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Bobby Bonilla began and ended his major-league career with Tony La Russa as his manager.

Twenty years ago, on Jan. 5, 2001, La Russa was the Cardinals’ manager when they signed Bonilla, a free agent, to fill a role as a utility player and pinch-hitter.

Bonilla, who turned 38 a month after joining the Cardinals, was winding down an accomplished playing career. He debuted in the majors with the 1986 White Sox, when La Russa was their manager.

From Class A to majors

Bonilla, born and raised in the Bronx, N.Y., was 18 when he signed with the Pirates in July 1981 and entered their farm system.

At spring training with the Pirates in 1985, Bonilla suffered a severe ankle injury in a collision with teammate Bip Roberts while pursuing a pop fly. He was limited to playing 39 games at the Class A level in 1985. The White Sox selected him in the Rule 5 draft after the season.

A switch-hitter who played the outfield, first and third, Bonilla impressed La Russa with his talent and work ethic at White Sox spring training in 1986.

“He gives us a lot of flexibility,” La Russa told the Chicago Tribune. “He has a feel for the game. He can do a lot of creative stuff to win the game. It’s hard to find a player like that.”

Bonilla, 23, sealed a spot on the White Sox’s 1986 Opening Day roster after hitting a home run against the Twins’ Bert Blyleven late in spring training.

He took over at first base after starter Greg Walker fractured a wrist in mid-April. Bonilla’s first home run in the big leagues came against the Indians’ 47-year-old Phil Niekro. Boxscore

When Walker returned to the lineup, La Russa played Bonilla in left field. In June, La Russa was fired by general manager Ken “Hawk” Harrelson. A month later, Harrelson traded Bonilla to the Pirates.

Winning combination

Playing for Pirates manager Jim Leyland, a former coach on La Russa’s White Sox staff, Bonilla thrived. Bonilla led the National League in extra-base hits (78) in 1990 and in doubles (44) in 1991.

Bonilla went on to play for the Mets and Orioles before joining the Marlins. He was reunited with Leyland, who had become the Marlins’ manager. With Bonilla playing third base and contributing 96 RBI, Leyland led the 1997 Marlins to a World Series championship.

After that, Bonilla played for the Dodgers, the Mets again, and the Braves. After the Cardinals swept the Braves in the 2000 National League Division Series, Bonilla was released.

Still wanted

In 2000, Eric Davis had excelled for the Cardinals as a backup outfielder and pinch-hitter who tormented left-handers. Davis hit .390 against left-handers in 2000. After the season, he became a free agent and joined the Giants.

The Cardinals sought someone who could do in 2001 what Davis did for them in 2000.

La Russa, the Cardinals’ manager, and Leyland, who had joined the Cardinals as a scout, advocated for Bonilla. As a utility player for the 2000 Braves, Bonilla hit .372 versus left-handers. He also batted .308 as a pinch-hitter. By comparison, Cardinals pinch-hitters batted .199 in 2000.

Bonilla accepted the Cardinals’ offer of a one-year contract for $900,000.

“Tony giving you a call like that really makes you feel good,” Bonilla said to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

La Russa said he was considering platooning Ray Lankford and Bonilla in left field if Bonilla “is on his game.”

“Ray can do a good job against right-handers, but we’re looking for somebody against left-handers, who is respected, to hit behind Mark McGwire,” La Russa said. “Bobby Bonilla is respected. A lot of people are afraid of him. Now, for this to happen, he’s got to stay healthy.”

Astros manager Larry Dierker said his club also tried to sign Bonilla. “I know he’s not a great player any more,” Dierker told the Post-Dispatch, “but when he comes up in a close game, he’s scary.”

Listed at 240 pounds, skeptics cited Bonilla’s defensive limitations and lack of speed as liabilities.

“Will Bobby Bonilla report in tip-top shape to the Cardinals, or will the club have to weigh him with a livestock scale?” asked Jeff Gordon of the Post-Dispatch.

Good impression

Bonilla was one of the Cardinals’ best performers at spring training in 2001.

“He’s been good, very good,” general manager Walt Jocketty said. “He’s probably been the biggest surprise.”

La Russa responded, “If you know Bobby, it’s not a surprise. This guy has played on winning ballclubs. What has been really positive has been his conditioning. He’s put a lot of time into all parts of the game.”

Bonilla hit .389 with four home runs in spring training games. According to the Post-Dispatch, La Russa planned to start Bonilla in left field on Opening Day at Denver against left-hander Mike Hampton.

The plan changed on March 24 when Bonilla was removed from a spring training game because of a hamstring injury.

