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What began as the feel-good story of Cardinals spring training dissolved into a feud between comeback hopeful Andy Van Slyke and manager Tony La Russa.

The rift, just as the 1997 Cardinals were launching into their season 20 years ago, was created by miscommunication, overreaction and ego from both sides.

Van Slyke, who had come out of retirement in a bid to earn a job as a Cardinals utility player, batted .545 in spring training in 1997 before being sidelined by a leg injury. He wanted assurances he would have a spot on the active roster when he healed. The Cardinals refused to make that kind of commitment.

That led to a war of words between Van Slyke and La Russa.

Versatile talent

Plagued by recurring back pain, Van Slyke retired after playing the 1995 season with the Orioles and Phillies.

A first-round pick of the Cardinals in the 1979 draft, Van Slyke made his major-league debut with St. Louis in 1983. He played 69 games in the outfield, 30 at third base and nine at first base.

In 1984, Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog again used Van Slyke in the outfield (81 games) and at third base (32 games) and first base (30 games).

Sticking primarily to the outfield, Van Slyke’s best Cardinals seasons were 1985 (25 doubles, 13 home runs, 34 stolen bases) and 1986 (23 doubles, 13 home runs, 21 stolen bases).

On April 1, 1987, the Cardinals traded Van Slyke, catcher Mike LaValliere and pitcher Mike Dunne to the Pirates for catcher Tony Pena. In eight years (1987-94) with the Pirates, Van Slyke won a National League Gold Glove Award five times for his outfield defense and three times was named an all-star.

Comeback candidate

After his retirement, Van Slyke, who continued to reside in St. Louis, spent 1996 as a baseball analyst for ESPN and did a radio show. With his back feeling better, Van Slyke began working out, hoping to play again.

In February 1997, Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported La Russa had invited Van Slyke to Cardinals spring training camp at St. Petersburg, Fla., to compete for a job.

“It’s intriguing,” Van Slyke said. “I’ve always wanted to end my career with a Cardinals uniform on.”

A week later, the Cardinals signed Van Slyke and another utilityman candidate, former Indians slugger Cory Snyder, to minor-league contracts.

Third base training

When Van Slyke, 36, arrived at Cardinals camp, he was given a locker between those of pitcher Dennis Eckersley, 42, and outfielder Willie McGee, 38. “They’re trying to make me feel young,” Van Slyke said.

Cardinals coaches Carney Lansford, an all-star third baseman for La Russa with the Athletics, and Mark DeJohn, a former Tigers infielder, were assigned to work with Van Slyke. The Cardinals wanted to see whether he could be a backup to Gary Gaetti at third base.

“You can’t just take a guy from the outfield and stick him at third base,” Lansford said. “But given the proper amount of time and the right instruction he could have a chance.”

Van Slyke said of playing third base, “I’m better than I was 11 years ago.”

Replied Lansford: “He’s got a long way to go.”

Big bat

What Van Slyke still could do best was hit.

In his first exhibition game, Van Slyke delivered a RBI-single off Reds reliever Jeff Shaw. “That was a professional at-bat, a big-league at-bat,” La Russa gushed.

Van Slyke produced 11 hits in his first 20 at-bats.

“He’s shown that his talent is alive and kicking,” said La Russa.

Said Van Slyke: “My biggest concern was to get a fair shot and I’ve gotten that. Even if I don’t make the team, there will be absolutely no animosity toward Tony or this organization. This organization owes me nothing. I owe the Cardinals and baseball everything.”

On March 22, Van Slyke tore a muscle in his left calf.

Hummel wrote that Van Slyke “would have made the club” if he hadn’t been injured.

Next step

On March 26, needing to set their roster as they prepared to leave Florida, the Cardinals told Van Slyke to remain at training camp and work on getting healthy.

“When I’m ready, there’s only one place I want to play _ and that’s not extended spring training or (Class AAA) Louisville,” Van Slyke said.

La Russa indicated Van Slyke likely would need to accept a minor-league rehabilitation assignment before he could be considered for a spot on the Cardinals’ roster.

“We have to see if he really wants to do this,” La Russa said. “He wants some guarantees, but there are no guarantees in this game. He has to decide if he wants to take his best shot, with no guarantees.”

Go home

On the eve of the Cardinals’ April 1 season opener, Van Slyke, working out in Florida, complained to the Post-Dispatch about his status.

