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The National League expansion draft enabled third baseman Coco Laboy to get out from under control of the Cardinals and earn a chance to play in the major leagues.

Fifty years ago, on Oct. 14, 1968, Laboy was selected by the Expos in the sixth and final round of the draft.

Laboy, 28, had been in the Cardinals’ system for six seasons, including the last four at the Class AAA level. Though he hit for average and with power and fielded well, he never got the call to play for the Cardinals.

Given an opportunity by the Expos, Laboy delivered, becoming a popular and productive player in the franchise’s inaugural year.

Stay or go?

After the 1968 season, the National League expanded from 10 teams to 12 with the addition of the Expos in Montreal and the Padres in San Diego.

To help stock their rosters, the newcomers were permitted to draft a total of 60 players, 30 for each expansion club, from the existing National League franchises. The draft consisted of six rounds, and the Expos and Padres were allowed to each select five players per round from the major-league and minor-league rosters of the other clubs.

Each National League team could protect 15 players. A team could protect three more players each time one was taken from its list of unprotected.

The 15 players protected by the two-time defending National League champion Cardinals were pitchers Nelson Briles, Steve Carlton, Bob Gibson, Jerry Reuss and Ray Washburn; catchers Tim McCarver and Ted Simmons; infielders Orlando Cepeda, Joe Hague, Julian Javier, Dal Maxvill and Mike Shannon; and outfielders Lou Brock, Curt Flood and Vada Pinson, according to Bob Broeg of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

The Cardinals wavered until the last minute before protecting Washburn instead of newly acquired pitcher Dave Giusti, the Post-Dispatch reported.

When the Padres chose Giusti in the first round, the Cardinals added pitchers Joe Hoerner and Mike Torrez and infielder Steve Huntz to the protected list.

Joining Giusti and Laboy among the players drafted from the Cardinals were pitcher Clay Kirby (second round) and infielder Jerry DaVanon (third round) by the Padres and pitchers Jerry Robertson (fourth round) and Larry Jaster (fifth round) by the Expos.

Laboy batted .292 with 44 doubles and 100 RBI for the Tulsa Oilers in 1968. “He’s been a fine Triple-A hitter,” said Cardinals general manager Bing Devine, “but he’s been in our minor-league system a long time without having been brought up. Frankly, we were glad to see him get a chance in the big leagues.”

Going nowhere

Jose Laboy was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, the same hometown of Orlando Cepeda. Laboy told the Montreal Gazette people called him Coco for as long as he could remember, but he didn’t know why.

At 18, he signed with the Giants and played for four seasons (1959-62) in their farm system. He batted .305 with 83 RBI for the Class C Fresno Giants in 1960, but in 1962 Laboy suffered a serious back injury on a slide into second base, was limited to 13 games and got released after the season. “The doctors told me I’d never play again,” Laboy said to The Sporting News.

Laboy played winter ball in Puerto Rico, proved he was healthy and signed with the Cardinals in February 1963. The Cardinals assigned him to the Class A Winnipeg Goldeyes and he batted .292 with 21 home runs that season.

In 1964, Laboy was sent to the Class A Raleigh Cardinals, who were managed by George Kissell. Laboy thrived, batting .340 with 24 home runs, but an incident late in the season tarnished him.

On Aug. 20, 1964, in a game at Rocky Mount, N.C., Laboy became convinced pitcher Carl Middledorf was throwing at him and others. In the fifth inning, Laboy bunted along the first-base line. As Middledorf fielded the ball, Laboy charged at him with a bat. Laboy hit Middledorf twice with the bat, striking him in the back and chest, and a brawl ensued, the Rocky Mount Telegram reported.

Middledorf was not badly hurt and continued pitching until the eighth inning, according to the Rocky Mount newspaper.

Police arrested Laboy, took him to headquarters and charged him with assault with a deadly weapon. Laboy was released on $150 bail, appeared in court the next morning and entered a guilty plea. Judge Tom Matthews sentenced Laboy to 30 days on a road crew, suspended the sentence and fined him $20.25. The Carolina League suspended Laboy for three days and fined him $25.

