In the latest chapter of the adventures of Dick Groat, All-America basketball star, National League batting champion and Most Valuable Player, we find Dick, at 32, as the key member of the St. Louis Cardinal infield. Now, just as Dick Groat is no ordinary hero, the Cardinal infield is no ordinary infield. Branch Rickey, that grand old man, recently called it "the greatest hitting infield I have ever seen." Mr. Rickey is very wise and he has seen a lot of infields, but he did not tell National League pitchers anything they had not already discovered for themselves. Three of the Cardinal infielders were voted to the League's lineup in the recent All-Star Game and the fourth member of the cast, Julian Javier, also got into the act when Pittsburgh's Bill Mazeroski was hurt. Ballots are not made public, but chances are that opposing pitchers, overjoyed at a chance to have the Card quartet at their backs instead of at their throats, represented a rather solid block of votes.
No wonder. Bill White, the first baseman, is hitting around .320. He is leading the league in hits and would be leading the league in runs batted in if Henry Aaron would go away. Groat, the shortstop, is also hitting about .320, just a couple of base hits behind White. Third Baseman Ken Boyer was bracketed with White and Groat until a recent slump dropped him to a flat .300. Javier, the second baseman, is hitting the least of the four, but his average is a healthy .270. As a group they had amassed 400 hits by mid-season, 100 more than any other National League infield. This combined assault has kept the Cardinals in the pennant race, along with the Giants, Reds and Cubs, just a few strides behind the league-leading Dodgers.
The better to dishearten an enemy pitcher, Manager Johnny Keane often sticks his four infielders at the top of the batting order. Javier, a right-handed batter, leads off. He is very fast and a dangerous runner when he gets on base. Groat and White alternate batting second and third. Groat, still the same deadly opposite-field hitter he was when he won the National League batting title in 1960, uses a log for a bat and merely slaps the ball wherever it is pitched. While Keane admires Groat's uncanny ability at performing the hit-and-run, he feels that Groat too often gives himself up to protect the runner. "He's too good a hitter to be sacrificing himself," says Keane.
White is big and fast. He can hit home runs—20 last year—and he can steal bases, as he did in the All-Star Game. He is the only one of the four who bats left-handed, and Busch Stadium, with its short right-field area, is an ideal park for him. Boyer, like White, has power and speed. An amazingly consistent hitter, in the last five seasons he has never driven in fewer than 90 runs or more than 98. The Cardinals claim Boyer is the league's most underrated player because he has had to play in the shadow of Stan Musial, but Boyer's shadow is big enough.
Boyer, White and Javier have been three-quarters of the Cardinal infield for three seasons, but until Groat joined the team this year the infield was never a unit. "They were a bunch of individuals until he came along," said a member of the San Francisco Giants recently. "Defensively they were loose. Now they're the best."
St. Louis had been looking for a shortstop for more than 10 years, ever since Marty Marion and his vast talents departed in 1950. Sometimes as many as eight different players were thrown into the breach in one season. Some were well-known—Alvin Dark, Red Schoendienst and Solly Hemus—but they were too old by then and better suited to other positions, like second base or the coaching box. Some were unknown—Gerry Buchek, Lee Tate and Bob Stephenson—and these continued to remain unknown. The last to try was Julio Gotay, who for several spring-training seasons was heralded as another Marion. "He was impossible," says a front office man now. "Whenever they wanted him to pinch-hit he was back in the locker room someplace. He was the butt of all the team jokes. You can't win a pennant with a shortstop like that."
Last winter Bing Devine, the Cardinal general manager, decided to put an end to the search. In a complicated series of trades involving Chicago and Pittsburgh, Devine landed Groat, hero of the 1960 pennant race, from the Pirates.
An unlikely-looking athlete, Dick Groat is bony, pale and solemn-faced. He speaks in the kind of low tones generally reserved for funerals, punctuating his sentences with polite "yes, sirs." Groat is bald except for some dark hair around the edges, a condition to which he has long since adjusted. "With two bald brothers and a bald father," he says, "I knew I was fighting a losing battle." And yet there are indications that he has not completely given up the fight. Recently someone approached Groat before a game. "Try that stuff I gave Shantz?" he asked. Groat nodded. "No good," he said.
Groat was the youngest of five children, having been born 11 years after the fourth. He grew up in Swissvale, Pa., and was a basketball and baseball star at Duke before signing with the Pirates in 1952. For nine seasons—he missed two years while in service—he was the shortstop of the Pirates, surviving the awful teams of the early '50s to lead Pittsburgh to its first pennant in 33 years.
When he is not playing baseball, Groat does a weekly radio show, makes an occasional banquet appearance and, in winter, returns home and works in the sales office of a Pittsburgh steel company. He also plays golf, a lot of it, and once in a while shoots a few baskets in the gym, just to keep the touch. It is a busy life. Recently he returned from a long road trip at 5 a.m. His three young daughters greeted him at breakfast, delighted to have their daddy home again, only to learn that he was leaving immediately for the All-Star Game in Cleveland. "I played with my girls all day not long ago," Groat said, "and I'm embarrassed to admit it's the first time I can remember doing it."