“I’d like to have some communication with (general manager) Walt Jocketty and Tony La Russa,” Van Slyke said. “Communication with this new group is something that needs to be worked on … Right now, a lukewarm response would be great. At least I’d be getting one.”

Van Slyke’s comments irked La Russa, who, after stewing for a couple of days, delivered a salvo.

“That’s just not accurate,” La Russa told Hummel. “I talked to him Wednesday or Thursday before we left (Florida). I think the problem is he’s not hearing what he wants to hear.

“If he wants communication and he needs certainty, he can go home … The Cardinals don’t need to be criticized for handling his situation. He hasn’t had any communication? Well, my communication is to go home. It was all explained to him. If he can’t understand that, then go home. What he said was extremely disappointing. It just shocked me.”

End of the line

With his wife about to deliver a baby, Van Slyke returned to St. Louis and waited. By the end of April, it was clear Van Slyke’s bridges had been burned.

“I don’t think there’s any more interest from their point of view,” Van Slyke said of the Cardinals.

Said La Russa: “There are a lot of things he needs to do before he comes here that he hasn’t shown a willingness to do.”

Van Slyke’s comeback bid had ended.

Previously: How Andy Van Slyke amazed Jose Oquendo

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Struggling to score, the Cardinals opened the 1997 season by losing a franchise-record six in a row.

From April 1-6, the 1997 Cardinals scored a total of 12 runs in losing three to the Expos at Montreal and three to the Astros at Houston. All the games were played indoors.

It was the first time the Cardinals started a season 0-6.

The ugly start 20 years ago put the Cardinals in a hole from which they couldn’t recover. Never getting their record above .500, the 1997 Cardinals finished 73-89.

Expectations had been for a much different outcome.

High hopes

In 1996, Tony La Russa’s first season as St. Louis manager, the Cardinals (88-74) won the National League Central Division title and swept the Padres in the NL Division Series. After getting within a win of clinching the 1996 pennant before losing to the Braves in the NL Championship Series, the Cardinals were supposed to be contenders in 1997.

At a banquet in February 1997, La Russa raised the stakes, predicting the Cardinals would repeat as division champions.

The Cardinals had a successful spring training in Florida, posting a 19-11 record in exhibition games.

“So far, the signs are outstanding _ the way they’ve gone through the drills, the way they’ve competed in the games and the way they’ve related to each other and the coaches,” La Russa said to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “The signs are all go.”

After departing Florida, the Cardinals went to Arlington, Texas, and then to Baltimore to play exhibition games against the Rangers and Orioles _ St. Louis won both _ before opening the season on April 1 at Montreal.

In his column for the Post-Dispatch, Bernie Miklasz wrote, “La Russa has had the game face on since, oh, about Dec. 26. It should be a good year. The Cardinals should repeat as Central Division champions.”

Loss #1, April 1, at Montreal

In the bottom of the ninth inning, with the score tied at 1-1, Cardinals reliever Tony Fossas walked pinch-hitter Sherman Obando with the bases loaded, forcing in the winning run and giving the Expos a 2-1 victory. Boxscore

Obando never took a swing in the six-pitch at-bat. “I didn’t see the ball up, so I didn’t swing,” Obando said.

The Cardinals scored their lone run in the sixth when Delino DeShields scampered home from third on a wild pitch from Jim Bullinger.

Loss #2, April 2, at Montreal

The Expos, behind the pitching of Jeff Juden, Omar Daal and 39-year-old Lee Smith, held the Cardinals to two singles and won, 4-1.

For the second consecutive game, the lone Cardinals run was scored by DeShields advancing from third to home on a wild pitch.

Said La Russa: “I have confidence that good hitters are going to hit.” Boxscore

Loss #3, April 3, at Montreal

The Cardinals blew leads of 2-0 and 4-2, losing 9-4. The Expos raked starter Alan Benes for 10 hits and seven runs in 4.2 innings.

“You can draw any conclusions you want to,” said La Russa. “They just flat outplayed us all three games.” Boxscore

The next day, in Houston, Miklasz met with La Russa before the game and described the manager as looking “as cheerful as your basic werewolf.”

“Those three insipid losses (at Montreal) made baseball’s most famous vegetarian more nauseated than he would by a plate stacked high with pepperoni, sausage and bacon,” Miklasz wrote.

Said La Russa: “We should have been more competitive in each of those three games. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have done better in how we played _ and the manager should have done a better job.”