Oh, Canada

While playing winter ball in Puerto Rico, Laboy’s teammate for three years was Phillies second baseman Tony Taylor.

“I knew when I first saw him that he could make the major leagues,” Taylor said to Sports Illustrated.

Taylor shared his insights with Phillies manager Gene Mauch. When Mauch became Expos manager, he remembered Taylor’s recommendation of Laboy.

“Several times when I was managing the Phillies I talked to Tony Taylor about Laboy,” Mauch said. “Before we went to the draft meetings, I talked to Tony again.”

Taylor said Laboy “is a good ballplayer and a smart one. He is the kind of player Mauch likes.”

At Expos spring training camp in West Palm Beach, Fla., in 1969, Mauch and his staff showed unwavering confidence in Laboy, even though he struggled while trying to impress.

The Expos went into their inaugural season with Laboy as their third baseman. In the season opener on April 8, 1969, against the Mets at New York, the Expos led, 8-6, in the eighth when Laboy hit a three-run home run against Ron Taylor, the former Cardinal. Laboy’s home run proved the difference in an 11-10 Expos triumph. Boxscore

A week later, on April 14, 1969, the Expos played their first home game, facing the Cardinals at Parc Jarry. In the seventh, with the score tied at 7-7, Laboy hit a double against Gary Waslewski and scored on pitcher Dan McGinn’s single to left. “I never ran harder,” said Laboy, whose run provided the winning margin in an 8-7 Expos victory. Boxscore

Laboy acknowledged getting special pleasure from beating the Cardinals. “They never gave me a chance,” he said. “I wanted especially to beat them today.”

Fun while it lasted

Laboy’s magical beginning to his major-league career continued throughout the first month. He batted .377 with 14 RBI in 20 April games.

“Every day he does something that just tickles me,” Mauch said. “Sometimes I want to kiss him.”

Asked to explain why Laboy was performing so well, Mauch said, “Character. Coco’s got that. He just tries so damn hard to do what you want _ and he’s doing it.”

Laboy finished his rookie season with a .258 batting mark, 18 home runs and 83 RBI.

The next season was a different story. Laboy hit .199 in 1970, was replaced by Bob Bailey at third base in 1971, and spent three seasons as a reserve before the Expos released him in September 1973 at age 33.

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A deal designed to make the Cardinals a surefire bet to win a third consecutive pennant backfired on them and instead helped the Reds develop into the most dominant team in the National League.

Fifty years ago, on Oct. 11, 1968, the Cardinals acquired outfielder Vada Pinson from the Reds for outfielder Bobby Tolan and relief pitcher Wayne Granger.

The trade was made the day after the Tigers beat the Cardinals in Game 7 of the 1968 World Series and it seemed to signal the two-time defending National League champions would be back in 1969 for a chance to reclaim the World Series crown they’d won in 1967.

Pinson, 30, was acquired to replace right fielder Roger Maris, who retired. Like Maris, Pinson batted left-handed and earned a reputation as a special talent.

The Cardinals were able to obtain him without giving up a frontline player. Tolan, 23, was a reserve and Granger, 24, was deemed expendable in a bullpen featuring Joe Hoerner and Ron Willis.

However, Reds general manager Bob Howsam was able to see what Cardinals general manager Bing Devine could not: Pinson’s skills were fading while Tolan and Granger were on the verge of becoming prominent players.

Prolific hitter

Pinson grew up in Oakland and went to McClymonds High School, which also produced athletes such as Frank Robinson and Curt Flood in baseball and Bill Russell in basketball.

Like Robinson and Flood, Pinson signed with the Reds. Robinson and Flood made their major-league debuts with Cincinnati in 1956 and Pinson was projected to be with the Reds in 1958.

The Reds could have had an outfield of Robinson, Flood and Pinson, but on Dec. 5, 1957, they traded Flood to the Cardinals in the first deal Devine made for St. Louis. In the book “October 1964,” author David Halberstam said Flood “always suspected they were not enamored of having an outfield of three black players” in Cincinnati.

Pinson became one of the game’s best players. He led the National League in hits in 1961 (208) and 1963 (204). Pinson also led the league in doubles in 1959 (47) and 1960 (37) and in triples in 1963 (14) and 1967 (13).