Instead of Bonilla in left field on Opening Day, it was rookie Albert Pujols. Bonilla began the season on the disabled list.

Ups and downs

On April 4, in the Cardinals’ second game of the season, Bonilla was ejected by plate umpire Greg Bonin for arguing balls and strikes from the bench. Bonilla was ejected before he played a game for the Cardinals. Boxscore

After sitting out the first six games of the season, Bonilla made his Cardinals debut as the right fielder in the home opener against Rockies left-hander Denny Neagle. In the ninth, Bonilla’s leadoff double versus left-handed reliever Gabe White started the rally that led to the winning run. Boxscore

A week later, the Cardinals were trailing, 15-4, at home against the Diamondbacks when La Russa asked Bonilla to pitch the ninth inning. Bonilla, who hadn’t pitched since high school, gave up a home run to the first Diamondbacks batter he faced, Erubiel Durazo. Bonilla completed the inning, allowing two runs on three hits and a walk. He also was called for a balk. Boxscore

“It wasn’t a great situation, or a fun situation,” Bonilla said.

The next night, Bonilla started at first base and had a home run, a double and two RBI against Diamondbacks left-hander Randy Johnson. Bonilla hit .375 in his career against the future Hall of Famer. Boxscore

Another highlight for Bonilla came on June 15 when he hit a grand slam, the ninth of his career, versus White Sox left-hander Kelly Wunsch. Boxscore

A month later, Bonilla got his 2,000th career hit, a single against Roy Oswalt, an Astros right-hander. Boxscore

Bonilla hit .370 in July, but then slumped. He had one hit in his last 16 at-bats. For the season, he hit .213 with five home runs. As a pinch-hitter, he batted .167. His batting average versus left-handers was .232.

Though granted free agency after the season, his playing career was done. He finished with 2,010 hits, including 408 doubles, and 1,173 RBI.

Bonilla reached the postseason with six different clubs: Pirates, Orioles, Marlins, Mets, Braves and Cardinals.

Phil Niekro made two starts in the 1982 National League Championship Series versus the Cardinals. Only one counted.

A right-handed knuckleball master who pitched in the majors until he was 48, Niekro died Dec. 26, 2020, at 81.

Niekro earned 318 wins in the majors and was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, but he never pitched in the World Series.

In 1982, when he was 17-4 for the West Division champion Braves, Niekro was the choice of manager Joe Torre to start Game 1 of the National League Championship Series. Niekro shut out the Cardinals for 4.1 innings and had a 1-0 lead before the game was called off because of rain. Niekro was two outs away from completing the five innings needed for an official game.

Three days later, Niekro started Game 2. He pitched six innings, allowed two runs and was lifted for a pinch-hitter with the Braves ahead, 3-2, but the Cardinals rallied against Gene Garber and won, 4-3.

Knuckle under

Niekro, 43, ended the 1982 regular season on a roll, winning 11 of his last 12 decisions. His last two wins were shutouts.

“That’s what you expect from someone who wants something as badly as he wants this championship,” Torre told the Atlanta Constitution.

As the Braves headed into the best-of-five National League Championship Series, Niekro was matched against Joaquin Andujar in Game 1. 

Niekro was 1-0 with a 1.29 ERA in 21 innings pitched against the Cardinals in the 1982 regular season. Many of the Cardinals struggled against him throughout their careers. The list included Keith Hernandez (.233 batting average against), Gene Tenace (.211), George Hendrick (.178), Tommy Herr (.143) and Willie McGee (.100). An exception was Lonnie Smith (.514).

“What makes Niekro so tough is there’s no telling where the ball will go,” Herr told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I don’t even think he knows. You have to wait longer to swing because the ball is going to move.”

Tenace said, “His ball does everything and anything. It gets to the plate and it explodes up there. I’d just as soon take a beating as to have to hit that thing.”

In batting practice the day before the series opener, Cardinals coach Hal Lanier threw knuckleballs to try to help the hitters prepare for Niekro, “but it’s not quite the same,” said Hernandez.

“He’s not unhittable,” Hernandez said of Niekro, “but you have to be a disciplined hitter. You have to relax and wait until the last possible second before you pull the trigger.” Video of Niekro knuckler

Mind games

In the series opener on Oct. 6 at St. Louis, the Braves got a run in the first inning when Claudell Washington doubled and scored on a Chris Chambliss single.

The Cardinals threatened, loading the bases in the first and getting a runner to third base in the third, but couldn’t score against Niekro.

“I’ve seen him better,” Hernandez told the Atlanta Constitution. “I’ve seen his knuckleball do more. He wasn’t as sharp, and he still got us out. He’s smart.”

