Joe Cunningham usually hit for average, not for power. So the three home runs he produced in his first two big-league games with the Cardinals were surprising.

joe_cunninghamTwo rookies with the 2014 Cubs, Javier Baez and Jorge Soler, joined Cunningham as the only players since 1900 to hit three home runs in their first three major-league games, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Baez hit a home run in his first major-league game on Aug. 5, 2014, at Colorado and followed that with two homers in his third game on Aug. 7 at Colorado.

Soler homered in his first big-league game on Aug. 27, 2014, at Cincinnati and hit two more in his third game on Aug. 29 at St. Louis.

Cunningham did them one better. He’s the only player since 1900 to hit three home runs in his first two big-league games.

Mid-season replacement

A left-handed batter and first baseman, Cunningham, 22, began the 1954 season at Class AAA Rochester. On June 28, 1954, the Cardinals came to Rochester to play an exhibition game versus the Red Wings. Cardinals manager Eddie Stanky said the prospect he was most interested in seeing was Cunningham. Because of that, Cunningham insisted on being in the lineup, even though he had leg cramps.

Cunningham produced two singles and walked twice in four plate appearances.

Impressed, the Cardinals decided to promote Cunningham. On June 29, before the Red Wings played a doubleheader against Havana at Rochester, Cunningham was told he would be joining the Cardinals in Cincinnati the next day.

Cunningham was replacing rookie first baseman Tom Alston. In 66 games, Alston, the Cardinals’ first black player, hit .246 with four homers and 34 RBI. But he slumped in June (.181 batting average for the month) and produced only seven RBI in his last 42 games.

Whirlwind journey

Cunningham planned to catch an overnight train from Rochester to Cincinnati after playing both games of the doubleheader against Havana. He went hitless  _ “I was so happy and surprised (about the promotion) I hardly could see up there at the plate,” Cunningham said to The Sporting News. _ but because of the length of the games, he missed the train.

“I just had to get there,” Cunningham said.

A member of the Rochester publicity staff agreed to drive Cunningham from Rochester to the Buffalo airport the morning of June 30. Cunningham took a flight from Buffalo to Cincinnati, arrived in the afternoon, signed a big-league contract and went to the ballpark.

Stanky put Cunningham in the starting lineup, batting him fifth against the Reds that night.

St. Louis slugger

Cunningham hit into force outs in his first two at-bats. In the fifth, facing Art Fowler, a 32-year-old rookie right-hander, Cunningham hit a three-run home run for his first big-league hit. He followed that with a two-run single off left-hander Harry Perkowski in the seventh. Cunningham’s five-RBI performance carried the Cardinals to an 11-3 victory. Boxscore

Immediately afterward, the Cardinals traveled to Milwaukee for a game the next day, July 1, against the Braves and their ace, left-hander Warren Spahn. Stanky put Cunningham in the lineup, batting sixth.

Cunningham hit two home runs off Spahn. The first was a 390-foot solo shot to right in the second inning. In the fifth, he connected for a three-run homer that landed just inside the right-field foul pole. The Cardinals won, 9-2. Boxscore

Dream come true

“This is just like a dream,” Cunningham said to the Associated Press. “I always wanted to be a big leaguer, but I had no idea it would come so soon.”

He had just one problem. “I left the minors in such a hurry I only brought along one pair of trousers,” Cunningham said. “I guess I’m still in a sort of shock. I had all my stuff at the cleaners and the only pants I’ve got are the ones I’ve been wearing.”

The next day, July 2, playing in his third game in his third city in three days, Cunningham was 1-for-3 with a single and a walk against the Cubs at Chicago. Boxscore

Cunningham finished the 1954 season with a .284 batting average, 11 home runs and 50 RBI in 85 games for the Cardinals. In 12 big-league seasons, seven with the Cardinals, Cunningham hit .291 with 64 homers. His single-season high in home runs was 12 for the 1958 Cardinals.

Previously: The story of how Tom Alston integrated Cardinals

Previously: Jim Brosnan: Combination Cardinals chronicler, closer

An overachiever with a team-oriented attitude, Joe McEwing was Tony La Russa’s kind of Cardinals player.

joe_mcewingMcEwing also might be La Russa’s kind of manager.

