Feeds:
Posts
Comments

In the ballpark on Grand Boulevard and Dodier Street and at the stadium downtown, Jim Wynn hit home runs to spots few others could reach in St. Louis.

Beginning with the Houston Colt .45s and continuing with their renamed version, the Astros, Wynn launched long balls wherever he played.

At Busch Stadium, formerly known as Sportsman’s Park, on the north side of St. Louis, Wynn twice hit home runs high off the left-field scoreboard, a structure situated behind and above the bleachers. A right-handed batter, Wynn also showed astonishing opposite-field power when he hit a home run onto the pavilion roof beyond the right-field wall.

A year after Busch Memorial Stadium opened in downtown St. Louis, Wynn hit a home run off the scoreboard in left-center. The rectangular scoreboard hung from underneath the upper deck and above the back end of the bleachers.

An outfielder who played 15 years (1963-77) in the big leagues and eight times hit 20 or more home runs in a season, Wynn died on March 26, 2020, at 78.

Uppercut punch

At 5 feet 9 and about 160 pounds, Wynn possessed the power of a giant.

“Wynn has developed one of the most lethal home run swings in baseball,” wrote Mark Mulvoy of Sports Illustrated. “He does not have the strong wrists of a Henry Aaron or a Frank Robinson (Wynn’s idol as he grew up in Cincinnati) or a Roberto Clemente, so he does not swing down on the ball. Instead, Wynn cocks his bat with a full extension of his left arm (much like the perfect golfer) and tries to uppercut the pitch. He works his muscular shoulders, arms and legs, all developed through extensive weight-lifting sessions, under and then up into the ball.”

Mark Whicker of Southern California News Group explained, “A home run hitter in Houston’s Astrodome, at least its old configuration, was like a fisherman in the Mojave. Wynn had a cannon-like arm, too, but his swing was the real fascination. He cocked and struck, unleashing all his musculature. He was a launch angle generator before anybody else claimed to be.”

Wynn was in his second season in the majors when he faced Cardinals left-hander Curt Simmons on April 26, 1964, at St. Louis. Batting in the first inning with two outs and a runner on first, Wynn got a fastball away and drove it onto the pavilion roof in right. Wynn’s ability to power a pitch the opposite way “shocked me,” Simmons told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

“It wasn’t that bad a pitch, about belt high,” Simmons said, “but he went with it, even though the wind was blowing in from right. He has a quick bat.” Boxscore

A year later, on June 6, 1965, at St. Louis, Wynn, though hobbling because of a chipped bone in his knee, hit a pitch from rookie right-hander Nelson Briles over the “U” on the Budweiser sign on the scoreboard in left for a solo home run.

“Think where he might have put it if he hadn’t been hurt,” Cardinals manager Red Schoendienst said to the Post-Dispatch. Boxscore

When Wynn and the Astros came back to St. Louis on Aug. 3, 1965, he hit another tape-measure home run. His three-run homer in the seventh against rookie right-hander Don Dennis struck the scoreboard above the word “American,” where the American League scores were posted, the Post-Dispatch reported.

Noting the scoreboard was topped by an image of an eagle in the Anheuser-Busch logo, Wynn chirped, “Now, I’m going for the bird.” Boxscore

Big boom

The Cardinals moved into Busch Memorial Stadium in May 1966 and, a year later, on June 6, 1967, Wynn hit a home run there for the first time. Leading off the fourth against right-hander Ray Washburn, Wynn got his bird, hitting a home run off the Anheuser-Busch eagle on the left side of the left-field scoreboard.

The Sporting News described it as “a tremendous shot” and added, “The size of the home run didn’t surprise anyone familiar with Wynn’s strength. Despite his compact 160-pound dimensions, Wynn generates tremendous power. When he hits a homer, it is as likely to be an awesome one as not.” Boxscore

Wynn’s home run in St. Louis was among multiple tape-measure shots he hit in 1967. Houston Chronicle sports reporter John Wilson began referring to Wynn as “Toy Cannon,” a nickname that stuck.

After leaving St. Louis, the Astros went to Cincinnati and Wynn hit a couple of mighty home runs. Both were against right-handers. The first was on June 10, 1967, against Mel Queen and the other the next day was off Sammy Ellis.

According to The Sporting News, Wynn hit the first home run “over the 40-foot scoreboard that sits directly in the power alley at Crosley Field. The next day, he hit one just to the left of the scoreboard _ and even farther than the one the day before. The ball crossed the edge of the parking lot, landed in the freeway feeder street, bounced up an embankment and came to rest some 600 feet from where it first changed direction in flight.”

