Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Games’ Category

The Cardinals began to rebuild their starting pitching rotation for the 21st century with the acquisition of a Cy Young Award winner.

Twenty years ago, on Nov. 11, 1999, the Cardinals traded catcher Alberto Castillo, reliever Lance Painter and pitching prospect Matt DeWitt to the Blue Jays for Pat Hentgen.

It was an important deal for the Cardinals, who were looking to become contenders after three years (1997-99) of failing to qualify for the postseason. Better pitching was one of their major needs.

Hentgen, 31, achieved double-digit win totals for the Blue Jays in seven consecutive seasons (1993-99) and received the American League Cy Young Award in 1996.

After acquiring Hentgen, the Cardinals added pitchers such as Darryl Kile, Andy Benes and reliever Dave Veres, and, along with the emergence of rookie Rick Ankiel, the upgrades made a difference.

After finishing 75-86 in 1999 with a starting rotation primarily of Darren Oliver, Kent Bottenfield, Jose Jimenez, Kent Mercker and Garrett Stephenson, the Cardinals in 2000 finished 95-67, won a division title and reached the National League Championship Series with a rebuilt rotation of Kile, Hentgen, Stephenson, Ankiel and Benes.

Reliable starter

Hentgen, a right-hander, made his major-league debut with the Blue Jays in September 1991, started and won Game 3 of the 1993 World Series for them against the Phillies and got the Cy Young Award in 1996 when he was 20-10 and led the American League in innings pitched (265.7), complete games (10) and shutouts (three).

He made 183 consecutive starts for the Blue Jays without missing a turn before shoulder tendinitis ended the streak in August 1998.

After a slow start to the 1999 season, Hentgen regained strength in his shoulder. Though he no longer had an overpowering fastball, he relied on location to frustrate batters. He often put pitches on the outside corner to induce groundballs and, if batters edged closer to the plate, he could deliver a pitch inside.

In August 1999, Blue Jays manager Jim Fregosi decided to have Hentgen skip a turn in the rotation, but didn’t inform the pitcher. Hentgen learned of the decision from a newspaper reporter. A month later, Hentgen and Fregosi had a heated argument in a closed-door clubhouse meeting, the National Post reported.

Hentgen finished the 1999 season with an 11-12 record and 4.79 ERA in 34 starts, but was 5-5 with a 2.87 ERA after Aug. 1.

The Blue Jays shopped him and the Tigers expressed interest, but the Cardinals made the best offer. The Blue Jays wanted Painter to replace left-hander reliever Graeme Lloyd, who departed for free agency.

Good fit

Hentgen was the fifth Cy Young Award winner acquired by the Cardinals since the honor was initiated in 1956. The others were Bruce Sutter (who won the award with the 1979 Cubs), Fernando Valenzuela (1981 Dodgers), Rick Sutcliffe (1984 Cubs) and Dennis Eckersley (1992 Athletics). Bob Gibson and Chris Carpenter are the only pitchers to receive the award as Cardinals.

The Cardinals had talked to the Dodgers about a trade for pitcher Ismael Valdes before making the deal for Hentgen, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

“We’ve been working on this deal for a long time,” Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty said. “We had tried to acquire him earlier in the year, but we weren’t able to. Finally, we got it worked out.”

Jocketty described Hentgen as a pitcher with “great upside.”

“I’m very confident he’s going to be a horse for us,” Jocketty said.

Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said Hentgen reminded him of Todd Stottlemyre, a former Blue Jays pitcher who excelled for the Athletics and Cardinals with Dave Duncan as his pitching coach.

Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz predicted Hentgen and Duncan would work well together. “Hentgen appears to be the ideal Duncan project,” Miklasz wrote.

The Cardinals also were seeking a catcher and Hentgen recommended his 1999 Blue Jays teammate, Mike Matheny. When the Blue Jays released Matheny after acquiring Castillo in the Hentgen deal, the Cardinals followed Hentgen’s advice and signed Matheny.

Big fix

When Hentgen struggled with command of his pitches early in spring training with the 2000 Cardinals, Duncan studied video of the performances and discovered a flaw in Hentgen’s delivery, the Post-Dispatch reported.

“Instead of going straight to the plate, I’m going toward the on-deck circle,” Hentgen said. “It’s as if I’m pitching to the plate five seats over.”

As a result, “the arm just drags, so I had nothing on the ball and no location,” Hentgen said.

