After more than a decade with the Cubs as one of the premier shortstops in the National League, Don Kessinger joined the rival Cardinals and stabilized the position until a phenom was ready to take over.
Forty years ago, on Oct. 28, 1975, the Cardinals acquired Kessinger from the Cubs for reliever Mike Garman and a player to be named (minor-league infielder Bobby Hrapmann.)
Shortstop had become a weakness since the Cardinals dealt Dal Maxvill to the Athletics in August 1972. The Cardinals had tried an array of shortstops, including Ray Busse, Mario Guerrero, Ed Brinkman and Mike Tyson, but none excelled.
The Cardinals had selected a high school shortstop, Garry Templeton, in the first round of the 1974 draft and saw him as the solution to their problem.
In the meantime, they hoped Kessinger, 33, could hold down the position while Templeton developed in the minor-league system.
Kessinger, an Arkansas native, had been a baseball and basketball standout at the University of Mississippi. “I used to listen to (Cardinals) games on radio and (Stan) Musial was my favorite,” Kessinger told The Sporting News.
He signed with the Cubs as an amateur free agent in 1964 and debuted with them that year. Kessinger, possessing a strong arm and wide range, was a six-time NL all-star with the Cubs and twice (1969 and ’70) was a winner of the NL Gold Glove Award.
By September 1975, though, the Cubs were looking to rebuild with younger players. Published speculation was the Cubs would trade Kessinger.
Teams expressing the most interest were the Yankees, Red Sox, Cardinals and Braves. The Yankees were reported to be offering reliever Sparky Lyle and the Cardinals were said to be offering pitcher John Curtis.
Before the season ended, Kessinger _ “acting for all the world like a displaced person,” The Sporting News wrote _ sold his house in suburban Chicago.
“I can do more to help a club now than ever before … I’ve taken care of myself and now is the time to reap the benefits from that,” Kessinger said. “I know that I’m still able to do anything on the field that I ever did. I don’t smoke, drink or run around.”
Tyson had been the primary shortstop for the 1975 Cardinals. He replaced Brinkman, an American League veteran who couldn’t adjust to the artificial surface at Busch Stadium.
After acquiring Kessinger, the Cardinals traded second baseman Ted Sizemore to the Dodgers and decided to shift Tyson from shortstop to second.
During spring training in 1976, Cardinals instructor George Kissell helped Tyson adapt to his new role.
“We wanted Mike Tyson down early (in spring training) as the new second baseman so that he could get used to working with Kessinger,” Kissell said. “It’s easier for Kessinger to get used to Tyson than it is for Tyson to get used to Kessinger.”
Said manager Red Schoendienst: “If we can catch the ball, we can win.”
Unfortunately for Schoendienst, the Cardinals fumbled a lot _ and lost.
Meanwhile, Templeton, 20, was establishing himself as a force. Like Kessinger, a switch-hitter, Templeton batted .321 for manager Ken Boyer at Class AAA Tulsa in 1976. He produced 142 hits in 106 games, with 24 doubles, 15 triples and 25 stolen bases.
On Aug. 9, 1976, the Cardinals called up Templeton from Tulsa and placed him in the starting lineup at shortstop. With Tyson injured, Kessinger moved to second base, a position he hadn’t played since college.
Boyer endorsed the promotion of Templeton. “I’d pay to see him play,” Boyer said.
The 1976 Cardinals committed 174 errors. Only the Giants had more errors that season among NL clubs. The Cardinals finished 72-90.
Hector Cruz, who had replaced the smooth-fielding Ken Reitz at third, had 26 errors for the 1976 Cardinals. Templetom made 24 errors in 53 games at shortstop.
Kessinger also committed 24 errors _ 18 in 113 games at shortstop and six in 31 games at second base.
Batting primarily in the No. 2 spot in the order, Kessinger hit .239 overall, with 22 doubles and 120 hits in 145 games. He was better as the No. 8 batter (.290 in 33 games) than he was in the No. 2 spot (.230 in 74 games).
Changes and transactions
After the 1976 season, Schoendienst was fired and replaced by Vern Rapp, who in 1977 started Templeton at shortstop, Tyson at second base and moved Kessinger to a utility role.
In 59 games, including 16 starts at second base and 13 starts at shortstop, Kessinger again hit .239 for the 1977 Cardinals before he was traded in August to the White Sox for minor-league pitcher Steve Staniland.
Two years later, Kessinger was named player-manager of the 1979 White Sox. He was fired in August (with a 46-60 record) and replaced by a rookie big-league manager named Tony La Russa.