Loss #4, April 4, at Houston

Jeff Bagwell’s bases-loaded single off Eric Ludwick in the 11th inning snapped a 2-2 tie and lifted the Astros to a 3-2 victory.

The Cardinals started a season 0-4 for the first time since 1985.

St. Louis stranded 13 base runners. John Mabry drove in both Cardinals runs. Boxscore

In four games, the Cardinals were batting .167 with runners in scoring position.

“I feel terrific about our club,” La Russa said. “There isn’t anything we didn’t try to do tonight. The effort was there, the intensity, everything.”

Loss #5, April 5, at Houston

The Astros beat the Cardinals, 6-2. With their 0-5 record, the 1997 Cardinals matched the teams of 1902, 1919, 1960 and 1973 for worst start in franchise history.

Wrote Miklasz: “The lineup is as lethal as a Pez dispenser.”

Sid Fernandez started and earned the win in his final appearance of a 15-year major-league career. Ramon Garcia pitched four scoreless innings in relief for the save. Boxscore

“It’s a six-month test … I still like our club a lot,” said La Russa.

Loss #6, April 6, at Houston

Bagwell, hitting for infielder Tim Bogar in the eighth, delivered a two-run, two-out double off John Frascatore, erasing a 2-1 Cardinals lead and carrying the Astros to a 3-2 victory. Boxscore

The three-game sweep gave the Astros more wins against the Cardinals in 1997 than they had in 1996, when they lost 11 of 13 to St. Louis.

Having set the franchise record for most losses to begin a season, the Cardinals limped back to St. Louis for their home opener.

“I think I see guys trying to force things,” La Russa said. “It’s human nature. I hope they do. Otherwise, it means they don’t care.”

Said Cardinals third baseman Gary Gaetti: “It’s hard not to press when you’re really trying to get that first one.”

That’s a winner

After an off-day in St. Louis on April 7, the Cardinals played their home opener on April 8.

Willie McGee, 38, hitting for pitcher Mark Petkovsek, rescued the Cardinals by slashing a home run off Ugueth Urbina with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, giving St. Louis a 2-1 triumph over the Expos. Boxscore

“You couldn’t write a better script,” Mabry said of McGee’s streak-busting blast.

Said La Russa: “This was more dramatic than anything I’ve seen in a movie.”

Previously: Why Cards chose Delino DeShields over Ryne Sandberg

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(In tribute to Dallas Green, who died March 22, 2017, at 82, I am posting here a story I did that was published in the Dec. 31, 2007, farewell edition of The Cincinnati Post.)

When Lou Piniella was chosen to manage the Reds, the ball club called a press conference at Riverfront Stadium on Nov. 3, 1989.

It was unusual for me, sports editor of The Post, to attend. I usually worked from the newsroom. But I went to the stadium that day.

The Reds were a troubled franchise. Pete Rose, who had managed them since 1984, had been banned from baseball. His interim successor, Tommy Helms, had departed bitterly, saying he never would work for club owner Marge Schott again.

Piniella, who had worked for New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, made a strong impression. He spoke convincingly about why the Reds would succeed.

When Piniella finished, I approached Schott. I had been named sports editor in August, a few days before Rose’s banishment, and hadn’t met Schott.

“I’m Mark Tomasik, new sports editor of The Post.”

“Nice to meet you, honey,” Schott said. “I hope you’ll bring some class to The Cincinnati Post.”

From March 1989 to December 1997, I had the privilege of working for The Post, most of that time as its sports editor. It was an era of big personalities and big stories in local sports: Rose, Schott, Piniella, Sam Wyche, Paul Brown, Boomer Esiason, Bob Huggins, Pete Gillen, Rick Pitino and dozens more.

The Post already had a lot of class when I arrived. Our sports section regularly was voted best in Ohio and one of the top 10 in the nation.

The staff talent was deep, diverse. Its best attribute: aggressiveness. Most big breaking-news local sports stories of that era were reported first by The Post.

The newsroom culture was to pursue news hard. So when I came to work at 5:30 the morning of Oct. 18, 1989, and was greeted by a story across Page 1 of the Enquirer headlined, “Dallas Green offered Reds’ manager’s job,” I knew what to expect.

Within minutes, the managing editor was at my door. “We have to have something that matches or advances that story for our Page 1,” he said.

“I don’t have any reporters at this hour,” I replied.

Our Reds reporter was in San Francisco, where that night an earthquake had rocked the Bay Area, led to more than 60 deaths and halted Game 3 of the World Series. I wasn’t going to call at 2:30 a.m. Pacific time and ask him to chase the Green story.

