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Eric Davis, who conquered cancer, convinced the Cardinals he could help them as an inspirational and productive player.

Twenty years ago, on Nov. 19, 1998, Davis, a free-agent outfielder, signed a contract with the Cardinals for two years at $8 million.

Davis, 36, was acquired to provide run production, defense and clubhouse leadership for an underachieving Cardinals club. Even with Mark McGwire clouting 70 home runs, the Cardinals finished 83-79, 19 wins fewer than the division champion Astros, in 1998.

A year earlier, in May 1997, Davis was diagnosed with colon cancer, had a portion of his colon removed and underwent months of chemotherapy treatment. Remarkably, Davis returned to the Orioles in September 1997 and played well in the last weeks of the season. In 1998, Davis performed like a player in his prime, producing a 30-game hitting streak and batting .327 with 28 home runs and 89 RBI for the Orioles.

A star is born

Davis made his major-league debut with the Reds on May 19, 1984, against the Cardinals and soon displayed a special combination of power and speed. His first big-league hit was a triple off Dave LaPoint.

In 1986, Davis had 27 home runs and 80 stolen bases for the Reds. Over the next three seasons, 1987-89, Davis won three Gold Glove awards and excelled on offense, too. He produced 37 home runs, 100 RBI and 50 steals in 1987, 26 home runs, 93 RBI and 35 steals in 1988, and 34 home runs, 101 RBI and 21 steals in 1989.

The Reds won the National League pennant in 1990 and advanced to the World Series against manager Tony La Russa’s American League champion Athletics. In Game 4, with the Reds on the verge of a sweep, Davis suffered a lacerated kidney when he dived for a drive by Willie McGee.

After that, Davis experienced a series of injuries and setbacks. The Reds traded him to the Dodgers after the 1991 season. Two years later, on July 24, 1993, Davis was with Vince Coleman when the former Cardinal tossed a powerful explosive device into a parking lot and injured three people. A month later, the Dodgers dealt Davis to the Tigers.

In 1994, Davis underwent surgery for a herniated disc in his neck and voluntarily sat out the 1995 season. In 1996, he made a successful comeback with the Reds, hitting 26 home runs, and became a free agent after the season, signing with the Orioles.

Profile in courage

On June 13, 1997, Davis had surgery for colon cancer. He returned to the Orioles on Sept. 15, 1997, while still undergoing weekly chemotherapy treatments and hit .310 in eight games that month, helping the club secure a berth in the postseason.

Davis’ courageous return in 1997 positioned him for more achievements in 1998. The 1998 Orioles were loaded with big hitters such as Cal Ripken Jr., Roberto Alomar, Rafael Palmeiro, Harold Baines and Brady Anderson. Davis led the club in batting average (.327), on-base percentage (.388) and slugging percentage (.582).

Baltimore Sun columnist John Eisenberg called Davis “a positive and inspirational leader in a sour clubhouse.”

Davis expressed interest in staying with the Orioles, but wanted $8 million for two years. The Orioles offered him two years at $5.6 million, the Sun reported.

“They were either forcing me to leave, or to come in at a lower salary than I deserved,” Davis said. “I wasn’t looking forward to leaving Baltimore, but it became clear I wasn’t part of their thinking.”

Meet me in St. Louis

Davis told his agent the Cardinals would be one of his top choices if they showed interest. The Cardinals, looking to restructure their outfield, gave Davis what he wanted.

The Cardinals “are getting one of baseball’s best guys,” declared the Sun.

Davis said he was glad he’d be playing for La Russa, who left the Athletics after the 1995 season to manage the Cardinals, and joining a lineup with players such as McGwire and Ray Lankford.

“Their interest is winning now,” Davis explained to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I’m 36 years old. I can’t be part of rebuilding.”

