Last Friday morning Charles Dallan Maxvill, 30-year-old shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals, awoke and began to think about impossibilities. Without ever doing anything controversial in his life, Dal Maxvill has become a much-discussed personality among baseball fans because he draws a salary of $50,000 while carrying an average of .168—a fine figure only if one happens to be a pitcher and the decimal point is moved over one digit to the right and called an earned run average.
When Maxvill was growing up in Granite City, Ill. he was so small for his age that his mother would put him up on the handlebars of a bicycle and pedal him through town so he could play for the Little League team. Today he is a very aware man who can reflect on those days and savor the genuine humor in them. On Friday morning, however, he could not muster the faintest of smiles. The night before, after 122 games of a frustrating season, the Cardinals had botched another chance both to save face and put some excitement into the race for the championship of the National League's Eastern Division.
"The Cubs had lost in the afternoon," Maxvill said, "and we had the chance to pull within seven games of them, but we played as bad as we could and lost. Opportunities to pick up games this late in a season do not come along too often, and we had messed ours up. When I woke up in the morning after that terrible defeat I still felt rotten about the game the night before and hoped for just one more opportunity. If only the Cubs would stub their toes one more time we would still have a chance. Chicago was playing Houston in Wrigley Field, and when I got into my car and drove to the ball park I turned on the radio and heard that Chicago had lost. The opportunity was there again. Suddenly we had another chance. For the Cardinals this part of the season is the one that's fun. Now is the time this team wants to play hard. It's when the club gets itself organized. Only a ballplayer realizes this. Naturally, you play all the games hard, but something else takes over at this point of the season."
Maxvill made two excellent plays in the seventh inning against the Atlanta Braves that evening. They helped tremendously in a victory that put the Cardinals within seven games of the Cubs and gave them a long-shot chance to pull off one of the greatest comebacks in baseball history. (The classic reference point for comebacks concerns the Boston Braves of 1914 who were 15 games behind on July 4 and won by 10½.)
Within recent weeks the Cardinals have been playing the kind of baseball that people had expected them to play since early April. Neither the Cubs, leaders of the Eastern Division since the first day of the season, nor the New York Mets, a young team with strong pitching, have been coming back to them in the standings; the Cardinals have been moving forward purposefully and gaining ground by winning series after series. For most of this year people asked, "What's the matter with the Cards?" They now ask, "Does St. Louis have a chance?" The answer to the first question is: the normal quota of complacency that creeps up on successful teams after a couple of years at the top. To the second: yes.
After easily winning pennants in 1967 and 1968, the Cardinals started the 1969 season in a dream world. Following a long period of holdouts they never got themselves organized because there was not enough time. They also lost three key people through retirement and the hurried league expansion to 12 teams. Roger Maris had been invaluable because of the knowledge he passed on to the other players as well as for his ability to keep the team loose. Because of expansion, St. Louis traded Catcher John Edwards to Houston rather than lose him in the draft and the occasion arose for Coach Joe Schultz to become the manager of the American League's Seattle Pilots.
The Cards entered 1969 as 2-to-5 favorites to win the Eastern Division, but they swiftly began to resemble a million-dollar misunderstanding. They lost their first three games of the season to the Pittsburgh Pirates, then won their next three to reach .500. That .500 figure was to become a bugaboo to the team and its fans for a long time thereafter. On April 15 the Cardinals were again at .500, but it was three months and 82 games later before they managed to get that high once more.
During their two previous pennant-winning seasons, the Cards usually seemed capable of producing the pinch hit that would win or tie a game or start a rally. In 1969, however, the pinch hitters marched away from the plate their first 17 times without getting a hit. Late in April, Vada Pinson, acquired from Cincinnati in a trade, was hit on the right leg by a pitch, suffered a hairline fracture of the fibula and was out of the lineup for nearly a month. On May 25 Dave Giusti, the right-handed pitcher St. Louis traded twice to get, wrenched his back and was put on the disabled list for 21 days. But major league scouts watching the Cardinals play began to notice certain odd things happening to the team that had not occurred during the two previous years, and those things had little to do with injuries. The defense was having trouble, and the cutoff plays on outfield throws, so vital in holding the opposition down, were being butchered.
Jim Russo, the superscout for the Baltimore Orioles, and a St. Louis resident who has watched the Cardinals often this year, says, "Apparently, when you win, a little complacency develops. But the Cardinals were not making the plays defensively that they used to make, and the catching was not throwing runners out."
Others began to notice different things. While it cannot be said that the Cardinals had become the playboys of the Western world, there were indications that they were on their way to becoming the crybabies of the Eastern Division. Too often the players called the official scorer to suggest strongly that an error be changed to a hit or a hit to an error. Of all the things that seemed to be going wrong, this seemed to be the most un-Cardinal-like. General Manager Bing Devine and Manager Red Schoendienst stopped that, but not before the team had lost a little of its glow for knowing baseball people.
