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In his first spring training as a big-league player, Stan Musial felt the pressure of high expectations, went into a slump and nearly lost a starting spot in the Cardinals outfield.

stan_musial32Seventy-five years ago, in 1942, Musial, 21, reported to spring training at St. Petersburg, Fla., as the favorite to join veterans Terry Moore and Enos Slaughter as outfield starters.

A year earlier, Musial had faced an uncertain baseball future when he converted from pitcher to outfielder at the Cardinals’ minor-league spring training camp. The transformation was a spectacular success, with Musial rapidly rising through the Cardinals system and reaching the big leagues in September 1941.

Based on his strong but brief trial _ .426 batting average (20-for-47) in 12 games with the 1941 Cardinals _ Musial was firmly in the club’s plans entering spring training in 1942.

The Natural

The 1942 Cardinals were seeking to fill a gap at first base created by the departure of slugger Johnny Mize, who was traded to the Giants in December 1941.

The Cardinals entered 1942 spring training expecting Johnny Hopp and rookie Ray Sanders to compete for the first base job. Hopp had platooned in left field with Don Padgett and Coaker Triplett in 1941. With Hopp shifting to first base, the Cardinals pegged Musial to take over in left field.

“We lost a little strength in Mize, to be sure, but Johnny Hopp, Stan Musial and others will help to make it up,” Cardinals executive Branch Rickey told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in its Feb. 22, 1942, edition.

Musial reported to Cardinals camp on Feb. 27. The next day, the St. Louis Star-Times reported, “You can take it from Billy Southworth, who manages the St. Louis Cardinals and has been in organized baseball for 30 years, that Stan Musial … is the best-looking young left-handed batter to come up to the major leagues since Paul Waner jumped from San Francisco to Pittsburgh in 1926.”

Southworth told Sid Keener of the Star-Times that Musial “is destined to become the rookie of the year” in the National League in 1942.

“He does everything well and looks like he’s been doing it for years the way he runs the bases,” Southworth said. “What is even more amazing is the fact that only a year ago he was a pitcher, just out of the Class D ranks. He hits straightaway like a seasoned veteran.”

In the groove

Musial did well at the start of the Grapefruit League exhibition season. In the opener, on March 6 against the Yankees, Musial hit an inside-the-park home run off Hank Borowy and also produced a RBI-double and a single. Four days later, Musial had two singles and a RBI against the Reds.

Analyzing Musial’s batting stroke, J. Roy Stockton of the Post-Dispatch observed:

“He has an impressive style at bat. He keeps that left arm stiff and swings in a flat arc, which undoubtedly accounts for the fact that he hits so many line drives. Occasionally, he will get under the ball, driving it over the right-field barrier … Musial seems to take a short swing, but his timing is so excellent and his coordination so good that he gets unexpected distance with his drives. His swing reminds you of the drives of a golfer whose game is well-grooved.”

Said Southworth: “Much depends this year on Stan Musial. I’d say he already was one of our key men.”

Facing a challenge

Musial, however, went into a skid the last three weeks of March and his batting average dropped to .194.

In his 1964 book “Stan Musial: The Man’s Own Story,” Musial said he had trouble adjusting to the poor hitting background at Florida ballparks.

While Musial struggled, another rookie left fielder, Harry Walker, 23, hit consistently well for the Cardinals that spring. Unlike Musial, Walker didn’t have the burden of high expectations and the pressure that came with it.

Entering April, the Cardinals conceded Walker was a contender for the starting left field job. “Walker seems to have found himself,” Southworth said. “He has quit pressing and is just about a 100 percent better ballplayer than he was last spring.”

In his book, Musial said, “If I hadn’t come up to the Cardinals in the fall of 1941 and hit so hard, I’m convinced I would have been sent down in the spring of 1942 because I hit so softly … I was a lemon in the Grapefruit League.”

