In his bid to join the Cardinals, Red Schoendienst had no trouble with the baseball skills part of the challenge. It was the hassle of everyday life that proved to be his biggest obstacle to becoming a professional player.
Seventy-five years ago, in 1942, Schoendienst impressed the Cardinals at a tryout camp and earned a contract, launching him on a career that would lead to election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and special status as a beloved franchise icon.
Displaying the tenacity that enabled him to spend eight decades in the big leagues as a player, manager, coach and advisor, Schoendienst overcame a series of roadblocks _ from serious to annoying _ to give himself a chance to receive an offer from the Cardinals.
Schoendienst was born and raised in Germantown, Ill., about 40 miles from St. Louis. In 1939, at 16, Schoendienst quit high school and got a job in the Civilian Conservation Corps. He played amateur baseball after work and on weekends.
While on the job, Schoendienst and a friend, Joe Linneman, were building fences.
In the 1998 book “Red: A Baseball Life,” Linneman recalled: “We would stretch the wire as tight as we could get it and then use a hammer to drive a staple into a dry hedge post, which was almost as hard as a piece of steel.”
As Linneman slammed the hammer into a post, a staple caromed off the hardwood and into Schoendienst’s left eye.
“It was,” said Schoendienst, “the most intense pain I’ve ever felt in my life.”
Doctors wanted to remove the eye, but Schoendienst objected. Under treatment, Schoendienst’s sight gradually improved.
Three years later, he felt confident enough in his vision to pursue a career with the Cardinals.
In 1942, Schoendienst and Linneman noticed a newspaper item about a Cardinals tryout camp to be held at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis. Anyone attending the camp would be admitted for free to a Cardinals game against the Dodgers that week.
Neither Schoendienst nor Linneman had been to a big-league game, so they decided to take part in the camp. “I don’t think either one of us went to that tryout camp thinking we had it made,” Schoendienst said in his book.
Lacking a car or the money for bus fare, Schoendienst, 19, and Linneman hitched a ride on a dairy truck and were dropped off about a mile and a half from the ballpark. They walked the rest of the way.
Schoendienst and Linneman were among the players who performed well enough at the daylong camp to get an invitation to return for more workouts the next day.
Linneman planned to spend the night at the home of an aunt in suburban St. Louis. He invited his friend to come along, but Schoendienst didn’t want to impose.
Possessing 25 cents, Schoendienst went to a diner and spent 10 cents on a hot dog. A sympathetic waitress brought the freckle-faced teenager a glass of milk on the house.
Afterward, Schoendienst went to the train terminal at Union Station and planned to spend the night on a bench. When he was ushered out by security, he found a bench in a nearby park.
Then it rained.
With his remaining 15 cents, a tired, soaked Schoendienst rented a room at a flophouse. He awoke the next morning covered in insect bites.
“When I got to the ballpark, they gave me some lotion to put on the bites, but I think that was part of the reason I moved so fast that day,” Schoendienst said. “I made up my mind I was going to swallow my pride and stay with Joe’s aunt the next night _ and I did.”
Schoendienst’s tryout lasted a week. Near the end, Cardinals executive Branch Rickey drove Schoendienst and two other standouts from the camp _ Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola _ to Forest Park for a workout because there wasn’t enough room at the ballpark.
“He was a terrible driver,” Schoendienst said of Rickey. “That car ride was scary. He was talking and driving like there was nobody else on the road.”
During the workout, Schoendienst, Berra and Garagiola took turns hitting against one another. (Garagiola would sign with the Cardinals but Berra went with the Yankees.)
When the training camp ended, Schoendienst hitchhiked back to Germantown. Soon after, Cardinals scout Joe Mathes asked Schoendienst to return to St. Louis _ again he hitched a ride on a dairy truck _ and signed him to a contract for $75 per month.
Rise through ranks
The Cardinals assigned Schoendienst to their Union City, Tenn., team in the Class D Kitty League. After Schoendienst played six games at shortstop for Union City, batting .407 (11-for-27), the Kitty League folded and he was sent to Albany, Ga., of the Class D Georgia-Florida League. His teammate there was his friend, Linneman, who had been signed by the Cardinals as a pitcher.
With his weak left eye causing him problems against right-handed pitchers, Schoendienst became a switch hitter. He batted .269 in 68 games for Albany in 1942, but also committed 27 errors at shortstop.
From there, Schoendienst made a meteoric rise through the organization.
In 1943, a year after his tryout with the Cardinals, Schoendienst, a shortstop for manager Pepper Martin’s Class AA Rochester, N.Y., team, was named Most Valuable Player of the International League. Though he committed 48 errors at shortstop, Schoendienst batted .337 with 187 hits and 20 stolen bases in 136 games.
Schoendienst “showed poise and an instinct for doing the right thing,” The Sporting News reported, and added he “gets a good jump on a ball, owns a good pair of hands and strong arm.”
In October 1943, Cardinals owner Sam Breadon told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that Schoendienst “is a great prospect, but needs experience.”
Two years later, in 1945, Schoendienst, 22, debuted with the Cardinals and primarily played left field. He shifted to second base in 1946 and was named an all-star that season.
Previously: How Bill Bergesch got Bob Gibson to Cardinals