On the day the Cardinals signed Davis, they also traded outfielder Ron Gant and pitchers Jeff Brantley and Cliff Politte to the Phillies for pitchers Ricky Bottalico and Garrett Stephenson. With Gant gone and outfielder Brian Jordan soon to depart as a free agent, the Cardinals projected a 1999 outfield of Davis in right, J.D. Drew in center and Lankford in left.

“Anybody that knows about hard work, dedication, sacrifice and adversity, who better than I?” Davis said. “I’ve proven my leadership qualities over the years.”

Finishing strong

Davis made his regular-season Cardinals debut on April 5, 1999, in the opener against the Brewers at St. Louis. Batting cleanup behind McGwire and ahead of Fernando Tatis, Davis went 0-for-5 and struck out twice. Boxscore

On June 25, 1999, Davis made two diving catches to help Jose Jimenez preserve a no-hitter against the Diamondbacks, but damaged his left shoulder. Boxscore The injury caused Davis to sit out the last three months of the season and he underwent surgery to repair a torn left rotator cuff. In 58 games for the 1999 Cardinals, Davis hit .257 with 30 RBI and the club finished 75-86.

From the start, Davis’ second season with the Cardinals was more successful than the first. On April 3, 2000, in the Cardinals’ season opener against the Cubs at St. Louis, Davis, batting seventh behind Craig Paquette and ahead of Mike Matheny, hit a home run off Andrew Lorraine. Boxscore

A month later, on May 7, 2000, Davis hit a grand slam off Denny Neagle of the Reds at Cincinnati. Boxscore

As the designated hitter against the White Sox at Chicago, Davis produced the only five-hit game of his major-league career on July 15, 2000. Boxscore

With Lankford in left, Jim Edmonds in center and Davis platooning with Drew in right, the Cardinals finished 95-67 and won a division title. Davis hit .303 with 40 RBI in 92 games for the 2000 Cardinals. He batted .390 against left-handers and .321 with runners in scoring position.

After the Cardinals were eliminated in the National League Championship Series versus the Mets, Davis became a free agent, signed with the Giants and played his final big-league season for them in 2001.

Mort Cooper was a talented Cardinals pitcher with a troubled soul whose life was shortened by too much booze.

Sixty years ago, on Nov. 17, 1958, Cooper died at 45 in an Arkansas hospital. Death was caused by cirrhosis of the liver and a staph infection, according to published reports.

In the 1940s, Cooper was a Cardinals ace, a three-time 20-game winner and recipient of the 1942 National League Most Valuable Player Award. The right-hander was the top pitcher for pennant-winning Cardinals clubs in 1942, 1943 and 1944. His records those seasons were 22-7 in 1942, 21-8 in 1943 and 22-7 in 1944.

Off the field, Cooper was a carouser who drank to excess, wasted his earnings and resorted to petty crime.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bob Broeg described Cooper as “a great pitcher and pathetic figure, a simple fun-loving man for whom life became all too complicated and all too short.”

Climbing up

Mort Cooper was born in 1913 in Atherton, Mo. He and his younger brother, catcher Walker Cooper, played amateur baseball in the Ban Johnson League in Kansas City.

In 1933, Mort turn pro, played in the minors at the Class A level Western League and caught the attention of a Cardinals scout, who recommended him to club executive Branch Rickey. Mort signed with the Cardinals, who followed his suggestion and signed Walker, too.

Mort made his major-league debut with the Cardinals on Sept. 14, 1938, and two years later Walker joined him.

In June 1941, Mort had surgery to remove bone chips in his right elbow, but he recovered and became the Cardinals’ premier pitcher.

Cooper led the National League in wins (22), ERA (1.78) and shutouts (10) in 1942. He also was the league leader in wins (21) in 1943 when he pitched consecutive one-hitters and in shutouts (seven) in 1944.

“Except for Dizzy Dean, probably no pitcher ever had three more successful consecutive seasons in a Cardinals uniform than Mort Cooper,” the Post-Dispatch reported.