The ball, The Sporting News added, was found “just short of a freeway 100 yards behind the stadium. It would have made the freeway except that it spent itself going up an embankment the last 40 or 50 feet.” Video

A month later, in July 1967 at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, Wynn hit a home run against Pirates right-hander Pete Mikkelsen “that left the park almost directly over the 457-foot marker,” The Sporting News reported, “a corner of the stadium so far from home plate that the batting cage is rolled out there during games.”

According to a ballpark security guard, the ball landed “on a playground diamond 50 or 60 feet behind the fence,” The Sporting News reported. Video

Wynn had 291 home runs and 225 stolen bases in the majors with the Colt .45s (1963-64), Astros (1965-73), Dodgers (1974-75), Braves (1976), Yankees (1977) and Brewers (1977). He posted a career on-base percentage of .366.

His career numbers versus the Cardinals: 24 home runs, 20 stolen bases and a .360 on-base percentage.

For a two-week stretch in 1955, the starting infield for the Cardinals was first baseman Stan Musial, second baseman Red Schoendienst, third baseman Ken Boyer and a rookie shortstop, Bob Stephenson.

Rising to the challenge, Stephenson hit and fielded consistently well in his short stint as a starter flanked by star-studded teammates.

A smooth fielder with a strong arm and speed, Stephenson showed his skills at the highest level of the sport, but 1955 was his lone year in the major leagues.

A successful businessman in petroleum exploration, Stephenson died March 20, 2020, at 91.

Oklahoma Sooner

Stephenson was born in Blair, Okla., a town with a population of fewer than 1,000 in the southwest corner of the state. In 1928, the year of Stephenson’s birth, a tornado tore through Blair and left hundreds homeless, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society. Stephenson’s parents grew cotton and wheat.

Stephenson enrolled at the University of Oklahoma, played varsity baseball for his mentor, head coach Jack Baer, and majored in geology.

“Jack Baer gave me the best training you can get in college in the fundamentals (of baseball),” Stephenson told the Associated Press.

In an interview with the Norman (Okla.) Transcript, Stephenson recalled making two errors in his first college game. After the second, he slammed down his glove. Baer confronted Stephenson in the dugout and said, “I don’t ever want to see you do that again. You’ve got to control your emotions when you play sports. I think you could possibly be a pretty good ballplayer, but if you’re going to continue to play like that I don’t want any part of you.”

“I never forgot that,” a grateful Stephenson said.

A shortstop for Oklahoma, Stephenson got offers from multiple major-league teams. In June 1950, he chose the Cardinals, he said, because their scout, Fred Hawn, encouraged him to stay in school and not sign until he was ready. Stephenson said he also figured the Cardinals would need a shortstop to replace Marty Marion, who was nearing the end of his playing career.

Stephenson also got married in 1950 to Norma, his childhood sweetheart. The marriage lasted 70 years until his death.

Right stuff

In 1951, as shortstop for the Cardinals’ Omaha farm club, Stephenson was flanked by Ken Boyer at third base and Earl Weaver, the future Hall of Fame manager, at second. Omaha’s manager was respected instructor George Kissell, who took a liking to Stephenson and another former Oklahoma player, pitcher Jack Shirley.

“George called me over as we were packing up one day,” Stephenson recalled. “He said, ‘Whenever you get back to Norman, you go see Jack Baer and tell him you and Jack Shirley were the best-prepared kids I ever coached.”

After two years (1952-53) in the Army, Stephenson played for manager Johnny Keane at Columbus (Ohio) in 1954.

At spring training in 1955, Stephenson impressed Cardinals manager Eddie Stanky and opened the season as backup to shortstop Alex Grammas.

The Sporting News described Stephenson as “one of the best-fielding infielders the Cardinals have called up in years. He’s slender, fast, has a good arm and is a big-league fielder.” The St. Louis Post-Dispatch added, “If he could handle a bat as well as he fields, he could make almost any ball club.”

Stephenson’s first major-league hit contributed to a winning rally against the Reds on April 19, 1955, at St. Louis. In the 11th inning, with runners on second and first, none out, and the score tied at 5-5, Stephenson was ordered to bunt and “pushed the ball skillfully along the third-base stripe,” the Post-Dispatch reported. Before a play could be made, Stephenson streaked to first with a single, loading the bases. The next batter, Bill Sarni, poked a hit through a draw-in infield, driving in the winning run. Boxscore

Hot stretch

On May 28, 1955, the Cardinals fired Stanky and replaced him with Harry Walker, who was managing their Rochester farm club.

A couple of weeks later, after Grammas broke his right thumb, Walker moved Boyer to shortstop and put Solly Hemus at third base. A few days later, Stephenson took over at shortstop.