“I’ll take care of it,” I told the managing editor.

The Post had a source list of phone numbers for many of the biggest names in sports. Green, who lived near Philadelphia, was on the list.

Just before 7, with deadline an hour away, I dialed Green’s number. He answered. I identified myself and began to explain the call.

Green responded with a string of profanities, and hung up.

“He’s not talking,” I told the managing editor.

“You’ve got to find a way to get the story,” he said.

I waited 30 minutes.

I dialed again.

“Hello.”

“Please don’t hang up,” I pleaded. “I need your help.”

Green paused. I told him what the Enquirer was reporting and asked him to deny or confirm.

“You want to know why I was so upset when you called earlier?” he said.

“OK.”

“My daughter lives in San Francisco. That mean anything to you? We’ve been trying to contact her all night. We haven’t been able to get through. We’re worried sick. When the phone rang, we were hoping it was her.”

My impression of Dallas Green changed that instant.

“I haven’t been offered the Reds’ job,” he said. “Is that what you need?”

Yes. We printed it. Page 1. All editions.

Two weeks later, Piniella was named manager.

_ _ _

Copyright: Copyright (c) 2007 The Cincinnati Post

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In a classic clash of individual free will versus organizational authority, Al Hrabosky challenged the rules of manager Vern Rapp, creating a controversy that threatened to divide the Cardinals during spring training in 1977.

al_hrabosky3Forty years ago, Rapp, the Cardinals’ first-year manager, had declared no Cardinals player could have a beard, moustache, long sideburns or long hair. Hrabosky, the Cardinals’ top relief pitcher, had earned the nickname “Mad Hungarian,” in part, because of an intimidating look that featured a Fu Manchu moustache.

Bristling at what he considered unnecessarily rigid rules and convinced a clean-shaven look hampered his effectiveness as a pitcher, Hrabosky ripped Rapp in comments to media.

For Rapp, who never had been in the big leagues until replacing the popular Red Schoendienst as manager, Hrabosky’s outburst was a critical test of his ability to command the respect of the team.

Spirit of St. Louis

A St. Louis native, Rapp was a catcher in the Cardinals’ system from 1946-50 and from 1953-54. He was a Cardinals minor-league manager from 1965-68 before moving to the Reds organization.

After the Cardinals fired Schoendienst, they hired Rapp because of a no-nonsense reputation.

Before leaving for 1977 spring training at St. Petersburg, Fla., Rapp, 48, revealed his edict on hair.

“Rapp’s tonsorial order took priority over a lot more important matters among St. Louis fans,” The Sporting News reported. “The two daily newspapers were swamped with letters, most of them in favor of the manager.”

In explaining why he implemented the ban, Rapp told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “I’ve had those codes on teams I’ve managed since 1965. It’s to give the players a feeling of being responsible to the profession they’re in. The dress and hair codes reflect their character and personality to the public. It’s a big way they can start developing pride.”

Rapp’s rules

Most Cardinals players reported to spring training clean-shaven and with haircuts. Third baseman Ken Reitz “was asked by the manager to get his hair trimmed and did, but not enough to suit Rapp,” the Post-Dispatch reported.

“There are a couple of others who still didn’t get their hair trimmed enough at the sides, but they will,” Rapp said.

The first player to challenge the rule was outfielder Bake McBride, who attempted to keep a goatee.

When Rapp ordered McBride to shave, McBride responded, “You’re going to make enemies.”

Said Rapp: “I didn’t come down here to win friends.”

Hrabosky, ever the showman, invited the media to film and photograph him as he shaved his Fu Manchu and beard.

The hair code wasn’t the only change introduced by Rapp. He issued daily step-by-step mimeographed instructions to the players, gave them identical team exercise suits to wear, required them to attend a demonstration by coach Sonny Ruberto on how uniforms should be worn and scheduled workouts before and after lunch.

After the Cardinals were beaten, 10-0, by the Mets in their spring training opener, “Rapp sent his players on a 15-lap tour from first to home,” the Post-Dispatch reported.

Hate mood

Hrabosky initially tried to use his unhappiness with the hair code as motivation to pitch well.

“I want to prove to Rapp that I’m his No. 1 relief pitcher,” Hrabosky said. “I want to be his No. 1 stopper. I wanted to be in a hate mood and Rapp put me there by taking away my beard and moustache. But, look, I super-like Vern. I want to help him, help the ballclub and help myself. He has aroused something in me to fight back.”