Among Cooper’s highlights were two World Series wins.

On the morning of Oct. 6, 1943, Mort and his brother were informed of the death of their father, but both decided to play that afternoon in Game 2 of the World Series at Yankee Stadium. Mort pitched a six-hitter and the Cardinals won, 4-3. Boxscore

The next year, Mort pitched a shutout with 12 strikeouts in Game 5 of the 1944 World Series versus the Browns. Boxscore

Even with his success, Cooper’s right elbow continued to bother him and he “chewed aspirin like peppermint to dull the physical distress during key games,” according to the Post-Dispatch.

Trials and tribulations

Meanwhile, Cooper experienced a series of personal troubles.

In 1936, his wife Mary was killed in a car accident, according to a report by the Society for American Baseball Research. Soon after, on Oct. 14, 1936, Cooper married Bernadine, 19, but his drinking strained the relationship.

As Bob Broeg slyly noted in the Post-Dispatch, Cooper’s career was a tribute to “his own private brand of courage. Usually, any brand was just fine with Mort.”

Cooper spent money freely and frivolously. “In many ways, Cooper never grew up,” the Associated Press surmised. “He used to spend a lot of money each month in gadget shops, buying odd things like water guns. He laughed fate in the face.”

On May 23, 1945, amid a contract dispute, the Cardinals traded Cooper to the Braves for pitcher Red Barrett and $60,000. Three months later, Cooper had a second operation on his right elbow.

Cooper’s elbow “had more chips than a gambling casino and sounded at times like dice thrown on a marble floor,” the Post-Dispatch reported.

On Nov. 6, 1945, Cooper’s second wife filed for divorce, claiming he had a violent temper and drank too much.

Hard road

Cooper married his third wife, Viola, in 1946 and had his last good season in the big leagues, posting a 13-11 record for the Braves.

In June 1947, the Braves traded Cooper to the Giants and he was 1-5 with a 7.12 ERA for them. Severely overweight, he announced his retirement during spring training in 1948.

A few months later, in October 1948, Cooper was arrested in St. Louis for passing bogus checks. Former Cardinals owner Sam Breadon came to his rescue, posting $2,000 in bonds for Cooper’s release. Soon after, charges against Cooper were dismissed by a St. Louis judge on the recommendation of the prosecuting attorney when Breadon made restitution on the $270 worth of bad checks, the St. Louis Star-Times reported.

“Mort is such a good-hearted fellow,” Breadon told The Sporting News. “When he was pitching for the Cards, he was probably the smartest pitcher in the business, but when it came to outside interests involving money he was just like a little child. He never did have any sense of business or of handling money.”

Breadon revealed Cooper “doesn’t have a cent of his baseball earnings left. He’s been a free spender.”

“I know he’s not a criminal,” Breadon said. “He wouldn’t harm anyone. On the contrary, he’d give you the shirt off his back.”

On Breadon’s recommendation, the Cubs gave Cooper a chance to make a comeback in 1949, but he pitched in one regular-season game for them, gave up a three-run home run to Duke Snider without retiring a batter and was released.

In his 11 seasons in the major leagues, Cooper posted a record of 128-75, including 105-50 with the Cardinals.

Life after baseball

Cooper eventually settled in Houston, worked as a security guard for a steel company and operated a small bar called “The Dugout.”

In August 1958, Bert West, a correspondent for the Victoria Advocate, visited Cooper at the bar and reported, “His various escapades on the personal life side apparently left him a lonely, but not bitter, man. He said that I was the first newspaperman he had seen in a long time and he had no contact with former players, except his brother, in several years.”

Two months after that, Cooper was traveling in Arkansas, where he reportedly intended to relocate, when he was admitted to a hospital on Oct. 31, 1958. He died there three weeks later. Cooper was survived by his wife, son, mother and several siblings, including his brother Walker.

About 150 people, including former Cardinals teammate Johnny Hopp, attended the funeral in Independence, Mo., according to United Press International.