Niekro said it was the “worst knuckler I had in a couple of months.”

Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog, seeking an edge, complained to the umpires that Niekro regularly was committing a balk by not coming to a set position with a runner on base.

“I think he balked about seven or eight times,” Herzog said to the Post-Dispatch. “It’s a farce … There’s no doubt in my mind he doesn’t pause at all. I’ll guarantee you if one of my pitchers did that it would be a balk.”

Niekro, who was called for one balk during the 1982 season, responded, “If I was doing something wrong, it would have been called.”

Wiped out

Pitching in a light rain in the bottom of the fifth, Niekro got one out before plate umpire Billy Williams halted play. The forecast showed heavy rain was on the way. Williams indicated a playoff game shouldn’t be decided in a mere five innings, and that was likely to happen if he allowed the inning to be completed. 

“I didn’t want to rush and play two outs, and then have the outcome decided because we didn’t have common sense,” Williams told the Post-Dispatch. “I would have done the same thing if the score was 4-0 or 10-0.”

With rain continuing after a delay of two hours and 28 minutes, National League president Chub Feeney made the decision to call off the game.

“I’ve pitched many times when it was raining much harder than it was when the game was called,” Niekro said to the Atlanta Constitution. “I’m confident they would have completed the inning in the regular season. I’m really disappointed I didn’t get an opportunity to get two more outs.”

Torre, a former Cardinal, said he he understood the decision by Williams to stop play when he did. Torre told the Post-Dispatch, “I don’t think a team should play 162 games and then lose a playoff game in five innings. What I mean is, we don’t want to come in here and steal a game.”

Niekro had a different point of view: “It really doesn’t matter how you win a playoff game as long as you win it,” he said.

Series sweep

The rescheduled Game 1 was played the next day, Oct. 7, with Pascual Perez starting for the Braves against Bob Forsch. Forsch pitched a three-hit shutout and the Cardinals won, 7-0. Boxscore

Game 2, scheduled for Oct. 8, was rained out, enabling Torre to start Niekro when it was rescheduled for Oct. 9 at St. Louis.

In the seventh, with the Braves ahead, 3-2, they had runners on first and second, one out, when Torre sent Biff Pocoroba to bat for Niekro against Doug Bair. Pocoroba grounded out.

“I felt I could have gone two or three more innings,” Niekro told the Atlanta Constitution. “I can’t say I wasn’t disappointed. You start a ballgame, you want to finish it. I thought I had a good knuckleball. It was moving quite a bit.”

Facing closer Gene Garber, the Cardinals scored a run in the eighth and another in the ninth, and won, 4-3. Boxscore

The next night, at Atlanta, with Rick Camp starting for the Braves, the Cardinals completed the sweep, winning 6-2, and advanced to a World Series for the first time in 14 years. Boxscore

Summarizing the disappointment of the Braves falling short in their bid for a pennant, Niekro said, “How can you be so close and be so far at the same time?”

Niekro pitched five more seasons, including stints with the Yankees, Indians and Blue Jays, but never got to pitch in a World Series.

Joe Torre guided Alex Trevino into the majors and was with him again 13 years later when he left.

Thirty years ago, on Jan. 2, 1991, the Cardinals signed Trevino, a free agent, as backup catcher.

The deal reunited Trevino with Torre, the Cardinals’ manager and former catcher. Torre was manager of the Mets when Trevino, 21, made his major-league debut with them in September 1978. Trevino and Torre were together with the Mets for four seasons (1978-81). Trevino also played for Torre in 1984 when Torre was managing the Braves.

Torre and the Cardinals projected Trevino to back up starting catcher Tom Pagnozzi in 1991, but it didn’t work out. Instead, Trevino got released near the end of spring training. The next season, Trevino was back in the Cardinals’ organization and, though he played in the minors, he made a major contribution in helping a top pitching prospect get acclimated to baseball in the United States.

From Mexico to Mets

A native of Monterrey, Mexico, Trevino was 7 and playing youth baseball when he saw the World Series on television for the first time in 1964, the Cardinals versus the Yankees. “I was impressed so much by Bob Gibson because I was a pitcher then,” Trevino told United Press International.

Trevino was 16 when the Mets signed him in May 1974 with the intention of making him a shortstop. Assigned to a rookie league club in Marion, Va., Trevino became a catcher for manager Chuck Hiller, a future Cardinals coach.

Four years later, Trevino got called up to the Mets and he and Torre bonded.

“To me, he’s like my second father,” Trevino told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “He took me under his wing when I came to the big leagues. I owe him a lot. He gradually gave me playing time and let me build my confidence.”

Torre said, “He had such great hands. I always like the way he caught.”