In 1968, Pinson, hampered by a groin injury, hit .271 with 29 doubles and 17 stolen bases, but was limited to five home runs and 48 RBI.

Judging talent

When Devine was fired by Cardinals owner Gussie Busch in August 1964, Howsam replaced him. After the 1966 season, Howsam left the Cardinals for a more lucrative deal with the Reds. Stan Musial replaced Howsam, resigned after the Cardinals won the 1967 World Series championship and was succeeded by Devine.

Several Cardinals staff members, including farm director Chief Bender and minor-league managers Sparky Anderson, Charlie Metro and Vern Rapp, eventually followed Howsam to the Reds’ organization and recommended Tolan and Granger.

As a backup outfielder and first baseman, Tolan hit .253 for the Cardinals in 1967 and .230 in 1968. Granger, a rookie, was 4-2 with four saves and a 2.25 ERA for the 1968 Cardinals.

The Cardinals “were disappointed” in Tolan’s hitting, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported, and “felt too many pitchers were able to handle him.”

“The front office and the field command had developed serious doubts Tolan would progress sufficiently as a hitter,” Post-Dispatch columnist Bob Broeg reported.

Howsam, however, was sold on Tolan, telling the Cincinnati Enquirer, “I don’t care what others say. I go by what we think of him. He’s got the ability and he has the desire.”

As for Granger, he “didn’t impress manager Red Schoendienst sufficiently,” Broeg wrote, even though minor-league manager Warren Spahn advocated for him.

Outstanding outfield

On Oct. 7, 1968, the day the Cardinals and Tigers played Game 5 of the World Series, Devine and Howsam agreed to the trade, according to the Dayton Journal-Herald. Though the clubs waited until after the World Series to announce the deal on Oct. 11, word leaked and it was widely reported on Oct. 10.

“Unless Pinson has aged overnight or has a hidden physical handicap, he’s likely to help the Cardinals with more speed on the bases and with a supply of doubles and triples,” Broeg surmised.

In a column for the Post-Dispatch, Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson told readers, “With Vada, Lou Brock and Curt Flood, I think we have the best outfield in baseball. Certainly it is the fastest.”

“Can you imagine the three of us out there?” Pinson said to the Associated Press. “We’ll have some fun. I’ve known since early this season I would be traded … but I thought I’d go to San Francisco. There was talk of Ray Sadecki or Gaylord Perry for me. I never dreamed it would be St. Louis. I’m really thrilled.”

In an interview with the Dayton Daily News, Pinson said, “I don’t believe I could have made a better deal for myself. I’m going to the top. Now I’ve got to make sure we stay at the top.

“I see no problem in bouncing back with the Cardinals. I’m only 30 and I figure I’ve got at least four or five more good years. The Cards must think so, too. I talked to Red Schoendienst and Bing Devine. They said the Cards had been scouting me for a good while.”

According to Bill Ford of the Cincinnati Enquirer, “Contemporaries congratulated Howsam” for acquiring Tolan. “They say Tolan, if handled properly, can be better than Brock.”

Said Tolan: “All I want is a chance to play every day because that’s the only way you can make any money. I can’t count on a World Series check every year.”

Reds strike gold

Pinson started splendidly for St. Louis in 1969, batting .293 in his first 21 games, before he was sidelined the first two weeks of May because of a hairline fracture in his right leg after being hit by a pitch from the Pirates’ Bob Moose.

After he returned to the lineup on May 14, Pinson struggled and batted .136 for the month. He rebounded in June (.286) and July (.302, 20 RBI), but slumped in August (.174) and September (.241).

The Cardinals finished in fourth place in the East Division and Pinson received part of the blame. Though his 70 RBI ranked second on the team, Pinson batted .255, with a poor on-base percentage of .303, and had four stolen bases.

On Nov. 21, 1969, the Cardinals traded Pinson to the Indians for outfielder Jose Cardenal.

Tolan and Granger had breakout seasons for the 1969 Reds. Tolan batted .305 with 194 hits, 21 home runs, 93 RBI and 26 stolen bases. Granger pitched in 90 games and had nine wins, 27 saves and a 2.80 ERA.