Blessing from boss

On April 3, near the end of the Cardinals’ time in Florida, Musial broke out of his slump with an inside-the-park home run and a single against the Tigers.

Soon after, when the Cardinals left Florida to return to St. Louis for a set of exhibition games against the Browns before opening the regular season at home, Southworth approached Musial and said, “Don’t worry, Stan. You’re my left fielder. You can do it.”

Said Musial: “Billy had a way with young players. His confidence when I was hitting under .200 helped.”

Musial was the 1942 Cardinals’ Opening Day left fielder. He went on to have a strong first full season in the big leagues, batting .315 with 147 hits in 140 games. Musial produced 32 doubles, 10 triples, 10 home runs and had a on-base percentage of .397.

Musial was a key contributor to a Cardinals club that clinched the NL pennant with a 106-48 record and went on to win four of five against the Yankees in the World Series.

Previously: Why Cardinals traded Johnny Mize to Giants

In a classic clash of individual free will versus organizational authority, Al Hrabosky challenged the rules of manager Vern Rapp, creating a controversy that threatened to divide the Cardinals during spring training in 1977.

al_hrabosky3Forty years ago, Rapp, the Cardinals’ first-year manager, had declared no Cardinals player could have a beard, moustache, long sideburns or long hair. Hrabosky, the Cardinals’ top relief pitcher, had earned the nickname “Mad Hungarian,” in part, because of an intimidating look that featured a Fu Manchu moustache.

Bristling at what he considered unnecessarily rigid rules and convinced a clean-shaven look hampered his effectiveness as a pitcher, Hrabosky ripped Rapp in comments to media.

For Rapp, who never had been in the big leagues until replacing the popular Red Schoendienst as manager, Hrabosky’s outburst was a critical test of his ability to command the respect of the team.

Spirit of St. Louis

A St. Louis native, Rapp was a catcher in the Cardinals’ system from 1946-50 and from 1953-54. He was a Cardinals minor-league manager from 1965-68 before moving to the Reds organization.

After the Cardinals fired Schoendienst, they hired Rapp because of a no-nonsense reputation.

Before leaving for 1977 spring training at St. Petersburg, Fla., Rapp, 48, revealed his edict on hair.

“Rapp’s tonsorial order took priority over a lot more important matters among St. Louis fans,” The Sporting News reported. “The two daily newspapers were swamped with letters, most of them in favor of the manager.”

In explaining why he implemented the ban, Rapp told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “I’ve had those codes on teams I’ve managed since 1965. It’s to give the players a feeling of being responsible to the profession they’re in. The dress and hair codes reflect their character and personality to the public. It’s a big way they can start developing pride.”

Rapp’s rules

Most Cardinals players reported to spring training clean-shaven and with haircuts. Third baseman Ken Reitz “was asked by the manager to get his hair trimmed and did, but not enough to suit Rapp,” the Post-Dispatch reported.

“There are a couple of others who still didn’t get their hair trimmed enough at the sides, but they will,” Rapp said.

The first player to challenge the rule was outfielder Bake McBride, who attempted to keep a goatee.

When Rapp ordered McBride to shave, McBride responded, “You’re going to make enemies.”

Said Rapp: “I didn’t come down here to win friends.”

Hrabosky, ever the showman, invited the media to film and photograph him as he shaved his Fu Manchu and beard.

The hair code wasn’t the only change introduced by Rapp. He issued daily step-by-step mimeographed instructions to the players, gave them identical team exercise suits to wear, required them to attend a demonstration by coach Sonny Ruberto on how uniforms should be worn and scheduled workouts before and after lunch.

After the Cardinals were beaten, 10-0, by the Mets in their spring training opener, “Rapp sent his players on a 15-lap tour from first to home,” the Post-Dispatch reported.

Hate mood

Hrabosky initially tried to use his unhappiness with the hair code as motivation to pitch well.