Trevino was a backup to John Stearns with the Mets in 1978 and 1979. An agile catcher with a strong throwing arm, Trevino got more starts than Stearns in 1980, but went back to a reserve role in 1981 because Stearns was the better hitter.

Trevino led National League catchers in throwing out the highest percentage of runners attempting to steal in 1979 (47.7 percent) and 1980 (44.3 percent).

Torre said Trevino became the favorite player of his daughter, Tina. Also, Trevino got to be a teammate of his favorite player from the 1964 World Series, Bob Gibson, who became a coach on Torre’s staff with the 1981 Mets.

“Several clubs are interested in Trevino, but Torre won’t part with the kid,” The Sporting News reported.

On the move

After the 1981 season, Torre became manager of the Braves, and the Mets packaged Trevino in a trade to the Reds for slugger George Foster. Trevino took over for future Hall of Famer Johnny Bench, who no longer could catch regularly.

When the Reds opened the 1982 season, Trevino was the catcher and Bench was at third base. Boxscore

A contact hitter with little power, Trevino was no Bench, and he fell into disfavor with the Reds.

“They expected me to hit .300 and throw out every baserunner,” Trevino told The Sporting News. “It was a bad time … They played with my head there.”

In April 1984, the Reds sent Trevino to the Braves to be the backup to Bruce Benedict. Torre was the manager and he “treasured Trevino’s skills,” The Sporting News reported. Also, Bob Gibson was on the coaching staff.

After the 1984 season, Torre was fired and Trevino was traded to the Giants. Trevino went from the Giants (1985) to the Dodgers (1986-87) and to the Astros (1988-90).

On June 13, 1986, Trevino and Dodgers pitcher Fernando Valenzuela formed what is believed to be the first all-Mexican battery in the majors, according to the Los Angeles Times. Boxscore

One of Trevino’s best games came on May 22, 1988, at St. Louis when he got four hits and scored the winning run in the Astros’ 2-1 victory over the Cardinals. Boxscore

Ups and downs

In 1990, Trevino was the backup to Astros catcher Craig Biggio, but in July he was released and replaced by Rich Gedman, who was acquired from the Red Sox.

The Mets signed Trevino in August 1990, but the reunion started badly. In his first start for the Mets, on Aug. 5, 1990, against the Cardinals at St. Louis, Trevino was hitless, committed two errors and allowed two passed balls. Boxscore

“It was the worst game of my career,” Trevino told the Post-Dispatch. “I’ve never had a day like that.”

A month later, the Reds selected Trevino off waivers. Trevino got three hits in seven at-bats for the Reds, who went on to become 1990 World Series champions.

Change in plans

Trevino became a free agent in December 1990 and the Cardinals arranged for him to reunite with Torre again. The Cardinals had decided to move Todd Zeile from catcher to third base, and were seeking a veteran backup to Tom Pagnozzi, who became the starting catcher.

The Cardinals also had considered Gary Carter (36) and Ernie Whitt (38) as the backup catcher but took Trevino (33) because he was younger, the Post-Dispatch reported. Carter signed with the Dodgers and Whitt went with the Orioles.

Cardinals general manager Dal Maxvill, who had been a coach on Torre’s staffs with the Mets (1978) and Braves (1984) when Trevino was there, said, “We’re not trying to look beyond this year, but, if the guy is still catching decently and throwing decently, it could be something beyond a year. I’m not ruling out he could be here four or five years.”

A month later, the Cardinals signed Rich Gedman, the catcher who in 1990 had replaced Trevino on the Astros, to a minor-league contract. “Gedman figures to be Louisville’s starting catcher this season unless he beats out Alex Trevino for the backup catching job” with the Cardinals, the Post-Dispatch reported.

At Cardinals spring training in 1991, Trevino was “erratic on defense,” according to the Post-Dispatch. Gedman, a left-handed batter, hit .375. Trevino, a right-handed batter, hit .353.

Torre liked having a catcher who batted left-handed to back up Pagnozzi, who hit from the right side. On March 31, 1991, Torre told Trevino he was being placed on waivers for the purpose of giving him his release. “It was hard, really hard,” Torre said of his talk with Trevino.

A stoic Trevino said, “Gedman had a good spring. It was obvious.”

Keep on going

Trevino signed a minor-league contract with the Angels and was assigned to their Class AA club at Midland, Texas, where he was reunited with Fernando Valenzuela, who was attempting a comeback.

After playing in 14 games for Midland, Trevino joined his hometown team, Monterrey, in the Mexican League.

In February 1992, the Cardinals invited Trevino to spring training as a non-roster player, and he earned a spot with their Louisville farm club.