Hentgen made his Cardinals debut with a start in the second game of the 2000 season and got the win in a 10-4 victory over the Cubs at St. Louis. He retired 11 consecutive batters from the second through fifth innings. Boxscore

On Sept. 14, 2000, Hentgen beat the Cubs again, pitching a three-hit shutout at St. Louis. Boxscore

“He kept the ball down and got ahead in the count,” said Matheny.

Duncan said, “His delivery was perfectly consistent from start to finish … When you’re getting called third strikes on good hitters, you’re executing your pitches.”

Hentgen finished with a 15-12 record for the 2000 Cardinals, winning six of eight decisions from Aug. 2 to Sept. 14, and was second on the staff in games started (33). He also started and lost Game 5 of the 2000 National League Championship Series when the Mets clinched the pennant.

Granted free agency after the postseason, Hentgen signed with the Orioles.

In 14 seasons in the big leagues, Hentgen was 131-112.

Read Full Post »

Bill Koman was a talented, durable outside linebacker and one of the respected leaders of the Big Red defense of the St. Louis football Cardinals in the 1960s. He also was outspoken and controversial.

Koman died Nov. 1. 2019, at 85. He played 12 seasons in the NFL for the Baltimore Colts (1956), Philadelphia Eagles (1957-58), Chicago Cardinals (1959) and St. Louis Cardinals (1960-67). He owned a real estate development company and built it into a successful business in St. Louis.

Koman is remembered as a devoted family man, business owner and philanthropist.

Will to succeed

William John Koman Sr. was born in 1934 in Ambridge, Pa., located on the Ohio River 16 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. The town was formed by the American Bridge Company and attracted thousands of immigrants to work in the steel mills.

Koman grew up in nearby Aliquippa, Pa., and when he was 9 he suffered a severe injury to his left knee in a bicycle accident, according to Bob Broeg of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Infection set in and there was concern the leg would need to be amputated.

The leg was saved, but Koman faced a lengthy recovery.

“I’ll never forget the agonizing look on my father’s face when a man sympathized with him for having a crippled son who couldn’t be an athlete,” Koman told Broeg.

Koman said he worked diligently to strengthen the knee, running four miles a day and doing other exercises. When he enrolled at Hopewell High School, he was a trumpet player in the band until he was healthy enough to play football as a junior.

(Following Koman as athletic alumni of Hopewell High School: big-league pitcher Doc Medich and Heisman Trophy winner and Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett.)

Smart and athletically gifted, Koman earned a scholarship to the University of North Carolina. He excelled in football and in the classroom, earning a degree in economics.

“I was a lot better student than I was an athlete,” Koman said to the Chicago American.

Straight talk

The Colts chose Koman in the eighth round of the 1956 NFL draft. He was released after one season and signed with the Eagles. Two years later, he was traded to the Cardinals.

Koman was named to the Pro Bowl team in 1962 and 1964. He played in 120 consecutive games for the Cardinals and missed only one. In the mid-1960s, the Cardinals linebacker corps of Larry Stallings, Dale Meinert and Koman was widely respected.

Koman intercepted seven passes in his NFL career, including six for the Cardinals, from quarterbacks such as Norm Van Brocklin, Sonny Jurgensen and Don Meredith.

“It’s a game of mental attitude and emotion,” Koman said to the Post-Dispatch. “Give me 11 guys who will hit their mothers in the back and we’ll beat anyone. There are too many nice guys in this game.”

In an August 1964 interview with Bill Gleason of the Chicago American, Koman said, “My attitude toward the game is I don’t feel anybody can block me. I also feel I’m the best doggone linebacker in the league my size. Because I believe it, I go out there and prove it.”

Koman offered his views on other NFL linebackers:

_ Sam Huff of the New York Giants: “If I played one game the way Sam Huff plays an entire season, I wouldn’t have had a pro career. I would have quit. Huff has always been overrated.”

_ Joe Fortunato of the Chicago Bears: “Nobody admires Joe Fortunato more than I do. He gives 125 percent of himself every game, but don’t try to tell me he’s a great linebacker.”

_ Chuck Bednarik of the Eagles: “Chuck Bednarik had great ability, but he was not a smart football player. When I was a kid with the Eagles, I told coach Buck Shaw, ‘I don’t have to take Bednarik’s stuff. I have an education.’ So they traded me to the Cardinals.”

“It doesn’t mean a damn whether they agree with me or not,” Koman said. “Whether they like me or not, they’re going to try to beat the hell out of me the next game. What I say I believe.”