Stephenson made his first start on June 21, 1955, against the Phillies at St. Louis, joining an infield with Musial, Schoendienst and Boyer. Batting leadoff, Stephenson had three hits and a stolen base. Boxscore

Stephenson batted .341 in 12 games from June 21 through July 3. He produced 15 hits in those games and made one error.

Stephenson “has bunted and slashed with surprising results” and “run with daring speed,” The Sporting News reported. He also displayed “ground-covering, sure-handed defensive play.”

Walker told the Associated Press, “He has a wonderful arm, a little stronger than Grammas. His range is a little better than Grammas, too.”

Said Stephenson: “Harry changed me from a pull hitter to a punch hitter.”

New direction

A groin injury knocked Stephenson from the lineup on July 4, 1955, and Grammas replaced him. Stephenson got some starts after the all-star break but slumped. After batting .341 in July, he hit .080 in August and finished at .243 in 67 games.

After the season, the Cardinals brought in Frank Lane as general manager and Fred Hutchinson replaced Walker. Stephenson was playing winter ball in Havana when he learned the Cardinals dropped him from their 40-man roster.

“I wanted to quit,” Stephenson told The Daily Ardmore (Okla.) newspaper, “but decided to give it another try.”

Stephenson went to Cardinals spring training in 1956 and was assigned to start the season at Omaha.

Determined to reshape the Cardinals, Lane made a stunning trade on June 14, 1956, sending Schoendienst to the Giants. The key player the Cardinals got in return was shortstop Al Dark.

Three days later, Stephenson was sent to the Giants as a player to be named in the Schoendienst deal. In effect, Stephenson was loaned to the Giants, who needed a shortstop at their Minneapolis farm club to replace Eddie Bressoud, who got promoted to the big leagues after Dark was dealt. The transaction reunited Stephenson with Stanky, who was the Minneapolis manager.

After the season, Stephenson was returned to the Cardinals, who sold his contract to Toronto, an unaffiliated minor-league team.

Stephenson, 28, decided to quit baseball and use his degree in geology to take a job in the oil business.

“I felt like I had reached a standstill in baseball,” Stephenson said. “There isn’t any room in the big leagues for a .240 sticker and I knew I would never be a good hitter.”

After working as a geologist with the Pure Oil Company, Stephenson co-founded Potts-Stephenson Exploration Company. He and business partner Ray Potts became leaders in the field of petroleum exploration. In the 1980s, Stephenson expanded his business interests, buying multiple radio stations in Oklahoma.

At a time when Major League Baseball was embarking on globalization, Mark McGwire was insisting on isolation for the Cardinals.

Twenty years ago, in March 2000, the Cardinals could have faced the Mets in the first major-league regular-season game played outside North America, but they rejected the opportunity after their star attraction, McGwire, opposed the plan.

When the Cardinals dropped out, the Cubs stepped in. Featuring their own slugger, Sammy Sosa, the Cubs opened the 2000 regular season against the Mets with a pair of games in Tokyo.

Small world

Major League Baseball officials approached the Cardinals in July 1999 with the invitation to begin the 2000 regular season in Japan.

McGwire was the reason the Cardinals were chosen. He and Sosa delighted audiences with their unprecedented home run totals before it later became known the two were cheating by using banned performance-enhancing drugs. McGwire was the home run champion in 1998 (70) and 1999 (65), edging Sosa both years, and baseball officials wanted to showcase him in Japan.

When McGwire learned of the proposal to play in Tokyo, he told Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “You can’t give me a good reason why we should go to Japan. We have our own problems in major-league baseball without worrying about spreading it global. It’s a total waste of time. I can’t believe the Cardinals are agreeing to it. I can’t believe the Cardinals would even consider doing it.”

According to the New York Times, Major League Baseball was pursuing a global strategy to “export the game and its merchandise to more parts of the world in order to generate new revenue.”

The Cardinals visited Cuba in 1936, 1937 and 1940, playing exhibition games, and played in goodwill tours of Japan in 1958 and 1968, but never in the regular season.

Regular-season games in the majors were played exclusively in the United States until 1969 when the Expos joined the National League. The Cardinals and Expos played the first regular-season game outside the U.S. on April, 14, 1969, at Montreal. Boxscore

Thirty years later, in April 1999, a regular-season big-league game was played outside the U.S. or Canada for the first time when the Rockies and Padres held their opener in Monterrey, Mexico. Boxscore

The players’ union supported the staging of big-league games at international sites and approved the plan for the opener in Japan.

Opposing views

On July 21, 1999, Cardinals players had their first meeting to officially discuss the chance to open in Japan. Pitcher Kent Bottenfield, the Cardinals’ union representative, informed his teammates of the proposal. Each player would get a $15,000 bonus for going, the Post-Dispatch reported.

