Archive for the ‘Hitters’ Category

In theory, the trade for Scott Cooper appeared to be ideal for the Cardinals. Cooper was a St. Louis native, a Cardinals fan and a two-time all-star third baseman who looked to be entering his prime. In reality, though, the deal was a bust.

scott_cooper2Twenty years ago, on April 8, 1995, the Cardinals acquired Cooper and reliever Cory Bailey from the Red Sox for outfielder Mark Whiten and pitcher Rheal Cormier.

Cooper, 27, was thrilled to join his hometown team and the Cardinals were thrilled to get a player with a reputation for producing steady hitting and solid defense.

After a fairy tale debut _ he hit a two-run single in the bottom of the ninth to lift the Cardinals to a 7-6 victory over the Phillies in the season opener at St. Louis _ Cooper failed to meet expectations. He hit .230 with three home runs for the 1995 Cardinals and made 18 errors.

When the season ended, he became a free agent and went to Japan.

Replacing a legend

Cooper was 15 when the Cardinals won the 1982 World Series title. The exhilarating experience of seeing his favorite team become big-league champions “left a dent in my soul,” he told the Associated Press.

A standout player at Pattonville High School in the St. Louis suburb of Maryland Heights, Mo., Cooper was chosen by the Red Sox in the third round of the 1986 amateur draft. He signed with them and made his big-league debut with Boston in 1990.

When free-agent Wade Boggs left the Red Sox for the Yankees after the 1992 season, Cooper replaced the five-time American League batting champion as Boston’s third baseman.

Cooper responded splendidly to the challenge. He was named an AL all-star in 1993 and 1994. His batting average in five years with Boston was .284.

Cardinals calling

In April 1995, general managers Walt Jocketty of the Cardinals and Dan Duquette of the Red Sox discussed a deal. The Red Sox wanted Whiten and Cormier. Jocketty wanted Cooper.

Jocketty agreed to trade Whiten but offered pitcher Tom Urbani instead of Cormier.

“We needed Cormier in the deal to make it go,” Duquette said.

Talks stalled. Jocketty gave the Red Sox a deadline of April 8.

When it became clear the Red Sox wouldn’t make the deal without Cormier being included _ “They were pretty adamant about it,” Cardinals manager Joe Torre told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch _ Jocketty relented.

No joke

On the afternoon of April 8, Cooper and teammates Roger Clemens and Eric Wedge were golfing in Fort Myers, Fla. “I was getting ready to hit this ball and this guy in a cart comes barreling around the corner,” Cooper said.

“Are you Scott Cooper?” asked the man in the cart. “Mr. Dan Duquette wants you to call him immediately.”

Said Cooper: “My heart sank. I looked at Clem and said, ‘Are you messing with me?’ … Roger looked at me and he was real serious. He said, ‘I would never play that kind of trick on you.’ ”

Duquette told Cooper of the trade to the Cardinals.

Contacted soon after by Rick Hummel of the Post-Dispatch, Cooper said, “I can’t begin to describe the emotion I’m feeling right now. I’m numb all over. The Red Sox let me fulfill my dream. They gave me the opportunity to be a major leaguer. But my lifetime dream as a kid was to play for the St. Louis Cardinals.”

Asked about the pressure of playing at home, Cooper told The Sporting News, “If I can come in and take the place of Wade Boggs and play in front of that crowd in Boston and make two all-star teams, I can play in my hometown in front of my family and friends.”

Lineup shifts

The Cardinals moved Todd Zeile, a converted catcher, from third base to first base, replacing Gregg Jefferies, who had become a free agent and signed with the Phillies. Brian Jordan, a highly-regarded prospect, replaced Whiten in right field. Urbani took over for Cormier in the starting rotation.

“Cooper is known for his defense and that was one of the major reasons we wanted to get him,” Jocketty said. “Plus, he’s a good left-handed bat.

“We feel Zeile will be a better first baseman than Jefferies was and we feel Cooper will make us better defensively at third. He has good hands, a good arm. He’s a real third baseman.”

(Bailey, the other player acquired from Boston by the Cardinals, became a productive reliever. He spent most of the 1995 season as the closer at Class AAA Louisville, earning 25 saves, and then was 5-2 with a 3.00 ERA in 51 games for the 1996 Cardinals.)

Plans unravel

By mid June, the 1995 Cardinals were scuffling. Torre got fired. Zeile was traded to the Cubs.

