In a box directly behind home plate at Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg sat Bob Howsam, bee farmer, ex-Navy test pilot and currently the general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, who spent the winter trading away some of the most popular and effective players the Cardinals have ever had. Sitting with Howsam were Cardinal Owner August A. Busch, the man who hires—and fires—general managers, and Sheldon (Chief) Bender, director of minor league clubs for the Cardinals. There was plenty of light banter going on in the box between Howsam and Bender, but the guffaws had a strange ring—the ha-ha-ha, ha ha...ahum, kind.
Howsam had good reason to be nervous. Just two years ago the Cardinals were the best-balanced team in baseball—a perfect blend. They had speed, hitting spiced with power, adequate if not overwhelming pitching, and every man was a specialist in his position. But that was not Howsam's team. It was Bing Devine's, and Bing was fired while the Cardinals were in the very process of winning a world championship in 1964.
Then came the collapse of 1965, with its ignominious seventh-place finish, and the way Howsam looked at it, it happened because of galloping old age on the left side of the infield.
"We could stand pat," said Howsam, "and hope that our old players would bounce back. Or we could trade." With that, telephones started ringing all over the National League and before you could say "Bye, bye, Redbirds," Third Baseman Ken Boyer, Shortstop Dick Groat and First Baseman Bill White, all of them All-Stars, were gone. And for what? "For youth, speed and hope for the future," said Howsam.
Hoo, boy! That's courage for you. If Howsam thinks wading through a swarm of angry bees is risky business, wait until Gussie Busch gets through tabulating attendance figures if the Cardinals bomb out again this season.
There is perfectly good logic behind Howsam's moves, of course. The Cardinals did finish seventh, and Boyer, Groat and White were no longer young (though White was not nearly as old as Howsam said he was). Moreover, speed and pitching are all the rage now, and what with the Cardinals about to move into a fine new ball park with a huge outfield, they will need all of the speed and pitching they can find. The question is: Did the Cardinals get it? In fact, a lot of people are quite anxious to know what in the world Howsam did get for his trades.
Well, there's Third Baseman Charlie Smith. Smith is not fast, he hit .244 for the Mets last year and nobody has ever said extravagant things about his fielding. Still, Manager Red Schoendienst notes that the ex-Met has shown "tremendous improvement over the last two years." Then there is Al Jackson, a left-handed pitcher who lost 73 games in four years for the Mets. "But remember," Schoendienst reminds you, "he was playing for a bad team." From the Phillies came Pat Corrales, who had a reputation as a fine, strong-armed catcher—which should be a comfort to Cardinal pitchers—and a .224 batting average, which should comfort everyone else's pitchers. "But you should see him throw, Mr. Busch," said Bender. The good pitching Howsam was seeking came in the form of Art Mahaffey, a two-game winner last season. "That was last year," said Mahaffey. "I developed a slider over the winter and that should make a big difference."
"Hmm," said Mr. Busch.
If most of Howsam's new players have a "Who's he?" look about them, the Cardinals may have pulled out a real plum in Alex Johnson, who hit close to .300 with the Phillies in 1965. Holdover Outfielders Curt Flood (.310) and Lou Brock (.288, 63 stolen bases) have exceptional speed and hitting ability, and Johnson will not detract from their high standards—if he decides not to loaf. Though he has yet to put in a full season in the major leagues, Johnson can intimidate a pitcher with his bat, which he holds way up and out from his body. "This guy is a hammer man," said ex-Cub Head Coach Charlie Metro, referring to the line drives Johnson was hitting off and over the fences. "And did you ever see him run?" asks Coach Dick Sisler. "Hot damn."
Primarily it is Johnson to whom Howsam is referring when he says "youth and speed," and while he also mentions rookie First Baseman George Kernek, Outfielder-First Baseman Bob Tolan and Shortstop Jerry Buchek, he does it with less conviction. Of the three, only Tolan has truly exceptional speed, and he will not be a regular unless Kernek cannot handle the job. Kernek found out last year with Jacksonville that a light bat could make a home run hitter of him (19), but during an inspection of the Cardinals' still-building stadium he said ruefully: "I detect a stiff wind blowing in from right field."
With all those new faces around the infield, Schoendienst told Catcher Tim McCarver he expected him to be the field boss, and Tim seems capable of handling things. Despite a series of frustrating injuries, McCarver hit better than most catchers last year (.276) and, more to the point, he is inclined to take charge. Second Baseman Julian Javier, the only member of the All-Star infield to survive Howsam's winter spree, is lithe and frail, and Schoendienst will be satisfied if he stays healthy enough to play 140 games or so.
An examination of the Cardinals' 1965 deficiencies shows that the pitching staff gave up 166 home runs—most for any team in the league, a strong indication that the staff was a struggling group. The ace, Bob Gibson, was still Bob Gibson and had 20 wins to prove it, and Relief Pitcher Hal Woodeshick had three wins in his own right, 14 saves and an earned run average of 1.80—all after coming to St. Louis in mid-June. But beyond that pair, nothing very good could be said for the pitching corps until rookie Larry Jaster came along and won three games at the very end of the season. This spring hardly anyone could get a run off Nelson Briles and, at age 23, he looks ripe for a good year. Bad-arm Ray Washburn seems healthy again. After that? There are some fine old names and tired old arms and, well, a surprising amount of hope.
An indication of things to come occurred early in training in an intra-squad game. Pat Corrales whipped off his mask, whirled and raced back to catch a pop foul. He raced too far. The ball landed with an embarrassing plop behind him, not 10 feet from the Cardinal management's box.
"Oops," said Bender.
"Oops," said Howsam.
"Hummm," said Busch.