“I want to prove to Rapp that I’m his No. 1 relief pitcher,” Hrabosky said. “I want to be his No. 1 stopper. I wanted to be in a hate mood and Rapp put me there by taking away my beard and moustache. But, look, I super-like Vern. I want to help him, help the ballclub and help myself. He has aroused something in me to fight back.”

A few days later, though, Hrabosky directed his frustration at Rapp.

Al apologizes

On March 20, Hrabosky told the Associated Press: “My mental outlook is atrocious. There’s more dissension on this club than I’ve ever seen.”

That same day, Hrabosky told United Press International his teammates were being stifled by Rapp. “The guys are just standing still,” Hrabosky said. “The reason is they’re afraid to move.”

Informed of Hrabosky’s comments, Rapp told the Post-Dispatch, “I just don’t understand it.”

Before the Cardinals left for their March 21 exhibition game against the Red Sox at Winter Haven, Fla., Rapp called a team meeting.

“I wanted to get everything out in the open,” Rapp said. “I wanted the players to know that I am the manager of this team. They fully realize this and they are willing to accept it.”

Hrabosky stood up at the meeting and apologized.

“I’m man enough to admit I was wrong … I’m going to keep my mouth shut and do what I have to do,” Hrabosky told the Post-Dispatch. “I offended Vern. I feel I threatened his helm. As a team member, I felt I had no right to say what I did.”

Catcher Ted Simmons, the only other player to speak at the meeting, urged his teammates to conduct themselves professionally. Said Simmons of Rapp: “He is the manager and that’s that. If he wants you to stand on your head, then you should do it.”

Family feud

The Cardinals opened the regular season on April 7 and beat the Pirates, 12-6, at Pittsburgh. Hrabosky pitched 2.1 innings and helped protect the win for starter John Denny.

Afterward, a jubilant Hrabosky was asked by The Sporting News to reflect on his spring training criticism of Rapp. “Maybe I was a little selfish and a little childish about the matter,” Hrabosky said. “I accept it now.”

Peace, though, wasn’t long-lasting.

In May, Rapp suspended Hrabosky for insubordination after the pitcher refused the manager’s request to meet.

In June, McBride, who remained unhappy with Rapp, was traded to the Phillies.

In July, with Hrabosky beginning to grow facial hair and threatening to file a grievance with the players’ union, Cardinals owner Gussie Busch ordered Rapp to discontinue the hair code.

Hrabosky led the 1977 Cardinals in saves (10) and games pitched (65) but his ERA was 4.38. After the season, he was traded to the Royals.

Rapp was fired in April 1978 and replaced by Ken Boyer.

Previously: The pitfalls of Cardinals rookie manager Vern Rapp

Benefiting from the wisdom and experience of master instructors, Mike Shannon was a willing pupil in a grand experiment that was integral to the Cardinals becoming World Series champions in 1967.

mike_shannon6Seeking a starting third baseman, the Cardinals decided to give Shannon first crack at earning the job during spring training at St. Petersburg, Fla., 50 years ago.

Cardinals manager Red Schoendienst and instructor George Kissell developed a series of drills to convert Shannon from right fielder to third baseman.

The Cardinals needed to replace third baseman Charlie Smith, who had been traded to the Yankees for right fielder Roger Maris in December 1966.

Shannon had batted .288 with 16 home runs and 64 RBI as St. Louis’ right fielder in 1966. Schoendienst wanted to keep Shannon’s bat in the lineup in 1967, joining first baseman Orlando Cepeda and Maris in forming a potentially potent trio of RBI producers.

Moving Shannon to third would enable the Cardinals to have both Maris and Shannon in the lineup.

The conversion, though, wouldn’t be easy.

Head start

Shannon’s main competitors within the Cardinals for the starting third base job were Ed Spiezio, Phil Gagliano, Jerry Buchek and Ted Savage. None, though, were considered Shannon’s equal in hitting with power and driving in runs.

Before pitchers and catchers reported for spring training, the Cardinals held a special instructional camp starting Feb. 17 at St. Petersburg, with Schoendienst, Kissell and coach Joe Schultz as teachers.

