The stifling heat of a late July morning had made the small, gloomy visitors' clubhouse at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh as hot as the inside of a tin cup by the time the St. Louis Cardinals arrived to prepare themselves for another game on their way toward a second consecutive National League pennant. A fan whirred in a far corner of the high-ceilinged room, moving nothing but the electric bill, while Orlando Cepeda, the Most Valuable Player of last season and the disappointment of this one, lay glistening with sweat on the archaic rubbing table, which is plunked down in a position seemingly selected to frustrate any movement in the room. Manager Red Schoendienst, who at 45 looks like an aging Huckleberry Finn, sat on a stool and watched his players languidly begin to put on their uniforms. "Today they look as tired as I've ever seen them," he said. "Those two games last night made it 37 in 36 days, and they won't have an off day from now until September 5, but somebody will start something to shake them up. Somebody always does."
A few moments later Tim McCarver, the team's fine catcher, picked the top off a garbage can and brought it to Pitcher Bob Gibson for inspection. "That'll do" said Gibson. "Let's stir them up." McCarver grabbed a fungo bat and started walking around the room pounding the garbage can top. "Get up, you Cardinals!" hollered Gibson. "Get up and growl! Get mad! Growl, Brock! Maris, you fat old man, let me hear you!" As McCarver continued on his march from player to player, Gibson skirted Cepeda and the ubiquitous rubbing table and taped a sign above McCarver's locker. "Bear down," it read, "the job you save may be your own."
Back near the end of May it was proved statistically that no race in National League history was as tight as the one then in progress. By losing 11 of 13 games the Cardinals had fallen from first place to fourth, and not even Marshall McLuhan could advance a theory on what was wrong with them. Just before the start of the Memorial Day weekend, however, the Cardinals took off on an expedition of sustained excellence (54-20), which has left the rest of the league strung out behind them like Coxey's Army.
By the beginning of this month St. Louis had done just about everything but put the cork in the jug, and they now have a chance to win a pennant by the second largest margin in baseball history. At the end of last week the Cardinals were 14 games in front of second-place Chicago and seemed capable of surpassing the 20 games by which the 1906 Chicago Cubs had won—if not the alltime margin of 27½ games established by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1902.
August 18, 1968
Already the Cardinal runaway is costing the National League over $50,000 a day, and by September, if the rout is still on, that figure will be even higher. At the start of this season some people thought that the Cardinals, whose uniformed personnel are salaried at $970,000, would be too fat and happy to extend themselves. A complementary line of thinking was that too many of them had good years together last year, and a general leveling-off could be expected. Several key Cardinals of 1967 are certainly not repeating their great seasons, but as far as being fat cats is concerned their record on the first and 15th of each month—payday in baseball—is 8-0.
Almost daily the Cardinals seem to pile miracle upon sleight of hand. Behind eight runs to the Cincinnati Reds, a team they actively dislike, the Cards rose up with 10 runs in one inning to win. Of their first four victories this season, three came by pinch hits from a bench that gives the Cards the best all-round depth of any team in either league. When Dick Hughes, their winningest pitcher in 1967, went on the disabled list, Ray Washburn, a preseason question mark, came on and won seven games in a row. When the Cards were forced into 12 innings against the pursuing Atlanta Braves, a home run jumped off the bat of Ducky Schofield, who has averaged one homer in every 216 at bats since 1965. Seemingly beaten in the ninth inning of a nationally televised game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Manager Schoendienst decided to pinch-hit for Most Valuable Player Cepeda, something never done before, and Lou Brock promptly singled to continue a rally that ended in victory. Sometimes the winning run scores when Brock comes home from second on a bunt; twice it has come thanks to the hitting of a pitcher, and seven times it has been driven in by Johnny Edwards, a man discarded by the Reds. Besides the miracles, however, the defense is strong and true, and only once have the Cardinals given up what proved to be the winning run on an error.
In many ways the Cardinals are an enigma to other major league organizations, because they have not only improved themselves during a time of general dilution in baseball but have prospered despite a constant internal upheaval that has brought four changes in the general manager's office since 1964. Only a few years back the Cardinal farm system was supposed to be sterile, yet today their two top farm teams, Tulsa and Arkansas, lead their respective leagues.
"I guess," says Ralph Kiner, "that of all the teams I've seen in the National League over the years this Cardinal club has more going for it than the rest. If you look at the aspects of baseball individually the only area in which they might fall a bit short is in power. But then, maybe if that were examined carefully it might not be true, either." St. Louis has won more games with the home run than any National League club except the San Francisco Giants.