A few days later, though, Hrabosky directed his frustration at Rapp.

Al apologizes

On March 20, Hrabosky told the Associated Press: “My mental outlook is atrocious. There’s more dissension on this club than I’ve ever seen.”

That same day, Hrabosky told United Press International his teammates were being stifled by Rapp. “The guys are just standing still,” Hrabosky said. “The reason is they’re afraid to move.”

Informed of Hrabosky’s comments, Rapp told the Post-Dispatch, “I just don’t understand it.”

Before the Cardinals left for their March 21 exhibition game against the Red Sox at Winter Haven, Fla., Rapp called a team meeting.

“I wanted to get everything out in the open,” Rapp said. “I wanted the players to know that I am the manager of this team. They fully realize this and they are willing to accept it.”

Hrabosky stood up at the meeting and apologized.

“I’m man enough to admit I was wrong … I’m going to keep my mouth shut and do what I have to do,” Hrabosky told the Post-Dispatch. “I offended Vern. I feel I threatened his helm. As a team member, I felt I had no right to say what I did.”

Catcher Ted Simmons, the only other player to speak at the meeting, urged his teammates to conduct themselves professionally. Said Simmons of Rapp: “He is the manager and that’s that. If he wants you to stand on your head, then you should do it.”

Family feud

The Cardinals opened the regular season on April 7 and beat the Pirates, 12-6, at Pittsburgh. Hrabosky pitched 2.1 innings and helped protect the win for starter John Denny.

Afterward, a jubilant Hrabosky was asked by The Sporting News to reflect on his spring training criticism of Rapp. “Maybe I was a little selfish and a little childish about the matter,” Hrabosky said. “I accept it now.”

Peace, though, wasn’t long-lasting.

In May, Rapp suspended Hrabosky for insubordination after the pitcher refused the manager’s request to meet.

In June, McBride, who remained unhappy with Rapp, was traded to the Phillies.

In July, with Hrabosky beginning to grow facial hair and threatening to file a grievance with the players’ union, Cardinals owner Gussie Busch ordered Rapp to discontinue the hair code.

Hrabosky led the 1977 Cardinals in saves (10) and games pitched (65) but his ERA was 4.38. After the season, he was traded to the Royals.

Rapp was fired in April 1978 and replaced by Ken Boyer.

Previously: The pitfalls of Cardinals rookie manager Vern Rapp

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In a union of legendary rivals who represented baseball at its best, Stan Musial hired Warren Spahn to be a manager in the Cardinals organization.

spahn_musialFifty years ago, on Feb. 25, 1967, a month after he was named Cardinals general manager, Musial bypassed Sparky Anderson and selected Spahn to be manager of the Class AAA Tulsa Oilers.

Anderson had managed the Cardinals’ Class A St. Petersburg club to a league championship in 1966 and reportedly was the top internal candidate for the Tulsa opening.

Spahn, who never had managed, was the recommended choice of Tulsa owner A. Ray Smith.

Though Cardinals executives such as farm director George Silvey had input, Musial, as general manager, had the final decision regarding who to hire as manager for the Cardinals’ top affiliate.

Matchup of marvels

In Spahn, Musial chose the candidate who had been his respected nemesis during their Hall of Fame playing careers.

Spahn, who pitched 21 seasons in the major leagues, primarily with the Braves, is the all-time leader in career wins (363) among left-handers. Musial, who played 22 seasons in the major leagues, all with the Cardinals, is the all-time leader in total bases (6,134) among left-handed batters.

Their matchups spanned the 1940s to 1960s. Musial has a career .318 batting average and .412 on-base percentage against Spahn, according to the Web site retrosheet.org. Musial has more hits (104), doubles (23), triples (6) and walks (50) versus Spahn than any other player. Only Willie Mays (18) hit more home runs against Spahn than Musial (17) did.

In his 1964 book “Stan Musial: The Man’s Own Story,” Musial called Spahn “the best National League pitcher of my era.”

“Spahnie was more than a student of pitching,” Musial said. “He was a scientist.”

Musial concluded: “It was a great challenge to hit against this cunning guy … and I’m proud to have done well.”

Pressure on Stan

If not for Bob Howsam’s departure, Musial and Spahn might never have worked together and Anderson might not have left the Cardinals.

