Some champions are worshiped for the ease of their conquest. So it was last week. Two fabulous young sprinters named Sime and Morrow floated away from all opposition to equal world records. Fabius, son of Citation, disdained such folderol as stirring stretch drives and won his Preakness early. Meanwhile his sire's money-winning record was falling beneath the businesslike thunder of Nashua's hoofs. And Sugar Ray needed only one brief burst of his old flamboyant fury to keep his world championship.
There are also those who acquire grateful loyalty by the fire, the color, the explosive defiance with which they win or lose. Cut of such gaudy cloth are the St. Louis Cardinals.
They are fighting for first place in the National League. They lead the league's team batting averages by some 10 points. They had two ( Rip Repulski and Ken Boyer) of the only four men batting over .400 in the major leagues last week. The whirlwind trades of their spectacular general manager have set fans alight with speculation or irritation. These are the St. Louis Cardinals, one of the thrilling names in baseball, who this season look as if they might, for the first time in years, come close to living up to the reputation handed down by their great teams of past decades.
When he was fired as manager of the Cardinals last May 28, Eddie Stanky remarked rather ruefully, "I'd manage this club for nothing next year, if they'd let me. That's how great I think they're going to be."
They didn't let him, needless to say. They didn't even let Harry Walker, who succeeded Stanky as manager. Instead, the Cardinals, refurbishing their front office, hired the volatile Frank Lane as general manager; and Lane, dismissing Walker, chose Fred Hutchinson to take over the job and spend a happy season at the head of Eddie's "great" club.
Stanky, of course, is given to grand statements grandly made, much in the manner of his early idol, later model and everlasting prototype, Leo Durocher. Like Durocher ("Nice guys finish last"), Stanky can make a casual remark or a general comment cement itself into the memory as an eternal truth, whether or not there is actually much factual basis for it.
But on this occasion Stanky, truth to tell, had considerable support. The St. Louis Cardinals last year certainly appeared to have the makings of a wonderful baseball team. When they stumbled home in seventh place people were shocked. How could a team utilizing the skills of such as Stan Musial and Red Schoendienst and Wally Moon and Rip Repulski possibly finish that badly? A bromide was promptly whipped up: no one knows the phrasemaker who said it first but within a few months of the end of the 1955 season almost everybody had a go at calling the Cardinals "the best seventh-place team in baseball history." It was a consoling thought. The implication was plain. Never mind where you finished, this is a good ball club.
Frank Lane, who assumed the general manager's post shortly after the disastrous season ended, rejected the consolation early this spring when he declared that as far as he was concerned he'd a hell of a lot rather have the worst first-place team in history than the best seventh-place club.
And the new manager, Freddy Hutchinson, who does not say very much but who says what he thinks when he does, stated flatly that a club finishes in seventh place because it isn't any better than that.
Nevertheless, during spring training the assorted travelers, raconteurs and wits who between beach and bar write about baseball landed feet first on the Cardinals as The Team to Watch. Everyone (all right, almost everyone) picked the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers as the teams most likely to win the American and National League pennants. But a sportswriter loves to come up with a long shot, and St. Louis has always been a popular favorite. Every sports page in the country had at least one story that warned, "Look out for the Cards. They're loaded."