In a column for the Chicago Tribune, David Condon concluded, “Mort never was one of fortune’s favorite children.”

Willie McCovey made the Cardinals pay for disrespecting an elder.

On June 15, 1979, with the score tied at 6-6, a Giants runner on second and two outs in the bottom of the 13th inning, the Cardinals opted to give an intentional walk to Jack Clark and take their chances with McCovey, who was 41 years old and in the twilight of a Hall of Fame career.

McCovey foiled the strategy, hitting the first pitch from Darold Knowles over the fence at Candlestick Park in San Francisco and lifting the Giants to a 9-6 walkoff victory.

McCovey, who died Oct. 31, 2018, at 80, hit 521 home runs, including 41 against the Cardinals, in a 22-year career in the big leagues with the Giants, Padres and Athletics.

One of his most impressive feats came in June 1979 when he silenced skeptics by hitting three home runs in less than 24 hours in a pair of wins against the Cardinals.

Still in the game

At spring training in 1979, critics clamored for the Giants to start Mike Ivie at first base instead of McCovey. Ivie was 26 and batted .308 for the Giants in 1978. McCovey hit .228 for the 1978 Giants and appeared to some to be finished as a ballplayer.

Ivie opened the 1979 season as the Giants’ first baseman but after two months his batting average was .244 and manager Joe Altobelli began playing McCovey more.

When the Cardinals came to San Francisco for a three-game series on June 15, 1979, McCovey was in the lineup as the cleanup batter and first baseman for the Friday night opener.

McCovey led off the fourth inning and lined a 3-and-0 pitch from starter Pete Vuckovich over the wall in left-center for a home run, giving the Giants a 2-1 lead.

The Giants led, 6-5, until the Cardinals got a run in the eighth.

McCovey nearly delivered a game-winning hit in the 11th. With one out and runners on second and first, McCovey hit a line drive to right-center. Rob Andrews, the runner on second, took off, thinking the ball was a hit, but right fielder George Hendrick was positioned to make the catch and throw to second before Andrews could get back, completing a double play.

“They had no business playing me the way they did,” McCovey said to United Press International. “Since when doesn’t the right fielder play me on the line? They did the wrong thing and got lucky.”

Big Mac attack

In the 13th, the Giants had Larry Herndon on first base, one out, when Andrews hit a bouncer to third baseman Ken Oberkfell, who was thinking he could turn a double play, but the ball struck Oberkfell in the chest and he was only able to get the out at first.

“I got caught between hops,” Oberkfell said to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

With Herndon on second, two outs, Clark was at the plate and McCovey was on deck. Clark, the future Cardinal, was a right-handed batter facing Knowles, a left-hander. After the count went to 2-and-0, Knowles was instructed to walk Clark intentionally.

McCovey batted left-handed and the Cardinals figured Knowles had a better chance of retiring him than he did Clark. McCovey had produced two hits in 14 career at-bats versus Knowles.

The strategy backfired. Knowles’ first pitch to McCovey was a mistake, “a hanging slider,” he said, and McCovey uncoiled his 6-foot-4 frame and crushed a towering drive over the fence in right-center for the sixth walkoff home run of his career.

“I knew it was gone the second I hit it,” McCovey said.

Knowles, disgusted, flung his glove into the air as McCovey circled the bases. Boxscore

Experience matters

The long game required a quick turnaround for the players, who returned to Candlestick Park the next morning, June 16, 1979, for a Saturday afternoon start time.

McCovey was back in the cleanup spot and in the third inning he hit a two-run home run against starter Silvio Martinez, extending the Giants’ lead to 3-0 and propelling them to a 6-1 triumph. Boxscore

“Willie McCovey is one of the chosen people,” Altobelli said to the San Francisco Examiner. “He’s a living legend.”

The home run was the sixth in McCovey’s last eight games.

