Most of the genuine excitement in last year's National League pennant race was created by the late charge of the St. Louis Cardinals, who won 19 of 20 games and closed to within a game of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the middle of September. The Cardinals could never get any closer and they quietly slid away to finish a distant second. Last week they were putting on another impressive and belated rush. This time it was the Phillies that the Cards were trying to overhaul, but their cause seemed as hopeless and frustrating as skating on sand.
Since July 25, St. Louis has moved from eighth place to second by playing the best ball (33-15) in the majors. Timely and consistent hitting by Ken Boyer, Lou Brock, Bill White and Curt Flood, plus some muscular deeds by the bench have enabled the team to win 13 of those games from the seventh inning on. Bob Gibson, the overpowering right-hander, has strung together five complete games and the once bumbling bullpen has been reasonably effective.
Unhappily, this late-season surge has not soothed those Cardinal fans who became disenchanted in April and May when Bill White failed to hit, Gibson floundered and the bullpen was downright disgraceful. The fan who suffered most was August (Gussie) Busch, the president of Anheuser-Busch and also the president of the board of directors of the Cardinals.
On August 16, Busch fired General Manager Bing Devine, who had been with the Cardinal organization for 25 years. He also fired Business Manager Art Routzong, and the talk around St. Louis was that Branch Rickey, the 82-year-old philosopher who had been hired as a consultant in 1962, had won out over Devine in a palace revolution that started on the very day Rickey arrived.
Three days after Devine's firing, a four-page letter was hand-delivered to Gussie Busch at his brewery office. It came from Fred Saigh, a wheeler-dealer and former Cardinal owner who had sold the team to Anheuser-Busch in 1953 for $3,600,000. With the letter, Saigh sent along a check for $25,000 as down payment on a $4,500,000 offer to buy the Cardinals. Busch promptly declined. The letter itself was a scorcher and, though Saigh made it available to the press, only sketchy references to its vitriolic contents have been made in the St. Louis papers.
The letter ran, in part: "The events of this week prompt me now to try to right the wrong I was forced to inflict on the fans of the Cardinal organization by selling at a sacrifice to a corporation headed by you.... The Cardinal organization has been so demoralized by an unprecedented military chain of command in front office management that those in positions responsible for a competing team were hog-tied to indecisions, debate and fear for their jobs which arc held in accord with the temper of your whims. You have said that Devine had seven years in which to produce; you have had 11....
"You have caused the authority you hold to be divided into a maze through which the club's operating personnel have never been able to find their way. This is roughly how you disburse your authority: from you to 1) Richard Meyer, vice-president of Anheuser-Busch and the St. Louis National Baseball Club, who has enough to do operating the breweries, so baseball is incidental; to 2) Stanley Musial, vice-president, no particular authority; to 3) your son, August Busch III, who interferes in matters about which he does not have the slightest knowledge; to 4) Al Fleischman, your public relations counsel with veto or influence power; via 5) personnel of the D'Arcy Advertising Company, 6) personnel of the Gardner Advertising Co.; to 7) Eddie Stanky; with the advice of 8) the head of scouting; 9) and overriding all as a ghost from the outdated past, an 82-year-old mesmerizer, Branch Rickey, and his retinue; then comes 10) your general manager, Bing Devine (fired); and 11) your business manager, Art Routzong (fired); and at last 12) your new Rickey man, Bob Howsom, whose only qualification for a top management job is his friendship with Branch Rickey and some minor league management experience dating back some time....
"Bing Devine and Art Routzong could have worked well in the tradition of the Cardinals if you, because of your impulsive pursuit of your public image, did not override them by hiring at $62,500 a year a man once great but who has long since outlived his usefulness, whose plan is to work his will over yours and install his men on the Cardinals' payroll. After undermining your present staff he has brought in the first of his followers. Next would be a replacement for [Manager] John Keane, Stanky and he only knows who."
Much of Saigh's comment is, at least, debatable. Devine's successor, Bob Howsom, for example, was named baseball's best minor league executive during two of his years at Denver. Busch also insists that firing Devine was his own idea. "Rickey had nothing to do with it," he says. "I did not consult him until I had made up my mind."
Busch will not talk about Johnny Keane, perhaps understandably. If the Cardinals finish second, it would be difficult to find reasons for getting rid of Keane. All Busch will say about other firings is, "There certainly could be more." Perhaps, too, the firing of Bing Devine has kicked up enough fuss.
When he dismissed Devine, Busch complained about the Cardinal farm system and also declared that no team could win a pennant by trading. Devine, however, had almost done the latter. His first major trade was with the Cincinnati Reds. He gave up Marty Kutyna, Willard Schmidt and Ted Wieand for Joe Taylor and Curt Flood. Flood struggled through two bad seasons, but now is in his third year as a .300 hitter and is an excellent center fielder. In quick succession Devine acquired First Baseman White from the Giants for Don Choate and Sam Jones, Second Baseman Julian Javier from the Pirates for Vinegar Bend Mizell and Dick Gray, and Shortstop Dick Groat and Pitcher Diomedes Oliva for Don Cardwell and Julio Gotay. His last trade brought Outfielder Lou Brock, Jack Spring and Paul Toth to the Cardinals for Ernie Broglio, Bobby Shantz and Doug Clemens. Brock has hit .344 as a Cardinal while Broglio has won only four games for the Cubs. Although Brock still has a tendency to double-dribble ground balls in the outfield, there are mighty few .300 hitters who can steal 40 bases in any farm system.
There is no doubt that Saigh has a few valid points, even though they were discourteously stated. Certainly there have been puzzling performances from some players. One of them, however, has been superb: Ken Boyer, the captain and $45,000-a-year third baseman. Strong arguments are certain to be made for both rookie Richie Allen and John Callison of the Phils as the National League's Most Valuable Player, but Boyer deserves the honor. Allen will finish the season hitting well over .300, will have 200 hits and may lead the league in scoring. While Callison does not have as high an average, his run production has been outstanding and his fielding excellent. Boyer's case, however, is still the strongest. Unlike last year's Cardinal drive, this one seems far too late, but that is not Boyer's fault. He has been magnificent all year. Back on July 25, when the Cardinal drive began, Boyer hit two home runs to account for half his team's 10 runs as St. Louis beat Philadelphia. During the month of September he has hit five homers and driven in 16 runs in 13 games. He leads the major leagues in runs batted in and he is having a brilliant year in the field.
Although Boyer has been an extraordinary player throughout his 10 years with the Cards, he always seemed to live in the shadow cast by Stan Musial. He is not as spectacular a fielder as his brother Cletis of the Yankees, who dives and scrambles after balls and piles one sensational play atop another—or so it seems. But Ken, unlike Cletis, is a complete player. Too many other Cardinals have been considerably less in 1964. Shortstop Dick Groat may have cost the Cards almost as many games with his glove as he won with his bat in 1963. Julian Javier hardly appears the player he gave promise of being two years ago, and Pitcher Ray Washburn was again injured.
If Fred Saigh is dead right about one thing, it is the fact that Branch Rickey is now in charge in St. Louis. But no hocus-pocus—or even mesmerizing—will bring the Cardinals a pennant. The old man has his work cut out.