In 1970, the Reds won the pennant and Tolan and Granger were key contributors. Tolan hit .316 with 34 doubles, 80 RBI and 57 steals. Granger had 35 saves and a 2.66 ERA.

Two years later, when the Reds won the pennant again, Tolan batted .283 with 82 RBI and 42 stolen bases.

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Seeking stability at shortstop, the Cardinals went back to the past in a bid to enhance their future.

Sixty years ago, on Oct. 3, 1958, the Cardinals acquired shortstop Alex Grammas, first baseman George Crowe and pitcher Alex Kellner from the Reds for shortstop Eddie Kasko, outfielder Del Ennis and pitcher Bob Mabe.

The key to the deal for the Cardinals was Grammas, who had been their starting shortstop in 1954 and 1955 after being acquired from the Reds.

After using eight players at shortstop in 1958, the Cardinals were eager to have someone they knew who could do the job consistently, if not spectacularly.

Moving around

Grammas played baseball for Mississippi State and earned a degree in business. After graduating in 1949, he signed with the White Sox and played in their minor-league system until he was traded to the Reds in June 1951.

The Reds kept Grammas in the minor leagues and in 1953 they loaned him to the Kansas City Blues, a Yankees farm club. Grammas produced his best season for the Blues, batting .307 with 179 hits in 140 games as the everyday shortstop.

The Reds, who had smooth-fielding Roy McMillan as their shortstop, traded Grammas to the Cardinals on Dec. 2, 1953, for pitcher Jack Crimian and $100,000.

Grammas proved ready as a rookie to replace Solly Hemus as the Cardinals’ starter in 1954. He batted .264 and ranked second among National League shortstops in fielding percentage at .966. Grammas continued his good glove work (.968 fielding percentage) in 1955, but his batting average dipped to .240.

Frank Lane, who as White Sox general manager had traded Grammas to the Reds in 1951, became Cardinals general manager after the 1955 season and wanted more run production from a shortstop than Grammas was able to give.

Grammas opened the 1956 season as the starter, but on May 16 he was traded with outfielder Joe Frazier to the Reds for utility player Chuck Harmon. A month later, Lane dealt second baseman Red Schoendienst to the Giants for Al Dark, who became the Cardinals’ everyday shortstop.

Anatomy of a deal

Dark provided the hitting Lane sought, but all did not end well. Lane clashed with Cardinals owner Gussie Busch, departed after the 1957 season and was replaced by Bing Devine. Dark lacked fielding range as a shortstop, got traded by Devine to the Cubs in May 1958 and was replaced by Kasko, who’d been the Cardinals’ starting third baseman as a rookie in 1957.

Kasko made 64 starts at shortstop, didn’t hit well and was benched. Besides Dark and Kasko, others who played shortstop for the 1958 Cardinals were Ruben Amaro, Ken Boyer, Gene Freese, Johnny O’Brien, Dick Schofield and Lee Tate.

As the 1958 season neared its end, Devine, under orders from Busch, reluctantly fired manager Fred Hutchinson and replaced him with Busch’s personal choice, Hemus. While attending the 1958 World Series between the Braves and Yankees, Devine and Hemus went searching for a shortstop.

During Game 1 at Milwaukee, Devine and Hemus sat in the stands near their Reds counterparts, general manager Gabe Paul and manager Mayo Smith. According to Si Burick of the Dayton Daily News, Devine said to Paul, “I’ll take Alex Grammas.” Paul demanded Ennis in return.

“Cincinnati did not want to give up Grammas, one of the top utility infielders of the game, though a weak hitter,” Burick reported.

At Game 2, the trade interest between Devine and Paul got serious and, in an attempt at being discreet, they passed notes to one another from their box seats. One of Devine’s notes to Paul read, “It’s Grammas or nobody.”

Devine and Paul agreed to meet again when the World Series shifted to New York and they made the deal around noon on Oct. 3.

Encore performance

“Whether Grammas will be an improvement over Kasko is a question,” Bob Broeg wrote in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Neither can hit for average or distance. Grammas is considered by the Cardinals’ management to be steadier afield.”