Three months later, after Koman was hit in the face during a November 1964 game versus the Pittsburgh Steelers, he told the Post-Dispatch, “When the doctors took those stitches in my chin, somebody wondered why he sewed up my chin and not my mouth.”

Culture clash

In 1967, racial tension among the Cardinals resulted in black players bringing a list of grievances to head coach Charley Winner before the last game of the season.

Two months later, in February 1968, when Koman, 33, retired, Broeg described him as “the red-necked Red Dog of the Big Red.”

Koman summarized his NFL career as “12 extremely enjoyable, highly challenging, somewhat controversial and many times frustrating years” and cited his business commitments as an incentive to quit playing.

In July 1968, Sports Illustrated published a story about the racial problems experienced by the 1967 Cardinals.

A month after the Sports Illustrated story appeared, Murray Olderman, sports editor of the Newspaper Enterprise Association, interviewed Koman about the race issue. Citing his respect for black Cardinals players such as Jimmy Hill and Luke Owens, Koman said he judged teammates on job performance rather than skin color.

“When I play, I want the best athlete beside me. I never played with a finer cornerback than Jimmy Hill or a finer man than Luke Owens,” Koman said.

“When it comes to football, I’ll play beside anybody as long as he shows the willingness to do the job. Nobody ever questioned my preparedness to play football. I simply felt a few players were kept around who lacked the ability to play in the National Football League and had a bad attitude.”

After football, Koman’s company developed projects such as City Place in Creve Coeur, Mo., and shopping centers in the St. Louis area. According to a press release from the family, Koman was one of the original five founding members of the Casino Queen, an economic boon to East St. Louis, Ill. His family has continued to grow the business into the Koman Group.

Read Full Post »

George Culver, a dapper dresser who threw a sharp slider, seemed suited for a spot in the starting rotation of the Cardinals until his season unraveled like a spool of cheap threads.

Fifty years ago, on Nov. 5, 1969, the Cardinals acquired Culver from the Reds for pitcher Ray Washburn.

Culver, 26, and Washburn, 31, were right-handers who pitched no-hitters in the major leagues. Culver threw a no-hitter for the Reds against the Phillies on July 29, 1968. Boxscore Washburn had a no-hitter for the Cardinals versus the Giants on Sept. 18, 1968. Boxscore

The Cardinals projected Culver as a younger, more versatile version of Washburn and acquired him on the recommendation of Vern Benson and Hal Smith, former Cardinals players and coaches who were Reds coaches on the staff of manager Dave Bristol when Culver pitched for Cincinnati in 1968 and 1969. After Bristol was replaced by Sparky Anderson, Benson and Smith rejoined the Cardinals and urged general manager Bing Devine to make a deal for Culver.

Culver earned a spot in the Cardinals’ starting rotation in spring training and won his first three starts of the 1970 regular season, but an elbow ailment curtailed his progress and the Cardinals traded him to the Astros.

Here’s the scoop

When Culver was in eighth grade, he combined his passion for sports with an interest in writing.

“I’d listen to a game on the radio and then write a story about the game,” he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Then I’d compare what I wrote with the story of the game that would appear in the newspaper.”

As a freshman in Bakersfield, Calif., Culver became sports editor of the high school newspaper and eventually covered prep sports events as a freelancer for the local newspaper, the Bakersfield Californian.

When he wasn’t covering sports, Culver excelled at participating. He was best at baseball. He eventually signed with the Yankees, spent a season in their farm system and was selected by the Indians in the minor-league draft.

Culver, 23, made his major-league debut with the Indians in September 1966. He arrived in the clubhouse wearing a sport jacket and carrying a suitcase containing one suit. For the next month, he wore the jacket or the suit every day and was needled by teammates for lacking a better wardrobe, he told the Post-Dispatch.

“I didn’t want to be a country dresser,” Culver said. “The next year, I got a $5,000 bonus for being in the big leagues 90 days and I went out and spent about two grand on clothes.”

From then on, Culver became as well-known for his outfits as he was for his pitching.

Fashionable player

A reliever in 1967, Culver led Indians pitchers in appearances (53) and posted a 7-3 record with three saves. Traded to the Reds, he became a starter, led them in innings pitched (226) and was 11-16 with a 3.23 ERA in 1968.

Described by the Bakersfield Californian as a “mod-style bachelor,” Culver, who was divorced, developed what the Post-Dispatch called “nocturnal habits.” He liked to golf during the day and shoot pool and play bridge or poker at night.

Whatever he did, he looked marvelous doing it.