The Cardinals invited eight players _ Shannon, Gagliano, Buchek, Savage, infielder Jimy Williams, outfielders Bobby Tolan and Alex Johnson, and catcher Pat Corrales _ to the camp. Spiezio would have been invited but was excused because he had played winter ball in the Caribbean.

“The Shannon-at-third experiment is rated a longshot by most observers,” The Sporting News reported.

Schoendienst and his assistants devised infield workouts to determine whether Shannon could be effective at third base.

In the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, journalist J. Roy Stockton observed: “Schoendienst is giving Shannon and other infielders the toughest defensive drills they probably have ever seen. … Instead of fielding friendly grounders off a fungo stick, the athletes had to handle the most difficult chances.”

With Kissell pitching to Schoendienst, the manager hit the ball to the infielders.

“Red still can swing a vicious bat with unusual place-hitting skill,” Stockton wrote. “The infielders never knew who was going to have to tackle the next shot off the manager’s bat.”

Bat man

Shannon did well enough at the instructional camp _ “So far, so good,” Schoendienst told The Sporting News _ to enter spring training as No. 1 on the depth chart at third base.

“I prefer Shannon because he has the best bat of anybody we might consider for third base,” Schoendienst said. “Another reason is that Mike will tackle anything and give it a real try. He’s that kind of guy.”

Bob Broeg, Post-Dispatch sport editor, opined: “If Shannon … can be in the lineup with his aggressive bat, the Redbirds’ attack will be considerably stronger than if the club is forced to give up and return him to compete in an outfield overcrowded with talent.”

Shannon, however, struggled with his fielding during spring exhibition games.

“Mike isn’t reacting quite as well … because he’s got his hands on his knees and his weight back on his heels,” Schoendienst said. “He doesn’t come up on the balls of his feet, hands loose in front of him, ready to go in any direction with the pitch. He’s got to concentrate better, too.”

Hot pepper

With the season opener about two weeks away, Schoendienst intensified his work with Shannon.

“Schoendienst took him to the private infield beyond the left-field fence at Al Lang Field and brought along virtually the entire pitching staff,” Broeg reported.

Schoendienst wanted Shannon and the pitchers to work together at calling plays and handling bunts.

Afterward, “Schoendienst slashed and lashed hot grounders and line drives at Shannon in a torrid one-man pepper game,” Broeg observed. “Shannon’s cap was off, his black hair matted with perspiration as he lunged left, then right and threw his hands up in self-defense as Schoendienst smashed the ball at him … from a distance of no more than 40 feet.”

Said Cardinals shortstop Dal Maxvill: “I feel sorry for Mike. He’s really giving it the old try. Red has been hitting balls at him like that every day. Mike really wants to make it.”

Making the grade

Shannon produced 19 RBI in Florida Grapefruit League spring training games, validating the Cardinals’ view that his bat was needed.

Named the starter at third base, Shannon pulled a muscle in his left side in the April 11 season opener and didn’t return to the lineup until April 23.

As the Cardinals hoped, Shannon played well enough at third base and delivered run production. He had 12 home runs and 77 RBI. Only Cepeda, with 111, drove in more runs for the 1967 Cardinals.

Batting primarily in the fifth and sixth spots in the order, Shannon hit .293 with runners in scoring position.

Shannon played in 123 regular-season games at third base and made 29 errors. He also committed two errors in seven World Series games.

Still, with Shannon providing punch and Maris delivering timely hitting and solid defense in right field, the 1967 Cardinals finished at 101-60, 10.5 games ahead of the second-place Giants, and won four of seven from the Red Sox in the World Series.

Previously: Ted Savage had long, fruitful 2nd career with Cardinals

In his bid to join the Cardinals, Red Schoendienst had no trouble with the baseball skills part of the challenge. It was the hassle of everyday life that proved to be his biggest obstacle to becoming a professional player.

red_schoendienst12Seventy-five years ago, in 1942, Schoendienst impressed the Cardinals at a tryout camp and earned a contract, launching him on a career that would lead to election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and special status as a beloved franchise icon.

