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.
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.”
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.