The 1980 Cardinals aren't the first team to discover that even the best-hitting club will lose if it doesn't also have good pitching. Take, for example, the 1958 Phillies, who tied the Braves for the National League batting championship with a .266 average but finished last. Blame it on a 4.32 earned run average. On paper, at least, Philadelphia's pitching actually looked better than its hitting. The staff included Robin Roberts, Curt Simmons, Don Cardwell, Jack Sanford and Turk Farrell, all of whom won more than 100 games in their major league careers. But among the hitters, only Centerfielder Richie Ashburn (.308) had a lifetime batting average of better than .300.
"It was a strange club," says Ashburn, now a Phillie broadcaster. "The Whiz Kid era was coming to an end and the new players weren't ready." This trend was especially evident among the pitchers. In their 11th seasons, Roberts, a six-time 20-game winner, was 17-14, and Simmons, who had averaged 14 wins over his previous seven years, suffered elbow trouble and went 7-14. Rookie Ray Semproch was 13-11, but Sanford, Cardwell, Farrell and Jack Meyer, all with fewer than five years of big league experience, were a collective 24-34.
"We had some decent hitters who had good years," says Ashburn, who won the batting title with a .350 average. Other standouts were Harry Anderson (.301), Solly Hemus (.284) and Wally Post (.282). Reserve Dave Philley hit .309 and set a major league single-season record with eight straight pinch hits.
In explaining what it was like to be a good hitter on a last-place team, Ashburn makes a confession that none of the 1980 Cardinals would likely own up to—at least while they're still in uniform. "My only salvation was winning the batting title," Ashburn says. "Baseball is such an individual game that you can save a poor season by concentrating on personal goals."
Ashburn took the batting title by winning a race with Willie Mays that lasted until the final day of the season. While Mays was going 3 for 5 against the Cardinals in San Francisco, Ashburn went 3 for 4 in Pittsburgh to win by three points.
Twenty-eight years earlier, another Philadelphia team had a similar split personality. In 1930, that quintessential lively-ball year in which the entire National League hit .303, the hapless Phillies finished second in batting (.315) and last in the standings (52-102). The problem was a pitching staff that recorded just two shutouts and seven saves and compiled a major league record-high 6.70 ERA. Literally denting the tin rightfield fence 280 feet from home in old Baker Bowl, Chuck Klein batted .386, and four other regulars easily surpassed .300. As recorded in The Baseball Encyclopedia, the pitiful pitchers were: P. Collins—16-11, 4.78; R. Benge—11-15, 5.70; L. Sweetland—7-15, 7.71; C. Willough-by—4-17, 7.59; H. Collard—6-12, 6.80; H. Elliott—6-11, 7.67. You wouldn't want to know their first names.
Speaking of that team, Manager Burt Shot-ton once said, "I remember one pitcher, a blond lefthander. Thought he belonged in Hollywood. He didn't report for practice one day and I asked him what's the problem. The guy said he had to finish the scenario he was writing."
Many other teams led their leagues in batting but finished deep in the standings: the current Cardinals are actually following a long-standing franchise tradition. The 1920 St. Louis team, which led the league at .289, and the 1954 Cards (.281) finished sixth, and the 1938 team (.279) was seventh. Other hard-hitting failures include the 1921 and 1929 Tigers (.316 and .299), the 1945 White Sox (.262), the 1959 Reds (.274) and the 1961 Pirates (.273), all of whom were sixth, and the 1959 Kansas City A's (.263), who were seventh. But perhaps no organization has been victimized by good-hit, no-pitch teams more often than the Red Sox. Since winning their last world championship in 1918, Boston has taken 15 individual and 12 team batting titles but won just three pennants and no World Series.
The most snakebitten of all Red Sox players is Johnny Pesky, a coach who has been with Boston off and on since reporting as a rookie shortstop in 1942. Pesky played on several good-hitting teams that lost close pennant races. He also managed the 1964 team that led the league with a .258 average but finished eighth in a 10-team league. "We had bad defense and average pitching," says Pesky. "We might have been last if it hadn't been for Dick Radatz in the bullpen. He really helped us."
But how much? Even with Radatz winning 16 games and saving 29, the Sox were out of contention by midseason. So the adage needs refining: good pitching beats good hitting, but it takes a heap of good pitching to win a title.