Cooper, hitting .310 as late as May 20, had a miserable summer. He batted .164 in July and .183 in August.

For the season, Cooper hit .210 (21-for-100) with runners in scoring position. He had almost as many strikeouts (85) as hits (86).

After spending the 1996 season in Japan (where he hit .243 in 81 games), Cooper returned to the big leagues with the 1997 Royals and batted .201.

That would be his final major-league season. At age 30, three years after being named an all-star, his big-league playing career was finished.

Previously: How Scott Cooper made memorable Cardinals debut

Previously: How a tragic accident brought Mark Whiten to Cardinals

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The Cardinals acquired Jose Oquendo with the notion he would become the eventual replacement for Ozzie Smith at shortstop. Instead, Oquendo became their second baseman and paired with Smith in forming a quality keystone combination for St. Louis.

jose_oquendo5Thirty years ago, on April 2, 1985, the Cardinals got Oquendo from the Mets in the first trade engineered by Dal Maxvill, who had become St. Louis general manager two months earlier.

Maxvill knew what it took to play shortstop, having been the starter for the Cardinals at that position on pennant-winning clubs in 1967 and 1968.

Like Maxvill, Smith was a Gold Glove Award winner. Like Maxvill in 1967, Smith helped the 1982 Cardinals to a pennant and World Series title.

The Cardinals wanted Smith to remain their shortstop. He was eligible to become a free agent, though, after the 1985 season. If Smith and the Cardinals were unable to negotiate a contract extension, Maxvill was prepared to trade him.

Shoring up shortstop

A headline in an April 1985 edition of The Sporting News declared, “Cardinals Admit Ozzie May Be Dealt.”

“If we can’t sign him, there’s got to be some thought about trading him,” said Fred Kuhlmann, Cardinals chief operating officer.

Said Smith: “A trade is a possibility.”

The Cardinals, though, had no suitable replacement for Smith.

That’s when Maxvill went to work.

The Cardinals dealt shortstop Angel Salazar, whom they had acquired from the Expos three months earlier, and minor-league pitcher John Young to the Mets for Oquendo and minor-league pitcher Mark Davis. Four days later, April 6, 1985, the Cardinals got veteran shortstop Ivan De Jesus and reliever Bill Campbell from the Phillies for reliever Dave Rucker.

Maxvill saw De Jesus, 32, as the stopgap and Oquendo, 21, as the long-term answer at shortstop if Smith was traded or became injured.

“You have to prepare yourself for any eventuality,” Maxvill said. “I looked in our system and there was nothing there at shortstop. You have to backstop yourself whether (Smith) is here or not.”

Mets prospect

Oquendo was 15 when he signed with the Mets as an amateur free agent in 1979 and made his professional debut that year with their Class A affiliate, the Grays Harbor Loggers of Aberdeen, Wash., in the Northwest League. He made 40 errors in 63 games at shortstop that season.

Four years later, Oquendo, 19, became the starting shortstop for the 1983 Mets under manager George Bamberger.

By April 1985, though, the Mets were managed by Davey Johnson. He saw Rafael Santana, a former Cardinal, and Ron Gardenhire as shortstop options.

“Johnson felt Oquendo had to be a better hitter,” The Sporting News wrote. “He also was less enamored of Oquendo’s fielding than that of other shortstops in the organization.”

Smith stays

Maxvill saw Oquendo as the shortstop prospect the Cardinals needed. (After the deal was made, Johnson learned Gardenhire had back problems. “If I had known about this,” said Johnson, “Jose Oquendo might still be here.”)

The Cardinals assigned Oquendo to Class AAA Louisville.

“You can look for the Wizard to pack his bags any day now,” Bill Conlin, a columnist for The Sporting News, wrote of Smith after the Cardinals got Oquendo and De Jesus.

Instead, on April 15, hours before the Cardinals played their 1985 home opener that night against the Expos, Smith agreed to a four-year contract extension to remain with St. Louis.

The deal was worth $8.7 million. Smith received a $700,000 signing bonus and salaries of $1.8 million a year in 1986 and 1987 and $2.2 million a year in 1988 and 1989, The Sporting News reported. Also, the Cardinals provided Smith a $500,000 loan at 10 percent interest and Anheuser-Busch promised him consideration for a wholesale beer distributorship.