The Cincinnati Enquirer declared, “Grammas, as everybody knows, is an excellent glove man, but an all-American out at the plate.”

Grammas was glad to be rejoining the Cardinals and told the Associated Press, “I like Solly Hemus. He helped me a lot with the Cards before, as much as a fellow ever did in baseball. If I was going to be traded, I couldn’t think of a place to go that I’d like better than St. Louis.”

Of the other two players acquired by the Cardinals from the Reds, Crowe was projected to be a pinch-hitter and backup first baseman and Kellner was expected to help as a left-handed reliever.

After the 1958 World Series was completed, the Cardinals went on a goodwill tour of Japan. Grammas was part of the entourage; Crowe and Kellner weren’t. The exhibition games against Japanese teams gave the Cardinals a chance to evaluate Grammas and he impressed.

Grammas, 33, opened the 1959 season as the Cardinals’ starting shortstop and he kept the job throughout the year, making 123 starts, batting .269 overall and ranking third in fielding percentage (.964) among National Leaguers at the position.

Crowe, 38, hit .301 in 103 at-bats for the 1959 Cardinals. He also played for them in 1960 and 1961, became a mentor to players such as Curt Flood, Bob Gibson and Tim McCarver, and stayed with the Cardinals as an instructor and scout after his playing days. Kellner, 34, was 2-1 with a 3.16 ERA in 12 appearances for the 1959 Cardinals before an elbow ailment ended his major-league pitching career.

After the 1959 season, the Cardinals obtained power-hitting shortstop Daryl Spencer from the Giants. Grammas opened the 1960 season as the Cardinals’ starting second baseman and held that job until the end of May, when he was replaced by rookie Julian Javier.

Grammas was a Cardinals utility player for the remainder of 1960, all of 1961 and part of 1962 before he was traded with outfielder Don Landrum to the Cubs for infielder Daryl Roberston and outfielder Bobby Gene Smith on June 5, 1962.

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Billy O’Dell was a left-handed pitcher who had success in the National League but the Cardinals’ Tim McCarver caused him trouble, hitting two grand slams against him.

O’Dell, who died Sept. 12, 2018, at 85, is best known as a starter for the 1962 National League champion Giants. O’Dell was 19-14 for them and led the staff in starts (39), complete games (20), innings pitched (280.2) and strikeouts (195).

Three years later, in February 1965, the Giants dealt O’Dell to the Braves, who converted him into a closer.

Fit to be tied

On Aug. 16, 1965, the Braves led the Cardinals, 8-4, in the eighth inning at St. Louis. Braves reliever Phil Niekro yielded consecutive singles to Bill White, Phil Gagliano and Ted Savage, loading the bases with no outs. Manager Bobby Bragan brought in O’Dell to face McCarver, a left-handed batter.

O’Dell entered the game with a 1.80 ERA and a string of 28 consecutive innings without allowing an earned run, but McCarver hit O’Dell’s first pitch into the right-field pavilion for a grand slam, tying the score at 8-8.

“That’s about the only real hit I’ve ever got off O’Dell,” McCarver said to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

In the ninth, Eddie Mathews poked a two-run single to center against Hal Woodeshick and the Braves won, 10-8. “Woodeshick jammed me good with that pitch,” said Mathews. O’Dell retired the Cardinals in the bottom half of the ninth and got the win. Boxscore

Against all odds

Two years later, on June 14, 1967, O’Dell was with the Pirates and he got the start against the Cardinals’ Bob Gibson at Pittsburgh.

In the first inning, the Cardinals loaded the bases with two outs, bringing up McCarver. O’Dell’s first pitch to him was a strike. The second was an inside fastball and McCarver lifted a high fly to right. Roberto Clemente moved toward the foul line, looking to make a catch, but the ball carried and dropped over the screen, just inside the foul pole, for a grand slam.

“Giving Bob Gibson a 4-0 lead before he even throws a ball is like matching Green Bay with Slippery Rock” in football, The Pittsburgh Press reported.