No vote was taken, but the meeting revealed a rift between McGwire and pitcher Rich Croushore.

According to Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz, “Croushore said it would be fun to take his wife on a trip to Japan. McGwire reminded Croushore the purpose of the trip was baseball, a job, not a family vacation.”

The discussion got heated when Croushore accused McGwire of refusing his request to autograph a baseball for a disabled child, Miklasz revealed.

McGwire told his teammates he opposed the proposed trip because: (1) the traveling would cause fatigue and hamper play; (2) he wasn’t interested in being the main attraction, Miklasz reported.

“Nothing good can come from this trip,” McGwire said.

On July 25, 1999, a team vote was held and Cardinals players vetoed the Japan proposal, the Post-Dispatch reported. The next day, general manager Walt Jocketty told the commissioner’s office of the decision and Bottenfield informed the union.

“We didn’t have enough information,” Bottenfield said. “There were too many variables, too many unanswered questions. Guys didn’t want to leave themselves open to a bad situation.”

Shortsighted slugger

Major League Baseball scheduled the Cubs and Mets to open the 2000 regular season with games on March 29 and March 30 in Tokyo.

About two weeks before the games began, McGwire criticized the decision in an interview with Murray Chass of the New York Times. McGwire said baseball was “too international” and “this game belongs here” in the U.S.

“The Japanese have their own brand of baseball over there,” McGwire said. “Our game is too international as it is. It comes down to how much money can they make. It’s not, ‘What can we do for the good of the players?’ That’s what upsets me about it.

“This game belongs here,” McGwire said. “People come to America, they come here to watch our game.”

Cubs first baseman Mark Grace had a different outlook. “If we want to take the best game in the world all over the world, that’s fine with me,” Grace told the Chicago Tribune.

Said McGwire: “If the Mets or the Cubs miss the playoffs by one game because they couldn’t open their eyes up in Japan and play a game because they’re so tired, you think Major League Baseball is going to care?”

Holy cow!

The Mets-Cubs season opener in Tokyo started at 4:07 a.m. Chicago time. Video

Chicago Tribune columnist Skip Bayless was among about 700 customers “packed like a Tokyo subway train” into Harry Caray’s restaurant in downtown Chicago at that hour to watch the game on television.

“What could be more hilariously surreal than Harry’s widow Dutchie greeting customers in the middle of the night wearing a kimono?” Bayless wrote.

After the final out, a patron turned to Bayless and said, “Kabusu katsu.”

“Huh?” replied Bayless.

“That’s ‘Cubs win’ in Japanese,” the guy said.

The Cubs and Mets split the two games. Boxscore 1. Boxscore 2.

The trip “was not without its inconveniences, but it did not present a series of headaches,” the Chicago Tribune reported.

“It hasn’t been the monster everybody would think,” said Cubs manager Don Baylor.

Said Sosa: “I had a lot of fun here. There were great people and great fans.”

G’day, mate

After the series in Japan, the Cubs returned to Chicago, rested and went to St. Louis for their third game, the Cardinals’ season opener, on April 3, 2000. The Cardinals won, 7-1, but McGwire, his steroids-riddled body breaking down, sat out because of an injury. Boxscore

The 2000 Cubs were a bad team, finishing 65-97, but the Mets, like the Cardinals, were the opposite. The Mets and Cardinals qualified for the postseason. In the National League Championship Series, the Mets prevailed over the Cardinals, winning the pennant and advancing to the World Series. McGwire, hobbled, was limited to three plate appearances and no hits in the series versus the Mets.

Fourteen years later, in March 2014, the Dodgers opened the regular season with a two-game series against the Diamondbacks in Sydney, Australia. In the Dodgers’ dugout for both games was their hitting coach, Mark McGwire.

The Cardinals couldn’t figure out Ramon Hernandez when he pitched for them any better than they could when he pitched against them.

Fifty years ago, on March 31, 1970, the Cardinals released Hernandez, a left-handed reliever who went to spring training as a member of their major-league roster.

The Cardinals would come to regret the move.

Hernandez and another ex-Cardinal, Dave Giusti, anchored a dependable bullpen for the Pirates and helped them become the dominant club in the National League East.

The Cardinals, who finished runner-up to the Pirates in 1971 and 1974, consistently were baffled by the effective relief work of Hernandez.

Traveling man

Hernandez was born in Carolina, Puerto Rico, the same hometown as future teammate Roberto Clemente, who was six years older.

Hernandez was 18 when the Pirates signed him as an amateur free agent. In 1960, his second season in their farm system, the Pirates sent Hernandez from the Class C level to Class D. Miffed by the demotion, Hernandez sat out the 1961 season, according to the Pittsburgh Press.