Displaying the tenacity that enabled him to spend eight decades in the big leagues as a player, manager, coach and advisor, Schoendienst overcame a series of roadblocks _ from serious to annoying _ to give himself a chance to receive an offer from the Cardinals.

Damaging accident

Schoendienst was born and raised in Germantown, Ill., about 40 miles from St. Louis. In 1939, at 16, Schoendienst quit high school and got a job in the Civilian Conservation Corps. He played amateur baseball after work and on weekends.

While on the job, Schoendienst and a friend, Joe Linneman, were building fences.

In the 1998 book “Red: A Baseball Life,” Linneman recalled: “We would stretch the wire as tight as we could get it and then use a hammer to drive a staple into a dry hedge post, which was almost as hard as a piece of steel.”

As Linneman slammed the hammer into a post, a staple caromed off the hardwood and into Schoendienst’s left eye.

“It was,” said Schoendienst, “the most intense pain I’ve ever felt in my life.”

Doctors wanted to remove the eye, but Schoendienst objected. Under treatment, Schoendienst’s sight gradually improved.

Three years later, he felt confident enough in his vision to pursue a career with the Cardinals.

Big city

In 1942, Schoendienst and Linneman noticed a newspaper item about a Cardinals tryout camp to be held at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis. Anyone attending the camp would be admitted for free to a Cardinals game against the Dodgers that week.

Neither Schoendienst nor Linneman had been to a big-league game, so they decided to take part in the camp. “I don’t think either one of us went to that tryout camp thinking we had it made,” Schoendienst said in his book.

Lacking a car or the money for bus fare, Schoendienst, 19, and Linneman hitched a ride on a dairy truck and were dropped off about a mile and a half from the ballpark. They walked the rest of the way.

Schoendienst and Linneman were among the players who performed well enough at the daylong camp to get an invitation to return for more workouts the next day.

Linneman planned to spend the night at the home of an aunt in suburban St. Louis. He invited his friend to come along, but Schoendienst didn’t want to impose.

Possessing 25 cents, Schoendienst went to a diner and spent 10 cents on a hot dog. A sympathetic waitress brought the freckle-faced teenager a glass of milk on the house.

Afterward, Schoendienst went to the train terminal at Union Station and planned to spend the night on a bench. When he was ushered out by security, he found a bench in a nearby park.

Then it rained.

With his remaining 15 cents, a tired, soaked Schoendienst rented a room at a flophouse. He awoke the next morning covered in insect bites.

“When I got to the ballpark, they gave me some lotion to put on the bites, but I think that was part of the reason I moved so fast that day,” Schoendienst said. “I made up my mind I was going to swallow my pride and stay with Joe’s aunt the next night _ and I did.”

Impressive prospects

Schoendienst’s tryout lasted a week. Near the end, Cardinals executive Branch Rickey drove Schoendienst and two other standouts from the camp _ Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola _ to Forest Park for a workout because there wasn’t enough room at the ballpark.

“He was a terrible driver,” Schoendienst said of Rickey. “That car ride was scary. He was talking and driving like there was nobody else on the road.”

During the workout, Schoendienst, Berra and Garagiola took turns hitting against one another. (Garagiola would sign with the Cardinals but Berra went with the Yankees.)

When the training camp ended, Schoendienst hitchhiked back to Germantown. Soon after, Cardinals scout Joe Mathes asked Schoendienst to return to St. Louis _ again he hitched a ride on a dairy truck _ and signed him to a contract for $75 per month.

Rise through ranks

The Cardinals assigned Schoendienst to their Union City, Tenn., team in the Class D Kitty League. After Schoendienst played six games at shortstop for Union City, batting .407 (11-for-27), the Kitty League folded and he was sent to Albany, Ga., of the Class D Georgia-Florida League. His teammate there was his friend, Linneman, who had been signed by the Cardinals as a pitcher.

