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In one of their worst deals, the Cardinals paid $75,000 and gave up a trio of players for a pitcher who netted them two outs.

memo_lunaIgnoring the Cardinals’ directive to stop pitching during the winter, left-hander Memo Luna, the ERA leader of the Pacific Coast League in 1953, injured his arm, appeared in one game for St. Louis, failed to complete an inning and never played in the big leagues again.

Sixty years ago, on April 20, 1954, Guillermo Romero “Memo” Luna made his big-league debut as the Cardinals’ starter against the Reds at St. Louis. In the first inning, Luna yielded two runs on two doubles, two walks and a sacrifice fly. He was lifted with two outs and dispatched to the Cardinals’ Class AAA Rochester club. Boxscore

Though he continued to pitch in the minor leagues until 1961, Memo Luna never returned to the majors.

His big-league career totals: 0-1 record, 27.00 ERA, 0.2 innings, 2 hits, 2 runs, 2 walks, 6 batters faced.

Super southpaw

Seven months earlier, on Sept. 23, 1953, the Cardinals acquired Luna from San Diego for $75,000 and players to be named. They eventually sent pitchers Cliff Chambers and John Romonosky and outfielder Harry Elliott to San Diego, completing the deal.

At the time, Luna, 23, seemed worth the price. He had a 17-12 record and a league-best 2.67 ERA with 16 complete games for San Diego in 1953. Jack Bliss, a catcher for the 1908-1912 Cardinals, had watched Luna at San Diego and told Cardinals manager Eddie Stanky, “He’s got exceptional control and a good curve.”

Cardinals scouts also checked him out and were impressed by Luna’s knuckleball and slider.

That fall, Luna pitched in the Cuban League for Almendares and manager Bobby Bragan. The Cardinals had granted permission with the understanding Luna would quit around Dec. 1, The Sporting News reported.

Luna posted a 4-1 record in his first five decisions for Almendares. The Sporting News wrote that Luna “has shown remarkable poise and control, plus a fine knuckler.”

After Luna lost his next two decisions as the Dec. 1 deadline loomed, the Cardinals suggested he leave the Cuban League and rest his arm before reporting to spring training in February. Luna obliged, went from Cuba to St. Louis, passed a physical examination and went home to his native Mexico.

Worn down

Instead of resting, though, Luna pitched in the Veracruz League in Mexico without the Cardinals’ knowledge. On Feb. 19, 1954, pitching for the Mexico City Reds against Aztecas, Luna struck out a batter in the third inning and grabbed his left elbow in pain.

According to The Sporting News, Luna stayed in the game until its completion, yielding five runs and nine hits, and “was throwing with only half speed after the injury.” He earned the win in an 8-5 Mexico City victory.

Luna reported to Cardinals spring training camp in Florida, complaining of a sore arm.

“We asked Luna to quit pitching Dec. 1, but we have no way of controlling what a man does back in his home country,” said Stanky.

In spring training, Luna failed to impress. He gave up three runs in two innings to the Phillies and surrendered a two-run, game-winning home run to the Reds’ Gus Bell.

Still, having paid a high price for him, the Cardinals put Luna on the Opening Day roster.

He got the start in the Cardinals’ sixth game of the season _ and never got another chance with them again.

Previously: Why Cardinals thought they had an ace in Vic Raschi

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Two years after his professional baseball debut at the Class C level of the minor leagues, Tom Alston was the Opening Day first baseman for the Cardinals. Making that leap in such a short time would be a challenge for any prospect. Alston had the additional pressure of being the first black person to play for the Cardinals.

tom_alstonSixty years ago, on April 13, 1954, Thomas Edison Alston broke the Cardinals’ color barrier, batting sixth and playing first base against the Cubs at St. Louis.

Seven seasons after Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers, the Cardinals became the 10th of the 16 major-league teams to integrate.

Alston, 28, was the 14th black player in the Cardinals’ organization, but the only one on the big-league roster. (Among the other blacks in the Cardinals’ system in 1954 were pitchers Bill Greason, Brooks Lawrence and John Wyatt. All eventually would pitch in the big leagues.)