In December 1961, the Pirates sold Hernandez’s contract to the Angels. He played five seasons (1962-66) in the Angels’ farm system and had his best year in 1966 when he posted a 2.16 ERA for an El Paso team managed by Chuck Tanner.

The Braves selected Hernandez in the Rule 5 draft in November 1966 and he made their Opening Day roster in 1967. Hernandez “might turn out to be the surprise hurler of the year,” The Sporting News predicted.

Hernandez made 46 appearances for the 1967 Braves and was 0-2 with five saves and a 4.18 ERA. One of his losses came against the Cardinals on July 23, 1967, at St. Louis. The winning rally began when Mike Shannon hit a smash toward the mound “which caromed off Hernandez’s glove, a play which didn’t exactly establish the Braves’ reliever as a Golden Glove candidate,” the Atlanta Constitution reported. Boxscore

Left off the Braves’ winter roster, Hernandez was chosen by the Cubs in the November 1967 Rule 5 draft at the request of manager Leo Durocher, who planned to pair Hernandez with right-hander Phil Regan as the club’s top relievers in 1968. “I didn’t draft Hernandez to send him to Siberia,” Durocher told the Chicago Tribune.

Said Cubs pitching coach Joe Becker: “I just hope he’s as good as they say he is because we need a consistent lefty for emergency calls. The day in baseball is gone when you expect a starter to finish.”

The Cubs’ faith in Hernandez went unrewarded. He appeared in eight games for them and had a 9.00 ERA.

Wrong fit

On June 14, 1968, the Cubs sold the contract of Hernandez to the Cardinals, who assigned him to their Class AAA Tulsa farm team.

Warren Spahn, who as a pitcher was baseball’s career leader in wins (363) by a left-hander, was Tulsa’s manager, but he and Hernandez clashed.

“Hernandez admitted he had differences with Warren Spahn,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

According to the Pittsburgh Press, Hernandez said Spahn “impeded his return to the majors by sending unfavorable reports back to St. Louis.”

Miserable at Tulsa, Hernandez was 2-5 with a 6.19 ERA. The Cardinals demoted him to Class AA Arkansas for 1969. At 28, his career appeared to be in decline.

On the outs

Playing for Arkansas manager Ray Hathaway, a former pitcher known for his instructional skills, Hernandez improved.

Used primarily as a starter, he was 10-10 with a 2.40 ERA. Among the wins was a no-hitter against El Paso on Aug. 17, 1969. “What else could you call it but a masterpiece?” Hathaway said. “The guy works fast, has great control and, when he really has it, like he did today, he makes this a simple business.”

Hernandez had 133 strikeouts and 38 walks in 184 innings for Arkansas. Impressed, the Cardinals put him on their winter roster and planned to give him a long look in spring training.

Cardinals director of player procurement George Silvey said, “Hernandez throws a screwball and has great control. He’s the kind of guy who maybe has to work every other day (to be effective).”

The good vibes the Cardinals had for Hernandez quickly faded at spring training in 1970 when “there were such problems as reporting late for practice sessions and not going all out in workouts,” the Post-Dispatch reported.

According to the Pittsburgh Press, the Cardinals “didn’t think he was putting out enough in the team running drills.”

Roberto Clemente later said, “Every place he went, they said he had a problem. I guess they didn’t understand him. The first tendency is to say that he is lazy.”

Hernandez allowed two earned runs in three exhibition game innings for the Cardinals before he was released.

Regarding the decision by Cardinals general manager Bing Devine, Hernandez, 29, told The Sporting News, “He thought I was too old.”

Finding a home

Hernandez signed with the Mexico City Reds of the Mexican League and pitched for them in 1970 before going home to Puerto Rico to play winter baseball. Pirates infielder Jose Pagan saw Hernandez pitch in Puerto Rico and was impressed.

“I can’t understand why some big-league club doesn’t give him a chance,” Pagan said.

At Pagan’s urging, the Pirates sent a career minor-league pitcher, Danny Rivas, 35, to Mexico City in exchange for Hernandez on Feb. 10, 1971.

The Pirates assigned Hernandez to the minors, but in June 1971, facing a shortage of pitchers because of injuries and military commitments, he was called up for a weekend series versus the Cardinals at St. Louis.

On June 12, 1971, in his first Pirates appearance, Hernandez gave up a scratch single to the first batter he faced, Lou Brock. Boxscore

The Cardinals wouldn’t get another hit against Hernandez the rest of the season.

The next day, Hernandez earned a save against the Cardinals. Boxscore

As planned, he was returned to the minors but got called up again in September. With the Pirates and Cardinals battling for the division title, Hernandez faced the Cardinals twice and got saves both times.