“You can’t judge a guy on age,” McCovey said. “Guys over 35 can still do it, but for some reason you have to keep proving it. Our society is geared to youth and people are brainwashed that you have to be young to do anything.”

McCovey finished with 15 home runs in 1979 and he returned for a final season in 1980, enabling him to play in four decades during a big-league career started in 1959.

McCovey hit 421 of his career home runs against right-handers and he had success against several Cardinals, including Bob Gibson (.290 batting average against, seven home runs), Nelson Briles (.353, seven home runs) and Ray Washburn (.366, three home runs).

Tigers catcher Bill Freehan was a central character in one of the most controversial plays in Cardinals history.

In the 1968 World Series, the defending champion Cardinals won three of the first four games against the Tigers. Freehan was the goat. He went hitless in the first four games, made two errors and was tormented by Cardinals baserunners, especially Lou Brock, who swiped seven bases.

Things changed in Game 5 at Tiger Stadium on Oct. 7, 1968.

In the third inning, Brock was at first when Freehan called for a pitchout and nailed the speedster at second. “That was the first lucky guess I’ve made all Series,” Freehan told columnist Milton Gross of the New York Post.

Still, the Cardinals led 3-2 in the fifth and were threatening to knock out starter Mickey Lolich. With Brock at second, Julian Javier lined a single to left. Willie Horton, a left fielder not known for his defense, unleashed a strong, accurate throw to the plate. (Lolich told the Associated Press, “As fast as Brock is, I didn’t even figure there would be a throw.”) The peg took one clean hop directly to Freehan, who stood, blocking the plate, “like the towering Washington monument,” wrote Milt Richman, columnist for United Press International.

Brock tried to score standing, collided with Freehan and was called out by umpire Doug Harvey, igniting an animated protest from the Cardinals.

The momentum _and the Series _ shifted to the Tigers with that play. “It was the biggest play of the game,” Brock said to the Associated Press. “It was the turning point. We had the makings of a big inning, and instead of one run, one man on and one out, there were two outs and no runs.”

Detroit rallied to win, 5-3, and send the Series back to St. Louis, but the debate raged about whether Brock was safe or out. Brock said his foot touched the plate before Freehan tagged him. Freehan said Brock came up short of the plate. Others thought Brock stepped on Freehan’s planted foot and bounced off and around the plate. Video

Columnist Milton Gross reported this exchange:

Freehan: “Harvey told me if Lou had slid, he would have been safe. He just never touched the plate.”

Brock: “I was safe. I touched the center of the plate right between Freehan’s legs. Freehan came up behind me as we were arguing after the play and tagged me.”

Freehan: “I was surprised he didn’t slide. There I was, set. With my left foot planted where it was, he’d have had to slide through it or touch the plate with his hand simply because I was between him and the plate. When he hit me on the left side, he just spun away from the plate. The reason I tagged him a second time was I saw him coming back _ like a reflex, you know?”

Brock: “If I slid, he would have had a good chance of blocking me out. He was standing wide-legged, his feet four or five feet apart, one up the third-base line, the other at the corner of the plate. If you slide, he gets down on one knee and you don’t get in.” Boxscore

The on-deck batter, Curt Flood, gestured for Brock to slide, but “I didn’t have time to look at anyone,” Brock said to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “The play was in front of me and I had to look at the catcher.”

Flood said Brock was safe because “half of Brock’s foot was on the plate.”

In his World Series column for the Post-Dispatch, Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson said he thought Brock was safe and did right by not sliding. “When the catcher is blocking the plate, you can slide and never get to it,” Gibson said.

Years later, in his book “Stranger to the Game,” Gibson saw the play differently. “In my heart, I wish Lou had slid,” Gibson said.

The Tigers won Game 6. Facing Gibson in Game 7, Detroit broke a scoreless tie in the seventh, with Freehan’s double driving in Jim Northrup after Northrup lined a two-run triple that was misjudged by Flood in center.

