Seeking a backup to Tim McCarver, the Cardinals acquired a catcher who ranked among the top sluggers at the position and considered himself an everyday player.
The Cardinals envisioned Johnny Romano as a key contributor when they obtained him from the White Sox 50 years ago on Dec. 14, 1966. Romano, 32, had led all American League catchers in home runs (15) in 1966.
However, though he spent the entire regular season with a Cardinals club that won the 1967 National League pennant and World Series title, Romano seldom played and, when he did, he rarely produced a hit.
His most important contribution to the 1967 Cardinals occurred off the field: It was Romano who provided the tip that enabled Lou Brock, the Cardinals’ catalyst, to end a slump.
Catcher with clout
Romano debuted in the big leagues with the 1958 White Sox. He hit 15 or more home runs in six of seven seasons in a stretch from 1960-66 with the Indians and White Sox. An AL all-star in 1961 and 1962, Romano achieved career highs in home runs (25) and RBI (81) with the 1962 Indians.
In 1966, Romano still was a starting catcher and power hitter. He produced six home runs and 11 RBI during an eight-game White Sox winning streak from Aug. 3-12.
Asked by The Sporting News to explain his hot hitting, Romano, foreshadowing his failures with the Cardinals, said, “Don’t forget the importance of playing regularly. When you play every day, you feel more comfortable at the plate. Timing and confidence are the answers to batting success and you can’t have it if you don’t play.”
On Aug. 17, Romano hit his 14th home run of the 1966 season and was batting .266. Hampered by a bruised left hand, he hit just one more home run that season and his batting average fell to .231. Still, Romano finished second on the White Sox in home runs (15) and slugging percentage (.404) _ only Tommie Agee was better _ and he ranked third among AL catchers in fielding percentage (.993).
The White Sox, though, were grooming Duane Josephson to become their everyday catcher. Romano also had clashed with White Sox manager Eddie Stanky, who wanted him to hit behind the runner instead of swinging for the fences.
A proposed trade of Romano to the Red Sox was discussed, but the talks ended when the White Sox sought outfielder Carl Yastrzemski, The Sporting News reported.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals wanted a backup catcher who could reduce the workload of their starter, McCarver, and generate offense against left-handed pitching.
McCarver, who caught in 148 games, had 19 doubles, 13 triples and 12 home runs for the 1966 Cardinals, but his batting average against left-handers (.238) was 50 points lower than against right-handers (.288). His backup, Pat Corrales, batted .181 overall and hit no home runs.
A week after acquiring another AL slugger, Roger Maris, from the Yankees, Cardinals general manager Bob Howsam got Romano and pitcher Leland White from the White Sox for reliever Don Dennis and outfielder Walt Williams, who had won the Pacific Coast League batting title in 1966.
“Romano likes to hit against left-handers (.255 in 1966) and he will give McCarver a chance to rest once in a while,” Cardinals manager Red Schoendienst said.
Said Howsam: “Romano should give us some right-handed power.”
Bob Broeg, in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, concluded that “the Cardinals appeared to help themselves … at no sacrifice” when they acquired Romano.
The Sporting News, however, noted that Romano “understandably sounded upset when informed that he would be a No. 2 catcher.”
At spring training in 1967, the combination of McCarver and Romano received praise.
Cardinals coach Joe Schultz said St. Louis’ catchers “could be the best in the league, offensively and defensively.”
Asked to rank the catching staffs in the NL, Astros manager Grady Hatton said, “I’d have to rate McCarver and Romano as No. 1.”
In its April 1, 1967, edition, The Sporting News again cautioned that “Romano isn’t overly delighted with his second-fiddle rating,” but added, “It’s inconceivable that the sturdy right-handed swinger still doesn’t have some thunder left in his big bat.”
When the season got under way, Romano struggled to adapt to being a reserve. He produced two hits in his first 25 at-bats. Romano was 1-for-16 in April and 2-for-18 in May.
“It’s tough when you don’t get to play often,” Romano said.
By June, Dave Ricketts took over as the backup catcher and Romano spent most of his time warming up pitchers in the bullpen.
In mid-June, the Pirates offered to trade outfielder Manny Mota, catcher Jim Pagliaroni and pitcher Al McBean to St. Louis for outfielder Curt Flood, pitcher Hal Woodeshick and Romano, but the Cardinals rejected it, The Sporting News reported.
In July, Brock, the Cardinals’ leadoff batter, went into a hitting funk. On June 21, Brock’s batting average was .318. On July 21, it was .275.
As the slump continued, Brock became more rigid at the plate. Romano detected the flaw. “I noticed that Lou was locking his elbows before he swung and he was fouling off a lot of good pitches to left field,” Romano said. “I remind Lou every game about locking his elbows.”
Brock “applied Romano’s tip and went on a long-awaited surge,” The Sporting News reported. “Starting July 24, he went on a 24-for-56 binge, a .429 clip, and he hit safely in 13 straight games through Aug. 6.”
With Brock igniting the offense _ he generated 113 runs, 206 hits and 52 stolen bases _ the Cardinals cruised to a championship.
Romano, who batted .121 (7-for-58) with no home runs and two RBI for the 1967 Cardinals, was left off their World Series roster. The Cardinals, who clinched the title with four wins in seven games against the Red Sox, voted Romano a full World Series share of $8,314.81, according to The Sporting News.
On Oct. 20, 1967, the Cardinals released Romano. When no other teams showed interest, he retired.
Previously: Cardinals helped Walt Williams return to majors