Smith would play for the Cardinals through the 1996 season before retiring.

Shift to second

Oquendo spent the 1985 season with Louisville. His manager was Jim Fregosi, who had been an all-star shortstop with the Angels. Oquendo hit .211 in 133 games for Louisville and made 23 errors at shortstop.

In 1986, Oquendo stuck with the Cardinals as a backup to Smith at shortstop and to Tommy Herr at second base. He hit .297 in 76 games, establishing himself as a valuable utility player.

After Herr was traded to the Twins in 1988, Oquendo became the Cardinals’ starter in 1989. He led National League second basemen in fielding percentage in 1989 (.994) and 1990 (.996).

In 10 seasons with the Cardinals (1986-1995), Oquendo hit .264 with an on-base percentage of .359. In 1989, he was eighth in the NL in batting at .291.

A Cardinals instructor in 1997 and a minor-league manager in 1998, Oquendo has been a big-league coach for St. Louis under managers Tony La Russa and Mike Matheny each year from 1999 through 2015.

Previously: How Jose Oquendo became a Cardinals catcher

Previously: Why Jose Oquendo, not Ozzie Smith, opened at shortstop

Previously: How Andy Van Slyke amazed Jose Oquendo

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Instead of working with established big-leaguers such as Donovan Osborne or Mark Petkovsek, Bob Gibson spent the spring training of 1995 teaching basic grips to pitchers who normally would have had no chance to be in a Cardinals camp.

joe_torre6Twenty years ago, spring training was an odd, depressing experience _ rather than a time of renewal and hope _ for the Cardinals and the other big-league teams because of the labor dispute between players and owners.

The players’ strike that began in August 1994 carried into spring training 1995. None of the players on the Cardinals’ big-league roster reported to camp at St. Petersburg, Fla. Instead, the Cardinals, like other clubs, brought in replacement players.

Hall of Fame helper

Manager Joe Torre and his staff were required to train the replacement players, with the intent of having them ready to open the regular season on April 3.

Gibson, the Hall of Fame pitcher who had carried the Cardinals to two World Series championships, had been hired by Torre to be a Cardinals coach for the first (and only) time in his career.

Replacement player Paul Anderson, 26, a right-hander who was a combined 4-6 with a 6.65 ERA for two Cardinals farm clubs in 1994, asked Gibson for assistance in learning the proper grip to throw a slider.

“I was doing it wrong, so I did it the way he taught me,” Anderson told Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I like it a lot better. I’m learning from the best.”

Scribe and rejects

The 55-player Cardinals replacement team at training camp had no one who had appeared in a major-league game.

In the Cardinals’ exhibition opener against the Indians on March 4 at St. Petersburg, Mike Hinkle started and pitched three scoreless innings for St. Louis. Hinkle, 29, had last played professional baseball in Italy in 1993.

Outfielder Doug Radziewicz, 25, an aspiring journalist who was filing reports from camp for his hometown newspaper in Somerville, N.J., drove in the winning run with a pinch-hit single in the eighth, lifting the Cardinals to a 4-2 victory.

“You can’t judge baseball from one day, but it was well-played,” Torre said after the game. “The thing you’re concerned with is that playing for the first time they’re a little in awe.”

Walt Jocketty, hired in October 1994 to replace Dal Maxvill as general manager, was asked what it was like to watch replacement players instead of big-leaguers in his first Cardinals spring training game. “As long as I’ve got Joe (Torre) here, we can hold hands and go through this together,” Jocketty said.

Wrote Hummel: “There were no pickets, as the striking players earlier had advertised, which was good because the minor leaguers were nervous enough as it was. The clubhouse was very quiet before the game.”

Fans, though, missed seeing the big-league players. Hummel reported the Cardinals were averaging 1,470 tickets sold per exhibition game instead of the usual 5,000. In March, 54 percent of respondents to a Post-Dispatch poll said they probably or absolutely wouldn’t pay to see a game played by replacements.

Chasing a dream

Still, the Cardinals broke camp with a roster of 32 replacement players, intending to open the season with them.

Anderson, Hinkle and Radziewicz were on the Opening Day roster. In a late move, the Cardinals also had acquired Glenn Sutko, a catcher who had a hit in 10 at-bats for the 1991 Reds.