“Culver is a good-looking, green-eyed guy who resembles his idol, golf’s dashing Doug Sanders, in physical appearance and sartorial splendor,” Bob Broeg of the Post-Dispatch observed.

On the day they met, Broeg reported, Culver was wearing “white shoes, cream-colored trousers and a brilliant orange sweater.”

Culver told Broeg he liked to wear purple or pink. “I know those colors aren’t very manly,” Culver said, “but they’re beautiful.”

According to the Bakersfield newspaper, Culver had a “purple Edwardian-style suit,” but he said, “I don’t wear that purple outfit anymore. I favor all-white suits now.”

Culver said he had 150 pairs of slacks and 50 Banlon shirts. “I’d rather spend 50 bucks on clothes than on a date,” he told Broeg.

The focus on fashion paid off. A Los Angeles clothing manufacturer hired Culver as a sales representative and he carried “sample swatches of material as well as color and style charts on his baseball travels,” the Bakersfield Californian reported.

Even the back of Culver’s Topps baseball card noted, “George likes to wear mod-style clothes.”

Fresh start

In July 1969 while with the Reds, Culver became ill. He was sent to a Cincinnati hospital and diagnosed with hepatitis. He returned to the club late in the season, made five appearances and finished with a 5-7 record and 4.26 ERA.

The bout with hepatitis gave Culver “a good warning about the condition of his liver” and inspired him to change his lifestyle, the Post-Dispatch reported. After his trade to the Cardinals, Culver said, “I’ve given up drinking and I’ve recently kicked a four-pack-a-day cigarette habit.”

At Cardinals spring training camp in 1970, Culver competed with Chuck Taylor and Jerry Johnson for the fifth starter spot in a rotation with Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton, Nelson Briles and Mike Torrez.

Benson said Culver has “the arm to start and relieve and the heart to do both.”

Culver won the starting role by posting a 1.73 ERA in 26 innings in Grapefruit League games.

“He keeps the ball down consistently,” said Cardinals manager Red Schoendienst.

Culver made his Cardinals debut with a start in the home opener against the defending World Series champion Mets on April 10, 1970, at Busch Memorial Stadium. He limited the Mets to two earned runs in 7.2 innings, contributed two RBI and got the win in a 7-3 Cardinals triumph before 45,960. Boxscore

Culver got complete-game wins in each of his next two starts, beating the Pirates in Pittsburgh Boxscore and the Reds at St. Louis. Boxscore After three starts, he was 3-0 with a 1.40 ERA.

Meet the press

When Culver began his professional baseball career, the Bakersfield newspaper gave him a twice-a-month sports column, “Culver’s Clubhouse,” and he still was writing it while with the Cardinals.

“I write all my own stuff,” Culver said. “I try to give the readers information they wouldn’t ordinarily get.”

While with the Cardinals, Culver’s columns included insights on:

_ Teammate Bob Gibson: “He’s one of the hardest workers in camp and you’d never know he’s 34 years old. There isn’t a tougher competitor in the game.”

_ Artificial turf in St. Louis: “One thing the AstroTurf should cut down is infield hits. It’s almost impossible to hit a slow groundball and you will never see a ball die after being bunted unless the hitter uses a sand wedge.”

_ Pitching in Pittsburgh: “I’m glad they don’t have AstroTurf there yet. I might get one of our infielders killed.”

He also was considering writing a book about his adventures playing winter baseball in the Caribbean. The working title: “Maybe Mañana.”

Short stay

Since late in spring training with the Cardinals, Culver’s right elbow was aching. After the 3-0 start to the season, Culver was winless in his next four starts and his ERA increased to 4.66.

Schoendienst moved Culver to the bullpen in mid-May and replaced him in the rotation with rookie Santiago Guzman. In four relief appearances, Culver was 0-1 with a 4.32 ERA.

On June 13, 1970, the Cardinals traded Culver to the Astros for two utility players, Jim Beauchamp and Leon McFadden, and promoted rookie Al Hrabosky to take his spot in the bullpen.

Culver made 32 relief appearances for the 1970 Astros, was 3-3 with three saves and a 3.20 ERA and had elbow surgery after the season. He went on to pitch for the Dodgers and Phillies, finishing with a career record of 48-49, 23 saves and a 3.62 ERA in nine big-league seasons.

Read Full Post »

Ron Fairly tormented Bob Gibson as an opponent and helped him as a teammate.