The Cardinals had signed a promising pitching prospect, Cuban defector Rene Arocha, and assigned him to Louisville. Trevino caught most of Arocha’s games, served as his interpreter and mentored him. 

In September 1992, after the end of Louisville’s season, Trevino was rewarded for his effort. He was called up to the Cardinals, though not activated, and spent the final month of the season in the big leagues.

The Cardinals were convinced Mike Hampton. who kept them from getting to the World Series in 2000, would enable them to get there in 2001.

Twenty years ago, in December 2000, the Cardinals thought Hampton, a left-handed pitcher and free agent, would accept their offer of a seven-year contract for $91 million.

Instead, Hampton signed a deal with the Rockies for $121 million over eight years, making him the highest-paid pitcher in baseball.

Two months earlier, Hampton made two starts against the Cardinals in the 2000 National League Championship Series and won both, carrying the Mets into the World Series against the Yankees.

Later, when Cardinals manager Tony La Russa made a pitch to Hampton to join the Cardinals, he told him, “With you, we go to the World Series” in 2001.

Right stuff

After entering the majors with the Mariners in 1993, Hampton was traded to the Astros and developed into an ace. He was 22-4 for them in 1999.

Knowing Hampton could become a free agent after the 2000 season, the Astros dealt him to the Mets in December 1999. The Mets, expecting to contend in 2000, were willing to risk having Hampton leave after a year.

Hampton was 15-10 for the 2000 Mets, who qualified for the postseason as a wild-card entry and defeated the Giants in the National League Division Series.

The Mets advanced to face the Cardinals in a best-of-seven series to determine the 2000 National League pennant winner.

In Game 1, Hampton started, pitched seven shutout innings and got the win. Boxscore

In Game 5, he pitched a three-hit shutout for the pennant-clinching victory. Boxscore and video

“He isn’t a dominating left-hander by any means, relying on good movement and location of his pitches rather than sheer velocity,” Mike Eisenbath of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted. “The tougher the situation, though, the better he is.”

Sales pitch

The Cardinals were a team Hampton was interested in joining. According to columnist Bernie Miklasz, Hampton told Cardinals players Darryl Kile, a former Astros teammate, and Fernando Vina he’d “like to sign with the Cardinals.”

The interest was mutual. Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty said the club wanted a starting pitcher “who can put us over the top,” and viewed Hampton, 28, as that kind of talent.

Joining the Cardinals as leading contenders for Hampton were the Braves, Cubs, Indians, Mets and Rockies.

The Cardinals were invited to meet with Hampton and his agent, Mark Rodgers.

“Several Cardinals employees helped the team’s recruiting pitch by posing for photos in front of various Hampton Avenue street signs throughout St. Louis,” Miklasz wrote.

A Cardinals contingent went to Houston, where Hampton resided, to recruit him. It was well-received. Rodgers told the Post-Dispatch, “To be honest, I thought it was going to be really tough to beat St. Louis. They’ve got a dynamic ownership group that’s trying to win, and great fans.

“Mike was going to have to see something very significant not to go to St. Louis,” Rodgers said. “Tony La Russa walked in, sat down and said, ‘With you, we go to the World Series.’ Coming from him, that meant an awful lot. Tony La Russa blew us away.”

Feeling jilted

On Dec. 4, 2000, Jocketty met with Rodgers near the agent’s home in Palm City, Fla., and made an offer of $91 million over seven years.

“Hampton and Rodgers both said the Cardinals were the leaders” in the bidding, according to the Post-Dispatch.

“As recently as (Dec. 7), the Cardinals thought they had the left-hander,” Rick Hummel of the Post-Dispatch reported.

On Dec. 8, however, Hampton reached agreement with the Rockies, who offered $30 million more than the Cardinals: $121 million over eight years.

“I’m very disappointed,” Jocketty said. “I’m also very surprised because I thought we met every part of his criteria.”

Jocketty said Hampton “would have made us a lot better.”

“I talked to several of our opponents in the division and they’re so glad we didn’t get Hampton,” Jocketty told the Post-Dispatch. “They would have just shut the door. That’s part of the reason we worked so hard at it. It just would have put us at a different level.”

Rocky time

Hampton’s decision to go with the Rockies was criticized by some, who noted his career ERA at Denver’s Coors Field was 6.48. Eight months earlier, on April 28, 2000, Hampton punched a water cooler in frustration after giving up seven runs in five innings to the Rockies at Coors Field. Boxscore

“The entire baseball world was surprised an elite pitcher would choose to spend the prime of his career at Coors Field,” Ken Rosenthal of The Sporting News wrote.