Among other replacement Cardinals on the Opening Day roster:

_ Ty Griffin, second baseman. A No. 1 pick of the Cubs in the 1988 amateur draft, Griffin also had played for the U.S. Olympic baseball team. He flopped in the Cubs system and spent the 1994 season with a pair of independent league teams.

_ Larry Shikles, starting pitcher. In eight seasons in the minor league systems of the Red Sox and Athletics, the right-hander compiled a 70-68 record.

_ Howard Prager, first baseman. He hit .239 for the Cardinals’ Class AAA Louisville club in 1994.

_ John “Skeets” Thomas, outfielder. He slugged 17 home runs for Louisville in 1994.

_ Tony Diggs, outfielder. A sixth-round draft choice of the Brewers in 1989, Diggs hit .215 for the Cardinals’ Class AA Arkansas team in 1994.

_ Anthony Lewis, outfielder. An eighth-round draft pick of the Cardinals in 1989, Lewis hit a combined .230 for two St. Louis farm clubs in 1994.

“We went with the players on the morning side of the mountain rather than the twilight side of the hill,” Torre said, explaining why the Cardinals (with the exception of Sutko) chose players without big-league experience.

On April 2, 1995, the day before the season was to open, the 234-day strike ended. The season opener was moved to April 26; spring training was re-opened for players on big-league rosters. The replacement players either were assigned to the minors or released.

Said Torre: “It feels weird starting all over again.”

Previously: Ted Simmons helped put pal Joe Torre on path to Hall of Fame

Previously: George Kissell, Cardinals inspired Joe Torre to be manager

Previously: Jerry Reuss on Joe Torre: He managed Cardinals on field

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The Cardinals thought so highly of Alex Johnson that they traded two all-star infielders, first baseman Bill White and shortstop Dick Groat, to acquire him and then told Lou Brock to shift outfield positions to accommodate the heralded newcomer.

alex_johnsonJohnson never fulfilled his potential with St. Louis. Instead of joining Brock and Curt Flood as an outfield regular, Johnson got demoted to the minors in his first Cardinals season and then backed up Roger Maris in his second and last year with St. Louis.

This is the story of the star-crossed Cardinals career of Alex Johnson, who died Feb. 28, 2015, at age 72 in Detroit.

Phillies phenom

At 21, Johnson debuted in the big leagues with the 1964 Phillies. He hit .296 in two seasons with Philadelphia.

Bob Howsam, the Cardinals’ general manager, envisioned Johnson as an ideal fit to join Brock and Flood in forming a fleet, productive St. Louis outfield.

On Oct. 27, 1965, the Cardinals dealt White, Groat and catcher Bob Uecker to the Phillies for Johnson, catcher Pat Corrales and pitcher Art Mahaffey.

Howsam paid a hefty price. In eight years with the Cardinals, White was a five-time all-star who hit .298 and won the Gold Glove Award six times. In three years with St. Louis, Groat was a two-time all-star who batted .289. Both were key contributors to the Cardinals’ World Series championship season in 1964.

Power potential

“We expect Johnson to hit the long ball for us,” Howsam told The Sporting News. “Playing everyday instead of just against left-handed pitchers, he may even surpass White in long-ball hitting over the full season.”

Said Cardinals vice president Stan Musial, who was consulted by Howsam before the deal was made: “Over the long haul is what we’re thinking about. We’re trying to analyze our team better and it’s a switch to the youth system.”

The Cardinals believed Johnson would hit for a higher average and had more speed than Mike Shannon, who had been their right fielder in 1964 and 1965.

Johnson had hit .307 against left-handed pitching for the 1965 Phillies. He also hit .424 (14-for-33) in 11 games versus the Cardinals that season.

Move over, Lou

Soon after joining the Cardinals, Johnson reported to their Florida Instructional League camp at St. Petersburg and worked with manager Red Schoendienst and coach Dick Sisler.

“He has a better arm than I thought he did,” Schoendienst said. “His arm is adequate.”

The Cardinals decided to shift Brock from left to right and start Johnson in left, with Flood in center. Shannon was relegated to a reserve role.

“I know the Cardinals made a big deal to get Johnson, but all I want is a chance,” Shannon said. “… I think I can hit .300. I’m strong. I can run and I’ve got good power.”

Johnson hit .286 in spring training and opened the 1966 regular season as the everyday left fielder.

He flopped.


Johnson started each of the Cardinals’ first 20 games and hit .195. The Cardinals’ record was 8-12 and Johnson received part of the blame.