Speculation is McEwing, the former Cardinals second baseman, might be approached by La Russa to become manager of the Diamondbacks.

McEwing has been a coach with the White Sox since 2012. Before that, he was a manager for three seasons in the White Sox minor-league system. White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf is a close friend of La Russa, whose first big-league managing job was with the White Sox.

La Russa, chief baseball officer for the Diamondbacks, hasn’t said whether he’ll retain Kirk Gibson as manager. That’s fueled speculation about who else La Russa might consider.

Sub to starter

McEwing played for the Cardinals in 1998 and 1999 when La Russa was their manager. Called up from the minors in September 1998, McEwing, 25, made his big-league debut with the Cardinals and played in 10 games that month, batting .200 (4-for-20).

Ticketed for a utility role with the 1999 Cardinals, McEwing earned the second base job over Placido Polanco.

McEwing endeared himself to La Russa and Cardinals fans by putting together a 25-game hitting streak from June 8-July 4. He broke the Cardinals rookie record held by Johnny Mize (22-game streak in 1936). McEwing’s streak was the longest by a Cardinals player since Lou Brock (26 consecutive games) in 1971.

“I appreciate Cardinal history,” McEwing said to columnist Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch during the streak. “I’m a big fan of the game and to be mentioned in the same sentence with Johnny Mize, Lou Brock, Hall of Famers. You couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Asked whether he thought of the streak when he awoke each morning, McEwing replied to Miklasz, “When I get up, I worry about getting my coffee and doughnuts.”

Super streak

The streak began with a pair of singles against Royals starter Chris Fussell on June 8 at Kansas City. Boxscore

It reached 25 games in a row on July 4 with a home run off Diamondbacks starter Andy Benes, a former Cardinal. Boxscore

“He plays each game like it’s the seventh game of the World Series,” La Russa said of McEwing during the streak. “He is never different.”

Willie McGee, who had a 22-game streak for the 1990 Cardinals, said McEwing “deserves it. He works hard … He’s an outstanding person and an outstanding player.”

Beaten by the best

McEwing’s streak was snapped by Diamondbacks left-hander Randy Johnson on July 5. McEwing was 0-for-4 that day against Johnson, who won the National League ERA title and the second of his five Cy Young awards in 1999. In his last at-bat, McEwing lined out to left in the seventh with the bases loaded and two outs. Boxscore

“I told him he just got beat by a Hall of Famer,” La Russa said.

Added McEwing: “It was a good run and I enjoyed it.”

McEwing hit .318 during the streak, with 13 runs scored.

Fifteen years later, his hitting streak remains the longest by a Cardinals rookie.

McEwing would finish the 1999 season with a .275 batting average and 141 hits, including 28 doubles, in 152 games. He paced the Cardinals with 16 infield hits and grounded into only three double plays in 513 at-bats. McEwing made 85 starts at second base, 18 in center field, 16 in left and eight in right.

After the season, the Cardinals acquired second baseman Fernando Vina from the Brewers. During spring training in March 2000, the Cardinals traded McEwing to the Mets for reliever Jesse Orosco. McEwing helped the Mets win their first pennant in 14 years, eliminating the Cardinals in the National League Championship Series.

In eight big-league season with the Cardinals, Mets, Royals and Astros, McEwing batted .251 with 443 hits. That’s better than La Russa, who batted .199 with 35 hits in six seasons with the Athletics, Braves and Cubs before going on to a Hall of Fame managerial career.

Previously: How Tony La Russa can learn from Whitey Herzog mistakes

Previously: Tony La Russa successor follows Cardinals pattern

Being discarded by the Cardinals was tough on Tim McCarver the first time it happened. The second time was worse.

tim_mccarver4Forty years ago, Sept. 1, 1974, the Cardinals sold the contract of McCarver to the Red Sox.

At the time of the transaction, the Cardinals were in second place in the National League East, 2.5 games behind the Pirates.