Rockies general manager Dan O’Dowd said, “We didn’t lie to Mike and try to sell him on Coors Field as a pitcher’s heaven.”

Some pitchers were convinced Denver’s high altitude caused their pitches to flatten and become more hittable. Hampton said he believed he’d succeed because his sinker and cut fastball induced grounders.

After missing out on Hampton, the Cardinals acquired starting pitcher Dustin Hermanson from the Expos.

With a starting rotation anchored by Darryl Kile, Matt Morris and Hermanson, and including Andy Benes, Woody Williams and Bud Smith, the 2001 Cardinals earned 93 wins and qualified for the playoffs.

Hampton beat the Cardinals on Opening Day in 2001, but for the season he was 14-13 with a 5.41 ERA. A good-hitting pitcher, Hampton batted .291 with seven home runs, but it didn’t compensate for his pitching. Overall in 2001, left-handed batters hit .346 against him, and his ERA at Coors Field was 5.77. The Rockies finished at 73-89.

In 2002, the Cardinals again thrived and the Rockies faltered. The 2002 Cardinals had 97 wins and won a division title. The Rockies were 73-89 again. Hampton was 7-15 with a 6.15 ERA. Overall in 2002, left-handed batters hit .376 against him.

Though Hampton hit .344 with three home runs in 2002, it wasn’t what the Rockies were paying him top dollar to do.

In November 2002, the Rockies traded Hampton to the Marlins, who two days later flipped him to the Braves.

Hampton had 14 wins for the Braves in 2003 and 13 in 2004. Sidelined in 2006 and 2007 after having reconstructive elbow surgery, Hampton went on to pitch for the Astros again and Diamondbacks.

His record in 16 years in the majors was 148-115, including 10-9 versus the Cardinals.

In the 1964 World Series, Phil Linz was in and out of tune against the Cardinals.

A utility player who started all seven games of the Series for the Yankees as their shortstop and leadoff batter, Linz died Dec. 9, 2020, at 81.

Linz was in the Yankees’ starting lineup against the 1964 Cardinals because shortstop Tony Kubek had a severely sprained wrist and couldn’t play.

A right-handed batter, Linz had seven hits, including two home runs, and scored five times in the 1964 World Series. He also made two errors, including a Game 7 miscue that enabled the Cardinals to take the lead, and was involved in a costly misplay in Game 4.

Music man

Linz was 22 when he debuted with the Yankees in 1962. Because he played all four infield positions and the outfield, Linz became a valuable backup.

In 1964, Linz made 50 starts at shortstop, 38 at third base and three at second base for an injury-plagued Yankees team trying to stay in contention with the White Sox and Orioles for the American League pennant.

After the Yankees were swept by the White Sox in a four-game series at Chicago in August, dropping them 4.5 games out of first place, they boarded a bus for the airport. Linz, seated near the back, took out a new harmonica he was learning to play and began an amateurish rendition of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

From the front of the bus, manager Yogi Berra hollered out for Linz to stop playing. Unsure what Berra said, Linz asked teammate Mickey Mantle what he heard. According to the New York Times, Mantle, being a prankster, replied, “Play it louder.”

As Linz tooted the tune, Berra confronted him and they argued. In the heat of the moment, Linz flipped the harmonica to Berra, who slapped at the instrument, The Sporting News reported. The harmonica struck teammate Joe Pepitone on the knee, fell to the floor and broke apart.

Linz apologized to Berra the next day and was fined $200, according to The Sporting News. Later, a harmonica company gave Linz $10,000 to endorse its product, the New York Times reported. Not a bad return for Linz on his investment in the $2.50 harmonica.

Though some initially thought the incident was an indication the Yankees were cracking under pennant pressure, the opposite occurred.

The Yankees played the incident for laughs, relaxed and surged, winning 22 of 28 games in September and finishing a game ahead of the second-place White Sox.

Borrowed bat

Linz helped the Yankees beat Bob Gibson and the Cardinals in Game 2 of the 1964 World Series. Using a bat borrowed from Mantle, Linz had three hits, a walk, a RBI and scored two runs in the Yankees’ 8-3 victory at St. Louis.

“He could play regularly on a lot of ballclubs,” Cardinals third baseman Ken Boyer told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

With the Yankees ahead, 2-1, Linz led off the seventh inning with a single against Gibson and advanced from first to third on a wild pitch that catcher Tim McCarver had trouble locating. According to The Sporting News, McCarver thought the ball bounced toward the Yankees dugout. Instead, it went in the opposite direction. Bobby Richardson followed with a single, scoring Linz.