The soundness of a team is measured by its pitching and how strong the club is through the middle, so the Cardinals fit the mold of a dynasty. The average age of their starting pitchers and the key men in the bullpen is 27. The oldest man in the infield is Julian Javier, who is 32. The addition of Johnny Edwards—who is 30, with eight years in the majors—to back up McCarver strengthens one of the most difficult positions to fill today. The double-play combination of Javier and Dal Maxvill is superior at range, throwing and working in concert, and Curt Flood (shown on the cover making a spectacular catch on a fly ball hit by Billy Williams at Wrigley Field in Chicago) is now finally regarded as the best centerfielder in the game. Flood is 30, but the man he is compared to most often, Willie Mays, is still playing well at the age of 37 and talking blithely about the future.
Flood has been the most solid and consistent player for St. Louis this season, and he goes after balls, as the song suggests, "in the briar and the bramble and the bushes where a rabbit wouldn't go." He has won five straight Gold Gloves and had only one bad year at bat in the last seven; even then, when he hit .267, he led the team in RBIs.
Although small at 5'9" and 160 pounds, Flood played every inning of the first 92 games this year, and he is currently hitting .300 and trying to get 200 hits for the third time in his career. Told to his face back in 1960 by Manager Solly Hemus, "You'll never make it," Flood has worked tirelessly to become the complete team player, and he does the small, vital things during the course of a game that multiply up to victory. Over the last three seasons he has led the team in advancing base runners into scoring position, and last year topped them with a batting average of .335.
Flood also plays a large part in keeping the spirit of the Cardinals as high as it is. Together with McCarver, Gibson and Roger Maris, he makes the Cardinal clubhouse stay alive with humor, both raucous and clever. The Cardinals thrive on the rib, and nobody is spared from it.
Although they have done it off and on for some time, the "baseball quiz" is the favorite toy of 1968, and Flood is particularly fascinated by it. "It comes from the new scoreboards in the league," he says. "Most of them put up a question and then it is answered later. Ours is different. Everybody watches each mistake we make during a game. When the game ends, we get back in the clubhouse and somebody says, 'I got a baseball quiz.' Everybody hollers, 'Yeah!' Then the guy who says he has the quiz must act out what he saw somebody do poorly. And the guy who made the mistake knows it's him right away, and he dies second by second.
"The thing to do is keep the questioning going with silly answers. 'Who failed to slide into second base?' 'Was it The Immortal Ty Cobb?' 'Nooo!' 'George Herman Whatsisname?' 'Nooo!' 'Max Patkin?' 'Nooo!' Then you give the guy's name, and sometimes you boo him and sometimes you cheer him for looking so foolish. The thing about the quiz is that the guy will probably never make the same mistake again, and that's what it is really for. To be honest, if we find a guy who can't take it, we really don't want him around."
Curt Flood came to the St. Louis Cardinals in the winter of 1957 in the first trade ever consummated by Bing Devine, the general manager who was fired by Owner Gussie Busch in 1964 but who returned to St. Louis following the resignation of Stan Musial last December.
Originally signed by Cincinnati, Flood was then converted by the Reds from the outfield to third base, but after he made 41 errors at third for Savannah the Reds gave up on him. Flood and Joe Taylor were traded to St. Louis for Marty Kutyna, Willard Schmidt and Ted Wieand. "Three guys," Los Angeles Times Columnist Jim Murray has written, "who were unknown even to the slot man at The Sporting News."
St. Louis farmed Flood out to Omaha to start the '58 season, but after 15 games and a .340 batting average he came back up to the Cardinals. Despite his size, Flood swung for the fences, and Hemus usually used him strictly as a defensive replacement. When Hemus was fired in July of 1961 his successor, the late Johnny Keane, told Curt to go to centerfield, stay there and do the best he could as a hitter. Flood hit and hit and hit and finished the season with a .322 batting average.
"I remember those early days with the Cardinals very vividly," Flood said recently while sipping one of the several cups of coffee he consumes before almost every game. "When Hemus told me that I wouldn't make it I was as low as I could get, but I'd been told that before. Stan Musial was one of the guys who helped pick me up, helped keep me going. I always admired Musial because of what he had done and his easygoing attitude. Nothing seemed to bother him on the surface, but one day Hemus took him out, and Stan went into the clubhouse where there was a big container that held the dirty towels. It was right in the middle of the room, and he stood there and kicked it as hard as he could about 30 times. That's how much he wanted to play ball."
Flood never wanted to play anything but baseball. Although he was born in Houston, Flood's family moved to Oakland, Calif. when he was a tot, and by the age of 10 he was under the wing of George Powles, one of the best baseball coaches on the West Coast and the man who helped develop many big-league players at McClymonds High School in Oakland, including Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson.
"From the first," says Powles, "I knew Curtis was a special case. The tip-off came when he was matched against older kids. Curtis qualified quickly. When he was 10 and 11 we took him along for our Junior Legion games and he'd catch batting practice or warm up a pitcher. We'd put on a little show with him, because the customers couldn't help noticing the little guy and how clever he was. We gave him the nickname Flash—you know Flash Flood. But the name never stuck [thank goodness].
