Most of the genuine excitement in last year's National League pennant race was created by the late charge of the St. Louis Cardinals, who won 19 of 20 games and closed to within a game of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the middle of September. The Cardinals could never get any closer and they quietly slid away to finish a distant second. Last week they were putting on another impressive and belated rush. This time it was the Phillies that the Cards were trying to overhaul, but their cause seemed as hopeless and frustrating as skating on sand.
Since July 25, St. Louis has moved from eighth place to second by playing the best ball (33-15) in the majors. Timely and consistent hitting by Ken Boyer, Lou Brock, Bill White and Curt Flood, plus some muscular deeds by the bench have enabled the team to win 13 of those games from the seventh inning on. Bob Gibson, the overpowering right-hander, has strung together five complete games and the once bumbling bullpen has been reasonably effective.
Unhappily, this late-season surge has not soothed those Cardinal fans who became disenchanted in April and May when Bill White failed to hit, Gibson floundered and the bullpen was downright disgraceful. The fan who suffered most was August (Gussie) Busch, the president of Anheuser-Busch and also the president of the board of directors of the Cardinals.
On August 16, Busch fired General Manager Bing Devine, who had been with the Cardinal organization for 25 years. He also fired Business Manager Art Routzong, and the talk around St. Louis was that Branch Rickey, the 82-year-old philosopher who had been hired as a consultant in 1962, had won out over Devine in a palace revolution that started on the very day Rickey arrived.
Three days after Devine's firing, a four-page letter was hand-delivered to Gussie Busch at his brewery office. It came from Fred Saigh, a wheeler-dealer and former Cardinal owner who had sold the team to Anheuser-Busch in 1953 for $3,600,000. With the letter, Saigh sent along a check for $25,000 as down payment on a $4,500,000 offer to buy the Cardinals. Busch promptly declined. The letter itself was a scorcher and, though Saigh made it available to the press, only sketchy references to its vitriolic contents have been made in the St. Louis papers.
The letter ran, in part: "The events of this week prompt me now to try to right the wrong I was forced to inflict on the fans of the Cardinal organization by selling at a sacrifice to a corporation headed by you.... The Cardinal organization has been so demoralized by an unprecedented military chain of command in front office management that those in positions responsible for a competing team were hog-tied to indecisions, debate and fear for their jobs which arc held in accord with the temper of your whims. You have said that Devine had seven years in which to produce; you have had 11....
"You have caused the authority you hold to be divided into a maze through which the club's operating personnel have never been able to find their way. This is roughly how you disburse your authority: from you to 1) Richard Meyer, vice-president of Anheuser-Busch and the St. Louis National Baseball Club, who has enough to do operating the breweries, so baseball is incidental; to 2) Stanley Musial, vice-president, no particular authority; to 3) your son, August Busch III, who interferes in matters about which he does not have the slightest knowledge; to 4) Al Fleischman, your public relations counsel with veto or influence power; via 5) personnel of the D'Arcy Advertising Company, 6) personnel of the Gardner Advertising Co.; to 7) Eddie Stanky; with the advice of 8) the head of scouting; 9) and overriding all as a ghost from the outdated past, an 82-year-old mesmerizer, Branch Rickey, and his retinue; then comes 10) your general manager, Bing Devine (fired); and 11) your business manager, Art Routzong (fired); and at last 12) your new Rickey man, Bob Howsom, whose only qualification for a top management job is his friendship with Branch Rickey and some minor league management experience dating back some time....
" Bing Devine and Art Routzong could have worked well in the tradition of the Cardinals if you, because of your impulsive pursuit of your public image, did not override them by hiring at $62,500 a year a man once great but who has long since outlived his usefulness, whose plan is to work his will over yours and install his men on the Cardinals' payroll. After undermining your present staff he has brought in the first of his followers. Next would be a replacement for [Manager] John Keane, Stanky and he only knows who."
Much of Saigh's comment is, at least, debatable. Devine's successor, Bob Howsom, for example, was named baseball's best minor league executive during two of his years at Denver. Busch also insists that firing Devine was his own idea. " Rickey had nothing to do with it," he says. "I did not consult him until I had made up my mind."
Busch will not talk about Johnny Keane, perhaps understandably. If the Cardinals finish second, it would be difficult to find reasons for getting rid of Keane. All Busch will say about other firings is, "There certainly could be more." Perhaps, too, the firing of Bing Devine has kicked up enough fuss.