With his weak left eye causing him problems against right-handed pitchers, Schoendienst became a switch hitter. He batted .269 in 68 games for Albany in 1942, but also committed 27 errors at shortstop.

From there, Schoendienst made a meteoric rise through the organization.

In 1943, a year after his tryout with the Cardinals, Schoendienst, a shortstop for manager Pepper Martin’s Class AA Rochester, N.Y., team, was named Most Valuable Player of the International League. Though he committed 48 errors at shortstop, Schoendienst batted .337 with 187 hits and 20 stolen bases in 136 games.

Schoendienst “showed poise and an instinct for doing the right thing,” The Sporting News reported, and added he “gets a good jump on a ball, owns a good pair of hands and strong arm.”

In October 1943, Cardinals owner Sam Breadon told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that Schoendienst “is a great prospect, but needs experience.”

Two years later, in 1945, Schoendienst, 22, debuted with the Cardinals and primarily played left field. He shifted to second base in 1946 and was named an all-star that season.

Previously: How Bill Bergesch got Bob Gibson to Cardinals

When Hoyt Wilhelm joined the Cardinals, he was an accomplished relief pitcher who was headed on a path toward election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. His stint with the Cardinals, however, turned out to be a detour rather than an avenue toward success.

hoyt_wilhelmSixty years ago, on Feb. 26, 1957, the Cardinals acquired Wilhelm from the Giants for Whitey Lockman, a first baseman and outfielder.

On the surface, it appeared to be a steal for St. Louis.

Wilhelm, 34, had produced a 42-25 record with 41 saves and a 2.98 ERA in five seasons (1952-56) with the Giants.

Lockman, 30, had batted .249 with no home runs in 70 games for the 1956 Cardinals. He didn’t fit into the Cardinals’ plans for 1957.

Help wanted

Wilhelm, a knuckleball specialist, had been a rookie sensation for the Giants in 1952 when he produced a 15-3 record, 11 saves and a 2.43 ERA. For the pennant-winning 1954 Giants, Wilhelm was 12-4 with seven saves and a 2.10 ERA.

Though his ERA increased to 3.93 in 1955 and 3.83 in 1956, Wilhelm still was regarded as a likely boon to the Cardinals’ bullpen. Larry Jackson, a converted starter, had been their top reliever in 1956.

Wilhelm became available because of the Giants’ need for help at first base and left field. Lockman could play both positions.

The Giants’ 1956 starters at those positions _ first baseman Bill White and left fielder Jackie Brandt _ were in military service in 1957. Initially, the Giants attempted to replace White with Jackie Robinson, who was acquired from the Dodgers in December 1956, but Robinson retired and the deal was voided.

Frank Lane, Cardinals general manager, told The Sporting News he doubted St. Louis could have obtained Wilhelm if Robinson had reported to the Giants.

Insider tips

Before making the trade, Lane asked Cardinals manager Fred Hutchinson whether St. Louis had a catcher who could handle Wilhelm’s knuckleball. Hutchinson “assured Lane that Hal Smith could master the assignment,” The Sporting News reported.

Smith was the Cardinals’ starting catcher and Hobie Landrith was his backup. Lane and Hutchinson arranged for their catchers to have a dinner meeting with Tigers scout Rick Ferrell, who had caught five knuckleball pitchers while with the Senators, to get insights into how to deal with the elusive pitch.

Asked about the session with Ferrell, Landrith told Bob Broeg of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “He advised us not to crouch or squat as low when catching knuckleball pitchers as we would for others. He told us that from a half standing position … we could move laterally better and also drop on a knuckler falling off the table.”

Wilhelm was one of three pitchers with the 1957 Cardinals who threw a knuckleball. The others were Murry Dickson and Jim Davis.