In the ninth, Cardinals catcher Tim McCarver fouled out to Freehan to end the game, won by Detroit, 4-1, giving the Tigers their first World Series championship in 23 years. Boxscore

Though the Cardinals had 11 stolen bases in 16 attempts against Freehan in the Series and he batted .083 (2-for-24), he is remembered most for his block of home plate in Game 5.

Brock, interviewed in 2012 by Mike Stone of CBS Detroit, still insisted he was safe on that play.

“I did not have a great jump, but I thought I could make it,” Brock told Stone. “But Willie Horton made the throw of his life. I never thought Horton could make that throw. The next thing I know I was going to collide with Bill Freehan _ and we know who would have won that. I was safe, but the umpire called me out, so I was out.”

Previously: Should Curt Flood have caught Jim Northrup’s drive?

Ray Blades was a pitcher for an elementary school team when Branch Rickey first took notice of him and became impressed by his baseball skills.

Rickey kept tabs on Blades in the ensuing years, brought him into the Cardinals’ system as a player and groomed him for a leadership role.

Eighty years ago, on Nov. 6, 1938, Blades became manager of the Cardinals.

Cardinals owner Sam Breadon had the final say on naming a manager, but he was influenced by Rickey, the club’s vice president and general manager, who recommended Blades.

Attracting attention

Blades was born in Mount Vernon, Ill., and lived there for two years before his family moved to nearby McLeansboro, Ill.  In 1909, the family relocated to St. Louis and Blades enrolled at Franz Sigel School, a public elementary school.

In 1913, Blades, in his final year in grammar school, pitched in the championship final of the Public School League baseball tournament at Sportsman’s Park. Rickey, who was working for the St. Louis Browns, was the home plate umpire for the game and took note of the talented pitcher.

“I scouted the boy when he played on a public school team here,” Rickey told the St. Louis Star-Times. “I admired his aggressiveness.”

After graduating from elementary school, Blades attended McKinley High School in St. Louis for a year before the family went back to McLeansboro.

Blades graduated from high school in McLeansboro and went to work for an electrical company in St. Louis. In 1918, with World War I raging, Blades enlisted in the Army, served in France and was discharged in May 1919. When he returned home, he joined a semi-pro baseball team in Mount Vernon.

The Cardinals, managed by Rickey, came to Mount Vernon that summer to play an exhibition game against the local club. Blades again impressed Rickey and signed with the Cardinals after the game.

Short fuse

Blades made his professional debut in the minor leagues in 1920 as a second baseman. After another year in the minors, Blades reached the big leagues with the Cardinals in 1922. The Cardinals’ best player, Rogers Hornsby, was the second baseman, so Blades was converted to an outfielder.

A fiery player, Blades sparked the Cardinals as a leadoff batter. He hit .311 with 21 doubles and 13 triples in 1924. The next year, he hit .342 with 37 doubles and eight triples.

“He was a dashing, courageous type, arguing with opposing players and umpires almost every afternoon,” the Star-Times reported.

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Blades had “a violent temper” and “when something makes him see red, he really goes to town.”

Blades “was strangely unpopular” with Cardinals fans, the Post-Dispatch reported, “and the men on the bench used to boil and swear when the fans would boo Ray.”

Managing up

On Aug. 17, 1926, Blades, batting .306, tore ligaments in a knee while chasing a fly ball. The injury caused him to sit out the final month of the regular season and the World Series.

Blades never regained full effectiveness. He was a reserve in 1927 and 1928 and got demoted to the minors in 1929. He returned to the Cardinals as a player-coach in 1930 and served in that role through the 1932 season. Blades played 10 seasons with the Cardinals and hit .301 with a .395 on-base percentage

Rickey, who was Blades’ manager from 1922-25, became head of baseball operations for the Cardinals and built their farm system. He chose Blades to manage the Cardinals’ Columbus (Ohio) affiliate in 1933.