Fairly died Oct. 30, 2019, at 81. A first baseman and outfielder, Fairly played 21 years (1958-78) in the major leagues, primarily with the Dodgers (1958-69) and Expos (1969-74), and spent two seasons (1975-76) with the Cardinals. He played in four World Series for the Dodgers, including 1965 when he batted . 379 against the Twins.

A left-handed batter with a line drive stroke, Fairly did some of his best work against Gibson, the Cardinals’ ace.

During his Hall of Fame career, Gibson yielded more hits (48) and more doubles (10) to Fairly than he did to any other batter.

In addition to having his career highs in hits and doubles against Gibson, Fairly produced a career-best 24 RBI versus him.

In his 1968 book, “From Ghetto to Glory,” Gibson said, “I don’t have to make a mistake against Fairly. Whatever I throw, he just hits it _ I don’t care what it is _ and always when somebody is on base. The guy is just a pretty good hitter.”

Four decades later, in his book, “Sixty Feet, Six Inches,” Gibson described Fairly as a batter who “would punch the ball over the shortstop’s head and you couldn’t strike him out. I tried to pitch him in, like I did a lot of left-handed hitters, and I didn’t have any luck with that. I’d pitch him away, make a good pitch, and he’d dump it over the shortstop’s head.”

In 1975, Fairly’s first season with the Cardinals and Gibson’s last, Gibson benefitted from Fairly’s formidable hitting.

On July 27, 1975, Fairly had two hits, two walks, one RBI and scored a run in the Cardinals’ 9-6 victory over the Phillies at St. Louis. Gibson got the win, the 251st and last of his career, with four scoreless innings of relief. Boxscore

Fairly talented

Fairly attended the University of Southern California, signed with the Dodgers in June 1958 and made his major-league debut with them three months later at age 20.

He established himself as a smooth fielder at first base and a consistent hitter.

Chicago columnist Jerome Holtzman rated Fairly “the best first baseman I’ve ever seen coming in on a bunt.”

Dodgers manager Walter Alston, in a 1965 interview with Bob Broeg of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, said he regarded Fairly the best hitter with runners on base of any of the players he’d managed.

For his career, Fairly had 17 home runs and 100 RBI versus the Cardinals. He batted .302 against Gibson, with 48 hits, including four home runs, in 159 at-bats. Fairly’s on-base percentage versus Gibson was .369.

In Gibson’s autobiography, “Stranger to the Game,” Gibson’s friend and teammate Joe Torre said, “Ron Fairly hit Gibby about as well as anybody did.”

On July 15, 1964, Fairly hit two home runs, one against Gibson and the other versus Ray Washburn, in a 13-3 Dodgers victory over the Cardinals at St. Louis. Boxscore

Regarding the Gibson fastball he hit for the home run, Fairly said, “I just got around in front of the pitch and laid the bat on the ball. Gibson supplied the power.”

The next day, Fairly hit a homer against Ray Sadecki. For the three-game series, Fairly had 10 RBI and six hits in 13 at-bats.

A year later, on June 3, 1965, at St. Louis, Fairly hit a two-run home run off Barney Schultz with two outs in the eighth, erasing a 10-9 deficit and lifting the Dodgers to an 11-10 victory. Boxscore

Fairly hit the first walkoff home run of his major-league career on Sept. 25, 1970, for the Expos against the Cardinals in Montreal. With the Cardinals ahead, 5-4, the Expos had two on and two outs in the ninth when Fairly hit an 0-and-2 fastball from rookie Al Hrabosky for a game-winning homer. Boxscore

“I can’t hit a ball any better than that,” Fairly said to the Montreal Gazette.

Proud pro

On Dec. 6, 1974, the Cardinals acquired Fairly from the Expos for a pair of prospects, first baseman Ed Kurpiel and infielder Rudy Kinard. Cardinals general manager Bing Devine projected Fairly to be a pinch-hitter and backup to rookie first baseman Keith Hernandez.

Fairly, 36, told the Sporting News, “I expect to play a lot. I’d like to play every day.”

Hernandez, 21, opened the 1975 season as the starter, struggled and was sent to the minors in June.

Fairly, getting starts at first base and in the corner outfield spots, became a valuable player for the 1975 Cardinals. He hit .301 and had an on-base percentage of .421. He also hit .343 as a pinch-hitter. On July 8, 1975, at St. Louis, Fairly hit a grand slam against Pete Falcone of the Giants. Boxscore

“I don’t fool around in batting practice,” Fairly said. “I try to hit with game situations in mind. Too many players fool around too much in batting practice and that gets them in bad habits.”