“It’s not the pitchers getting me out,” Johnson said. “I’ve been getting myself out. I’ve been going for the long taters.”

On May 8, 1966, the Cardinals played their final game at Busch Stadium, formerly Sportsman’s Park. Johnson had the last at-bat in the venerable ballpark, bouncing into a game-ending double play. Boxscore

Four days later, the Cardinals played their first game at the new Busch Stadium. Johnson started in left field and was 1-for-4 with a run scored. Boxscore

The Cardinals, though, had seen enough. On May 18, 1966, they sent Johnson to Class AAA Tulsa and called up outfielder Bobby Tolan. Brock returned to left field and Shannon took over in right.

In 25 games with the Cardinals, Johnson batted .186 with two home runs.

Wrote The Sporting News: “Something had to be done to divert attention from that White-Johnson deal … Johnson appeared overmatched in his first opportunity at a regular job. He has plenty of raw talent and good speed. There is considerable hope for him, especially if he can develop the ability to learn from coaches both in the minors and in the majors. He has not adapted well to instruction and he has been easy to pitch to.”

At Tulsa, Johnson prospered under manager Charlie Metro, batting .355 with 104 hits in 80 games.

Carlton to Cubs?

After the 1966 season, Howsam agreed to a proposed deal to send Johnson, Tolan and pitchers Steve Carlton and Nelson Briles to the Cubs for outfielder Billy Williams, The Sporting News reported. The trade was vetoed by Cardinals “super brass,” who presumably included Musial.

“We needed a lefthanded-hitting outfielder and we went after (Billy) Williams,” Musial confirmed.

After the proposed trade was nixed, Howsam dealt third baseman Charlie Smith to the Yankees for outfielder Roger Maris. Soon after, Howsam resigned to become general manager of the Reds and was replaced by Musial.

Still struggling

In spring training, the 1967 Cardinals assigned hitting instructor Joe Medwick to work with Johnson. “I told him, ‘The only guy who is keeping you down is yourself. You’ve got all the equipment,’ ” Medwick said. “Alex was pulling too many pitches.”

Some thought Johnson and Maris would platoon in right field for the 1967 Cardinals. Maris, though, won the job outright, with Shannon replacing Smith at third base and Johnson taking a reserve outfield role.

In May 1967, The Sporting News reported that Johnson was “swinging at too many bad balls and fouling off too many good ones.”

According to the magazine, Musial “had tried hard to deal Johnson to an American League club, but there were no takers.”

Johnson hit .223 with one home run in 81 games for the 1967 Cardinals, who won the National League pennant. He didn’t appear in the World Series against the Red Sox.

After the Cardinals won the championship, Musial resigned in triumph and was replaced by Bing Devine, in his second stint as St. Louis general manager. Devine’s first trade was to send Johnson to the Reds for outfielder Dick Simpson.

In two seasons with the Cardinals, Johnson hit .211 in 106 games with three home runs, 18 RBI and a dismal .258 on-base percentage.

“Alex just might put everything together one of these days and become quite a ballplayer,” Schoendienst said after the trade.

Red was right

Reunited with Howsam and Metro (who had become a Reds scout), Johnson blossomed. He hit .313 with 146 RBI in two seasons with Cincinnati.

Traded to the Angels, Johnson was the 1970 American League batting champion, hitting .329.

Still, his career continued to be marred by controversy and accusations of an indifferent attitude.

Said Cardinals coach Dick Sisler: “The tag on Johnson is that he will not accept advice from a manager or a competent coach. He easily could have become a great Cardinal player, but he showed no interest.”

In 13 years with the Phillies, Cardinals, Reds, Angels, Indians, Rangers, Yankees and Tigers, Johnson batted .288 with 1,331 hits.

Previously: Here’s how Mike Shannon became a Cardinals catcher

Previously: Bill White: We thought Lou Brock deal was nuts

Previously: How Charlie Metro miffed Stan Musial

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Disheartened by what he described as an erosion of his spirit and altering of his personality, Rick Ankiel ignored the skeptics and boldly made a decision that was best for him and his baseball career.

rick_ankiel7Ten years ago, on March 9, 2005, Ankiel shocked the Cardinals by informing them he was transforming from a pitcher to an outfielder.