In the ninth, Barney Schultz, who allowed one home run in 30 appearances during the season, relieved Gibson and gave up a homer to the first batter he faced, Linz.

Linz fouled off several pitches before connecting for the home run on a fastball from the knuckleball specialist. “I guess he wasn’t afraid of me,” Linz told the Post-Dispatch. Boxscore

Botched chance

The Yankees won two of the first three games of the Series and were leading, 3-0, in the sixth inning of Game 4 when the Cardinals put runners on first and second with one out.

Dick Groat hit a grounder that had the makings of an inning-ending double play. Second baseman Bobby Richardson went to his right, gloved the ball and intended to toss it to Linz, who was moving toward the bag at second, but the ball stuck in the webbing of Richardson’s glove.

After a moment of hesitation, Richardson managed to flip the ball with his glove hand to Linz, but their timing was off.

As the ball reached Linz, baserunner Curt Flood slid into him hard and the ball fell to the ground. “On any other Sunday, Flood would have been penalized 15 yards for clipping,” Linz said to the Post-Dispatch.

All runners were safe, loading the bases, and Richardson was charged with an error.

The next batter, Ken Boyer, hit a grand slam against Al Downing, erasing the Yankees’ lead and propelling the Cardinals to victory. Boxscore

“It was entirely my fault,” Richardson told The Sporting News. “Phil couldn’t possibly have handled (the throw).”

Linz said to the Post-Dispatch, “It was just as much my fault. I was a little late getting to the bag. I was on the bag, but I had to reach back for the ball. That’s when Flood hit me.”

Flood told the New York Daily News, “I was sure they had me when I saw Richardson get the ball. All I wanted to do was break up the double play. So I slid into Linz’s right leg to knock him off balance.”

Turning point

In the winner-take-all Game 7, Linz was involved in the play that turned the momentum in the Cardinals’ favor.

The game was scoreless in the fourth inning when the Cardinals put runners on first and second with no outs. Tim McCarver hit a grounder sharply to first baseman Joe Pepitone. The Yankees were expecting to turn a double play.

Pepitone threw to Linz, covering second, for the forceout, but the return throw from Linz to pitcher Mel Stottlemyre, covering first, was wild. The ball sailed wide of first base and bounced to the bunting draping the stands. Ken Boyer scored from second, giving the Cardinals a 1-0 lead.

“A good throw and we got him,” Yogi Berra told the Post-Dispatch.

Instead of two outs, none in and a runner on third, the Cardinals had one out, one in and a runner on first because of the Linz error.

Berra called Linz’s wild throw “the key play” in the game. The Cardinals went on to score three runs, including a McCarver steal of home, in the inning.

The Cardinals took a 7-3 lead into the ninth. Gibson struck out Tom Tresh before Clete Boyer hit a home run, making the score 7-4. Johnny Blanchard struck out for the second out.

Up next was Linz. He hit a Gibson fastball deep to left. Lou Brock raced back to the wall and leaped, but the ball went into the stands, where it was caught by a fan, for a home run.

Linz’s homer made the score 7-5. Cardinals manager Johnny Keane, saying he was committed to Gibson’s heart, left him in the game to face Bobby Richardson, who hat 13 hits in the Series. If Richardson reached base, slugger Roger Maris was up next, representing the potential tying run, and Keane told The Sporting News, “I would have had to get Gibson out.”

Instead, Gibson got Richardson to pop out to second baseman Dal Maxvill, and the Cardinals won the championship. Boxscore

 

George Sisler, an elite hitter who spent his prime years with the St. Louis Browns, chose to wind down his playing career in the Cardinals’ organization.

Ninety years ago, on Dec. 13, 1930, Sisler signed with the Rochester Red Wings, a Cardinals farm club, to be their first baseman after 15 seasons in the majors with the Browns, Senators and Braves.

Though Sisler, 37, had hoped to continue in the majors in 1931 rather than go to the minors, the move proved beneficial because it gave him the chance to play for a championship club for the only time in his Hall of Fame career.

.400 hitter

Sisler’s baseball career soared when he enrolled at the University of Michigan. Branch Rickey was head baseball coach when Sisler arrived there. Rickey left Michigan to join the Browns after Sisler’s sophomore season. Two years later, in 1915, Sisler, 22, signed with the Browns, who were managed by Rickey, and pitched and played outfield and first base his rookie season.

Settled in at first base in 1916, Sisler went on to become a special player. “At his peak, Sisler was a striking figure _ supple, rhythmic and graceful in action,” Joe Williams wrote in the New York World-Telegram. “The hits flew off his bat with a whistling hum _ sharp, clean and powerful.”

