had pitched this year in seven starts. Vinegar Bend is not yet a bulwark to lean on, not yet a stopper, not yet a Dean.
The relatively unpublicized Tom Poholsky has actually been a better pitcher than Mizell this spring, with two shutouts to his credit and one of the best earned run averages in the league. But of even more importance to the Cardinals has been the development of relief pitching, a commodity the club sadly lacked last season. Hutchinson said that during the winter he'd gone over the Cardinals' 1955 record day by day and was appalled by the number of games that were lost in the late innings as an early St. Louis lead was frittered away.
The main reason for the success of the bullpen is Ellis Raymond Kinder, a big, tough right-hander from Arkansas, who is the oldest player in the majors (he'll be 42 on July 26). Kinder wandered around the minor leagues for seven years before finally reaching the majors in his 32nd year, and he had had 10 full seasons in the American League when Frank Lane purchased him from Boston last December. "What's Lane buying that old man for?" was the complaint in St. Louis.
This spring Lane's reasons became evident. That old man walked in casually from the bullpen to pitch in the late innings of ten of the Cardinals' first 25 games. They won eight of the 10, four by one skimpy run and three by two runs. As Kinder usually appeared just about the time the 1955 team was blowing leads, his value became obvious.
With Kinder in the Cardinals' bullpen and doing valuable work there, too, are Jackie Collum, a little (5 feet 7½ inches) left-hander with poise and excellent control; Lindy McDaniel, a bonus player who was born in December 1935, a month after the first election Ellis Kinder was eligible to vote in, and who has pitched remarkably well; Larry Jackson, a tall righthander who was a rookie last year; and Max Surkont, a veteran recently acquired from Pittsburgh. A five-man relief staff may seem a little extravagant, but with the Cardinals' starting-pitcher situation what it is (three complete games in the first five weeks), no one expects to be underworked.
For despite Poholsky and Mizell and the fine relief work of Kinder & Co., plus the fact that several well-pitched games have been achieved (three shutouts, three one-run games, three two-run games), the St. Louis pitching was, through these early weeks of the season, the weakest part of the club. The strength, the blood, the sinew of the Cardinal surge has been the bat.
KENTON THE KEY MAN
The key man in the St. Louis batting attack has been, surprisingly, not the nonpareil Stan Musial but a 25-year-old third baseman named Kenton Lloyd Boyer who was a bright enough rookie last year, but who hit only .264. Now, this spring, he has been hitting dazzlingly in the neighborhood of .400, has led the league in runs batted in and has been with the leaders in home runs.
Of course, bright young ballplayers often hit well in the spring. Boyer's teammate, Rip Repulski, was batting 30 points above .400 last weekend and leading the league. But while appreciating Repulski's performance, no one became too terribly excited about it, because the Ripper is a well-known spring hitter and tends to tail off. Last May he was among the league's leading hitters, too, but by the end of the season he was down to a temperate .270. But Boyer, apparently, is something special. The Cardinals speak of him with awe.
Freddy Hutchinson, who had Al Kaline and Harvey Kuenn under him when he managed the Detroit Tigers, says of Boyer: "This is the kind of a player you wish you had 12 of them, so you could play nine and have three on the bench just to stir things up. He's the kind of guy you dream about: terrific speed, brute strength, a great arm. There's nothing he can't do. He's the best base runner on the team. I think he has the greatest future of any young player in the league."
The manager's enthusiasm is echoed by the players. Hank Sauer, the veteran outfielder who joined the Cardinals this spring, said: "You measure a man by his growth. If he's the same this year as he was last, well, O.K., you know what you have. But if he shows you he's good, like Boyer did last year, and then improves—the way Boyer has—well, you know you have something great. He's great."
Whether he will continue his pace all year no one knows, but right now Boyer is standing up under the praise-Spring statistics fluctuate wildly, but at one point last week Boyer was first in hits, first in runs scored, first in runs batted in and second in home runs.
Boyer and Repulski have been ably assisted by Musial and Wally Moon, the thick-browed, square-jawed M.A. from Texas A & M. Moon, who was switched from the outfield to first base late last season, has a little trouble with hard-hit balls right at him, but otherwise he shows signs of becoming a topflight fielding first baseman. Always an excellent hitter, this year, batting behind Musial and Boyer, he is driving in more runs than ever before. Musial is dawdling along well below .300 but he is, as always, one of the leading run producers in the league. "If anyone else was hitting the way Stan is," Hutchinson complained, "you'd say he was doing fine. But when you say Musial, you think .350." Red Schoendienst, the other old Cardinal pro, was hitting at a brisk .300 rate and scoring a goodly number of runs.
But though hitting has carried the Cardinals this far, hitting alone doesn't win pennants. Frank Lane watched his Cardinals score runs, more runs than any other team in the league, more runs than the powerful Cincinnati Redlegs, who have hit over 60% more homers than St. Louis. He saw them win games 10-9 and 14-7, but he saw them outscored 9-10 and 10-14, too.
Lane, who fidgets when he is not trading ballplayers, fidgeted, for the most part, through the first six months of his tenure as Cardinal general manager. Then he sought relief. On May 11 began Lane's Wild Week. He traded away Harvey Haddix, a Cardinal lefthander who had won 20, 18 and 12 games for St. Louis in the past three seasons. He traded away the scrappy Solly Hemus. He traded away Alex Grammas and Joe Frazier. Then he traded away Outfielder Bill Virdon, who last year hit .281 and was picked over Boyer as the National League's Rookie of the Year.
St. Louis fans were stunned. Of the 25-man team that Eddie Stanky bequeathed last May, only eight players remained. Why? Lane and Hutchinson explained that the pitching had to be bolstered. A high-scoring team like the Cardinals needs steady, workmanlike pitching, and they thought that the acquisition of veterans like Murry Dickson, Herman Wehmeier, Max Surkont and Dick Littlefield would provide it. Besides, Hutchinson said of Haddix, "You can't romance with the past. Haddix just wasn't doing it for us." Virdon? Virdon was hitting a few points above a paltry .200 when he was traded. Frank Lane declared: "If players don't produce and you stand with them too long you'll soon find yourself off your feet and on your knees and then off your knees and on your back."
Some columnists expostulated while St. Louis fandom listened and wondered. The Cardinals have been playing exciting, winning baseball. If they keep it up, Lane will be called lucky. If they slump, Lane will be called a lot of things—all unprintable.