The Cardinals won, 7-4, and O’Dell took the loss. Boxscore

McCarver hit six grand slams in his major-league career. Four came against right-handers Larry Bearnarth of the Mets, Gary Wagner of the Phillies, Fred Gladding of the Astros and Rick Baldwin of the Mets and two were hit against O’Dell, who usually was effective versus left-handed hitters, limiting them to a .222 batting average in a 13-season career in the major leagues.

O’Dell yielded four grand slams as a big-leaguer _ the two to McCarver and the others to right-handed batters Ray Boone of the Tigers and Gene Oliver of the Braves.

Win some, lose some

O’Dell had a 10-8 record and 4.04 ERA in 42 career appearances versus the Cardinals. He pitched two shutouts against them. The first was May 28, 1960, in an 8-0 victory at St. Louis. O’Dell was backed by Willie Mays, who hit a pair of two-run home runs. Boxscore

O’Dell’s second shutout of the Cardinals was May 10, 1962, a 6-0 victory at St. Louis. Gibson started for the Cardinals and gave up a three-run home run to Willie McCovey. The win gave O’Dell a 5-0 record. Boxscore

A month later, on June 10, 1962, Curt Flood of the Cardinals got his first walkoff home run in the big leagues and it came against O’Dell in the opener of a doubleheader at St. Louis.

O’Dell started for the Giants and took a 5-4 lead into the ninth. After Bobby Gene Smith led off with a single, Dal Maxvill made his first big-league appearance, batting for pitcher Bobby Shantz, and popped out. Flood followed with a two-run home run, lifting the Cardinals to a 6-5 triumph. Boxscore

“It was like David against the Giants as Curt Flood, all 155 pounds of him, sent a slingshot home run into the left-field bleachers,” the Post-Dispatch reported.

Said Flood: “I had decided to swing at the first pitch that looked like a strike. O’Dell didn’t seem as sharp as he had been. He had us swinging at a lot of bad balls.”

Flood batted .309 (21-for-68) versus O’Dell in his career. McCarver hit .333 (8-for-24) against him.

O’Dell never pitched in the minor leagues. He was a standout at Clemson University, joined the Orioles after signing with them on June 8, 1954, and was mentored by pitching coach Harry Brecheen, the former Cardinals left-hander. After entering military service in 1955, O’Dell rejoined the Orioles in September 1956.

O’Dell had a career record of 105-100 with a 3.29 ERA for the Orioles, Giants, Braves and Pirates.

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As Lou Brock neared the finish to his worst season with the Cardinals, he and the club could have decided to part ways. Instead, they agreed to stay together, with the Cardinals acknowledging Brock still had the skills to play regularly and Brock acknowledging he would do whatever the team needed.

Forty years ago, on Sept. 21, 1978, Brock signed a contract to return to the Cardinals in 1979, ending speculation he would become a free agent.

Brock, 39, was unproductive for most of the 1978 season and rarely played in September, sparking suggestions the Cardinals no longer wanted him.

With less than two weeks left in the 1978 season, Brock and manager Ken Boyer met and reached an understanding on what each expected from the other, clearing the way for Brock to come back.

Unproductive reunion

Brock had a splendid start to the 1978 season, batting .320 in April even though he was among the players who had a strained relationship with manager Vern Rapp.

On April 25, 1978, Rapp was fired and replaced by Boyer. Brock and Boyer were quite familiar with one another. They’d been Cardinals teammates as players in 1964 and 1965 and were together again in 1971 and 1972 when Boyer was a Cardinals coach.

When Boyer became manager, he kept Brock in the lineup as the leadoff man and left fielder, but Brock went into a prolonged slump, batting .189 in May and .130 in June. Brock was hitless for two weeks in the middle of June.

Boyer benched Brock in late June and experimented with moving catcher Ted Simmons to left field before giving backup outfielder Jerry Mumphrey a try.

Sending messages

After Brock was held out of the starting lineup for the 16th time in the Cardinals’ last 19 games, Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported “there is a ticklish alliance between player and manager.”

In an article appearing in the July 6, 1978, Post-Dispatch, Boyer said Brock was trying to pull too many pitches instead of attempting to hit to the opposite field. “He’s had his chances … If Brock gets his stroke back, he’s going to get his hits,” Boyer said. “It’s a matter of concentration.”

