In 1960, the Cardinals had two prized prospects, Chris Cannizzaro and Tim McCarver, competing to become heir apparent to Hal Smith as starting catcher.
McCarver got to the big leagues first _ for eight September games with St. Louis in 1959 _ but Cannizzaro gained an edge when he earned a spot on the Cardinals’ 1960 Opening Day roster and McCarver was sent to the minor leagues.
Though Cannizzaro was a strong thrower, he couldn’t hit as well as McCarver. By the end of the 1961 season, the Cardinals had made their decision: McCarver would stay and Cannizzaro would go.
McCarver became the Cardinals’ everyday catcher in 1963 and developed into a standout who played a key role in helping St. Louis win three National League pennants and two World Series titles in the 1960s.
Cannizzaro, who died Dec. 30, 2016, at 78, built a 13-year career in the big leagues and was best known as being a catcher for two original NL expansion teams: the 1962 Mets and the 1969 Padres.
Cannizzaro, son of a police officer, was a top athlete in San Leandro, Calif., near Oakland, and played youth baseball against future Cardinals teammates Curt Flood and Ernie Broglio.
Cannizzaro received baseball scholarship offers from schools such as Stanford and Arizona, but signed with St. Louis after graduating from high school in 1956 because “I felt I could advance fastest with the Cardinals,” Cannizzaro told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
In 1958, playing for manager Johnny Keane at Class AAA Omaha, Cannizzaro hit .272 in 110 games and established himself as a premier prospect.
At spring training in 1960, Cannizzaro, 21, and McCarver, 18, were on the big-league roster and competed for a backup job. Cannizzaro hit .419 (13-for-31) in exhibition games and “was outstanding on defense,” The Sporting News reported.
In what the magazine called “a surprise decision,” Cardinals manager Solly Hemus decided to open the 1960 season with four catchers: Smith, Cannizzarro, Carl Sawatski and Darrell Johnson.
“I can’t see how it will hurt Cannizzarro to stay with us,” Hemus said. “He’ll see how baseball is played in the majors. He’ll get plenty of work and we can use the hot bat.”
Plenty of fire
On April 17, 1960, Cannizzaro made his big-league debut for the Cardinals, replacing Sawatski in the seventh inning against the Dodgers at Los Angeles. In the eighth, Cannizzaro got his first at-bat. The pitcher: Sandy Koufax. Cannizzaro grounded out to second. Boxscore
Five nights later, on April 22, 1960, at St. Louis, Cannizzaro got his first Cardinals hit, a single to center off Dodgers rookie Ed Rakow. Boxscore
Cannizzaro was making a good early impression. “He has an excellent arm, a quick, searching mind and plenty of bounce and fire,” Cardinals general manager Bing Devine told the Post-Dispatch.
Umpire Frank Secory experienced Cannizzaro’s fire in a play at home plate on April 25, 1960, at St. Louis.
In the seventh, the Giants’ Willie McCovey hit a single to right off Bob Gibson. Willie Mays, racing from first base, was ruled safe at the plate by Secory. Cannizzaro, arguing that Mays never touched the plate, bumped into Secory three times, The Sporting News reported.
“I won’t take that from anybody,” Secory said.
Cannizzarro was ejected and the NL suspended him for two days, fining him $50.
Hemus called Secory’s ruling “a joke” and told the Post-Dispatch, “The umpire missed the play. He shouldn’t try to cover up his mistake by taking it out on a kid. Mays still hasn’t touched the plate.” Boxscore
Change in plans
With four catchers, the Cardinals couldn’t give Cannizzaro much playing time. He hit .222 (2-for-9) in seven games. The Cardinals decided Cannizzaro would benefit from playing regularly and sent him to the minors on May 10, 1960.
“At his age, he has made a fine impression to stay this long,” Devine said. “He is a very fine prospect who picked up considerable experience and confidence during his month with us.”
The following February, as spring training opened at St. Petersburg, Fla., the 1961 Cardinals were seeking a No. 3 catcher to back up Smith and Sawatski. “Hemus will pick between Tim McCarver and Chris Cannizzaro to bolster catching, with the latter favored,” The Sporting News reported.
However, neither Cannizzarro nor McCarver performed well enough. Gene Oliver, who also played first base and outfield, opened the 1961 season as the Cardinals’ No. 3 catcher.
Just before the Cardinals broke camp, Hemus informed Cannizzarro he was being sent to the minors. Cannizzaro, who had expected to make the roster, responded that his wife had left St. Petersburg that morning to drive to St. Louis. Leo Ward, Cardinals traveling secretary, called the local sheriff and “the highway patrol intercepted the Cannizzarro auto near Tallahassee,” advising Mrs. Cannizzarro to drive back to St. Petersburg, the Post-Dispatch reported.
Cannizzaro was called up to the Cardinals in July 1961 but got into just six games. He had one hit in two at-bats.
Deciding McCarver had better potential, the Cardinals made Cannizzaro available in the NL expansion draft after the 1961 season and he was selected by the Mets, who had hired Hemus as a coach.
Casey Stengel, 72, the Mets’ manager, called his catcher Canzoneri. (He likely was thinking of Tony Canzoneri, a world champion boxer in the 1920s and 1930s.)
Nonetheless, Cannizzaro was a bright spot on a 1962 Mets team that finished in last place at 40-120. He threw out 55.6 percent of the runners attempting to steal against him.
“Cannizzaro is the only catcher the Mets own who can throw, run and make the plays,” The Sporting News opined in June 1962.
Said Stengel: “He can’t hit but … I want defense … A catcher like this kid, who can throw, will let my pitchers pay attention to the hitter instead of worrying about a runner on first base.”
In addition to the Cardinals and Mets, Cannizzaro played for the Pirates, Padres, Cubs and Dodgers. He was an all-star with the 1969 Padres, though he hit .220 in 134 games that season.
Previously: Cardinals have strong link to original Mets