Rapid rise

Alston’s rise from baseball novice to Cardinals pioneer was fast and unexpected. After serving in the Navy from 1945-47, Alston enrolled at North Carolina A&T in his native Greensboro and earned a bachelor of science degree in physical education and social sciences. It was while in college that Alston, 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds, first played organized baseball.

In 1952, he broke into professional baseball with Porterville, Calif., of the Class C Southwest International League, and hit .353 in 54 games. That caught the attention of the San Diego club of the Class AAA Pacific Coast League.

Alston joined San Diego midway through the 1952 season and hit .244 in 78 games.

In 1953, Alston put together a stellar season for San Diego. He had 207 hits in 180 games, with 101 runs scored, 23 home runs, 101 RBI and a .297 batting average. Cardinals scouts gave Alston rave reviews.

On Jan. 26, 1954, the Cardinals sent first baseman Dick Sisler, pitcher Eddie Erautt and $100,000 to San Diego for Alston. San Diego manager Lefty O’Doul called Alston “a great prospect who can field as good as any first baseman in the big leagues.”

“Alston looks like he’s going to be a great hitter, too,” O’Doul told The Sporting News.

Said Cardinals owner August Busch Jr.: “When we purchased the Cardinals, I promised there would be no racial discrimination. However, Alston was not purchased because of his race. Our scouts and manager Eddie Stanky believe he is a great prospect. While he may need more experience, we didn’t want him to slip away from us.”

Bill Starr, president of the San Diego club, offered to cut the cash portion of the deal to $75,000 if the Cardinals would wait until 1955 to take Alston, according to the Los Angeles Daily Mirror. But the Cardinals wanted Alston for 1954. The incumbent at first base was Steve Bilko, who hit 21 home runs for the 1953 Cardinals but also led the National League in striking out (125 times). The Cardinals used spring training in 1954 as a competition between Alston and Bilko for the first base job.

“I think we have a real ballplayer in this colored boy,” Stanky said to The Sporting News in March 1954.

Said Alston: “They treat me here just the same as any other ballplayer and that’s how I want to be treated.”

Major leaguer

Stanky declared he’d platoon Alston (a left-handed batter) and Bilko (a right-handed batter). But Alston got the Opening Day start against Cubs left-hander Paul Minner.

“I guess I’ve come a long way in a short time,” Alston said to The Sporting News. “I guess I came up like a real rocket.”

Alston went 0-for-4 with a strikeout and committed an error in his debut game. Boxscore

In his next game, April 17, 1954, at Chicago, Alston went hitless in his first four at-bats. In the eighth, he led off with a home run, his first big-league hit, against Cubs reliever Jim Brosnan. Boxscore

The next day, April 18, Alston got his second hit, a pinch-hit, three-run homer off left-hander Jim Davis that lifted the Cardinals to a 6-4 triumph. Boxscore

On April 30, the Cardinals sent Bilko to the Cubs. Alston was the everyday first baseman.

In a doubleheader against the Giants on May 2, Alston was 5-for-6 with 5 RBI, an inside-the-park home run and 3 walks. His performance was overshadowed that day, however, by teammate Stan Musial, who hit 5 home runs with 9 RBI. Game 1 boxscore Game 2 boxscore

In The Sporting News, Bob Broeg wrote of Alston’s inside-the-park home run: “His speed enabled him to circle the bases easily after Willie Mays misjudged his long wind-blown drive to left-center.”

Slowed by slump

Alston hit .301 (37-for-123) in May and was at .285 overall on May 30, but he slumped in June, enduring a 2-for-27 stretch and batting .181 (15-for-83) for the month. He had just 7 RBI in his last 42 games.

On June 30, the Cardinals sent Alston to Class AAA Rochester and called up another rookie, Joe Cunningham, to replace him at first base.

Alston hit .210 in Cardinals home games; .280 on the road. He batted .268 against right-handers; .197 versus left-handers. His overall numbers for the 1954 Cardinals: 60 hits in 66 games, 14 doubles, 4 home runs, 34 RBI and a .246 batting average. He made 62 starts at first base.

