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Three prominent Cardinals from the Whitey Herzog era _ Willie McGee, Tom Pagnozzi and, yes, Ozzie Smith _ thrived under Tony La Russa in his first season as St. Louis manager.

ozzie_smith7Though Smith remains upset with La Russa because the manager reduced his playing time in 1996, relegating him to a reserve role behind shortstop Royce Clayton, what often gets overlooked is that Smith produced a quality final season under La Russa’s management.

In a recent St. Louis Post-Dispatch article, Rick Hummel pointed out that Smith played for all four living Cardinals managers who have been elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame: Herzog, Red Schoendienst, Joe Torre and La Russa.

McGee and Pagnozzi played for all four of them as Cardinals, too.

(McGee, Pagnozzi and Smith all joined the Cardinals in the 1980s when Herzog was manager. They were Cardinals in July 1990 when Herzog, who abruptly resigned, was replaced by his coach, Schoendienst, for 24 games. All three played for Torre in August 1990 when he took over for Schoendienst.)

After Torre was fired in 1995, La Russa was hired to manage the Cardinals in 1996.

Pagnozzi and Smith were holdovers from the 1995 Cardinals. McGee, who was traded to the Athletics (managed by La Russa) about a month after Torre became Cardinals manager, signed with St. Louis as a free agent after spending the 1995 season with the Red Sox.

After spring training in 1996, La Russa declared Clayton the starting shortstop. The decision created a rift between La Russa and Smith that has lasted for 18 years. (Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz recently pleaded for a truce between the two Hall of Famers.)

Unlike Smith, McGee and Pagnozzi built respectful relationships with La Russa in 1996.

Like Smith, McGee and Pagnozzi performed well under La Russa’s management that year.

McGee: Team player

_ McGee batted .307 (12 points above his career mark) for the 1996 Cardinals. It was his highest batting average in five years, since he hit .312 for the 1991 Giants. McGee led the 1996 Cardinals in pinch-hitting batting average (.350, 14-for-40).

In October 1996, just before the Cardinals opened the National League postseason (their first appearance in nine years), Jeff Gordon of the Post-Dispatch wrote, “McGee brought a lot more than heritage or aesthetics to the table. He filled in admirably for (Brian) Jordan and (Ron) Gant and proved dangerous as a part-timer coming off the bench.”

Said McGee of La Russa: “Whatever he asks me to do, I do. Pinch-hit, play, whatever … I’m sure he’ll try to put the best team he can out there.”

Pagnozzi: Rises to challenge

_ Pagnozzi produced single-season career highs in home runs (13), slugging percentage (.423) and runs scored (48) for the 1996 Cardinals while elevating his skill as a pitch caller. (St. Louis finished among the top six in the league in ERA.) Pagnozzi batted .270 (17 points above his career mark) in 1996 and especially was effective (.311, 56-for-180) with runners on base.

Describing the celebration after the Cardinals clinched the division title on Sept. 24, 1996, at Pittsburgh, Hummel wrote, “One of the more poignant clubhouse scenes was a tearful Tom Pagnozzi, the Cardinals catcher, hugging manager Tony La Russa, who didn’t seem all that impressed with Pagnozzi early in the season.”

Said Pagnozzi: “We went through a lot. I just thanked him for staying with me and keeping me here. We respect each other and I think I’ve risen to his challenge. To me, this was a great feeling because I was able to go up and look him in the eye and he knows I’m a player. “

Smith: Blinded by pride

_ Smith, who was 41 during the 1996 season, hit .282 (20 points above his career mark) that year. He started 50 games at shortstop and otherwise was used primarily as a pinch hitter. He hit .351 (40-for-114) at home under La Russa’s management.

Wrote Gordon: “La Russa’s unsentimental handling of Smith set the tone for this season. He was here to win, not to massage egos. Those who played had to bust their tails and those who sat were supposed to stay ready.”

“The key is, this is a team sport,” La Russa said. “They’ve got to handle their emotions so that they’re contributing something positive to the club. If the guy on the bench is in the corner and not getting ready to put a piece in later on, I have a problem with that. I’m checking that all the time. My job is not making guys happy. It’s to do what’s best for the team.”