"Oh," Powles continued, "Curtis was always a fine ballplayer. On our Legion teams we won state titles, and he always led the clubs in hitting. He always was around .400. In 1955 he was captain, and I remember one day we were playing a Utah team in a regional game at Lodi, Calif. That little guy—he was about 5'6" then—he hit two homers over the fence, one with two men on, and then he hit a single with the bases loaded. I think he had nine runs batted in that day."
Powles and his wife often had Flood to their home, and they began to notice his flair for painting. His obvious interest in art was further encouraged by the teachers at Oakland Tech where he transferred from McClymonds. Today Flood is a successful artist who does portraits from photographs. He has an ample list of commissions. "I do it because it helps me to relax," he says. "I have had a few shows, but I want them to be special. I've had one in San Francisco and one in Los Angeles and a couple in St. Louis. I also do still life, but the hardest thing I ever had to do was a portrait of a 17-year-old girl who died of leukemia."
One of the first people Flood painted was Owner Gussie Busch, and at spring training in 1967 Flood presented the oil to Busch. He was amazed by it. "Curt," said Busch in his deep voice, "it's magnificent. I'm going to put it on the new boat. And I want you to do my family." Within minutes Gussie Busch was walking around, showing the painting proudly to anyone in sight. "The best damned centerfielder in baseball, and he paints, too," Busch kept saying.
Not surprisingly, Flood believes that the current Cardinal club is the best one he has been on. "Of course, we did have a fine team in 1964 with Ken Boyer, Dick Groat and Bill White," he says. "Groat and I would go out to the ball park for long periods of time, and he would help me to learn how to hit to right field. That Groat, he could hit .300 with a strand of barbed wire.
"You must help one another on the Cardinals, because it is the team's winning that matters—not what the batting average is. There is something about being a Cardinal. The sense of the team's history is one thing, and the number of great players is another. Right now there is a feeling of unity all the way through the organization. You get the feeling when you are playing that everyone in the organization senses your problems and tries to help you.
"In 1965 we went from World Champions to seventh place, and that feeling was not there. Bob Howsam was the general manager, and the salary squabbles before the season started had a lot to do with it. I hit .311 in 1964 with 211 hits, and Bob Gibson won 19 games during the season and two in the World Series. Howsam sent us both contracts offering us a $1,500 raise. I must say that he believed in a lot of things that weren't too bad, but some of the things were. He wanted everything one way—his way. There would be interoffice memos flying around and stuff like that. [Three of the more famous were: "Sit up straight in the bullpen. Don't run on the grass when you leave the plate. All socks cut the same way."] Hell, we are individuals, and we want to dress like individuals and be treated like individuals should be."
After the Cardinals fell to seventh in 1965, Howsam traded off Groat, White and Boyer. Two years later Howsam left the Cards himself to become general manager at Cincinnati, but he had brought Cepeda and Maris to St. Louis, and life was coming back into the team.
"When we got to spring training in '67," says Flood, "I took one look around the room and was amazed at the talent we had. Eddie Bressoud was with the team then, and I said to him on that first day, 'You better find a place to spend $10,000, because we are going to win the pennant and the World Series.' The feeling was there again. Most of us have been together a long time for ballplayers, and we truly like one another. We can say things to each other that only true friends dare say."
Because of his size Flood cannot pace himself as larger athletes do. He must give everything virtually all the time to make up for his physical shortcomings, but he has some interesting routines to assist him. Once or twice a week he and Dave Ricketts, the third-string catcher, will go out to the park before anyone else is there—just as Groat and Flood used to—and Ricketts will pitch to Flood until Curt is certain that his swing is grooved perfectly. When he is in the on-deck circle Flood stands and leans with every pitch and swings just as if he were the hitter at the plate. Although most players have been taught to do this since high school, few actually do.
This year attendance is down in many cities in the National League, but in St. Louis it is climbing steadily toward 2,000,000 for the second straight season. The records that Bob Gibson is breaking are so absolute that when he is told about them he merely shrugs his shoulders. The great 1967 experiment involving Mike Shannon at third base is now passed: he can really play there now. Lou Brock is running again after several injuries, so everything had better be lashed down. Those who thought that Nelson Kelley Briles, the well-organized young pitcher who dresses like a riverboat gambler, would have difficulty winning 14 games this year can forget it: he's got them already. Once the bad streak of May had passed, the red-and-white infield ball again began bringing luck.
One night recently Roger Maris stood by himself looking around at the horseplay going on in the Cardinal clubhouse after a victory. Speaking to no one in particular, he said in a soft voice: "You guys can do it all; you proved it to me."