Blades managed in the Cardinals’ system for six seasons _ three with Columbus (1933-35) and three with Rochester (1936-38). Rickey credited Blades with the development of several prospects, including pitcher Paul Dean and outfielder Terry Moore.

On Sept. 11, 1938, Breadon reluctantly fired Cardinals manager Frankie Frisch, who was feuding with Rickey. Breadon liked Frisch, but Rickey was getting overtures from the Cubs and Breadon feared Rickey would join the Cardinals’ rival if Frisch wasn’t ousted. Cardinals coach Mike Gonzalez replaced Frisch for the remainder of the season, becoming the first Cuban-born manager in the major leagues.

Big promotion

The top candidates to manage the Cardinals in 1939 were two of their minor-league managers, Blades and Burt Shotton, along with former Dodgers manager Burleigh Grimes and former Phillies manager Jimmie Wilson, the Star-Times reported. All four had played for the Cardinals. Shotton also had managed the Phillies and Reds, making Blades the only one of the candidates who didn’t have big-league managing experience.

Rickey, however, urged Breadon to select Blades, whom he called “one of my own products.”

“Pressure by Rickey is said to have been a strong factor in gaining the appointment” for Blades, the Star-Times reported.

“I put in all the good licks I could for Blades,” Rickey said. “I believe we’ll see the return of the Gashouse Gang spirit under Blades’ leadership.”

Blades, 42, got a one-year contract. “I naturally have always wanted this position, but never dared hope I would get it,” he said.

The hiring received a lukewarm reception from Cardinals fans, who were hoping for a manager with a higher profile.

“I realized I would be stepping into a fast one with the fans in St. Louis if I decided on Blades,” Breadon said. “I feel Blades merits more consideration than he has been given by baseball’s followers. He’s been a sharp student of the game and he has developed many young stars for us.”

Short stay

The Cardinals finished in second place with a 92-61 mark in Blades’ first season as manager in 1939, but they started poorly the next year and were 14-24 when Breadon, without consulting Rickey, fired Blades on June 7, 1940, and replaced him with Billy Southworth.

Southworth led the Cardinals to two World Series championships (1942 and 1944) and three consecutive National League pennants (1942-44).

Blades became a coach with the 1942 Reds. After Rickey joined the Dodgers, he hired Blades, who managed the Dodgers’ St. Paul affiliate from 1944-46. Blades was a Dodgers coach in 1947 and 1948.

In 1951, Blades returned to St. Louis as a coach on the staff of Cardinals manager Marty Marion. Blades also was a Cubs coach from 1953-56.

Benny Valenzuela, a pioneering Mexican-born ballplayer, emerged from a humble start in professional baseball and reached the majors, but the Cardinals were the wrong club for a rookie third baseman.

Valenzuela, who died Oct. 24, 2018, at 85, played briefly for the Cardinals in two stints with them in 1958. The Cardinals, though, were set at third base with a premier player, Ken Boyer, and that meant Valenzuela had little opportunity to play.

The Cardinals traded Valenzuela after the 1958 season and he never got back to the big leagues. He did, however, continue his playing career in the minors and he went on to have success as a manager for many years in the Mexican League.

Big break

Benjamin Beltran Valenzuela was born in Los Mochis, a city founded by Americans near the Gulf of California in northwestern Mexico. His nickname was Papelero because as a boy he sold newspapers to help his widowed mother.

Benny Valenzuela, no relation to fellow Mexican and former Cardinals pitcher Fernando Valenzuela, became a bat boy for a Los Mochis team managed by former Washington Senators pitcher Syd Cohen. In 1949, when Valenzuela was 16, Cohen became exasperated by a Los Mochis outfielder who couldn’t track fly balls in the sun. Cohen lifted the outfielder during a game and replaced him with the bat boy, Valenzuela, who’d showed an ability to play.

