(Updated April 7, 2014)
Michael Wacha became the youngest St. Louis pitcher to start a Cardinals home opener since Jerry Reuss more than 40 years ago.
Wacha, 22, made his second start of 2014 against the Reds on April 7 at St. Louis. He got the win in the Cardinals’ 5-3 victory and became the youngest starting pitcher in a Cardinals home opener since Reuss, 21, faced the Giants on April 10, 1971, at St. Louis.
Reuss, a St. Louis native, got derailed that Saturday afternoon by a baseball legend nearly twice his age.
Willie Mays, less than a month shy of his 40th birthday, hit a two-run home run off Reuss, sparking the Giants to a 6-4 victory. It was Mays’ fourth home run in as many games and boosted his career total to 632, 82 behind the all-time leader at that time, Babe Ruth.
Reuss, a left-hander, had debuted with the Cardinals in September 1969. He made 20 starts for St. Louis in 1970, producing a 7-8 record, two shutouts, five complete games and a 4.10 ERA. At 6 feet 5 and 200 pounds, Reuss was built similar to Wacha.
After the 1971 Cardinals opened at Chicago by splitting a pair of games against the Cubs _ Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton were the St. Louis starters _ they played their home opener on the day before Easter in front of 26,841 at Busch Stadium II. Reuss was paired against Frank Reberger, 26, a right-hander who had started his big-league career as a reliever.
The first time through the Giants batting order went well for Reuss. He struck out Mays looking to end the first inning. He struck out Willie McCovey to begin the second.
In the third, scoreless, Chris Speier walked with two outs, bringing up Mays. Reuss got ahead on the count, 0-and-2. His third pitch was a fastball. Mays turned on it and sent the ball soaring into the left field bleachers.
“I’m just happy to play,” Mays said to Pat Frizzell of the Oakland Tribune. “Not many guys my age can go out there every day. I hit the pitch hard.”
In the fourth, Ken Henderson singled and Dick Dietz belted a two-run home run, increasing the San Francisco lead to 4-0.
“It was a real fastball,” Dietz said of the pitch he hammered off Reuss. “He supplied the power.”
After the next batter, Al Gallagher, singled, manager Red Schoendienst lifted Reuss for right-hander Chuck Taylor.
Reuss’ line: 3 innings, 5 hits, 4 runs, 3 walks, 3 strikeouts. Boxscore
The Giants went on to win the National League West championship that season. The Cardinals finished as runner-up to the Pirates in the East. Reuss made 35 starts for the 1971 Cardinals. He was 14-14 with seven complete games, two shutouts and a 4.78 ERA. He issued a team-high 109 walks in 211 innings. By comparison, the team-high for walks on the 2013 Cardinals staff was 76 in 201.2 innings by Lance Lynn.
In April 1972, two months after the Cardinals traded Carlton to the Phillies, Reuss was dealt to the Astros for pitchers Scipio Spinks and Lance Clemons.
Bing Devine, Cardinals general manager, said team owner Gussie Busch ordered the trade.
In the book “The Spirit of St. Louis” (2000, Avon), Devine told author Peter Golenbock, “This was a deal I had to make because Mr. Busch said, ‘Jerry Reuss is growing facial hair,’ and he didn’t like facial hair on ballplayers, or executives either.”
In an April 1971 edition of The Sporting News, Neal Russo reported, “Schoendienst had criticized Reuss for growing a mustache, but said that had no bearing on his trade.”
Reuss had been offered a $3,000 raise to $20,000, but hadn’t signed. He asked for $25,000, The Sporting News reported. That may have been the most significant factor in why he was traded.
“Reuss didn’t appear to be happy with us, couldn’t come to terms and we were still far apart,” Devine told The Sporting News.
Said Reuss: “Not being signed was the whole thing. I think Mr. Busch is putting his principle ahead of the whole ballclub.”
In a 22-year major-league career, primarily with the Dodgers and Pirates, Reuss compiled a record of 220-191. He was 14-18 versus the Cardinals.