For the season, Hernandez had three saves in four appearances versus the Cardinals and yielded no runs. He faced 19 batters and retired 18.

The Pirates finished seven games ahead of the second-place Cardinals in the East Division, won the pennant against the Giants in the National League Championship Series and prevailed in the World Series versus the Orioles.

Hernandez had seven saves and an 0.73 ERA in 10 appearances for the 1971 Pirates.

Working the angles

Hernandez became one of the National League’s top relievers, helping the Pirates win four division titles in a five-year span, and was especially effective against the Cardinals.

In 1972, he was 5-0 with a 1.67 ERA and 14 saves, including four versus the Cardinals. In 1974, he was 2-0 with a 1.88 ERA against them.

Regarding his success with the Pirates, Hernandez told the Pittsburgh Press, “I do it with a bunch of garbage.”

Said Phillies manager Frank Lucchesi: “His motion has a lot to do with it. It’s very deceptive.”

Hernandez threw a variety of pitches from three different angles _ overhand, three-quarters and sidearm _ and at varying speeds.

Dave Giusti, his bullpen mate, said of Hernandez, “The best I’ve ever seen at getting out left-handers _ and I mean ever.”

Left-handed batters hit .224 versus Hernandez in the majors. In six seasons (1971-76) with the Pirates, Hernandez was 23-12 with 39 saves and a 2.51 ERA.

Some of the fiercest individual matchups in the NFL in the 1960s were the ones between New York Giants wide receiver Del Shofner and St. Louis Cardinals defensive backs Larry Wilson, Jimmy Hill and Pat Fischer.

A pass-catcher with speed who gave the Giants their first deep threat, Shofner died on March 11, 2020, at 85.

Pale, razor-thin and susceptible to ulcers, Shofner sometimes didn’t look strong enough to play football, let alone excel at it, but he was a gifted receiver who posted impressive numbers.

The date September 17 was significant in Shofner’s career.

On Sept. 17, 1961, Shofner played his first regular-season game as a Giant and it came against the Cardinals.

Six years later, on Sept. 17, 1967, Shofner caught the last touchdown pass of his career and it, too, came against the Cardinals.

Special flair

Born in Center, Texas, near the Louisiana border, Shofner went to Baylor, where he majored in math, played baseball, basketball, football and was a sprinter on the track team.

When the skinny sophomore showed up for his first varsity football practice, “he looked like a poor man’s Abe Lincoln,” the Waco News-Tribune reported. “His bones didn’t exactly rattle when he walked. They just shifted silently.”

According to the newspaper, Baylor head coach George Sauer Sr. was “afraid his prize backfielder might be grabbed up by some pre-med student as a lab skeleton.”

Though Shofner was anemic and suffered from agonizing ulcers, he became a standout at three positions _ halfback, defensive back and punter _ for Baylor.

Blackie Sherrod of the Fort Worth Press wrote, “He’s blessed with terrific speed, with good hands and a glorious flair for the spectacular … The young speedster is an opportunist who can seize a tiny bit of daylight and squeeze it into a touchdown.”

Shofner capped his senior season by being named outstanding player of the Sugar Bowl in Baylor’s upset of Tennessee.

L.A. story

The Los Angeles Rams selected Shofner in the first round of the 1957 NFL draft. He played defensive back as a rookie, but was shifted to wide receiver in 1958 and led the NFL in receiving yards (1,097).

“His speed and his ability to maneuver in an open field excited fans in every league city,” the Los Angeles Times noted.

Shofner had another strong season for the Rams (936 receiving yards) in 1959, but it was a different story the next year. Shofner’s ulcers flared, he suffered leg and ankle injuries, and was limited to 12 receptions in 1960.

At training camp in 1961, Shofner no longer was the fastest receiver in wind sprints and the Rams were concerned.

The Giants, who acquired quarterback Y.A. Tittle from the San Francisco 49ers, were looking to add a receiver and Shofner, 26, appealed to them as an end to pair with flanker Kyle Rote.

On Aug. 28, 1961, the Giants traded a first-round pick to the Rams for Shofner.

Asked whether his speed had diminished, Shofner said, “I don’t think you have to prove yourself in wind sprints. You prove it running pass patterns in practice and in a game. I feel I have a great opportunity in New York and I’ll finally be able to catch Tittle.”

Linked in

Shofner admired Tittle, a fellow Texan, but Tittle was finding it hard to be accepted at Giants training camp. Charlie Conerly, 40, was the incumbent quarterback and wasn’t ready to concede the job to Tittle, who was five years younger.