Said Cardinals general manager Dick Meyer: “Alston wasn’t ready … Eddie (Stanky) and I still have a very high regard for Alston as a prospect.”

After replacing Alston, Cunningham hit .284 with 11 home runs in 85 games for the 1954 Cardinals. The next season, the Cardinals moved Musial from the outfield to first base.

Alston made brief appearances with the Cardinals in 1955, 1956 and 1957. In 91 big-league games, all with St. Louis, Alston had 66 hits and a .244 batting average.

Ten years after Alston’s big-league debut, the Cardinals would become World Series champions, building a reputation as a franchise that embraced diversity with players such as Bob Gibson, Bill White, Curt Flood, Lou Brock and Julian Javier.

Underappreciated, Tom Alston took the first steps toward making that possible.

Previously: The debut of Bill Greason, first black Cardinals pitcher

Greensboro newspaper: Illness curtailed Tom Alston’s career with Cardinals

St. Louis newspaper: In remembering Jackie Robinson, remember Tom Alston, too

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Uncertain whether outfielder Enos Slaughter could adjust to being a role player for them after 13 seasons as a standout, the Cardinals decided it was better to trade him.

enos_slaughter3In hindsight, the deal benefitted both Slaughter and the Cardinals. At the time, though, the trade was considered stunning and controversial. Caught off-guard, Slaughter and teammate Stan Musial broke into tears.

Sixty years ago, on April 11, 1954, the Cardinals sent Slaughter to the Yankees for three prospects who hadn’t played in the major leagues: outfielders Bill Virdon and Emil Tellinger and pitcher Mel Wright.

The trade occurred two weeks before Slaughter turned 38. He was the Cardinals team captain, a 10-time all-star who, at the time, held the team record for games played (1,820) and RBI (1,148). Slaughter had joined the Cardinals in 1938 and helped them to a World Series championship in 1942. After three years in the service, he returned to the Cardinals in 1946 and led them to another World Series title.

In 13 seasons with the Cardinals, Slaughter batted .305 with 2,064 hits and an on-base percentage of .384. Known for his all-out hustle, he twice led the National League in triples (17 in 1942 and 13 in 1949). In 1942, he was the league leader in hits (188) and total bases (292). He also had led the league in RBI (130 in 1946) and doubles (52 in 1939).

At 37, he still was a force. In 143 games for the 1953 Cardinals, Slaughter produced 143 hits, 34 doubles, 89 RBI, a .291 batting average and .395 on-base percentage as the everyday right fielder.

Youth movement

Slaughter went to spring training camp in St. Petersburg, Fla., in 1954 expecting to be a regular again in an outfield with Musial and Rip Repulski. Late in spring training, though, Cardinals manager Eddie Stanky told The Sporting News, “I’ll be satisfied if we can get 75 to 90 games out of the captain.”

Reports surfaced that Slaughter was grousing about the possibility of becoming a role player. Whether that was the normal grumbling of a proud veteran who didn’t want to concede playing time, or whether it was a tone of dark dissent that threatened to divide the team isn’t certain.

The Cardinals, though, weren’t taking any chances that Slaughter’s part-time playing status could create rifts. They wanted rookie Wally Moon to be the starting center fielder, moving Musial from left to right and Repulski from center to left.

After an exhibition game, general manager Dick Meyer and Stanky informed Slaughter of the trade. Slaughter stunned Meyer and Stanky when he began to sob.

“It’s the greatest shock I ever had in my life,” Slaughter told The Sporting News of the trade.

Crying game

In his book “Stan Musial: The Man’s Own Story” (1964, Doubleday), Musial wrote, “In the clubhouse, when the rest of us got the word, we were stunned. Dressing even more slowly than usual, I was the last one out. At the lot where I parked my car … I found Slaughter, still wiping his eyes. We looked at each other _ and both burst into tears.”

In justifying the trade, Stanky said to The Sporting News: “A player like Slaughter just can’t stand sitting on a bench.”

According to newspaper reports, the trade was the most unpopular with Cardinals fans since St. Louis traded Rogers Hornsby to the Giants after winning the 1926 World Series championship.

