Manager Whitey Herzog bluntly opposed the notion of the Cardinals signing Bob Horner to replace Jack Clark. Too bad management didn’t listen.
Twenty-five years ago, desperate to fill a gaping hole in their lineup because of the surprise departure of Clark to the Yankees as a free agent, the Cardinals took a chance on Horner, signing him to a one-year, $950,000 base contract on Jan. 14, 1988, despite Herzog’s warnings Horner “can’t hit and can’t field.”
The move turned out to be one of the Cardinals’ biggest personnel flops of the last 25 years. Plagued by a damaged left shoulder, Horner, playing first base and batting cleanup for the 1988 Cardinals, lacked Clark’s pop, hitting three home runs in 60 games. By mid-June that year, he was through as a major-league player.
Clark, the slugger who had powered the Cardinals to two National League pennants in three years, had indicated after the 1987 World Series he hoped to stay with St. Louis. But as talks dragged on he became miffed by the club’s negotiating tactics. Though the Cardinals eventually offered him more money than the Yankees did, he signed a two-year, $3.5 million contract with New York on Jan. 6, 1988.
“If they (the Cardinals) had made the same offer earlier, it would have been done,” Clark said to the Associated Press. “But it was too late … I just had enough of it. All I kept hearing was that I was a one-dimensional player … I didn’t like the abuse I was getting. Things just broke down to the point where it was time for a change. It wasn’t about money. I was offered more money by St. Louis.”
Without Clark, the Cardinals lacked run production. In 1987, St. Louis had averaged 5.3 runs per game with Clark in the lineup and 3.6 per game when he wasn’t playing.
Cardinals general manager Dal Maxvill tried luring free-agent Gary Gaetti to replace Clark. But Gaetti, a third baseman, didn’t want to switch to first base, so he re-signed with the Twins. (Seven years later, the Cardinals did sign Gaetti and he played third base for them from 1996-98.)
Maxvill also approached the Dodgers about slugger Mike Marshall, but when they asked for infielder Jose Oquendo and reliever Ken Dayley in return, the talks ended, Maxvill told Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Meanwhile, Horner, 30, wanted to return to the major leagues after playing for the Yakult Swallows of the Japanese Central League in 1987. He rejected the Swallows’ offer of a multi-year contract to come back after he hit .327 with 31 home runs in 93 games for them.
In nine seasons with the Braves before his year in Japan, Horner had compiled a .278 batting mark and had averaged 24 home runs a year.
To Maxvill, who had been a coach with the Braves from 1982-84, Horner became the best available replacement for Clark. When Hummel called Herzog to seek his reaction, Herzog replied, “I don’t like Horner. Of his lifetime homers, about 70 percent were hit in Atlanta. He never could hit in St. Louis. He can’t hit and he can’t field.”
“I just don’t think Horner is the answer,” Herzog said. “I don’t know what he’d hit in our ballpark. He’s a fly ball hitter. He never did hit much on the road.”
Horner had hit 142, or 66 percent, of his big-league homers in Atlanta. Though he had a .325 career batting mark in 118 at-bats at St. Louis’ Busch Stadium II, he had hit just five home runs there.
The combination of Herzog’s resistance and Horner’s demand of a multi-year contract cooled the Cardinals’ interest. Horner had offers from the Braves and Rangers. But the Junction City, Kan., native preferred St. Louis. Concerned the opportunity would slip away, Horner called Maxvill and said he’d take a one-year contract. Maxvill said that was fine but a deal needed Herzog’s buy-in.
Horner called Herzog and they spoke for about 20 minutes. He told Herzog he wanted to be a Cardinal, that he could help the club and would sign for less than what Clark had wanted. Herzog gave his approval. The deal was announced the next day.
“It’s been a dream of mine to play for the Cardinals,” Horner said to United Press International. “What an absolute fit for me.”
Asked how he felt about Herzog’s initial remarks about him, Horner said, “No player wants to hear comments like that in the paper about him. After talking to Whitey last night, I was very convinced he wanted me on the St. Louis Cardinals.”
Said Maxvill: “Whitey has been consulted all along, is in complete agreement and is enthusiastic about Bob being with us.”
But Herzog still had concerns. He explained to Hummel that Cardinals pitchers facing Horner at Busch Stadium II were instructed to give him pitches away so he’d be more likely to hit to the deep outfield gaps rather than pull balls over the wall. “He’s got a good home run swing, but will he be able to hit the ball out of the park in right-center and left-center?” Herzog asked.
A decade later, in his book “You’re Missin’ a Great Game” (1999, Simon & Schuster), Herzog wrote, “Horner had been a 30-dinger guy for the Braves, but that was in their old Launching Pad ballpark. It didn’t take a genius to see that Busch, with its deep power alleys and humid air, was too big for him.”
The Cardinals opened the 1988 season on April 4 at Cincinnati. Herzog recalled the poor impression Horner made that day.
“I called him Buddha,” Herzog wrote. “He was a little on the portly side and spent a lot of quality time slouched in his chair in the clubhouse … I had a rule that everybody took infield before the game, but I didn’t see Horner out at first base, so I went to the clubhouse to find him.
“There he sat, in one of his deep trances. I said, ‘Hey, Bob, what the hell are you doing? You’re supposed to be taking infield.’ He looks up at me, blinks like an old frog on a lily pad and says, ‘I’m tired.’ A hundred-and-sixty-two games left to play and the man is gassed.”
Horner went homerless in 31 games at St. Louis in 1988. His three homers that season all were solo shots on the road _ against the Reds’ Danny Jackson, the Dodgers’ Orel Hershiser and the Phillies’ Don Carman.
In 60 games for the Cardinals, Horner batted .257 with 33 RBI before his left shoulder gave out. He appeared in his final big-league game, June 16, 1988, producing a pinch-hit, RBI-double in a Cardinals victory at Pittsburgh. Boxscore
Horner underwent two shoulder surgeries that summer. The Cardinals started 10 players at first base. In August, they solidified the position by acquiring Pedro Guerrero from the Dodgers for pitcher John Tudor.
After the season, Horner wasn’t offered a contract by the Cardinals. The Orioles invited him to spring training. But on March, 9, 1989, Horner, saying shoulder weakness limited his ability to play, announced his retirement.