On Jan. 22, 1967, Howsam resigned as Cardinals general manager and became executive vice president and general manager of the Reds. Musial, a Cardinals vice president, took on the additional role of general manager.

One of Howsam’s cronies was Tulsa manager Charlie Metro, who was waiting in the wings in case Cardinals manager Red Schoendienst faltered. Metro followed Howsam to the Reds, accepting a job as a scout.

With spring training close to opening, Musial and the Cardinals had to scramble to find a replacement for Metro in Tulsa.

Spahn, 45, was residing on his 2,800-acre cattle ranch in Hartshorne, Okla., about 120 miles from Tulsa. He made it known he wanted to get back into baseball. Smith was thrilled by the possibility of having a baseball icon manage his club, so the Oilers owner went to work on trying to convince Musial to make it happen.

On Feb. 20, 1967, Musial said Smith’s request was under review and that he hoped to announce a choice soon, The Sporting News reported.

Smith told the Associated Press that Musial had been pressured to select a candidate from within the Cardinals’ organization, “but we fought a hard fight” for Spahn.

Though Anderson was “first choice for the position,” according to The Sporting News, Spahn got the Tulsa job. Anderson was assigned to manage the Cardinals’ Class A club at Modesto, Calif.

Rookie manager

Spahn’s hiring was announced by Smith at a news conference at Tulsa’s prestigious Southern Hills Country Club.

“The Oilers and Tulsa are mighty lucky to get a man of Spahn’s caliber,” Smith said.

Said Spahn: “I’ve always wanted an opportunity to manage. The ranch is great, but it’s more like a plaything. I’d like to manage in Tulsa for 10 years. Naturally, I’m for a major-league job someday, but first I’ve got to earn that.”

Tulsa opened the 1967 season with a roster that included pitchers Tracy Stallard and Wayne Granger; catchers Pat Corrales and Sonny Ruberto; infielders Elio Chacon, Bobby Dews and Coco Laboy; and outfielder Danny Napoleon.

Other managers in the Pacific Coast League that season included Chuck Tanner of the Seattle Angels, Whitey Lockman of the Tacoma Cubs, Bob Skinner of the San Diego Padres and Mickey Vernon of the Vancouver Mounties.

Under Spahn, Tulsa had a dismal 1967 season (65-79), though he did receive high marks for helping to develop starting pitchers Mike Torrez (10 wins) and Hal Gilson (15 wins). Silvey noted that Spahn “must have helped Torrez quite a bit. Mike has added a curve and he’s faster.”

Meanwhile, Anderson led Modesto to a 79-61 record and a league championship in 1967. After the season, Anderson joined the Reds as manager of their Class AA Asheville club.

Anderson “was so upset at being bypassed (for the Tulsa job) that he quit the Cardinals organization,” The Sporting News reported.

Two years after leaving the Cardinals, Anderson was named manager of the Reds and went on to build a Hall of Fame career.

Ups and downs

In 1968, Spahn took Tulsa from worst to first. The Oilers finished 95-53 and won the league championship.

Spahn managed Tulsa in 1969 (79-61), 1970 (70-70) and 1971 (64-76) before he was fired by Cardinals general manager Bing Devine.

“Devine said I had been here five years and there were young prospective managers in the organization who needed to move up,” Spahn said.

Though Spahn went on to work as a coach and instructor with other organizations, Tulsa would be the only team he would manage.

Previously: How Charlie Metro miffed Stan Musial

Previously: Cardinals boosted managing career of Sparky Anderson

Previously: Warren Spahn and his Cardinals connection

Previously: Why the Cardinals fired Warren Spahn

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After being fired from his job as Yankees manager in 1966, Johnny Keane was looking forward to rebuilding his career in 1967. The Angels had hired him to be a special assignment scout. Keane hoped that role would position him to become a big-league manager again and provide him the chance to replicate the success he had when he led the 1964 Cardinals to a World Series title.

johnny_keane3The spirit was willing, but the body was not.

Fifty years ago, on Jan. 6, 1967, Keane, 55, died of a heart attack at his home in Houston.

Code of honor

Keane, a St. Louis native who studied for the priesthood at St. Louis Prep Seminary, abided by a principled personal code of fair play, dignity and loyalty.

In August 1964, Cardinals owner Gussie Busch violated that code by firing Keane’s friends _ general manager Bing Devine, business manager Art Routzong and player personnel director Eddie Stanky _ and plotting to replace Keane with Leo Durocher. Unwilling to continue working for Busch, Keane resigned following the Cardinals’ World Series triumph over the Yankees. Soon after, Keane became Yankees manager, inheriting a club of aging, injury-prone players.

