Just three years after being drafted by the Cardinals as almost an afterthought, Keith Hernandez made his major-league debut in his hometown as the heir apparent to one of St. Louis’ most prominent players.
On Aug. 30, 1974, Hernandez, 20, played his first big-league game for the Cardinals against the Giants at San Francisco. Batting seventh and starting at first base, Hernandez had a single, two walks and a RBI in four plate appearances against left-handed starter Mike Caldwell.
Promoted from Class AAA Tulsa, Hernandez was filling in for perennial all-star Joe Torre, who was sidelined because of a sprained thumb. Torre, 34, would return to the lineup four days later, but he was traded to the Mets soon after the season in order to clear a path for Hernandez to become the everyday first baseman.
Scaring the scouts
A San Francisco native, Hernandez was chosen by the Cardinals in the 42nd round of the big-league draft in 1971. “I would have been someone’s first-round draft choice if I hadn’t quit the (high school) team my senior year,” Hernandez told the San Mateo County Times in 2009. “A lot of scouts were scared off.”
The Cardinals were one of only five teams still selecting players in the 42nd round. The final round was the 48th. Hernandez would be the only player taken after the 36th round of the 1971 draft to reach the major leagues.
Hernandez began the 1974 season playing for manager Ken Boyer on the Cardinals’ Class AAA Tulsa team in the American Association. The Sporting News described Hernandez and teammate Marc Hill, a catcher, as the “best major-league prospects to grace the Association in 1974.”
Hernandez was batting .351 with 124 hits in 102 games and an on-base percentage of .425 for Tulsa when Boyer informed him at the team hotel during a trip to Oklahoma City that he had been promoted to the Cardinals.
“I must have spent $50 on the telephone calling my parents, relatives and friends from Oklahoma City when I found out I was going up,” Hernandez told The Sporting News.
Meanwhile, Hernandez determined he needed a wardrobe upgrade before joining the Cardinals. “All that was open in Oklahoma City … in fact, all they had, was western-wear stuff,” Hernandez told Josh Lewin for the book “You Never Forget Your First Time” (2005, Potomac). “But I needed travel clothes, so that’s what I did. I looked like the polyester Roy Rogers heading off to the big leagues.”
No place like home
With the Giants 15 wins below .500 and 25 games behind the first-place Dodgers in the National League West, only 3,111 spectators witnessed Hernandez’s debut on a cold Friday night at Candlestick Park. “My family sat right behind home plate, near our dugout,” Hernandez said.
In his first plate appearance, he drew a third-inning walk. He followed that with a strikeout in the fifth and another walk in the seventh.
With the Giants ahead, 8-1, in the ninth, Hernandez got his first big-league hit, a single to right that scored Bake McBride from second. Boxscore
“It was a dream come true breaking into the major leagues in your hometown,” Hernandez told The Sporting News.
Hernandez started at first base in all three games of the weekend series at San Francisco. He produced three hits in 10 at-bats.
Learning the ropes
“Joe (Torre) and Lou Brock took me aside and made me feel welcome when I got there,” Hernandez told Lewin for his book. “… I was 20 on a team of nothing but 33-year-old veterans. But the guys were nice enough to try and make me feel part of what they were doing.”
In 14 games for the 1974 Cardinals, Hernandez hit .294 (10-for-34) with seven walks.
Hernandez opened the 1975 season as the Cardinals’ everyday first baseman, but he struggled to hit. With his batting average at .203 on June 3, Hernandez was demoted to Tulsa. Reunited with Boyer, Hernandez batted .330 with 107 hits in 85 games and a .440 on-base percentage for Tulsa. The Cardinals brought him back in September.
Four years later, with Boyer managing the Cardinals, Hernandez won the National League batting title (at .344) and was named co-winner of the NL Most Valuable Player Award with the Pirates’ Willie Stargell.
In 10 seasons with St. Louis, Hernandez produced 1,217 hits in 1,165 games, batting .299 with an on-base percentage of .385. He twice was named an all-star while with the Cardinals and won the first five of his 11 consecutive Gold Glove awards.
Previously: Why Cardinals dealt Keith Hernandez in 1983