Indeed, the catching was not throwing out runners. Tim McCarver, never thought to have one of the strong arms in baseball, has thrown out only 15 men this season while 56 have stolen successfully. The Cardinal hitting attack has had difficulty all season in getting runners home from third base with less than two out. There is one eye-opening statistic concerning the attack, as it relates to the lowering of the pitching mound and the smaller strike zone, both of which have helped the hitting in the majors. Of the 10 established National League teams, eight show an increase of nearly a run a game over their production of 1968. Even the Philadelphia Phillies, the most disorganized team in the National League, show an increase of better than half a run per game despite having been without Richie Allen, their best hitter, for four weeks. The Cardinals show an increase of only one run a week.
On July 5 everyone was sure that the time had come to lay the sod on top of St. Louis. By losing a tough game in 10 innings to the Cubs the day before, the Cardinals were 15½ games behind Chicago and, clearly, going nowhere at all. It seemed a perfect time for the players to pack up their bats and fall asleep in the clubhouse on top of their wallets. It was then, says McCarver, "that we just decided to put our heads down and drive through the walls."
Not only did the Cardinals face the obstacle of overhauling four teams in front of them in the standings, but of chasing baseball history itself. They had begun the season with the opportunity to become one of the few teams ever to win three consecutive National League pennants. Now before the Cards was the chance to replace the 1914 Braves in the record books. They won 12 of their next 14 games and moved to within nine games of the Cubs.
When the All-Star break came, the Cardinal team was virtually disgraced in the voting by players on the other clubs. Julian Javier finished in sixth place among the league's second basemen, with only five votes, and Lou Brock, with 16, was regarded as the 11th best outfielder in the league. Not one other Cardinal received a single vote.
Following the All-Star Game, St. Louis continued to play excellent ball. It was also frustrating ball. The Chicago Cubs were playing excellently themselves. While the Cardinals were chasing history they also had some favorable precedent on their side. In 1963 St. Louis had saved a placid National League season by putting on one of the best drives of any year, winning 19 of 20 games to pull within a single game of the front-running Los Angeles Dodgers in the middle of September. They ultimately lost, but with another tremendous rush the following season they came from 11 games back with only 39 to play and brought St. Louis its first pennant in 18 seasons.
There has always been a certain air of madness, usually accompanied by music, in Cardinal clubhouses. In the late 1930s the famous Mudcat Band played tunes like Possum up a Gum Stump with Lon Warneke on the harmonica, Bob Weiland on the jug, Frenchy Bordagaray on the washboard, "Fiddler" Bill McGee, Max Lanier and Pepper Martin on guitars. In the 1940s Stan Musial used to play the spoons, and Pass the Biscuits, Mirandy became the club's theme song. Biscuits was revived in 1963, and in the pennant-winning years of '67 and '68 the clubhouse record player continually pounded out A Fistful of Dollars. Around St. Louis today a strange song is being heard, and it has an element of irony to it. The Cardinals Are Coming, Tra La Tra La was devised by Announcer Harry Caray at the time when the team started to make its move. The words are worn on sweat shirts and appear on signs hanging from the stands at Busch Memorial Stadium, and buttons reading "The Cardinals Are Coming, Tra La Tra La" are beginning to turn up in quantity.
The strength of any drive the Cardinals launch from this point will be furnished by a sound starting pitching staff, and its new hero is a 27-year-old rookie named Chuck Taylor from Bell Buckle, Tenn. Taylor has won six games since July 6. Expert at changing speeds to upset hitters, he is a control specialist who walks virtually nobody he doesn't have to. At Tulsa during the 1968 season he walked only 38 men in 230 innings. Put into a starting rotation with Bob Gibson, Nelson Briles, Steve Carlton, who has now fulfilled his early promise by winning 15 games with an earned run average of 1.97, and young Mike Torrez, Taylor could help keep the team's momentum going while it prays for the Cubs to continue stubbing their toes occasionally. And St. Louis still has seven games left against Chicago.
After the 4-2 victory over Atlanta last Friday night, the Cardinal clubhouse was alive with music and nonsense. The team had played without Javier, its hottest hitter during the recent surge. He suffered an injury to a finger earlier in the week. Curt Flood was out with a virus attack, and Torrez was doing time with the Marine Reserves. Still, there was a fresh air of optimism and determination reflected in the music. A new song had taken the place of Possum and Biscuits. "We play it," said Briles, "because it typifies our season and how people might have felt toward us and how we feel ourselves." The name of it is That's Life. Some of the lyrics are:
That's what people say,
You're ridin' high in April,
Shot down in May;
But I know I'm gonna change that tune,
When I'm back on top in June....
I've been up and down and over and out
And I know one thing;
Each time I find myself flat on my face,
I pick myself up and get back in the race.... ¬©
¬© COPYRIGHT 1966 BY FOUR STAR TELEVISION MUSIC CO., INC.