Previously: How Ron Gant, Jeff Brantley burned bridges with Cardinals

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An item about Matt Carpenter in a recent St. Louis Post-Dispatch article grabbed my attention. Rick Hummel reported that the combined regular-season and postseason plate appearances by Carpenter in 2013 were the most all-time for a Cardinals player.

matt_carpenter3Carpenter had 717 regular-season plate appearances and 76 postseason plate appearances for a total of 793 in 2013.

That got me wondering where Carpenter ranked among Cardinals in most regular-season plate appearances in a year.

What I learned stunned me: Carpenter didn’t make the top 10.

Another surprise: the Cardinals’ all-time leader in regular-season plate appearances for a year isn’t a noted leadoff batter such as Lou Brock or Vince Coleman.

It’s Taylor Douthit.

Blasingame rates over Musial

The Cardinals’ top 10 in regular-season plate appearances in a year, according to Baseball-reference.com:

1. Taylor Douthit, 752 in 1928.

2. Taylor Douthit, 748 in 1930.

3. Curt Flood, 739 in 1964.

4. Lou Brock, 729 in 1970.

5. Don Blasingame, 728 in 1957.

6. Lou Brock, 727 in 1973.

7. Bill White, 726 in 1963.

8. Lou Brock, 724 in 1967.

9. Stan Musial, 722 in 1949.

10. Lou Brock, 721 in 1971.

A player is credited with a plate appearance each time he completes a turn batting. Unlike an at-bat, a plate appearance may result in a walk, a hit by pitch, a sacrifice bunt or a sacrifice fly.

The all-time major-league leader in regular-season plate appearances in a year is Jimmy Rollins of the 2007 Phillies at 778.

Musial is the Cardinals’ career leader in regular-season plate appearances at 12,717.

Cardinals catalyst

Among Cardinals, no one was better at getting to the plate in a season than Douthit.

A right-handed batter, Douthit, 27, was the center fielder and leadoff batter for the 1928 National League champion Cardinals. He hit .295 with 191 hits, 35 doubles and 84 walks in 752 plate appearances in 1928. He batted leadoff in 153 games and 748 plate appearances. In the only game he wasn’t in the leadoff spot that season, he batted fifth in four plate appearances.

He also was a high-quality center fielder.

Despite his success, Douthit was the subject of trade speculation after the 1928 season.

In its Oct. 25, 1928, edition, The Sporting News wrote of Douthit, “He is one of the mysteries of baseball. He has been a great fielder for years, perhaps the best fly chaser in the game today … This year, he started out like a champion batter. He was the first hitter to collect 100 safeties. His fielding, as always, was brilliant. Then, in midseason, he slumped as a batter and stayed in the slump right through the World Series.”

At the end of July, Douthit had a season batting average of .347. But he hit .218 in August and .179 in September. In the 1928 World Series against the Yankees, Douthit was 1-for-11 (.091).

“If Douthit is traded,” The Sporting News reported, “he’ll make the Cards weep frequently … It will be difficult to remember his early-season hitting after the long late summer and fall when he was looked upon as the man who officially opened every game by making the first out.”

The Cardinals, though, kept Douthit. It was a good decision. He helped them win another National League pennant in 1930. Douthit hit .303 that season with 201 hits, 41 doubles and 60 walks in 748 plate appearances. He batted leadoff in 143 games and 694 plate appearances. In the 11 games he wasn’t in the leadoff spot, he batted third in 54 plate appearances.

Again, though, he had a miserable World Series, hitting .083 (2-for-24) against the Athletics.

In 1931, Douthit was challenged for the center field job by rookie Pepper Martin. On March 26, 1931, The Sporting News wrote, “There was much winter conversation about (Pepper) Martin … But that doesn’t make Douthit anybody’s snail. Taylor always has been a good hitter and a brilliant fielder and, unless he breaks a leg or an arm, he’ll play 154 games for the Redbirds in center field.”

That prediction didn’t pan out. The Cardinals wanted Martin in center field. Though Douthit was hitting .331, he was traded to the Reds on June 15, 1931, for outfielder Wally Roettger.

In nine seasons (1923-31) with the Cardinals, Douthit hit .300 and produced 1,006 hits. His on-base percentage with St. Louis was a sparkling .373.