Three years later, in 1952, Cohen was manager of the Bisbee-Douglas Copper Kings of the Arizona-Texas League and he gave his former bat boy a spot on the team. Bisbee-Douglas was in the low levels of the minors, a remote Class C league with no affiliation to any franchise in the majors, but it was professional baseball in the United States and Valenzuela was grateful to Cohen to get the opportunity.

Valenzuela spent three seasons with Bisbee-Douglas, learning the craft, and produced batting averages of .352 in 1952, .347 in 1953 and .388 in 1954.

The Cardinals took notice and on Nov. 30, 1954, they selected Valenzuela, 21, in the minor-league draft.

Rising above

Valenzuela continued his strong hitting in the Cardinals’ system. He batted .354 for Fresno in 1955, .305 with 107 RBI for Omaha and Houston in 1956 and .286 with 24 home runs and 90 RBI for Houston in 1957.

At spring training with the Cardinals in 1958, Valenzuela impressed general manager Bing Devine and moved “to the front row among candidates for pinch-hitting jobs,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

Valenzuela also had a strong arm and the Post-Dispatch reported he “gets a ball away more quickly than any infielder we can remember. He frequently gets the ball to the first baseman before the batter has reached the halfway mark to first base.”

Valenzuela was listed as being 5 feet 10, 175 pounds, but often was described in unflattering terms. The Sporting News called him “thick-legged” and “stubby.” The Post-Dispatch resorted to “chunky.”

“He resembles Yogi Berra,” The Sporting News decided.

Stereotyping was common. The Sporting News, for instance, labeled him “the peppery Mexican” and cited his “chili con carne English.”

Trailblazer

Valenzuela, 24, made the Opening Day roster of the 1958 Cardinals and became the 10th Mexican-born player to reach the major leagues, according to Frontera.info. He was the second Mexican-born player to join the Cardinals. The first was pitcher Memo Luna, whose big-league career with the Cardinals consisted of two-thirds of an inning in 1954.

Mel Almada, an outfielder with the 1933 Red Sox, was the first Mexican-born player in the big leagues.

Valenzuela made his Cardinals debut on April 27, 1958, when he batted for pitcher Larry Jackson and singled to right against Johnny Podres of the Dodgers. Boxscore

“He’s hitting 1.000, a heck of an average in any man’s language,” the Post-Dispatch declared.

On May 6, 1958, Valenzuela doubled against Bob Buhl of the Braves, but the Cardinals demoted him to Omaha on May 14 after he appeared in five games.

Moving on

On June 29, 1958, another Mexican-born player, shortstop Ruben Amaro, who’d been Valenzuela’s teammate for two seasons at Houston, made his major-league debut with the Cardinals.

Meanwhile, Valenzuela hit. 284 with 72 RBI for Omaha and was named the third baseman on the Parade Magazine Class AAA all-star team.

On Sept. 2, 1958, the Cardinals recalled Valenzuela to the big leagues and he appeared in five more games, producing a single against Bob Rush of the Braves on Sept. 18.

For the season, Valenzuela hit .214 (3-for-14) in 10 games for the Cardinals. Boyer, 27 and entrenched at third base, hit .307 and led the Cardinals in runs (101), hits (175), home runs (23) and RBI (90).

On Oct. 7, 1958, the Cardinals traded Valenzuela, pitcher Billy Muffett and catcher Hobie Landrith to the Giants for pitchers Ernie Broglio and Marv Grissom.

Valenzuela played three seasons (1959-61) in the Giants’ farm system before continuing his career as a player and manager in the Mexican League. Among the former major leaguers he managed in Mexico were ex-Cardinals pitchers Diego Segui and Pedro Borbon.

Valenzuela, Vinny Castilla and Aurelio Rodriguez are among the most prominent Mexican-born third basemen to reach the major leagues.

In 1986, Valenzuela and Amaro were inducted together into the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame in Monterrey.