St. Louis writers reflected the mood of their readers. Among the tributes to Slaughter:

_ Bob Broeg in The Sporting News: “There never was a more determined competitor or hustler than the last of the old Gashouse Gang _ a hard runner, brilliant outfielder, clutch hitter.”

_ Bob Burnes in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat: “Slaughter was more than a ballplayer, as any Cardinals fan could tell you. He was an institution _ not only among the fans but among the players as well.”

_ J. Roy Stockton in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “Enos was the best competitor the club had. He still was a standout for batting skill and hustle.”

Desperate move?

The Yankees, who had an outfield of Gene Woodling in left, Mickey Mantle in center and Hank Bauer in right in 1954, were delighted with the deal for Slaughter. “We gave up practically nothing for him, so why not take him?” Yankees co-owner Del Webb told The Sporting News.

But other baseball executives saw Slaughter as a fading talent. The Sporting News polled the seven National League general managers besides Meyer and each said he wasn’t interested in pursuing a deal with the Cardinals for Slaughter.

Buzzy Bavasi of the Dodgers, who were planning to break in rookie Sandy Amoros into an outfield with Duke Snider and Carl Furillo, said, “Personally, I wouldn’t take Slaughter over Amoros, would you?”

In response to the Yankees, Frank Lane, general manager of the American League White Sox, scoffed, “You can’t pack Old Man Time on your back and still be a great ballplayer … It was a desperate move by them.”

Actually, it was a good move for the Cardinals and Yankees.

Moon hit a home run in his first at-bat for the Cardinals on Opening Day and went on to win the 1954 National League Rookie of the Year Award. Primarily the Cardinals’ starting center fielder that year, he had 193 hits in 151 games, with 106 runs scored, 18 steals, a .304 batting average and a .371 on-base percentage.

The next year, Virdon came up to the Cardinals and won the 1955 National League Rookie of the Year Award.

Slaughter, meanwhile, adjusted well to being a role player with the Yankees. He hit .355 (11-for-31) with 12 walks as a pinch-hitter for the 1954 Yankees. He played in the major leagues until 1959 and appeared in three World Series (1956, 1957 and 1958) for the Yankees, earning election into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Previously: Cardinals rookie Enos Slaughter set torrid extra-hit pace

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Embarrassed by their inability to stop the Dodgers from stealing bases and convinced they needed to find a solution in order to win a pennant, the 1964 Cardinals turned to an unlikely source for help: Bob Uecker.

bob_uecker2The second-string catcher couldn’t slow Dodgers speedsters, but he did provide a defensive upgrade to a 1964 Cardinals club that won its first pennant and World Series championship in 18 years.

On April 9, 1964, the Cardinals traded outfielder Gary Kolb and catcher Jim Coker to the Braves for Uecker.

Even then, 50 years ago, at age 29, well before he became known as a broadcaster and for his comedy roles on television and in the movies, Uecker had a reputation throughout baseball as a funnyman.

Wrote The Sporting News of the deal: “Those who know him regard new Cardinals catcher Bob Uecker as a good-humor man.”

“Yes, I guess you can call me a stand-up type of comic,” Uecker said to St. Louis reporter Jack Herman.

The Cardinals, though, were serious about finding a way to overtake the Dodgers.

Armed for defense

In 1963, the Cardinals finished in second place at 93-69, six games behind the National League champion Dodgers. The Cardinals were 6-12 against the 1963 Dodgers. Stolen bases were a significant reason for that.

The Dodgers were successful on 27 of 33 stolen base attempts (82 percent) against the 1963 Cardinals.

“Our games with them have been so close that, if we have a catcher who can throw well, they might think twice about running,” Cardinals manager Johnny Keane said.

Tim McCarver became the starting catcher for the 1963 Cardinals after Gene Oliver was traded to the Braves in June that year. The primary backup was Carl Sawatski.

McCarver nailed 38 percent of runners (28 of 73) attempting to steal in 1963. Oliver threw out 32 percent (9 of 28) for St. Louis and Sawatski nabbed 30 percent (7 of 23).