“The thing about a good knuckler is that it’s tough to hit whether you’re hitting .300 or .200,” said the Cardinals’ best hitter, Stan Musial. “It jumps around like mercury in a bottle.”

Said Wilhelm: “The biggest factor in your knuckler is the wind condition. It’s a non-rotating pitch and therefore does better the more resistance it meets, meaning against the wind. When the wind is blowing in _ from behind the pitcher _ the knuckler seldom will do anything. Then it’s only a mediocre pitch and you’re a batting practice target.”

Disappointing results

After a good spring training _ “Wilhelm, working almost every other day, has looked like money in the bank,” The Sporting News opined _ Wilhelm had a poor start to the 1957 season. He didn’t earn his first save until May 24 when he lowered his ERA from 6.11 to 5.89.

Wilhelm had one stellar month _ six saves and a 1.88 ERA in June _ but he otherwise was unimpressive.

Though the Cardinals contended with the Braves for the 1957 National League pennant, Hutchinson lost confidence in Wilhelm, who made just two appearances for St. Louis in September.

Wilhelm said he needed to pitch regularly in order to regain effectiveness with his knuckleball. When Hutchinson stopped using him, Wilhelm had trouble controlling the knuckleball.

On Sept. 21, the Cardinals sent Wilhelm to the Indians for the waiver price. He had a 1-4 record, a team-leading 11 saves and a 4.25 ERA in 40 appearances for the Cardinals.

When Hutchinson informed Wilhelm that the Cardinals had dealt him, the pitcher shook hands with the manager and said, “It’s good to have been with you. I’m sorry I couldn’t help you more.”

Wilhelm went on to pitch in 1,070 big-league games. The only right-handers who have pitched in more big-league games are fellow Hall of Famers Mariano Rivera (1,115) and Dennis Eckersley (1,071). Wilhelm was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1985 and was the first reliever to earn the honor.

Previously: Enduring record: Stan Musial and his 5 homers in a day

The relationship formed by Ozzie Canseco and the Cardinals was based on mutual need rather than mutual affection. Neither expected it to last long.

ozzie_cansecoCanseco, after flopping during a stint in Japan, was looking to revive his career in the United States in order to make himself appealing in the National League expansion draft.

The Cardinals were seeking a slugger to generate fan interest at their top farm club in Louisville.

Twenty-five years ago, in January 1992, the Cardinals signed Canseco, a free agent, to a minor-league contract. It was the start of a relationship that would take several twists and turns.

Changing roles

Ozzie and his twin brother Jose were born in Cuba on July 2, 1964. Jose became a standout on three pennant-winning Athletics teams managed by Tony La Russa. Ozzie entered the Yankees organization in 1983 as a pitcher.

“He had a good breaking ball and he could throw hard,” Bucky Dent, Ozzie’s manager with the Class A Fort Lauderdale Yankees, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “We liked him a lot as a pitcher, but he was always wanting to switch over (to outfield).”

Said Ozzie: “I asked them every year, ‘Please let me make the transition from pitching to hitting.’ ”

In 1986, Ozzie got his wish. Released by the Yankees, he signed with the Athletics and became an outfielder. In 1990, Ozzie made his major-league debut with the Athletics as a teammate of Jose. Appearing in nine games, Ozzie batted .105.

Oh, brother

Jose was one of baseball’s top players. In 1988, when he won the American League Most Valuable Player Award, Jose became the first big-league player to have 40 home runs and 40 steals in a season.

“Jose cast a tremendous shadow over me because of who he is, because we’re identical twins,” Ozzie told Scripps Howard News Service. “… When I was trying to make the transition from pitcher to hitter, people expected me to hit like Jose did and I had a problem with that.”

Released by the Athletics after the 1990 season, Ozzie signed with the Kintetsu Buffaloes of the Japanese Pacific League.

“I basically went over there to learn how to hit the breaking ball,” Ozzie told the Post-Dispatch. “The forkball, the slider _ that’s all you see over there if you’re a power hitter.”

