Seventies Cardinals, And Why They’re The Best / by Dale Wiley

Ken Reitz and Mike Tyson

Ken Reitz and Mike Tyson

I had a Topps team card of those 78 Redbirds, all of them proudly posed in those brilliant white pullover jerseys and, most importantly, those vibrant red shoes. I stared at that card. I looked at those mustaches, I contemplated the long hair, but mostly I was awed by those shoes. This was long before Air Jordans and really even Nikes. Those shoes really intrigued me.

My love for baseball began in earnest in 1978. My mom had started teaching me about the game the year before, and I remember watching a little of that World Series, but things started in earnest the next year. I was six.

Of course, this was before ESPN or even cable TV in our town (we had to wait until 1983 to get that). The primary connection to the sport was the radio and periodicals, most importantly the newspaper. Dreaded West Coast trips meant you often wouldn’t learn about the game the night before until much later in the day, because there was no way the final score was making the paper.

Oh I was so intrigued. I had a Topps team card of those 78 Redbirds, all of them proudly posed in those brilliant white pullover jerseys and, most importantly, those vibrant red shoes. I stared at that card. I looked at those mustaches, I contemplated the long hair, but mostly I was awed by those shoes. This was long before Air Jordans and really even Nikes. Those shoes really intrigued me.

My dad had always been a big baseball fan, but I think the rigors of his law practice had caused him to be less interested by that time, but he was happy to jump back in. He often worked very late at his office, and so every day (even on the West Coast!) he would write down the scores of the game and leave them for me on the kitchen table, often with some words about home runs and great catches and the like. Later, he did this for me in hockey as well, which was more important because no one in Springfield, Missouri could spell hockey besides our family.

The first game I ever saw was May 6, 1978, shortly after manager Vern Rapp had been fired by the Cards. We can now pinpoint the date because of the proliferation of information on the internet, but I still have dad’s scorecard somewhere, and have the story of the game from that. But I don’t need a scorecard to remember the gist of it. It was a true pitchers’ duel, between Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry from San Diego and the Cardinals’ John Denny. The score was tied 0-0 late in the game when feisty second baseman Mike Tyson scored the game’s only run, winning the game for the Cardinals.

That was not the greatest era of Cardinals baseball. The hiring of Vern Rapp the year before as manager had been a huge mistake, as his disciplinary policies couldn’t have found a less willing audience than Al Hrabosky and Ted Simmons. Rapp, as I now know from my visits with the people who played for him, was not only stubborn but just downright mean to the players, and things that had worked in the minor leagues. He spent much of his time fixated on ridiculous details, like ridding the Cardinals of their copious amounts of facial hair, instead of dealing with their considerable talent. This was a team that had Keith Hernandez, Ted Simmons (whom he famously called a “loser”), Lou Brock and Garry Templeton, whom Tyson describes as the most talented player he ever played with.

I met and became friends with the star of my first-ever game, Mike Tyson, a few years ago. As you can imagine, there’s no greater thrill than to go to a game with him and just let the stories roll off his tongue, having played during one of the game’s most colorful eras.

Tyson says Templeton had it all: a true five-tool player whose self-medication of certain moods led to worsening of those conditions instead of making it better. Tyson said he felt after Templeton’s trade to San Diego, and with increasing knowledge of such conditions, that the Padres managed to even out some of those edges while still allowing Templeton to perform at a high level.

Once when I was with Mike at a ballgame, I got to meet Rick Hummel, the “commissioner” of baseball writers who has been enshrined in Cooperstown. They immediately turned their attention to the “could have been” year of 1974, when the Cardinals came close to forcing a playoff in the National League East. It didn’t happen, and clearly this is the great regret for that era of Cardinal: a playoff that could have taken the decade in a different direction. That team still had Gibson and Brock, and so many young stars. It would be eight more years, after Mike had retired, before the team would return to the Playoffs.

It is fascinating to get to see these men interact today. Gold glover Kenny Reitz, once a Gold Glove third baseman, is their most interesting artifact, somewhere on a distant planet. At the Cardinal Hall of Fame induction yesterday, when Curt Flood’s widow talked about the twenty-year wait to receive the last of Curt’s seven golden awards, Reitz whispered, “Hell. I sold my award on eBay for $4,000. That’s what I was more interested in!” It was said in a tone that let you know he had no regrets on having done so, and was proud of the bargain he had struck. Reitz is still in remarkable shape, and still heads to the ballpark regularly.

Ted Simmons, the iconoclastic switch-hitting slugger for those teams, was inducted into the Cardinals Hall of Fame as well yesterday, and it was interesting to see him come visit with the players, who gather in a couple of suites during the game. The new inductees were being feted in owner Bill DeWitt’s box, but Simmons came down to the ex-Cardinal suite three different times, and moved regularly among his old friends. He spoke to Mike about Mike’s son’s new position working with super agent Scott Boras, and talked with Cardinals players from different eras like John Costello and Kyle McClellan. As a fly on the wall, it was an interesting thing to watch: Glenn Brummer, he of the 1982 extra-innings steal of home; Danny Cox, mid-80s outstanding pitcher telling the biggest and funniest stories in the room, and a room full of men who signed up for a life-long occupation when they suited up with red birds on their chest.

The 70s were the best-represented in that room, and clearly my favorites, being so closely tied to my nascent interest in the game. I can’t think of a better way to spend a Saturday than with the group of men who survived Vern Rapp and can live to talk about it.