“For weeks, Tittle was without a roomie, a lonely figure who almost was resented by the intensely loyal Giants players, a clannish group whose pep was the aging Conerly,” New York Times columnist Arthur Daley observed.

After Shofner traveled all night from California to New York to join his new team, he took a train from Manhattan to the Giants’ training camp in Fairfield, Connecticut. When he arrived in the morning, looking haggard, several Giants couldn’t believe he was the answer to their receiving needs.

Shofner “became Tittle’s roommate almost by default,” Daley wrote.

The two Texans formed a bond.

Giants debut

First-year Giants head coach Allie Sherman started Conerly in the season opener versus the Cardinals at Yankee Stadium. Cornerback Jimmy Hill was given the “special assignment” of covering Shofner, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

In the fourth quarter, with the Cardinals ahead, 14-10, and the Giants in possession at their 27-yard line, Shofner went deep. Hill stayed close and appeared to bump Shofner as Conerly’s pass arrived. The ball was intercepted by safety Larry Wilson, but interference was called on Hill “despite loud protests from the Big Red bench,” the St. Louis Globe-Democrat reported.

“I don’t think I interfered,” Hill told the Post-Dispatch.

The penalty on Hill gave the Giants possession at the Cardinals’ 37. Two plays later, Conerly threw to Shofner, but Hill intercepted and returned the ball to the St. Louis 46.

“I was waiting for it,” Hill said. “You have to give that Shofner a little room and this was one time I guessed right. I may be getting old and slow, but I don’t think he’s going to outrun me.”

The Cardinals won, 21-10. Shofner made six catches for 77 yards, but Conerly completed only nine passes and was intercepted twice. The Globe-Democrat credited the Cardinals for rattling Conerly “with Larry Wilson red-dogging from his defensive halfback post and Ted Bates, Bill Koman and Dale Meinert ripping through from their linebacker positions.” Game stats

Rise and fall

Tittle soon replaced Conerly and the offense clicked.

“Tittle threw precision passes and Shofner ran precision patterns,” Arthur Daley wrote.

The combination helped the Giants win three consecutive division championships from 1961-63. Nicknamed “Blade” because of his physique and the way he sliced through secondaries, Shofner topped 1,100 yards receiving each of the three years. He was the first NFL player to have two seasons of 1,000 yards receiving and the first Giant with 1,000 yards in receptions in one season.

The New York Times described him as an “octopus-armed swiftie” who “terrorized all the pass defenders in the league.”

Though listed at 185 pounds, Shofner “looks more like an underfed altar boy than a professional gridder … a blonde, soft-spoken string bean with facial features so delicate few could guess what he does to put beans on the table,” the Danville (Pa.) News declared.

In 1964, Shofner’s ulcers returned, his weight dropped to 165 pounds and he was limited to six games. After the season, Tittle retired and Shofner’s performance declined. He made three catches in 1966.

Final glory

The Giants acquired quarterback Fran Tarkenton from the Vikings in 1967 and Shofner, 32, was energized by the scrambler’s arrival.

“We hit it off from the start,” Shofner said. “I liked to run square-outs and he likes to throw them. Nothing gives a receiver more satisfaction than to have a passer who continually looks in his direction.”

The Giants opened the 1967 season against the Cardinals at St. Louis. In the fourth quarter, Tarkenton threw a 33-yard pass in the end zone to Shofner, who “made an over-the-head grab” behind defensive back Pat Fischer for a touchdown, giving the Giants a 34-13 lead in a game they won, 37-20. Game stats

It was the last touchdown catch for Shofner, who retired after the season.

Shofner had 51 career touchdown receptions, including 25 from Tittle.

In the book, “Giants In Their Own Words,” Tittle said, “Del Shofner was my favorite receiver. He had blazing speed and great hands. Most receivers don’t have both, but Del did. He just never dropped the football. If it was there and he could get his hands on it, he caught it.”

Click to see video of Tittle career highlights, including passes to No. 85, Shofner.

Don Pavletich achieved two special personal milestones versus the Cardinals, but one of his worst moments also occurred in a game against them.

A catcher and first baseman who played 12 years in the major leagues for the Reds, White Sox and Red Sox, Pavletich died March 5, 2020, at 81. The 1965 Topps card pictured here incorrectly listed him as a pitcher.

In 1962, while with the Reds, Pavletich got his first major-league hit. A few weeks later, he got his first major-league RBI. Both feats came in games against the Cardinals.

Two years later, Pavletich had a prominent, but unwanted, role versus the Cardinals when his error led to a Reds loss in the thick of the 1964 National League pennant race.

Hot prospect

Born in Milwaukee and raised in nearby West Allis, Wisconsin, Pavletich was Croatian-American. All four of his grandparents immigrated to the United States from Croatia, according to the Society for American Baseball Research.