When the Yankees finished with a 77-85 record in 1965 and followed that by losing 16 of their first 20 games in 1966, Keane took the fall.

Some believed the emotional toll of Keane’s departures from the Cardinals and Yankees within a span of 19 months contributed to his death.

In a less romanticized view, St. Louis Post-Dispatch sports editor Bob Broeg, knowing Keane’s toughness and resiliency, wrote, “There is a tendency among the poets in the press box to suggest (Keane) died of a broken heart. Possibly, but not probably.”

Career Cardinal

Keane devoted most of his professional career to the Cardinals, working for them in four decades. He joined their farm system as a shortstop in 1930. His development was curtailed in 1935 when he was struck in the head by a pitch from Sig Jakucki and suffered a fractured skull. Three years later, Keane became player-manager for the Cardinals’ farm club in Albany, Ga. He spent 21 seasons as a manager in the St. Louis farm system and had winning records in 17 of those years.

Keane was a candidate to become Cardinals manager in 1951, but the job went to Marty Marion. Twice after that, Keane rejected offers to become a Cardinals coach because, “I wanted to go up as a manager,” he told The Sporting News.

In 1959, Keane, on the advice of Devine, reconsidered his stance and made it to the major leagues for the first time as a coach on the staff of Cardinals manager Solly Hemus. Keane replaced Hemus in July 1961 and led the Cardinals to a 47-33 record. The Cardinals also produced winning records in Keane’s three full seasons as their manager: 84-78 in 1962, 93-69 in 1963 and 93-69 again in 1964.

My way

With players such as Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Tony Kubek sidelined by injuries, the Yankees under Keane went from champions to also-rans. When the Yankees decided Keane no longer should be their manager, they offered to make a deal with him to prevent the move from being announced as a firing. Keane refused to go along with the scheme.

“Yes, that’s what happened,” Keane said to Chuck Fierson of the Oneonta (N.Y.) Star. “The Yanks told me that, if I said I was retiring because of my health, they would give me a job in the front office. But my health is OK and I don’t want a front office job. Besides that, I didn’t like the idea of making up excuses.”

Three months later, in July 1966, the Braves fired manager Bobby Bragan. Keane was their choice to replace him, according to columnist Dick Young in The Sporting News.

Keane, though, didn’t want to step in until the season was completed. “He preferred to start fresh,” Young said. Billy Hitchcock, a Braves coach, was named interim manager. When Hitchcock led the Braves to a 33-18 mark to finish the season, the interim tag was removed from his title and Keane was out of the picture.

True gentleman

By December 1966, Keane, eager to get back into baseball, was grateful to receive the offer to scout for the Angels.

To prepare for his role, Keane bought a new car on Jan. 6, 1967, so that he’d have a reliable vehicle to take him on scouting trips.

After dinner that evening, Keane told his wife he was feeling ill. At 10:30, Keane collapsed and died.

Dr. William Sutton, Keane’s physician, said Keane “had been under treatment for heart trouble and high blood pressure, but had not suffered a previous heart attack,” the Post-Dispatch reported.

Reacting to news of Keane’s death, Ken Boyer, third baseman for the 1964 Cardinals, said Keane was the type of person “you would be proud to have for a brother or father.”

Yankees pitcher Whitey Ford said Keane “was the first person to visit me in the hospital after my operation last season _ and that was after he had been dropped as manager.”

Michael Burke, Yankees president, noted that Keane “won everyone’s respect” and “his own self-respect and quiet sense of personal dignity was never compromised.”

Said Stan Musial, who played his final three seasons for Keane: “Johnny was one of the finest guys in baseball. We was a gentleman and a real credit to the game.”

Faithful friends

The funeral for Keane was held in Houston three days after his death. Among the pallbearers were Devine, Routzong and two of Keane’s coaches from his Cardinals staff, Vern Benson and Howie Pollet.

Milton Richman of United Press International wrote that Keane “had more friends than he knew” and that Keane and Devine “were almost like brothers.”

Keane was survived by his wife, daughter and two grandsons.

Three months after the funeral, Young reported that, although Keane had been employed by the Angels for only one month, the club honored him by paying his widow the year’s salary Keane would have received as special assignment scout.

Previously: Johnny Keane to Gussie Busch: Take this job, shove it

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