When Sawatski retired after the 1963 season, the Cardinals went looking for a backup for McCarver, 22.

Uecker spent seven seasons in the Braves’ minor-league system. The Braves had groomed Joe Torre to replace veteran Del Crandall as their everyday catcher.

In stints with the 1962 and ’63 Braves, Uecker impressed with his arm. He caught 5 of 7 runners attempting to steal in 1962 and 1 of 2 in 1963.

“We got Uecker to help Timmy and make our catching solid,” Keane said. “We’re certainly not vulnerable behind the plate anymore.”

Tough test

The 1964 Cardinals didn’t have long to test their catching against the Dodgers. They opened the season at Los Angeles on April 14. With left-hander Sandy Koufax starting for the Dodgers, Keane put Uecker, a right-handed batter, in the Opening Day lineup rather than McCarver, a left-handed batter. (Uecker, the prankster, posed in a left-handed batting stance for his 1965 Topps baseball card that is pictured here.)

Uecker went 0-for-2 at the plate and 0-for-3 in attempting to prevent stolen bases that night. Willie Davis, Maury Wills and Jim Gilliam swiped bases against Uecker and starting pitcher Ernie Broglio.

Wrote The Sporting News: “Uecker’s arm was not at fault. The Dodgers speedsters just got too much of a jump on Ernie Broglio and the catcher’s strong throws were a little too late.” Boxscore

The 1964 Cardinals were unsuccessful in preventing the Dodgers from stealing bases. The Dodgers had 11 steals in 14 attempts (78 percent) against the 1964 Cardinals.

Overall, Uecker threw out 38 percent (8 of 21) of all attempted base stealers in 1964. He was 0-for-5 against Dodgers attempting to steal; 8-for-16 (50 percent) against the rest of the National League. He hit just .198 (21 hits, 1 home run, 6 RBI), but his defense and his clubhouse popularity enabled him to stick with the Cardinals throughout the season.

The Phillies and Reds, not the Dodgers, turned out to be the Cardinals’ main competition for the crown. Each finished a game behind St. Louis. The Dodgers were 80-82, in sixth place, 13 games behind the Cardinals.

Previously: How Bob Uecker helped the Cardinals win 1964 title

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Facing the defending World Series champion Pirates, Cardinals starter Pete Vuckovich knew he couldn’t look scared.

pete_vukovichFortunately, he didn’t pitch scared either.

In a high-wire performance that left him emotionally drained, Vuckovich pitched a complete-game three-hitter in the Cardinals’ 1-0 season-opening victory over the Pirates on April 10, 1980, at St. Louis.

It was the first of only two times that the Cardinals won a season opener by a score of 1-0. The second occurred March 31, 2014, against the Reds at Cincinnati.

In the 2014 game, the Cardinals escaped an eighth-inning jam in which the Reds had runners on first and third with none out. Boxscore

In the 1980 game, Vuckovich performed a Houdini act by striking out the side with runners on second and third in the ninth.

Strikeout pitch

Using a variety of off-speed pitches called by catcher Ted Simmons, Vuckovich retired 14 Pirates in a row between the first and sixth innings.

The Cardinals scored off Bert Blyleven in the second. Bobby Bonds, in his Cardinals debut after being acquired from the Indians, walked and scored on a George Hendrick double.

Vuckovich held the Pirates to two hits through eight innings. In the ninth, it began to unravel.

Pinch-hitter Lee Lacy led off with a single, Omar Moreno walked and a wild pitch enabled the runners to advance to second and third with none out.

“We couldn’t ask to be in a better situation,” Pirates manager Chuck Tanner told United Press International.

Tim Foli was the batter. In 1979, Foli had been the toughest National League batter to strike out, fanning 14 times in 532 at-bats.

Vuckovich struck him out.

Next, Dave Parker. Nicknamed “The Cobra” for his ability to uncoil quickly and lash line drives, Parker would produce a .421 batting average (8-for-19) in his career against Vuckovich.

Vuckovich struck him out.

Willie Stargell followed. First base was open. John Milner was on deck. Stargell had hit 32 homers in 1979 when he was co-winner with the Cardinals’ Keith Hernandez of the National League Most Valuable Player Award. He would be elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame because of his power and run production.