It hurt McCarver that the Cardinals saw him as a liability rather than an asset in their late-season bid for a division championship.

McCarver, 32, was in his second stint with the Cardinals in 1974. He had debuted with them as a 17-year-old catcher in 1959. A two-time all-star who finished runner-up to teammate Orlando Cepeda in voting for the 1967 Most Valuable Player Award, McCarver was an integral part of a Cardinals club that won three National League pennants and two World Series titles in the 1960s. His leadership skills and special bond with pitching ace Bob Gibson also were important.

Feeling the hurt

In October 1969, the Cardinals dealt McCarver, center fielder Curt Flood, pitcher Joe Hoerner and outfielder Byron Browne to the Phillies for slugger Richie Allen, infielder Cookie Rojas and pitcher Jerry Johnson.

In his book “Oh, Baby, I Love It” (1987, Villard), McCarver recalled, “When general manager Bing Devine broke the news to me about my going to Philly, he said it hurt him to do it. That’s like a father dangling a razor strap in front of his 4-year-old son and saying, ‘This is going to hurt me more than it’ll hurt you.’ Bull. Since St. Louis had been my baseball home since my rookie year in 1959, it had to hurt me more than a little, too.”

Reacquired by St. Louis in a November 1972 trade with the Expos for outfielder Jorge Roque, McCarver batted .266 with 49 RBI as a utility player for the 1973 Cardinals.

In 1974, McCarver’s role primarily was to be the Cardinals’ top pinch-hitter, although he also filled in at catcher and at first base. He struggled, hitting .179 (7-for-39) as a pinch-hitter and .217 (23-for-106) overall. He produced just one extra-base hit.

Bound for Beantown

On Aug. 29, as the Cardinals left San Diego to open a series in San Francisco, Bob Kennedy, Cardinals player personnel director, informed McCarver he likely would be dealt to the Athletics, who were atop the American League West and headed to their third consecutive World Series championship. The Athletics were seeking a veteran backup to catcher Ray Fosse.

“I thought I was being traded to Oakland,” McCarver said in his book. “When the Cards took a flight to San Francisco, I went with them, fully expecting to transfer across the bay.”

After arriving at San Francisco, McCarver called his wife, Anne, at their home in Memphis and said, “I need you.”

Said McCarver: “I was pretty depressed about leaving the Cards, who had a shot at the pennant that year. Anne flew from Memphis to San Francisco and we had dinner that Friday night. The next morning, I got word that I was heading to (Boston).”

The Red Sox, who led the American League East, were seeking help for catcher Bob Montgomery, who was filling in for an injured Carlton Fisk.

“When the Red Sox picked me up, I hadn’t the slightest notion they had any interest in me,” McCarver said.

Trust issues

The transaction caught many by surprise.

In The Sporting News, Peter Gammons reported this exchange with Red Sox manager Darrell Johnson: “On Aug. 30, Johnson was asked if the Sox were interested in Tim McCarver. ‘No,’ he answered, but McCarver was bought the next day.”

Wrote St. Louis reporter Neal Russo: “It’s usually the custom to add a few veterans for a club’s final push, but the Cardinals dropped one.”

With McCarver gone, the Cardinals called up prospects Marc Hill to back up catcher Ted Simmons and Keith Hernandez to back up first baseman Joe Torre.

In the end, neither the Cardinals nor the Red Sox qualified for the postseason. The Cardinals finished in second place, 1.5 games behind the Pirates, and Boston placed third, seven behind the first-place Orioles.

Previously: How Tim McCarver became a Cardinal at 17

Previously: Tim McCarver challenged Bob Gibson for World Series MVP

Just three years after being drafted by the Cardinals as almost an afterthought, Keith Hernandez made his major-league debut in his hometown as the heir apparent to one of St. Louis’ most prominent players.

keith_hernandez4Forty years ago, on Aug. 30, 1974, Hernandez, 20, played his first big-league game for the Cardinals against the Giants at San Francisco. Batting seventh and starting at first base, Hernandez had a single, two walks and a RBI in four plate appearances against left-handed starter Mike Caldwell.