Previously: Cardinals classic: Skip Schumaker bests Roy Halladay

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With the NFL playoffs in full swing, we take a break from our St. Louis Cardinals baseball posts and present a timely tribute on a milestone anniversary to the best coaching hiring in St. Louis Cardinals football history.

don_coryellForty years ago, Jan. 18, 1973, the football Cardinals, responding to an unsolicited letter, hired Don Coryell to be their head coach.

An innovator known for producing winning college teams and high-powered offenses, Coryell overcame his lack of NFL experience and transformed the Cardinals into a championship-caliber club.

In five seasons (1973-77) under Coryell, the Cardinals posted a 42-27-1 record and twice qualified for the playoffs. Those were the Cardinals’ first playoff berths since 1948 and their first division titles since moving from Chicago to St. Louis in 1960.

Few predicted such success in January 1973. The Cardinals had finished the 1972 season with their second consecutive 4-9-1 record under head coach Bob Hollway. They ranked 23rd in scoring in the 26-team NFL.

Coryell, 48, had a 104-19-2 record in 12 years at San Diego State. He had developed future NFL players such as quarterbacks Dennis Shaw of the Bills, Don Horn of the Broncos and Brian Sipe of the Browns, and receivers Isaac Curtis of the Bengals and Gary Garrison of the Chargers.

But, wrote Rich Koster of The Sporting News, Coryell was “an unfamiliar name to most” outside of the San Diego area.

In the book “Big Red: The Story of the Football Cardinals” (1975, Piraeus), author Robert Burnes wrote that reporters at the St. Louis press conference announcing Coryell’s hiring asked, “Don who?”

Seeking a challenge at a higher level, Coryell had written a letter to Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill, inquiring about the job after Hollway was fired. Meanwhile, Bidwill told Koster, “people told me that, if I wanted a college coach, there was this guy at San Diego State.”

Coryell received a three-year contract from the Cardinals. The only other candidate considered for the position was former Packers quarterback Bart Starr, United Press International reported.

“I wanted someone who could put the offense back into the Cardinals,” Bidwill said to the Associated Press. “(Coryell) has always had this. He comes to us very highly recommended from many sources. He has a consistent record of winning seasons.”

Said Coryell: “I believe in a wide-open style of play. I like to throw the ball. I believe in attacking the defense.”

One reason Coryell was confident he could succeed was the presence of veteran quarterback Jim Hart on the Cardinals’ roster. Hollway had soured on Hart and had tried Gary Cuozzo and Tim Van Galder at quarterback in 1972.

Coryell watched film of Hart and determined Hart would be his starter. “(Hart) can throw long and he can throw the deep sideline pattern,” Coryell said to The Sporting News. “If he can do that, I know he can throw the short stuff. I want a quarterback who can explode the ball, particularly against the zone defense.”

Said Hart to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2010: “After the first meeting we had with him, and he started talking about how he liked to throw the ball … It was like, ‘Whoa, you got us, pal.’ “

After a 4-9-1 record in 1973 (the Cardinals did improve to 11th in the NFL in scoring), St. Louis was 10-4 and won a division championship in Coryell’s second season, 1974. Hart thrived in an offense that included running backs Jim Otis and Terry Metcalf; receivers Mel Gray, Earl Thomas, Jackie Smith and J.V. Cain (Ike Harris and Pat Tilley later contributed significantly to the receiving corps); and linemen Dan Dierdorf, Conrad Dobler and Tom Banks.

The Cardinals were 11-3 and won a second consecutive division title in 1975. Their offense ranked seventh in the NFL in scoring. St. Louis won seven times in the last minute of a game that season, earning the nickname “Cardiac Cardinals.”

Winning championships with flair, the football Cardinals began to rank in popularity with the baseball Cardinals, who went without a championship in the 1970s, and Coryell began to emerge as one of the iconic coaches in St. Louis sports history.

A 10-4 finish in 1976 was followed by a 7-7 record in 1977. Coryell and Bidwill feuded over control of the draft and personnel decisions. Disenchanted, Coryell went back to San Diego to coach the Chargers and led them to the NFL playoffs in four consecutive seasons.

Previously: 1987: year of the Smiths, Ozzie and J.T., for Cardinals

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So you think showing a squirrel on a Skip Schumaker Topps baseball card is controversial? How about printing baseball cards for seven years between 1951-57 and never offering a Stan Musial baseball card?