Another thing that cuts into the children's time is Groat's dedication to golf. He is a good golfer, a low-70s shooter. The winter after the Pirates won the World Series, Groat played with his friend Arnold Palmer in the Pebble Beach tournament. "That first hole was awful," he recalls. "There was a big crowd following Arnie, of course, and I was never more nervous in my life. When I went to make my first putt, I froze. I couldn't swing. Finally I said to myself, 'You can't just stand here forever,' so I swung and by a miracle the ball rolled close enough for a tap-in."
When Groat was notified officially of the trade—he had been expecting it—he was worried. "I didn't know what I was getting into," he said. "I'm aware of my shortcomings. I'm not fast, I have limited range and my arm isn't strong. When a team is going well the bad things you do tend to be overlooked. But when a team starts to lose, the bad things look worse."
The Cardinal front office did its best to set Groat's mind at ease. Soon after the trade, Bing Devine invited Groat to dinner in St. Louis. "We talked about the team and then about the rest of the league," Groat says. "All of a sudden, in the middle of the meal, he brought up the subject of my salary. The whole discussion lasted less than 60 seconds, and it was the most pleasant one I can recall."
Manager Johnny Keane was just as anxious to make Groat feel at home. "We had a little talk in Houston," Keane recalls. "I had read a report saying that we had hired Dick as a tutor for Julian Javier. I told Dick I didn't expect him to tutor anybody. I told him we had got him to play shortstop and that was all he had to think about."
Despite the assurance that he was not hired as a tutor, Groat has been a great help to a number of Cardinal players, for that is his nature. "Dick will take Charley James or Tim McCarver aside," says Ken Boyer. "He'll ask them if they know why they're having trouble with a certain pitcher. If they don't know, Dick will suggest something that he's noticed. Groat's different from Musial that way. Stan will help you, but only if you go to him."
Curt Flood, the little center fielder, says he has learned a lot about positioning from Groat. "I'll play a hitter a certain way, and then I'll notice that Dick is a bit further to the right than I would have thought. His knowledge of the hitters is so good, I figure he must be right, so I move a bit to the right, too." When Flood was batting lead-off, just in front of Groat, he found it easier to steal bases than ever before. "I stole quite a few standing up," he says. "Dick is so good at hitting at a hole that the infield-ers hesitate longer than usual before covering the bag. I often got to second base before they did."
Most of all, Groat has helped Javier, the loose, lanky, sometimes moody second baseman from the Dominican Republic. Javier came to the Cardinals in 1960 in the trade that sent Vinegar Bend Mizell to Pittsburgh. He is 27, wears glasses for near-sightedness and has a scar where his cheekbone was once fractured by a pitch. His name is pronounced "Hoolian Havier," and his teammates kid him by asking if he likes to hit against "Hoey Hay" of Cincinnati. His teammates also say that Javier is an even better fielder than last year, more confident and less given to sudden letdowns. It is almost impossible to let down with Dick Groat playing near by.
Even the seasoned Boyer, the only one of the Cardinal infielders to come up through the farm system, has been helped by Groat. "It adds to your confidence to have a player of Dick's stature standing next to you," he says. Boyer, at 32, is still a marvelous third baseman, though a bit less agile than he was five years ago. He is one of seven baseball-playing brothers—Clete plays third base for the Yankees—and one of 12 children in all. The family was reared in Alba, a small town in southwest Missouri. "There was a filling station, a grocery store and a café," he says. "We lived about three miles outside of town. When the sun came up, we'd go out in the pasture and play ball, and we wouldn't come in until it got dark."
Bill White, the first baseman, joined the team in 1959, traded from the San Francisco Giants for Sam Jones. White is a magnificently proportioned man, built for football as much as baseball. Several colleges offered him football scholarships, but White turned them down, accepting instead an academic scholarship to Hiram College in Ohio. He wanted to study medicine, but after his freshman year, in which he made the dean's list, he signed with the Giants for a small bonus. It was a decision he still speaks of with a tinge of regret. "I had the scholarship and a part-time job," he says, "but I was still short of money. I got tired of asking my mother for $10. She really couldn't afford it. So I turned to baseball. My friends, the ones I entered school with, are almost through with their medical studies now. They have finished what they set out to do. Whatever I'm going to accomplish will have to be in baseball." As the best first baseman in his League, he has, at 29, already accomplished quite a bit.
Fortunately for the rest of the league, the Cardinal supporting cast does not match the infield. The pitching staff has been shaky. To get Groat, Bing Devine had to give up Larry Jackson, and Jackson is having a splendid season with the Cubs. The others—Bob Gibson, Curt Simmons. Ernie Broglio, Ray Sadecki and another recent trade, Lou Burdette—have been in and out, good and bad. In the tough National League, you must be more consistent than that. Stan Musial, who will become a grandfather in August, is still around, but while his bat can sting, it is not the menace it once was. Even so, the Cardinals, thanks to their heavy-hitting infield, have at least a chance to win their first pennant since 1946. To find out if they do it, read the next chapter in the adventures of Dick Groat.