At age 25, Ankiel had entered 2005 spring training at Jupiter, Fla., as a strong candidate to earn a Cardinals roster spot as a left-handed reliever. He seemed poised to be the feel-good story of the Cardinals camp.

After posting an 11-7 record with 194 strikeouts in 175 innings in 2000, Ankiel experienced a meltdown in the postseason against the Braves and Mets (nine wild pitches and 11 walks in four innings). He pitched briefly for the 2001 Cardinals, then suffered a series of elbow injuries before returning to the big leagues with St. Louis as a reliever in September 2004.

Ankiel pitched in the Puerto Rico winter league after the 2004 Cardinals season, but cut short his stay there after experiencing a twinge in his left elbow. When he got to Cardinals camp in February 2005, his throwing sessions were erratic.

Change of plans

On March 8, 2005, the day before he was scheduled to make his spring training debut against the Marlins in a morning B squad game, Ankiel approached Cardinals manager Tony La Russa and informed him he was planning to end his pitching career and become an outfielder. La Russa urged Ankiel to think about it before making an announcement.

The next day, the B squad game was called off because of rain. Afterward, Ankiel was spotted taking indoor batting practice off pitches from Cardinals scout Jim Leyland. In a hastily called press conference, Ankiel then announced his plans.

“The frustration of not being effective, not being able to go out there and replicate my mechanics, and the way it affected me off the field, wasn’t worth it,” Ankiel said to Joe Strauss of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “The reward wasn’t there. I feel relieved now. It’s time to move on.

“This whole time, the frustration has built up. It seemed like it was eroding my spirit and affecting my personality off the field as well. It just became apparent it was time for me to move on and become an outfielder.”

Ankiel’s agent, Scott Boras, said, “This isn’t an emotional decision. He’s given this a good deal of time.’

Strauss wrote that Ankiel’s decision “stunned many within the Cardinals’ clubhouse.”

The Cardinals were supportive of Ankiel. The media mocked him.

“Ongoing head case”

Bernie Miklasz, Post-Dispatch columnist: “The Cardinals wasted too much time, and emotion, in the lost cause that is Rick Ankiel. And now, as the organization recoils from Ankiel’s stunning surrender in his mission of regaining a foothold on the mound, the Cardinals are going to baby him one more time … It is time to stop treating Ankiel’s ongoing head case as if he’s a charity case … It’s time to let Ankiel move on with his life. The Cardinals did their part. Now they need to get out of the day care business.”

Rob Neyer, baseball analyst for ESPN.com: “He’s immensely talented, but almost certainly not talented enough to hit major-league pitching with any sort of consistency.”

Road to redemption

As a Cardinals pitcher, Ankiel hit .207 (18-for-87) with two home runs and nine RBI. He hadn’t played the outfield since his senior year at Port St. Lucie High School in Florida.

The day after Ankiel announced his decision to quit pitching, he began receiving instruction from coach Dave McKay on outfield play and from coach Hal McRae on hitting. It was the start of an incredible journey on the road to redemption.

Out of options with the Cardinals, Ankiel could have been chosen on waivers by any of the other 29 big-league clubs before he was sent to the minors by the Cardinals in the spring of 2005. No one claimed him.

Ankiel spent 2005 in the minors, sat out 2006 because of a knee injury and hit 32 home runs in 102 games for Class AAA Memphis in 2007. On Aug. 9, 2007, he returned to the Cardinals as an outfielder and hit a home run against the Padres. Boxscore

Ankiel hit .285 with 11 home runs and 39 RBI in 47 games for the 2007 Cardinals. The next year, he slugged 25 home runs for St. Louis.

From 2007-2013, Ankiel was an outfielder for the Cardinals, Royals, Braves, Nationals, Astros and Mets.

In 2010, a decade after his wild streak against the Braves in the National League Division Series, he hit a home run for them in the NL Division Series against the Giants. Boxscore Ankiel and Babe Ruth are the only big-league players to both start a postseason game as a pitcher and hit a home run in the postseason as a position player.

Previously: How Rick Ankiel made happy return to St. Louis as pitcher

Previously: Rick Ankiel and his last hurrah as a pitcher

Previously: Pitching or hitting, Rick Ankiel was marvel and mystery

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Jim King spent five years in the Cardinals organization, learning from the likes of George Kissell and Johnny Keane, but he twice departed the Redbirds and never got much of a chance to make an impact with them at the big-league level.

jim_kingKing, an outfielder who started in the first big-league game played in California and who spent 11 seasons in the majors, primarily with the Senators, died Feb. 23, 2015, in his native Arkansas. He was 82.

