SI Vault
William Leggett
September 04, 1967
The St. Louis Cardinals are threatening to make the National League pennant race the longest runaway in a dozen years. They're doing it on pitching, hitting, fielding and an amazing amount of spirit
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September 04, 1967

Out In Front In Fun And Games

The St. Louis Cardinals are threatening to make the National League pennant race the longest runaway in a dozen years. They're doing it on pitching, hitting, fielding and an amazing amount of spirit

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The magic red-and-white ball was invented at an hour of stress late in July, but only because of the sudden success of the tomato-rice soup. The word game that none of the players seem truly to understand was brought to the back of the busses and planes at about the same time that Orlando Cepeda received his initial supply of the "mysterious, precious, rare, strength-giving honey from the high hills of Puerto Rico." Nobody can recall when Roger Maris first began singing out the names of the players in the clubhouse after each win. "Cuuurt Flood," Maris chants in his baritone voice, and Curt Flood answers, "Roger Maaaris." Often Maris opens the singing in the direction of Julian Javier, the quiet, sensitive, and once again spectacular second baseman. "Hoo-li-on Hav-vi-aair," sings Maris, and Julian's quiet voice returns the call, "Hod-jer Har-riss."

The St. Louis Cardinals were up to their marvelous, spirited nonsense again last week as they continued winning and moving toward what looks like the biggest National League runaway in 12 years. They grouped in the center of the clubhouse in San Francisco after a devastating 9-0 pounding of the Giants and waited for Cepeda to lead the special cheer that has now become a great part of their character. Cepeda walked to the front of the group and raised his huge right fist into the air. "El Birdos!" he hollered. "Yeah!" went the team. "El Birdos!" he shouted again. "Yeah!" they chorused. Once more Orlando raised the cry for El Birdos and the Birdos answered, "Yeah!" According to ritual El Birdos must be shouted three times after each victory, and then Cepeda puts the zinger in, like "—— Herman Franks." At this spot the Cardinals really holler, "Yeah!"

In Los Angeles, when it seemed they were about to lose both games of a twinight doubleheader, they rallied around the excellent relief pitching of Joe Hoerner and the fine defensive play of Shortstop Dal Maxvill to pull out the second game. In the clubhouse afterward Maxvill—all 155 pounds of him—explained to Pitcher Hal Woodeshick, "I must continue my never-ending war against crime. Although disguised as Dal Maxvill, mild-mannered shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals, in reality I am Superman." Following another winning game, Mike Shannon, the third baseman, pulled a notebook from his locker in which he records team fines. "On August 19 in Houston," Shannon said, " Stan Musial got it. With a runner at third and less than two outs he popped up in an oldtimers' game. The way we look at it, he may be the general manager, but if he's playing for us he's got to get that ribbie."

Back in July—July 22, to be exact—the St. Louis Cardinals appeared to be a team in desperate shape. In one brief week their four-game lead had disappeared, and not only did they find themselves tied for first place with the Chicago Cubs, but they were without their best pitcher, Bob Gibson, and their fine center fielder, Curt Flood, both of whom had been injured. Facing the Cardinals were 25 games against Atlanta, Cincinnati, San Francisco and the Cubs—four first-division clubs that were capable of knocking St. Louis out of the race. Now the 25 games with those teams are over and, barring one of the greatest collapses in baseball history, so, too, is any real pennant race in a league that has produced some remarkable ones in recent years. The Cardinals won 21 of the 25, and the other teams in the National League could barely hear the Redbirds' wings flapping out there in the distance.

To those who understand the nature and complexities of baseball, the most remarkable thing about El Birdos is that only 28 men have worn a St. Louis uniform since the start of the season. Contrast this to the New York Mets, who have already dressed 22 different pitchers, most of whom the enemy promptly undressed. The Cardinals believe that it has been this stability that has helped to build the club's spirit. There is a great sense of identification. Musial, the general manager, one of the most popular and proficient hitters of all time, was a Cardinal player for 22 seasons. (After Bob Howsam left St. Louis to join the Cincinnati Reds in January, Bing Devine, the man whose head rolled as general manager in the Cardinal Palace Revolution of 1964, was asked how he thought Musial would do as a general manager. "Name one thing that Musial has ever done wrong," said Devine.) Red Schoendienst, the manager, was Musial's roommate for 13 years.