Promoted from Class AAA Tulsa, Hernandez was filling in for perennial all-star Joe Torre, who was sidelined because of a sprained thumb. Torre, 34, would return to the lineup four days later, but he was traded to the Mets soon after the season in order to clear a path for Hernandez to become the everyday first baseman.

Scaring the scouts

A San Francisco native, Hernandez was chosen by the Cardinals in the 42nd round of the big-league draft in 1971. “I would have been someone’s first-round draft choice if I hadn’t quit the (high school) team my senior year,” Hernandez told the San Mateo County Times in 2009. “A lot of scouts were scared off.”

The Cardinals were one of only five teams still selecting players in the 42nd round. The final round was the 48th. Hernandez would be the only player taken after the 36th round of the 1971 draft to reach the major leagues.

Hernandez began the 1974 season playing for manager Ken Boyer on the Cardinals’ Class AAA Tulsa team in the American Association. The Sporting News described Hernandez and teammate Marc Hill, a catcher, as the “best major-league prospects to grace the Association in 1974.”

Hernandez was batting .351 with 124 hits in 102 games and an on-base percentage of .425 for Tulsa when Boyer informed him at the team hotel during a trip to Oklahoma City that he had been promoted to the Cardinals.

“I must have spent $50 on the telephone calling my parents, relatives and friends from Oklahoma City when I found out I was going up,” Hernandez told The Sporting News.

Meanwhile, Hernandez determined he needed a wardrobe upgrade before joining the Cardinals. “All that was open in Oklahoma City … in fact, all they had, was western-wear stuff,” Hernandez told Josh Lewin for the book “You Never Forget Your First Time” (2005, Potomac). “But I needed travel clothes, so that’s what I did. I looked like the polyester Roy Rogers heading off to the big leagues.”

No place like home

With the Giants 15 wins below .500 and 25 games behind the first-place Dodgers in the National League West, only 3,111 spectators witnessed Hernandez’s debut on a cold Friday night at Candlestick Park. “My family sat right behind home plate, near our dugout,” Hernandez said.

In his first plate appearance, he drew a third-inning walk. He followed that with a strikeout in the fifth and another walk in the seventh.

With the Giants ahead, 8-1, in the ninth, Hernandez got his first big-league hit, a single to right that scored Bake McBride from second. Boxscore

“It was a dream come true breaking into the major leagues in your hometown,” Hernandez told The Sporting News.

Hernandez started at first base in all three games of the weekend series at San Francisco. He produced three hits in 10 at-bats.

Learning the ropes

“Joe (Torre) and Lou Brock took me aside and made me feel welcome when I got there,” Hernandez told Lewin for his book. “… I was 20 on a team of nothing but 33-year-old veterans. But the guys were nice enough to try and make me feel part of what they were doing.”

In 14 games for the 1974 Cardinals, Hernandez hit .294 (10-for-34) with seven walks.

Hernandez opened the 1975 season as the Cardinals’ everyday first baseman. But he struggled to hit. With his batting average at .203 on June 3, Hernandez was demoted to Tulsa. Reunited with Boyer, Hernandez batted .330 with 107 hits in 85 games and a .440 on-base percentage for Tulsa. The Cardinals brought him back in September.

Four years later, with Boyer managing the Cardinals, Hernandez won the National League batting title (at .344) and was named co-winner of the NL Most Valuable Player Award with the Pirates’ Willie Stargell.

In 10 seasons with St. Louis, Hernandez produced 1,217 hits in 1,165 games, batting .299 with an on-base percentage of .385. He twice was named an all-star while with the Cardinals and won the first five of his 11 consecutive Gold Glove awards.

Previously: Why Cardinals dealt Keith Hernandez in 1983

For one night, at least, amid the excitement of a pennant chase, John Curtis showed the Cardinals a flash of the high-caliber talent they had expected when they acquired him as the key player in a trade with the Red Sox.

john_curtisForty years ago, on Aug. 29, 1974, Curtis delivered the best performance of his Cardinals career, pitching a one-hitter in St. Louis’ 3-1 victory over the Padres at San Diego.