Boyer also said Brock “may somehow be too relaxed.”

“Mentally, you can’t afford to relax,” Boyer said.

Told of Boyer’s theories, Brock replied, “Do you realize how many theories I’ve heard this season?”

Regarding his relationship with Brock, Boyer said, “I’d like to think we’re all friends. He knows he’s not hitting the ball.”

When asked about his future as a player, Brock said, “I’m going to play next year.”

Plea to play

A week later, in an interview with Bob Broeg of the Post-Dispatch, Orioles scout Jim Russo said, “Lou Brock, I fear, is a star passed by the parade.”

On July 21, Brock’s batting average for the season dropped to .198.

Brock went without a RBI from June 5 through July 25. He broke the skid on July 26 when he drove in the winning run with a single in a 2-1 Cardinals triumph over the Giants. “I’ve been hitting the ball well all year, but I was hitting in tough luck,” Brock said. “I’ve felt that my problem as a hitter has been due more to lack of playing time than anything else. When you don’t play for a long time, your timing is bound to be off.” Boxscore

Brock’s playing time increased in August and he responded with a .301 batting mark for the month, but in September he was back on the bench. With the Cardinals out of contention, Boyer returned Simmons to left field and put Terry Kennedy at catcher to see what the rookie could do. Brock was limited to four starts from Sept. 1 to Oct. 1.

Brock’s benching fueled talk he might become a free agent after the season and sign with another club. Brock was nearing 3,000 career hits but was unlikely to get the 100 or so he needed if he didn’t receive substantial playing time in 1979.

On same page

On Sept. 18, 1978, the Cardinals revealed Brock had agreed during spring training to a contract extension for 1979. “The contract has been there waiting for Lou to sign,” general manager Bing Devine said.

Initially, Brock was waiting for his agent, Richie Bry, and the Cardinals to alter some contract language before he signed, but when his playing time started to decrease, Brock held off making a commitment for 1979.

Brock “wants to think about it a little longer,” Devine said.

Bry added, “Lou has not given me any indication he would play for another club. I’m sure he wants to finish his career in St. Louis.”

On Sept. 20, Boyer and Brock met and agreed on a plan for 1979. The next day, Brock signed the contract extension to return to the Cardinals in 1979 for an estimated $250,000, the Post-Dispatch reported.

“Sure, he’s capable of being a regular,” Boyer said. “He’s strong both physically and mentally. Lou Brock probably could go out and play 130 games.”

Brock told Boyer, “I’m not signing to get 3,000 hits. I’m signing to be part of the total picture. I want to play. I want to pinch-hit. I want to pinch-run.”

Brock finished his 1978 season with a .221 batting average, no triples, no home runs, 12 RBI and 17 stolen bases.

He came back strong in 1979, got his 3,000th hit on Aug. 13 and finished the season with a batting mark of .304 in 120 games.

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In establishing a franchise home run record, George Harper helped the pennant chances of the Cardinals and hampered the hopes of the team that traded him to St. Louis.

Ninety years ago, on Sept. 20, 1928, Harper became the first Cardinals player to hit three home runs in a game, carrying them to an 8-5 victory over the Giants in the first game of a doubleheader at the Polo Grounds in New York.

Though the Giants won the second game, 7-4, the split enabled the first-place Cardinals (89-56) to maintain a two-game lead over the Giants (87-58) with nine to play.

Harper delighted in excelling against his former club and he displayed his feelings with a bit of showmanship.

Good wood

George Washington Harper was born in Kentucky and grew up on a tobacco farm. He began his professional baseball career with a minor-league team in Paris, Texas, when he was 21, according to the Society for American Baseball Research.

An outfielder who batted left-handed, Harper debuted in the major leagues with the Tigers in 1916 and played three seasons for them. When the Tigers sent him back to the minors, Harper quit baseball and bought a sawmill near Stephens, Ark.

While operating the sawmill, Harper learned about wood and he decided a persimmon baseball bat would be stronger and more durable than one made of ash. Using his persimmon bats, Harper launched a baseball comeback in the minor leagues in 1920 and returned to the majors in 1922 with the Reds.