Fairly shared his knowledge with Cardinals teammates. According to The Sporting News, catcher Ted Simmons, “regarded by many as the purest hitter now active in the game,” listened to the advice Fairly gave him on hitting.

Hernandez returned to the Cardinals in September 1975 and regained his starting job. In his memoir, “I’m Keith Hernandez,” Hernandez said Fairly “took the time to show me how to better break in a first baseman’s mitt and how to cheat a little bit on a close putout at first.”

“You’re moving forward to get the ball with the glove, extending your body, and your foot comes off the bag just before the ball arrives,” Fairly told Hernandez. “Don’t rush it, or the ump will catch you pulling your foot.”

In his book, Hernandez said, “I worked on it every day during infield until I had it, and took Ron’s sly little move with me for the rest of my career.”

Watching Fairly’s impact on the Cardinals, Expos owner Charles Bronfman admitted, “That Fairly deal was very unfortunate. I think Ron fooled a lot of us by playing a lot better than we expected.”

The next season, Fairly hit .264 and had an on-base percentage of .385 for the Cardinals before they sold his contract to the Athletics on Sept. 14, 1976. He batted .364 with runners in scoring position for the 1976 Cardinals.

Overall, in his two St. Louis seasons, Fairly batted .289 with a .409 on-base percentage.

He went on to play for the Athletics, Blue Jays and Angels, finishing his career with 1,913 hits.

Read Full Post »

Bobby Tolan, who played on championship clubs with the Cardinals and Reds, was a champion as a manager in the Senior Professional Baseball Association.

Thirty years ago, on Nov. 1, 1989, the Senior Professional Baseball Association launched its inaugural season. Each of the eight teams played a 72-game schedule from November to February in Florida.

Seeking to match the success of the Senior PGA Tour, the baseball league, founded by real estate developer Jim Morley, focused on nostalgia by bringing back former major-league players 35 and older. An exception was made for catchers, who could be as young as 32.

Former Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood was league commissioner. Several other ex-Cardinals, including Joaquin Andujar, Jose Cruz, George Hendrick, Al Hrabosky, Tito Landrum, Bake McBride and Ken Reitz, signed as players.

For Tolan, hoping to manage in the majors, the senior league provided a chance to prove he could succeed with players who had big-league experience.

Learning to manage

Tolan was 19 when he made his debut as a major-league player with the Cardinals in September 1965. He played in four seasons (1965-68) with the Cardinals and was a reserve outfielder on their National League championship clubs in 1967 and 1968.

In October 1968, the Cardinals traded Tolan and pitcher Wayne Granger to the Reds for outfielder Vada Pinson. The deal was a steal for the Reds. Granger became an effective closer and Tolan developed into a top talent for manager Sparky Anderson, helping the Reds win National League pennants in 1970 and 1972 with his hitting and base stealing.

After his playing career, Tolan was a Padres coach for four seasons (1980-83), the last two with manager Dick Williams.

Hoping to lead a major-league team someday, Tolan agreed to go back to the minors to get experience. He managed the Padres’ farm club at Beaumont, Texas, for two years (1984-85) and one of his top players was 20-year-old catcher Benito Santiago.

In 1987, Tolan became a coach for the Mariners, reuniting with Williams, their manager. Tolan returned to managing in 1988 with Erie, a club in the Orioles’ farm system.

Law and order

In August 1989, after two seasons at Erie, Tolan was named manager of the senior league’s St. Petersburg Pelicans.

“This is almost like a dream come true,” Tolan said to the St. Petersburg Times. “For me, this is the closest thing to the major leagues.”

Determined to produce a winner, Tolan vowed the Pelicans would be physically fit and fundamentally sound. He banned beer from the clubhouse and imposed a curfew. He said he expected the level of play to be comparable to a good Class AAA club.

“I’m managing major-league ballplayers,” Tolan said. “Some are just a little past their prime, some just a little further.”

According to the St. Petersburg Times, Tolan “was criticized by opposing teams and former players for running a tough camp with strict rules.” Winter Haven manager Bill Lee, the former Red Sox pitcher known as “Spaceman,” likened Tolan’s approach to “a militaristic regime.”

Familiar names

The senior league teams for the 1989-90 season were:

_ Bradenton Explorers. Manager: Clete Boyer. Key players: Bruce Kison, Hal McRae, Al Oliver.

_ Fort Myers Sun Sox. Manager: Pat Dobson. Key players: Amos Otis, Dan Driessen.