The Cardinals prepared King for the big leagues.

After making his professional debut at 17 in 1950 with the independent Vernon Dusters of the Class D Longhorn League, King was signed by the Cardinals. He played in the St. Louis minor-league system from 1951-54, including two stints with Omaha clubs managed by Kissell, the franchise’s iconic instructor.

In 1954, King had his best season in the Cardinals organization, hitting .314 with 31 doubles and 25 home runs for an Omaha team managed by former St. Louis catcher Ferrell Anderson. King, who had a strong arm, also contributed 19 outfield assists.

Courted by Cubs

King caught the attention of Wid Matthews, director of personnel for the Cubs. On Nov. 22, 1954, the Cubs claimed King from the Cardinals in the minor-league draft.

King made his major-league debut with the Cubs in 1955 and played for them for two seasons.

In 1957, Cubs general manager John Holland was seeking to overhaul the roster. Cardinals general manager Frank Lane was seeking a left-handed pull hitter who could benefit from the Busch Stadium I dimensions. The distance along the right field line from home plate to the outfield at the former Sportsman’s Park was an enticing 310 feet.

Holland made a special trip to Memphis to talk with Lane as the Cardinals headed north from spring training. Their talks continued in the Busch Stadium press box lounge when the Cubs and Cardinals played in St. Louis during the first week of the 1957 regular season, The Sporting News reported.

Second chance

On April 20, 1957, the Cardinals reacquired King from the Cubs for outfielder Bobby Del Greco and pitcher Ed Mayer.

“The deal for King was completed within 48 hours, culminating a lengthy series of conversations between Lane and Holland,” St. Louis writer Bob Broeg reported.

Broeg described King as “a pull hitter for whom the Busch Stadium dimensions are tailored” and declared that the Cardinals were “stronger and deeper” with King on the roster.

Said Lane: “He’s got the knack of pulling, an asset especially with our short right field, and he won’t be handicapped in St. Louis by the wind blowing in as it does so often off the lake in Chicago, making hitting tough for left-handers.”

The Cardinals issued uniform No. 9 to King. It was the number worn by Cardinals standout Enos Slaughter (and later by Roger Maris, Joe Torre and Terry Pendleton) before it was retired by the club.

King was used primarily as a pinch-hitter. On May 15, 1957, less than a month after he was acquired, the Cardinals sent King to Class AAA Omaha in order to get their roster to the mandated 25-player limit.

Wrote Broeg in The Sporting News: “Entirely unexpected was the decision to send down King rather than Tom Alston, the good-field, no-hit first baseman … Although mum was the word around the club, it was apparent that owner Gussie Busch … had requested that Alston be given another chance or, at least, a longer look.”

At Omaha, King played for manager Johnny Keane (who, seven years later, would lead the Cardinals to a World Series title) and hit 20 home runs in 116 games before being called back to the Cardinals in September.

In 22 games overall for the 1957 Cardinals, King hit .314 (11-for-35). All his hits were singles.

California connection

King appeared poised to earn a spot on the 1958 Cardinals. However, the Cardinals were seeking catching help. The Giants needed a lefthanded-hitting outfielder to replace Don Mueller. On April 2, 1958, the Cardinals traded King to the Giants for catcher Ray Katt.

When the Dodgers faced the Giants on April 15, 1958, at San Francisco’s Seals Stadium in the first regular-season major-league game played in California, King was in the starting lineup, playing left field and batting second, just ahead of Willie Mays. King was 2-for-3 with two walks, a run scored and a RBI-single off Don Drysdale. Boxscore

King had his best seasons with the 1963 Senators (24 home runs) and 1964 Senators (18 home runs). He broke Mickey Vernon’s Senators single-season record of 20 home runs by a left-handed batter. On June 8, 1964, King hit three solo home runs in a game at Washington against the Athletics. Boxscore

In a big-league career spanning 1955 to 1967 with the Cubs, Cardinals, Giants, Senators, White Sox and Indians, King hit .240 with 117 home runs. After his baseball career, he worked for 24 years for the White River Telephone and Alltel Telephone companies before retiring.

Previously: How Cardinals nearly traded Bob Gibson to Senators

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