The win moved the Cardinals within a half-game of the first-place Pirates in the National League East with a month remaining and raised hopes St. Louis would earn its first postseason berth in six years.

Seeking a southpaw

Curtis, 26, a left-hander, was projected to join Bob Gibson in anchoring the Cardinals’ rotation in 1974. He had earned 13 wins with the 1973 Red Sox. That impressed the Cardinals, whose 1973 rotation consisted of right-handers Gibson, Rick Wise, Reggie Cleveland, Alan Foster and Tom Murphy.

Figuring they needed a left-handed starter to compete in a division whose most recent champions possessed premium left-handed hitters _ Pirates (Willie Stargell, Dave Parker, Al Oliver) and Mets (Rusty Staub and John Milner) _ the Cardinals pursued Curtis.

In December 1973, St. Louis acquired Curtis and right-handers Lynn McGlothen and Mike Garman from the Red Sox for right-handers Reggie Cleveland and Diego Segui and infielder Terry Hughes.

“We needed a left-hander badly,” Cardinals manager Red Schoendienst said to the Associated Press. “I think we’ve got him now.”

Said St. Louis general manager Bing Devine: “A left-hander was of prime importance.”

The Cardinals entered 1974 with a rotation of Gibson, Curtis, Foster, McGlothen and Sonny Siebert. Curtis was the lone left-hander.

He got off to a terrible start, losing five of his first seven decisions as his ERA swelled to 5.83.

Still, Schoendienst kept Curtis in the rotation.

Almost perfect

On Aug. 29, a Thursday night, before 6,042 spectators, Curtis got the start against the hapless Padres, who had the worst record in the National League and would finish with 102 losses.

The Padres did have a couple of sluggers who batted right-handed _ Nate Colbert and Dave Winfield, who was in his second season of what would become a Hall of Fame career.

Curtis retired the first 21 batters in a row. Seven perfect innings. Ted Simmons, catching Curtis, hit a home run in the seventh, breaking a scoreless tie.

Winfield led off the Padres eighth. Two months earlier, Winfield had hit a home run off Curtis for the lone run in a 1-0 Padres victory. Boxscore

Now, Curtis was recalling that blast as he faced Winfield while trying to protect a one-run lead and the perfect game.

Winfield watched the first three pitches sail out of the strike zone.

“He’s a pretty free swinger,” Curtis said. “Maybe I was a little too careful.”

Winfield walked. “But that didn’t concern me too much,” Curtis said.

Cito Gaston bunted, moving Winfield to second. Derrel Thomas walked and Dave Hilton flied out to right, advancing Winfield to third.

Fred Kendall was up next. Batting eighth in the order, he had a .237 average and hadn’t gotten a hit in a week.

Kendall singled to left, breaking up the no-hitter and scoring Winfield with the tying run.

Win first

“When Kendall got his hit, I wasn’t too let down,” Curtis said. “It was a sort of purpose pitch inside. I was trying to make him swing at a bad pitch.”

Curtis’ work wasn’t done. With Thomas on second and Kendall on first, left-handed slugger Willie McCovey was sent to pinch-hit for pitcher Randy Jones. McCovey, 36, a future Hall of Famer, would hit 22 home runs that season.

This time, he flied out to center.

In the ninth, Padres reliever Larry Hardy retired the first two batters. Then, the Cardinals got four consecutive singles from Bake McBride, Ken Reitz, Jim Dwyer and Mike Tyson _ the latter two driving in a run apiece.

With a 3-1 lead, Curtis set down the Padres in order, clinching the win and a one-hitter. Boxscore

“I had a ballgame to win, not a no-hitter to pitch,” Curtis said. “The way the season has been going for me, you can’t be too selective of your victories. It’s quite a thrill for me. And it comes late in a year when we’re battling for something. That’s an added thrill.”

The Cardinals would finish in second place, 1.5 games behind the Pirates. Curtis was 10-14 in his first year with the Cardinals and led the club in losses. He posted records of 8-9 in 1975 and 6-11 in 1976 before the Cardinals traded him to the Giants.

In 109 games, including 62 starts, Curtis was 24-34 with a 3.88 ERA for the Cardinals.

Previously: Randy Jones held Cardinals to a single in 10 innings

A risky decision by Giants manager Al Dark backfired against the 1964 Cardinals, helping them rally for a key victory and keeping alive their longshot pennant hopes. In retrospect, the Cardinals might not have won the National League pennant and advanced to a World Series championship if Dark hadn’t made his controversial move.

alvin_darkFifty years ago, on Aug. 21, 1964, the Giants had a 5-3 lead against the Cardinals with two outs in the ninth when Dark ordered an intentional walk to Bill White, putting the potential tying run on base. The Cardinals took advantage, scoring three runs and winning, 6-5.

On the morning of Aug. 16, the Giants had been in second place in the National League, four behind the Phillies. Then they lost five in a row. As the Cardinals opened a three-game series at San Francisco, the Giants were 7.5 behind the Phillies and St. Louis was 10 back.

A win in the series opener was essential for the Cardinals to keep alive their slim pennant hopes.

The Giants, though, scored five runs in the first three innings against Curt Simmons and Bob Humphreys.

Jim Duffalo, a right-hander, relieved starter Bob Hendley with one out in the sixth and held the Cardinals scoreless for 2.2 innings. He entered the ninth with the 5-3 lead.

Lou Brock led off with a single to left. Dick Groat grounded out, with Brock moving to second. Then, Ken Boyer also grounded out, with Brock staying put.

Dark and White

White, a left-handed batter, was up next. He was hitless in the game, but he had hit a couple of foul balls over the right-field fence.

On four previous occasions that season, Dark had put the potential winning run on base intentionally. Each time, the Giants won.

Concerned about White’s power and preferring Duffalo face a right-handed batter, Dark ordered an intentional walk to White, putting runners on second and first.

In his book “When in Doubt, Fire the Manager” (1980, Dutton), Dark wrote, “You can do everything by the book day after day, but there’ll come a time when you feel a need to try something unorthodox, and if it fails you’re sure to be criticized … Never put the winning run on base? I’ve done it when I thought the batter was a greater threat to beat us than the man on deck.”

The next batter was light-hitting Dal Maxvill.

Maxvill hit a soft liner to left for a single, scoring Brock and reducing the Giants lead to 5-4. White advanced to second.

Mike Shannon came to the plate. He hit a ground ball that eluded Duffalo and rolled toward second base. As second baseman Hal Lanier fielded the ball on the grass, White rounded third and steamed toward home.

Lanier hurried an off-balance throw toward the plate, but the ball went up the third-base line and eluded catcher Tom Haller as White, unchallenged, scored the tying run.

Duffalo, backing up the play, couldn’t field the errant throw. As the ball bounced away from him and toward the wall, Maxvill, who never stopped running, scored, giving the Cardinals a 6-5 lead.

The intentional walk had opened the door to a pair of singles and an error, resulting in three runs.

Dark lifted Duffalo for left-hander Billy Pierce, who got Jerry Buchek to fly out to center.

Save for Schultz

The Giants, though, still had a chance.

Cardinals manager Johnny Keane brought in knuckleball specialist Barney Schultz to face a formidable trio of Harvey Kuenn, one-time American League batting champion, and future Hall of Famers Duke Snider and Willie Mays.

Schultz, 38, who had been called up from the minor leagues three weeks earlier, was up to the challenge. Kuenn and Snider grounded out; Mays popped out to shortstop.

The Associated Press wrote, “Al Dark pulled the trigger once too often in his gambling game of Russian roulette.”

The Oakland Tribune wrote, “When you’re going bad, nothing seems to work.”

Undaunted, Dark, a former Cardinals shortstop, shrugged and said,  “You gotta lose some.” Boxscore

The Cardinals went on to win the pennant, finishing a game ahead of both the Reds and Phillies.

The Giants finished fourth, three behind the Cardinals. After the season, Dark was fired and replaced by Herman Franks.

Previously: 1956 Cardinals groomed nine managers


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