_ Gold Coast Suns: Manager: Earl Weaver. Key players: Joaquin Andujar, George Hendrick, Cesar Cedeno, Bert Campaneris. Asked why he would come out of retirement to manage in the senior league, Weaver said, “After golfing 20 days in a row, then what?”

_ Orlando Juice: Manager: Gates Brown. Key players: Pete Falcone, Jose Cruz, Bill Madlock, Ken Reitz.

_ St. Lucie Legends: Manager: Graig Nettles. Key players: Vida Blue, Bobby Bonds, George Foster, Clint Hurdle.

_ St. Petersburg Pelicans. Manager: Bobby Tolan. Key players: Jon Matlack, Milt Wilcox, Steve Kemp, Steve Henderson, Ivan DeJesus.

_ West Palm Beach Tropics. Manager: Dick Williams. Key players: Rollie Fingers, Al Hrabosky Dave Kingman, Mickey Rivers, Tito Landrum.

_ Winter Haven Super Sox. Manager: Bill Lee. Key players: Ferguson Jenkins, Jim Bibby, Bill Campbell, Tony Scott.

Some thought the senior league would receive a needed publicity boost if it allowed Pete Rose to play. Rose was banished from the big leagues because of his involvement in a gambling scandal. Flood ruled Rose ineligible for senior baseball unless the major leagues reinstated him.

Alive and well

Even without Rose, the senior league began its first season with optimism and sense of purpose.

“These aren’t cadavers waiting to be buried,” Flood said to the St. Petersburg Times. “These men are serious about playing baseball. I think a lot of people are going to be surprised at the caliber of play.”

Dick Williams told the Palm Beach Post, “We’re dead serious about this. Very much so. We may be a step slower because they’re all older, but there are no pot bellies out there.”

Weaver noted the San Francisco Giants used hulking 40-year-old pitcher Rick Reuschel in the 1989 World Series and said, “He’s older and fatter than most of our guys.”

Media reviews of the Opening Day games generally were favorable.

The St. Petersburg Times noted, “It’s like a baseball card collection come to life.”

Palm Beach Post columnist Tim Rosaforte rated it “good, fundamental baseball. Certainly better, and more exciting, than spring training.”

Best of the bunch

Though a ticket to most senior league games cost about $5, attendance was poor. The West Palm Beach Tropics drew best, averaging 1,600 spectators per game, “but many of those fans received free or discounted tickets,” the Palm Beach Post reported.

Most teams averaged fewer than 1,000 spectators per game. The Orlando Juice did worst, with an average attendance of 400.

Some of the former Cardinals who performed well were Andujar (5-0, 1.31 ERA), Falcone (10-3), Driessen (.333 batting average, 49 RBI), Landrum (.346, 55 RBI) and Cruz (.306, 10 home runs, 49 RBI).

The West Palm Beach Tropics finished first in the Southern Division at 52-20 and the St. Petersburg Pelicans topped the Northern Division at 42-30.

In a winner-take-all championship game on Feb. 4, 1990, the Pelicans prevailed, 12-4, validating Tolan’s managing skill and style.

“I guess this shuts everybody up,” Tolan said. ” Maybe if I weren’t looking for a big-league job I would have run an easy team, but I want a big-league job and I wanted to prove I could run a successful team. I took this seriously and it all paid off by this championship.”

Struggling financially, the senior league reorganized for the 1990-91 season. Flood departed and the number of teams was reduced from eight to six. Four teams remained in Florida and two went to Arizona.

Tolan returned to manage St. Petersburg and he had the Pelicans in first place at 15-8 when the league disbanded on Dec. 26, 1990.

Tolan never did get to manage in the majors. After the senior league folded, his next chance to manage in professional baseball came at age 60 in 2006 with the White Sox rookie league club in Great Falls, Montana.

Read Full Post »

Bobby Del Greco was a graceful center fielder with a strong arm, but he was no Bill Virdon.

Del Greco died Oct. 13, 2019, at 86. He was a principal figure in one of the Cardinals’ most lopsided trades.

On May 17, 1956, the Cardinals dealt center fielder Bill Virdon to the Pirates for Del Greco and pitcher Dick Littlefield.

Virdon, 24, was the winner of the 1955 National League Rookie of the Year Award. Del Greco, 23, was seeking a chance to play regularly in the major leagues.

The deal was a dud for the Cardinals. Virdon played 11 years with the Pirates, producing 1,431 hits, earning a Gold Glove Award and helping them win a World Series championship. Del Greco played part of one season for the Cardinals, couldn’t hit consistently and was sent to the Cubs.