In high school and summer leagues, Pavletich was coached by Steve Belich, who had prepared another West Allis standout, Harvey Kuenn, for the majors.

A powerful right-handed batter, Pavletich, 18, signed with the Reds in August 1956 and made his major-league debut for them in his hometown of Milwaukee on April 20, 1957. A month later, Pavletich began a two-year hitch in the Army.

After hitting .295 with 22 home runs as a catcher and first baseman for manager Cot Deal at minor-league Indianapolis in 1961, Pavletich opened the 1962 season with the defending National League champion Reds as a backup to catcher Johnny Edwards and first baseman Gordy Coleman.

On April 29, 1962, in the first game of a doubleheader at St. Louis, the Cardinals led, 9-1, in the fourth inning when Reds manager Fred Hutchinson replaced Edwards with Pavletich.

In the fifth, Pavletich got his first big-league hit, a single versus Larry Jackson. Pavletich went on to hit .400 (6-for-15) in his career against Jackson. Boxscore

The next time Pavletich faced the Cardinals, on June 5, 1962, at St. Louis, he started at first base and hit a two-run single versus Curt Simmons in the third inning for his first RBI in the big leagues. Boxscore

Pavletich did some of his best hitting against some prominent left-handers, including Dick Ellsworth (.409), Denny Lemaster (.389), Warren Spahn (.364), Johnny Podres (.364) and Simmons (.318).

Costly miscue

On Sept. 19, 1964, the Cardinals and Reds, trying to catch the first-place Phillies in the final two weeks of the season, played a doubleheader at Cincinnati. The Cardinals were jolted in the opener when Frank Robinson hit a three-run walkoff home run against Bob Gibson in the ninth. Boxscore

In the second game, with the pressure on the Cardinals to avoid being swept, the pitchers were left-handers Billy McCool, making his first career start for the Reds, and Ray Sadecki for St. Louis. The catchers were a pair of Milwaukee natives, Pavletich and the Cardinals’ Bob Uecker.

In the second inning, with one out and the game scoreless, the Cardinals’ Bill White and Julian Javier each singled, putting runners on second and first.

As the next batter, Mike Shannon, struck out, White and Javier attempted a double steal. Pavletich’s throw sailed over the head of third baseman Chico Ruiz and into left field. White and Javier both scored on the error and those were the game’s only runs. Boxscore

The 2-0 victory kept the Cardinals in second place, 5.5 games behind the Phillies, and proved to be a difference-maker. The Cardinals clinched the pennant on the last day of the season, finishing a game ahead of both the Reds and Phillies.

Power hitter

At spring training in 1966, Pavletich made a bid to unseat Edwards, a three-time National League all-star, as the Reds’ starting catcher. When Edwards suffered ligament damage to the middle finger of his right hand when struck by a foul ball in an exhibition game on April 9, Pavletich was ready to take over.

After watching Pavletich hit his fifth home run of the spring training season, Edwards told the Dayton Daily News, “Every time I see him swing that bat, my finger feels better.”

With Edwards sidelined, Pavletich opened the 1966 season as the Reds’ catcher. On April 17, in his third consecutive game as starting catcher, Pavletich injured his left foot while rounding first base after hitting a double. He stayed in the game, but awoke the next morning with pain in his foot so intense “he nearly collapsed when he got out of bed,” the Dayton Journal-Herald reported.

Pavletich strained ligaments in the foot and couldn’t play. Edwards, wearing a metal splint on his injured finger, replaced him and remained the starting catcher.

Veteran vs. phenom

In August 1967, Johnny Bench made his major-league debut with the Reds and was their starting catcher the last month of the season.

Six months later, the Reds traded Edwards to the defending World Series champion Cardinals to clear the way for Bench to be their catcher in 1968.

“Bench was conceded the starting position at the start of spring training,” the Cincinnati Enquirer reported.

Pavletich, 29, wasn’t ready to give in to Bench, 20. Rising to the challenge, Pavletich hit seven home runs with 19 RBI in Reds spring training games in 1968 and was named the Opening Day starting catcher.

“I must say I’m most pleased by Pavletich’s home run hitting,” Reds manager Dave Bristol said.

Convinced the Reds were a contender, Pavletich said, “I know the Cardinals are a great club and definitely are the club to beat, but I feel we have it on them in two important departments _ pitching and bench strength.”

Pavletich started at catcher in the first five games of the 1968 season before he hurt his right arm swinging at a pitch in Chicago. With Pavletich sidelined for a month, Bench took over as starting catcher and never looked back, building a Hall of Fame career.

Pavletich batted .254 in his big-league career, including .264 in 50 games versus the Cardinals.