In the first series of its 2012 baseball card set, Topps has printed two cards of St. Louis utilityman Skip Schumaker. The common card shows an image of Schumaker sliding. The other card, which has been released in limited supply (driving up demand and price), shows only Schumaker’s shoe as the so-called “rally squirrel” dashes across home plate.

Critics call the squirrel card dumb. Supporters find it fun. For Topps, the card has created publicity.

It may be the most controversy associated with Topps and the Cardinals since its seven-year absence without Musial.

Topps began printing baseball cards in 1951 when Musial was 30 and near the peak of his Hall of Fame career. Musial had a contract to appear on baseball cards produced by a rival company, Bowman.

Bowman produced Stan Musial cards in 1952 and ’53.

For the next four years (1954-57), Musial didn’t appear on any baseball card, even though he may have been the most popular player in the game.

In a 2001 interview with USA Today on the 50th anniversary of Topps baseball cards, Topps executive Sy Berger said Musial “just didn’t want to sign (a contract) for cards.”

The breakthrough came in time for Topps’ 1958 set. Berger said Cardinals owner Gussie Busch was raising money for charity and asked Topps for a donation. Berger said Topps offered to donate $1,500 to the non-profit of Busch’s choice if Musial would agree to sign a Topps contract to appear on a 1958 baseball card. Musial did. The retired Cardinals star continues to be featured on Topps baseball cards today.

(In the book “Musial: From Stash to Stan the Man” (2001, Missouri), author James N. Giglio claims “insufficient compensation” was the reason Musial didn’t sign with Topps until 1958.)

When Topps issued its first baseball cards in 1951, the look and feel were more like a deck of playing cards, or game cards for a baseball board game.

The 1951 cards came in two styles: with red backs and with blue backs. The front of the cards featured a player’s face bordered by a baseball diamond. The backs of the cards were colored either red or blue and offered no statistical information.

The red backs and blue backs were issued at the same time.

Two Cardinals _ pitcher Howie Pollet and outfielder Tommy Glaviano _ were part of the red backs. Six Cardinals _ pitchers Gerry Staley, Red Munger and Harry Breechen; second baseman Red Schoendienst; outfielder Enos Slaughter; and third baseman Billy Johnson _ were part of the blue backs.

The series had 52 red back and 52 blue back cards. There also were special-feature team cards and all-star cards. These included a Cardinals team card and an all-star card of retired Cardinals pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander.

In 1952, Topps issued a 407-card set that is the prototype for the traditional baseball card, with statistics on the back and designed images of players on the front.

The first Cardinal to appear in the 1952 set was catcher Johnny Bucha (card No. 19). Bucha played in a total of 24 games for the Cardinals over two seasons (1948 and ’50) but didn’t play in any games for St. Louis in 1952.

Previously: The story behind Stan Musial’s $100,000 contract

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Rick Ankiel will be the last Cardinal to wear uniform number 24.

The Cardinals’ decision to retire No. 24 in honor of Hall of Fame manager Whitey Herzog will assure that no St. Louis manager, coach or player will wear that uniform number again.

Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Herzog wore uniform number 3 when he was named Cardinals manager in June 1980. Infielder Ken Oberkfell wore No. 24. After the season, he switched to No. 10 so that Herzog could take No. 24. Oberkfell had worn No. 24 from 1977-80.

Before Oberkfell, the most prominent Cardinal to wear No. 24 was shortstop Dick Groat from 1963-65.

Thanks to Birdbat _ a Web site devoted to the history of Cardinals uniform numbers _ here are the Cardinals who wore No. 24 after Herzog resigned as manager in 1990:

NO. 24…………………….POSITION……………………YEARS

Don Baylor………………coach………………………..1992

Bryan Eversgerd………pitcher………………………1994

Tom Urbani…………….pitcher………………………1995-96

Dmitri Young…………..first baseman……………..1996-97

Rich Croushore………..pitcher……………………..1998

Eric Davis……………….outfielder………………….1999-2000

Bobby Bonilla………….outfielder………………….2001

Joe Pettini………………coach……………………….2002-2007

Rick Ankiel……………..outfielder………………….2007-2009

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