A left-handed batter, Sisler hit .344 in 12 seasons with the Browns. He led the American League in batting in 1920 (.407) and 1922 (.420), joining Ty Cobb as the only American League players to twice hit .400 in a season. Sisler had 2,295 hits for the Browns in 1,647 games.

“For 12 years, he was the baseball idol of St. Louis boydom as no other player has been,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch declared.

Sisler received the American League Most Valuable Player Award in 1922, but he sat out the 1923 season because a sinus infection impaired his vision. He returned in 1924 as player-manager and served in that role for three years. The 1927 season, when he played but didn’t manage, was Sisler’s last with the Browns. In December 1927, they sold his contract to the Senators. Five months later, the Senators sent him to the Braves.

Free agent

In three seasons (1928-30) with the Braves, Sisler hit .326. In 1930, Sisler batted .309, had 133 hits in 116 games, and was second on the club in RBI (67), but after the season the Braves informed him he wasn’t in their plans for 1931.

“Sisler’s main difficulty last season was his legs,” the Post-Dispatch reported. “He slowed down badly. His fielding was not as good as in previous campaigns.”

The Braves told Sisler he could stay with them as a coach, but Sisler wanted to keep playing, the Boston Globe reported.

In response, the Braves gave Sisler “permission to make the best arrangements possible for his service,” the Associated Press reported. In effect, The Sporting News noted, Sisler “was made a free agent.”

According to the Boston Globe, “The club has promised not to stand in his way. There’s only one sure thing about Sisler, and that is he won’t drop back into the minors.”

Limited options

Sisler attended the baseball winter meetings at New York in December 1930, looking to convince a big-league team to sign him as a first baseman. In 15 seasons in the majors, Sisler batted .340 and had 2,812 hits and 1,178 RBI, but he never played with a championship club.

The American League Tigers and National League Dodgers showed interest. So did the International League Rochester Red Wings, a Cardinals farm club. Branch Rickey was running the Cardinals’ front office, and Rochester club president Warren Giles knew Rickey endorsed bringing Sisler into the organization.

Rochester needed a first baseman to replace Rip Collins, whose contract was purchased by the Cardinals after he batted .376 and hit 40 home runs for the Red Wings in 1930. The Cardinals, defending National League champions, would have future Hall of Famer Jim Bottomley and Collins at first base in 1931. 

Giles told the Rochester Democrat-Chronicle, “George still feels he can play in the major leagues, but assured me if he decided to play in the minors that he would give Rochester first consideration.”

Sisler never had played in the minors, but when the Tigers and Dodgers failed to make offers, he agreed to sign with Rochester.

Sisler told the St. Louis Star-Times he was “sound and fit,” and could play for another five years.

“There are a number of clubs in the majors that could have used me,” Sisler said. “I’m still a good first baseman and can hit and field probably better than a number of the players who will be seen playing regularly in the American and National leagues next summer.”

Regarding going to the minors, Sisler said, “Baseball is baseball no matter where you play it. I probably will be just as happy over at Rochester as I might have been at Boston or some other places in the big leagues.”

Top of the heap

Sisler, 38, batted .303 for Rochester and was second on the club in hits (186) and doubles (37). Best of all, he got to play for a championship club. Rochester won the International League pennant for the fourth consecutive season.

In an editorial, the Post-Dispatch declared, “That such a pleasure has at last come to him as a member of the Rochester Red Wings will gladden the heart of many a St. Louis baseball fan who knew the work of the Browns’ former first baseman and held it in the highest esteem.”

Sisler “had a great deal to do” with the Red Wings winning the pennant, the Rochester Democrat-Chronicle reported. The Sporting News added Sisler “was a prominent factor” and “a good influence on the players.”

Limited mobility, however, hampered his fielding. His lack of range resulted in “a slower brand of baseball” at first base, the Rochester Democrat-Chronicle observed.

The Sporting News reported, “He was slow, and many plays, completed with ease and grace when he was in his prime, entailed extra effort.”

End of the line

As International League champions, Rochester advanced to play the American Association pennant-winning St. Paul Saints in the 1931 Junior World Series. In Game 1, Sisler singled in his first at-bat, but left because of a groin injury. He sat out the rest of the series, though Rochester prevailed.

Afterward, on Oct. 14, 1931, Sisler requested and got his unconditional release after he learned the club was planning to develop a younger player at first base for 1932, The Sporting News reported.

“I had an understanding at Rochester that if I wanted my release I could have it,” Sisler said to the Post-Dispatch.

In March 1932, Sisler became player-manager of the Shreveport team in the Texas League. He hit .287 in 70 games, and, at 39, was done as a player.