Great glove

A Pittsburgh native, Del Greco was signed to a Pirates contract by Hall of Famer Pie Traynor. In 1952, Del Greco was 19 when he made his major-league debut with the Pirates against the Cardinals and produced three hits and a walk in five plate appearances. Boxscore

After hitting .217 in 99 games for the 1952 Pirates, Del Greco spent the next three seasons in the minor leagues. He played for the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League in 1955 and hit .287 with 26 doubles and 21 stolen bases for manager Bobby Bragan. Del Greco also caught the attention of Fred Hutchinson, manager of the rival Seattle Rainiers.

In 1956, Bragan became manager of the Pirates and Hutchinson became manager of the Cardinals. Bragan chose Del Greco to be the Opening Day center fielder for the 1956 Pirates. Bragan ranked Del Greco behind only Willie Mays of the Giants and Duke Snider of the Dodgers among National League center fielders.

Del Greco has “a strong, accurate arm and the instinct of throwing to the right base,” The Sporting News noted. He “gets a tremendous jump on any fly ball and can outrun some of them.”

Seeing is believing

The Cardinals opened the 1956 season with Wally Moon as the first baseman and an outfield of Hank Sauer in left, Virdon in center and Stan Musial in right.

After batting .281 as a Cardinals rookie in 1955, Virdon got off to a slow start in 1956. Cardinals general manager Frank Lane began to suspect Virdon might have deteriorating vision. Also, Virdon, like Musial and Moon, batted left-handed and Lane wanted to balance the lineup with an outfielder who batted from the right side.

Hutchinson recommended Del Greco as a replacement for Virdon and Lane began trade talks with the Pirates. He also shopped Virdon to the Cubs, who offered pitcher Bob Rush, and to the Phillies, who declined to deal outfielder Richie Ashburn.

On May 13, 1956, Del Greco hit two home runs in a game at Pittsburgh against the Phillies’ Harvey Haddix, a former Cardinal. Lane was at the game to scout Del Greco and, naturally, was impressed. Boxscore

Del Greco’s two-homer game “was the biggest boost for the trade,” Pirates general manager Joe Brown told The Sporting News.

Pirates plunder

Though Virdon was batting .211 in 24 games for the 1956 Cardinals, the trade was viewed as a major risk for them. Del Greco was batting .200 for the 1956 Pirates and they primarily were playing him only against left-handers.

Hutchinson called Del Greco “a terrific outfielder” with “a real good arm and speed.” He told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “Yes, I’d have to say (he’s) better than Virdon.”

Lane said, “We liked Del Greco because he seemed to have more drive than Bill Virdon.”

Citing the eyesight issue, Lane said, “Maybe, as has been suggested, we decided it would be better to let Pittsburgh or another club worry about whether he still has major-league vision.”

Lane added, “It wasn’t only Virdon’s failure to get base hits. Bill wasn’t even hitting the ball hard.”

Brown said the Pirates “wanted Virdon badly,” and when Lane readily agreed to the deal, “I began to wonder if there might be something wrong with Virdon.”

Turns out, Virdon was fine. He rewarded the Pirates, batting .334 with 170 hits in 133 games for them in 1956 and playing a splendid center field. Virdon “is certainly on a par even with the fabulous Willie Mays,” The Sporting News remarked. “Pittsburgh fans compare him with the gifted Vince DiMaggio and Lloyd Waner.”

Del Greco batted .215 in 102 games for the 1956 Cardinals. He hit .176 in home games and overall his batting average with runners in scoring position was .098 (5-for-51).

“What a terrible deal,” Sauer said in the book “We Played the Game.” Virdon “was a great fielder, much better than Del Greco.”

A defiant Lane told the Sporting News, “I make no pretensions of perfection in trading. I merely hope to make more good deals than bad ones.”

Moving on

After the 1956 season, Del Greco played winter ball in Havana for former Cardinals coach and manager Mike Gonzalez. Cardinals scout Al Hollingsworth went to Cuba to see Del Greco and said, “One thing he’s got to learn is to forget the long ball.”

At spring training in 1957, rookie Bobby Gene Smith won the Cardinals’ center field job when Del Greco batted .101 in Grapefruit League exhibition games.

On April 20, 1957, the Cardinals traded Del Greco and pitcher Ed Mayer to the Cubs for outfielder Jim King.

Del Greco played for the Cubs (1957), Yankees (1957-58), Phillies (1960-61 and 1965) and Athletics (1961-63), and batted .229 in his career in the majors.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »