Seeking a general manager who could turn the Cardinals from flops into champions, team owner Gussie Busch sought the advice of the leader of the publication considered the authority on baseball.
Sixty years ago, as the 1955 season neared its end, Busch asked J.G. Taylor Spink, publisher of The Sporting News, to recommend the best general manager to hire. Spink suggested Frank Lane of the White Sox.
In September 1955, Lane resigned from the White Sox. He sent a telegram to Busch. The wire read: “Have tux, will travel.”
A short time later, on Oct. 6, 1955, Busch hired Lane to be general manager of the Cardinals.
In his St. Louis-based weekly, Spink wrote of Lane’s hire, “Probably the most exciting chapter in the history of St. Louis baseball is about to be enacted … The Cardinals will have a team that will win more games _ or the players who lose won’t be around long.”
Taking a trader
Busch had bought the Cardinals in 1953 and had appointed one of his Anheuser-Busch executives, Dick Meyer, as general manager. Meyer was better suited to run the business side of the franchise rather than the baseball operations side.
As the Cardinals headed to a 68-86 record and next-to-last finish in the National League in 1955, Busch wanted a general manager with a proven record of producing a winner.
Busch turned for advice to Spink, who, according to St. Louis journalist Bob Broeg, recommended Lane as the best general manager available.
Lane, a longtime baseball executive, had become general manager of the White Sox after they finished the 1948 season in last place in the American League at 51-101.
Lane turned around the White Six through trades. The White Sox produced a winning season at 81-73 in 1951. Then they became contenders. The White Sox had 89 wins in 1953, 94 in 1954 and 91 in 1955.
In seven seasons (1949-55) with the White Sox, Lane made 241 trades involving 353 players. He earned the nickname “Trader.”
Busch sent Meyer to New York to begin negotiations with Lane during the 1955 World Series between the Dodgers and Yankees. That led to a follow-up meeting involving Busch, Lane and Meyer in St. Louis.
The Cardinals signed Lane, 59, to a three-year contract. Meyer was promoted to executive vice president. Bill Walsingham Jr., a Cardinals vice president for nine years, resigned, acknowledging the club didn’t need two vice presidents.
Busch gave Lane “full authority” to make all baseball decisions.
“I had three offers but only considered one of them _ the job with the St. Louis club,” Lane said. “Why? Because the Cardinals have the potential for a great club and I know the management has the wherewithal to get what it needs if it doesn’t have what it takes to win.
“I don’t think I’m going too far when I say we should be a first division club and quite possibly a contender if we made the deals needed to augment an already fine nucleus of talent.”
Asked if any Cardinals players were untouchables for trading, Lane replied, “Yes. We’ll start with Stan Musial, then add Red Schoendienst, Bill Virdon, Wally Moon, Ken Boyer, Harvey Haddix and a few others.”
Lane identified the Cardinals’ top needs as a first baseman, catcher and pitching.
His first major move was to replace manager Harry Walker with Fred Hutchinson, the former Tigers manager.
According to Broeg, Lane would watch Cardinals home games from the roof outside the press box, “squinting like a sunworshipper who didn’t see well and listening to the radio.”
“Lane lived for baseball, traveling always with a radio at his ear and a stack of newspaper sports sections under his arm,” Broeg wrote in the book, “Redbirds: A Century of Cardinals Baseball.”
Expecting magic, the Cardinals instead saw blunders in the trades Lane made in 1956. Among his worst deals that season:
_ Pitchers Harvey Haddix and Stu Miller to the Phillies for pitchers Murry Dickson and Herm Wehmeier.
_ Center fielder Bill Virdon to the Pirates for outfielder Bobby Del Greco and pitcher Dick Littlefield.
_ Second baseman Red Schoendienst and others to the Giants for shortstop Al Dark and others.
When Busch got wind of Lane’s plans to trade Musial to the Phillies for pitcher Robin Roberts, he blocked the deal, then told Lane that any future trade proposals would have to be approved by Busch and Meyer before being enacted.
(Lane reportedly also wanted to deal Boyer to the Phillies for outfielder Richie Ashburn.)
The 1956 Cardinals finished in fourth place at 76-78.
Win or else
Before the 1957 season, Busch told a Knights of Columbus banquet audience, “If the Cardinals don’t win this year or next, Frank Lane will be out on his ass.”
Lane was miffed. Wanting assurances he had the owner’s support, Lane asked Busch to extend his contract beyond 1958. Busch refused.
Lane did make a couple of good trades before the 1957 season, acquiring pitcher Sam Jones from the Cubs and slugging outfielder Del Ennis from the Phillies. The Cardinals placed second in the NL in 1957 at 87-67.
Still upset by Busch’s win-or-else ultimatum before the season and offended that he had to get approval before making deals, Lane resigned on November 1957, with a year remaining on his Cardinals contract, and became general manager of the Indians.
Busch replaced Lane with Bing Devine.
Previously: How Al Dark won respect of Cardinals fans
Previously: Why Gussie Busch fired Bing Devine