A good hitter with a strong throwing arm, Harper played for the Reds (1922-24), Phillies (1924-26) and Giants (1927-28). Standing 5 feet 8 and weighing 167 pounds, he packed power in his frame, hitting 18 home runs for the 1925 Phillies.

In 1928, Giants manager John McGraw was looking to create an outfield spot for teenage slugger Mel Ott and Harper was the player the club decided to move. On May 10, 1928, a month before he turned 36, Harper was traded by the Giants to the Cardinals for catcher Bob O’Farrell, who won the National League Most Valuable Player Award in 1926 and was player-manager in 1927.

New York Daily News columnist Paul Gallico said McGraw sent Harper “down the river to St. Louis” and “if you have ever been to St. Louis in July or August, you can appreciate just how sore George would be at John.”

The Cardinals were keenly aware of Harper’s hitting ability because he batted .455 with five home runs and 18 RBI against them in 1927.

Harper became the primary right fielder for the 1928 Cardinals and joined an outfield of Chick Hafey in left and Taylor Douthit in center.

Playful mood

The Giants trailed the Cardinals by two games entering the Thursday afternoon doubleheader and were seeking a sweep to move into a first-place tie. Game 1 matched two aces, left-hander Bill Sherdel (18-9, 3.07 ERA) for the Cardinals and right-hander Larry Benton (24-7, 2.51) for the Giants, and 50,000 packed the Polo Grounds to see them.

In the second inning, Harper hit “a cheap homer into the lower right-field stands” for a 1-0 Cardinals lead, the Daily News reported.

Harper faced Benton with two on in the sixth and worked the count to 3-and-2. According to the Daily News, Benton, a St. Louis native, “grooved the next one” and Harper hit “a legitimate homer” into the upper deck in right, giving the Cardinals a 5-0 lead.

As Harper completed his trot around the bases, “he leaped onto home plate with both feet, looked over into the Giants’ dugout straight at John McGraw, pursed up his lips and blew,” Gallico reported.

McGraw, a tough, feisty character, didn’t react to Harper’s antics. “In his younger days,” Gallico wrote,” I am afraid John would have emerged from his hutch and punched George in the nose.”

Encore effort

The Giants battled back, scoring three runs in the bottom of the sixth. The Cardinals added a run in the seventh and the Giants countered with two in their half of the inning, cutting the St. Louis lead to 6-5.

In the eighth, Hafey led off with a home run against reliever Jack Scott, stretching the Cardinals’ lead to 7-5. Harper came up next and hit his third home run of the game “just inside the line in the upper stands” in right, according to the Daily News.

As he completed his trip around the bases, “I blush to relate that George repeated the act as he dug his cleats once more into the (plate)” and blew toward McGraw, Gallico reported.

According to the St. Louis Star-Times, Harper gave McGraw “an ironical smile” as he crossed the plate.

“I like a guy like that,” Gallico wrote. “I’m not so hot on those repressed heroes who pretend they don’t enjoy putting it over on the other fellow. George may never have a moment like that again and I am not one to blame him for enjoying it to the fullest.”

Seeking a fourth

According to The Sporting News, Harper also “saved his team with two sensational running catches that prevented three New York runs.”

In the ninth, the Cardinals loaded the bases, bringing Harper to the plate against Dutch Henry with a chance for a fourth home run to tie the major-league record held by Bobby Lowe (1894 Boston) and Ed Delahanty (1896 Philadelphia).

The fans in the Polo Grounds “were cheering for him to do this,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported, but Harper struck out looking.

The crowd jeered Cy Rigler’s “questionable third strike” call, the Post-Dispatch reported, and Harper argued so vigorously with the umpire that teammate Rabbit Maranville “had to drag him away from trouble and toward the bench,” according to the Associated Press. Boxscore

The Cardinals (95-59) went on to win the 1928 pennant, finishing with two more wins than the Giants (93-61). Harper played a big role, batting .388 with six home runs against the Giants and .305 with 17 home runs overall in 99 games for the Cardinals.

On Dec. 8, 1928, two months after the Yankees swept the Cardinals in the World Series, Harper’s contract was sold to the Braves and he finished his big-league career with them in 1929.

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