However, Ozzie never made it to the majors in Japan. Instead, the Buffaloes assigned him to their minor-league club at Osaka. Ozzie left after 38 games and returned home to Miami.

Louisville lumber

When the NL announced plans to expand in 1993 to Miami and Denver, Ozzie saw opportunity. If he could have a strong season in 1992, he believed the Marlins, with a large fan base of Cuban-Americans, would select him in the expansion draft. First, though, he needed to find a team to play for in 1992.

Ted Simmons, Cardinals player development director, was seeking veterans to stock the Louisville roster. He offered Ozzie a contract.

“This is purely a ‘Come to spring training and show me what you got’ type of deal,” Simmons said.

Ozzie showed enough to make Louisville’s Opening Day roster. He started belting home runs, many prodigious.

In July 1992, the Post-Dispatch reported Ozzie “is drawing fans and drawing respect as one of the most feared power hitters in the American Association.”

Cardinals management took notice. Though Ozzie struck out 96 times in 98 games with Louisville, he slugged 22 home runs. When big-league rosters expanded on Sept. 1, Ozzie, 28, was one of the players the Cardinals promoted.

Ozzie got into nine games with the 1992 Cardinals. He hit .276 with no home runs and made several fielding mistakes before he injured his right shoulder.

Still, the Cardinals saw enough to view him as a potential contributor in 1993.

“He has raw power,” said Cardinals hitting coach Don Baylor.

In November 1992, Ozzie was one of 15 players the Cardinals protected from the expansion draft.

Spring disappointment

Ozzie’s hopes of sticking with the Cardinals got a boost in February 1993 when St. Louis traded starting right fielder Felix Jose to the Royals for first baseman Gregg Jefferies. The Cardinals declared Brian Jordan and Ozzie the candidates to compete in spring training for the starting right fielder job.

“I want to see them both play and see who wins it,” said manager Joe Torre. “I don’t think it’s Jordan’s job to lose.”

Cardinals general manager Dal Maxvill said of Ozzie: “What we saw at the Triple-A level was that he could hit the ball out of any ballpark … We don’t have anybody with that kind of power and really haven’t had in the organization for a long time.”

Asked about Ozzie’s outfield skills, Maxvill replied, “He’s no Willie McGee or Willie Mays … but he did a very adequate job.”

“Mainly,” Maxvill concluded, “he needs to whack the ball for us.”

After hitting .192 in his first 10 spring training games, Ozzie finished as the 1993 Cardinals’ Grapefruit League leader in home runs (4) and RBI (14).

Neither he nor Jordan, though, won the job.

On March 31, the Cardinals traded pitcher Mark Clark to the Indians for Mark Whiten and named him their starter in right field.

Ozzie was demoted to Louisville.

“I thought I did well enough to make the team,” Ozzie said. “I’m disappointed.”

Farewell, St. Louis

Ozzie went on a tear at Louisville, hitting nine home runs. On May 5, he was brought back to the Cardinals.

He floundered in the field, however, and hit .176 with no home runs in six games. The Cardinals returned him to Louisville.

Ozzie continued to slug home runs for Louisville _ 13 in 44 games _ but he also struck out 59 times. On June 11, Ozzie informed the Cardinals he was quitting.

“It got to a point where I was miserable and it seemed like I was constantly fighting an uphill battle,” Ozzie said.

Said Maxvill: “He definitely had gone backwards in all aspects and complained the whole way. So I guess he needs a career change and, quite frankly, it’s probably a good idea.”

Ozzie sat out the rest of the season. On Dec. 14, 1993, the Cardinals traded him to the Brewers for minor-league outfielder Tony Diggs.

Ozzie played professional baseball for several more seasons, including a stint in the Mexican League, but he never returned to the majors after his trials with the 1992-93 Cardinals.

Previously: How a tragic accident brought Mark Whiten to Cards