Vuckovich opted to pitch to him.

“You can’t do anything but respect these guys,” Vuckovich said to United Press International. “There’s no room for getting scared or nervous because they can sense that, too. If they get that feeling, they can get you.”

Vuckovich struck out Stargell, setting off a celebration among the 42,867 spectators at Busch Stadium II. Boxscore

Praise from Stan

“I was lucky,” Vuckovich said. “It could just as easily have gone the other way.”

Vuckovich delivered 111 pitches, striking out nine and walking two.

“Today was an emotional drain,” Vuckovich said to the Associated Press.

The performance earned Vuckovich the admiration of everyone who witnessed it.

“Amazing,” Stan Musial, the Cardinals’ all-time greatest player, said to The Sporting News. “He throws the best right-handed breaking pitches I ever saw.”

Claude Osteen, Cardinals pitching coach, told the Associated Press, “The thing about him is he’s got great motion on the off-speed pitches. You just don’t know what to look for. I don’t think there’s anybody that has that many pitches under control.”

Summed up Stargell: “The guy wants to be a good pitcher and he is.”

Vuckovich finished 12-9 with three shutouts and a 3.40 ERA for the 1980 Cardinals.

After the season, he, Simmons and reliever Rollie Fingers were traded to the Brewers. Vuckovich led the American League in winning percentage in each of his first two years with Milwaukee and won the 1982 Cy Young Award.

Previously: Bert Blyleven: Mighty matchups versus Cardinals

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Scott Cooper enjoyed a storybook start to his Cardinals career. It didn’t have a happy ending, though.

scott_cooperCooper, a St. Louis native and lifelong resident, is one of four major-league players in the last 30 years to get a walkoff RBI in a season opener in his debut with a team, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Alex Gonzalez most recently achieved that feat on March 31, 2014, for the Tigers. Others to do so in the last 30 years are Gary Carter with the 1985 Mets and Joe Randa with the 2005 Reds.

On April 26, 1995, two weeks after he was dealt to St. Louis by the Red Sox, Cooper lifted the Cardinals to a 7-6 Opening Day victory over the Phillies at Busch Stadium II.

Playing third base and batting fourth, Cooper was 3-for-5 with 4 RBI.

In his first plate appearance for the Cardinals, Cooper struck out against Curt Schilling. “My first at-bat I was more nervous than any at-bat in my life,” Cooper said to the Springfield (Ill.) State Journal-Register. “I have played in front of 50 million fans in the All-Star Game, but in that first at-bat I had problems getting down to the basics.”

In the ninth inning, with the Phillies ahead, 6-5, the Cardinals loaded the bases with none out against Norm Charlton. Bernard Gilkey sparked the rally with a single. Ozzie Smith and Ray Lankford each followed with a four-pitch walk.

Cooper, acquired along with reliever Cory Bailey in a April 9, 1995, trade for pitcher Rheal Cormier and outfielder Mark Whiten, stepped to the plate with the chance to be a hometown hero. He had supplied 40 tickets to the game for friends and family, including his mother, father, sister and two brothers.

The first two pitches Charlton delivered to Cooper nearly hit the batter. He fouled off a pitch, then grounded the next past diving first baseman Dave Hollins for a single into right field, scoring Gilkey and Smith. Boxscore

Cardinals fans chanted “Cooop” in tribute.

“I’ve probably dreamed up 50,000 different scenarios for how this game would go,” Cooper said to the Associated Press. “But I probably couldn’t have written it any better.”

Said Cardinals manager Joe Torre: “He knows he’s up there to knock in runs. He was up there swinging. That’s very aggressive and I like that.”

After a fast start _ he was batting .325 on May 17 _ Cooper tailed off as the season progressed. A .284 hitter in five years with the Red Sox, Cooper batted .230 in 118 games for the Cardinals. He had almost as many strikeouts (85) as hits (86).

Granted free agency after the season, Cooper played in Japan in 1996. He returned to the big leagues with the 1997 Royals in his final season as a player.

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