When Musial and Schoendienst got to spring training this year their major problem was a risky gamble they had determined to try—the conversion of Mike Shannon from a fine outfielder into a reasonably competent third baseman. The task was not an easy one—neither for Shannon nor Schoendienst. Shannon liked the outfield, and he had been discouraged when Howsam traded for Alex Johnson before the start of the 1966 season. Shannon was used to working hard—in 1965 he went to the Florida Instructional League to learn to catch, in case he was ever needed—but learning to play third base became brutal at times. On many days Schoendienst and Shannon would stay at Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg long after everyone else had left. Schoendienst would stand at the plate and hit baseballs as hard as he could at Shannon and, even at the age of 44, Albert Schoendienst still hits a baseball hard.

One day Shannon remained at third for more than two hours as Schoendienst hit shots off his arms, wrists, chest and ankles. But Mike stood his ground with a toughness Schoendienst appreciated. After that session Shannon was black and blue, and Schoendienst's hands were almost totally blistered. On another day Schoendienst bunted more than 200 balls to Shannon, and the third baseman had to charge in, field each one and throw to first base. When the exhibition season began, Shannon admits, "It was awful. For three weeks I didn't do anything right. But Red stuck by me, and it got better. Then just before the season opened I got hurt in an exhibition game at Washington. I was dying to open the season at third at home, because I'm a St. Louis boy and my heart has always been Cardinal. I didn't think that Red was going to let me start, but before the game he said, 'How much does it hurt?' I told him not half as much as not starting would. He started me, and even though I could only play four innings it helped me tremendously."

Right from that opening night the Cardinals were an excellent and exciting team, one which this season may draw two million people to the new Busch Memorial Stadium in downtown St. Louis. Some believe that it was the performance of Roger Maris on opening night that gave the Cardinals the extra incentive that has stayed with them all year. But during that first week the Cardinals used not only Maris and Lou Brock, Curt Flood and Orlando Cepeda and Tim McCarver (see cover), but their excellent speed and defense and some fine pitching. The Cardinals had felt during spring training that they had a good team, and they knew it when they faced a tough schedule at the beginning of the season and won six games in a row.

Through the early weeks of the season the Cardinal pitching seemed suspect, but one of the main reasons for that was the ineffectiveness of Hoerner, a 30-year-old relief pitcher who had been magnificent the year before (he had appeared in 57 games and had an earned run average of 1.54). But Joe Hoerner is not the type to become discouraged. He has been through tougher times in his life than coming in from the bullpen with the bases loaded and nobody out. At the end of the 1958 season, his second in baseball, he started a game in Davenport, Iowa and suffered a heart attack with the first pitch he threw. He went through a series of tests at Iowa University medical center and was told that one of the muscles around his heart was weak and that if he ever did pitch again he would not be able to throw overhand. For a year Hoerner had to take four pills a day for his heart, and when he returned as a pitcher he did throw sidearm. He was strong again, but the following year he got dizzy and nearly blacked out on occasion. Eventually, at the winter meetings of 1965, the Cardinals drafted him. He had his fine year in 1966 and then broke his toe. But he hung on again, regained his stuff and since July 2 has made 22 appearances and given up only three earned runs. It was Hoerner, of course, who stole the team bus and drove it back to the Marriott Motor Hotel from Atlanta Stadium five weeks ago, but if it had not been for the tomato-rice soup that led to the invention of the magic red-and-white infield ball there is no telling what kind of position in the race the Cardinals would have been in when they got to Atlanta.

St. Louis had dropped a tough game to the Braves in 13 innings at Busch Stadium on that significant date, July 22. Schoendienst was frustrated by the defeat and carried his frustration with him to his new home in suburban St. Louis. When Red walked into the house his wife, Mary Eileen, sensed trouble. Red walked out back and decided to mow the lawn, twice pulled the rip cord on the power mower and broke it. He came back inside and lifted the cover off the pot on the kitchen range and challenged her on her method of boiling potatoes to go with the steak that he was about to cook. He went back to the barbecue and put the steaks on, and soon puffs of black smoke circled the neighborhood. A policeman rang the front doorbell and asked if the Schoendiensts were all right and if they were planning just a small fire. "Go out back," Mary Eileen said, "and ask the manager."

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