Bing and Bob, Starring in “The Road to October”

Bob Gibson and Lou Brock were both tremendous players, of course. Their places in the Hall of Fame are well deserved. Gibson was a 20-game winner 5 times, a Cy Young Award winner and an MVP, and of course, that 1.12 ERA in 1968 was a signature accomplishment. Brock had over 3,000 hits, scored over 1,600 runs, and retired with the all-time single-season and career stolen base records.

Still, it must be acknowledged that a significant part of the lore of both — the saga of exploits that burned the images of “Bob Gibson” and “Lou Brock” deep into the heart of baseball immortality — were the duo’s heroic deeds in the World Series.

With prominent roles in the scintillating seven-game nail-biters of 1964, 1967, and 1968, both were amazingly brilliant in the national spotlight of The Fall Classic. Gibson’s dramatic seventh-game victory in 1964 earned the famous tribute from his manager, Johnny Keane: “I had a commitment to his heart.” In 1967, Gibson had three more complete game wins, and then in the opening game of the ’68 Series, he delivered one of the very greatest single-game pitching performances in World Series history: shutout, 5 hits, 1 walk, and 17 strikeouts. As if that weren’t enough, Gibson hit a World Series home run in both ’67 and ’68.

Brock hit with slashing, punishing power in all three of those Octobers, while also setting the all-time single-Series record (which still stands) for stolen bases with seven in 1967 – and then matching it in 1968. His 14 career World Series stolen bases tie him with Eddie Collins for all-time record, a mark that may well stand forever.

Gibson’s total Series stat line is as follows:

G  GS  CG  IP  W  L   H  BB  SO  ShO   ERA
9   9   8  81  7  2  55  17  92    2  1.89

And here is Brock’s:

 G  AB   R   H  2B  3B  HR  RBI  BB  SO  SB  CS   BA  OBP  SLG
21  87  16  34   7   2   4   13   5  10  14   2 .391 .424 .655

Those are two of the most stupendously great performances any player has ever had in World Series competition.

But …

Fade to Ominous Dream Sequence

… suppose the Cardinals hadn’t won any pennants in the 1960s. Suppose therefore that neither Gibson nor Brock ever appeared in the Series. Take that part of their careers away, and certainly neither would have achieved quite the national superstardom they did while active, and likely neither would be quite as well-remembered today. Gibson’s reputation might be obscured behind that of Juan Marichal as the “other” pitcher from the 60s (alongside Koufax, of course) — given that, as we know, it was Marichal’s Giants winning the NL pennant in 1964, ’67, and ’68, giving The Dominican Dandy that national stage upon which to dazzle us. Brock might be known today as little more than a poor man’s Rickey Henderson.

The legacies of both Gibson and Brock owe a lot to the fact that their ball club won three pennants in a five-year period. And that fact must be understood as one of the greatest feats of team construction in major league history: the 1960s St. Louis Cardinals simply had no business winning any pennants at all, based on the talent produced by their farm system. The 1960s Cardinals were, in fact, almost certainly the greatest trade-built baseball team of all time.

Bing and Bob are Coming Along Here Soon

The St. Louis Cardinals spent the decade of the 1950s in a state of near-perpetual frustration. They had dominated the National League in the 1940s – four pennants and five second-places – and they entered the ’50s with an all-time great still in his prime (Stan Musial), plus several other top stars: Enos Slaughter, Red Schoendienst, Marty Marion, and Howie Pollet. There was every expectation that the Cards would continue to be a strong contender, but as the new decade unfolded, year after year the Cardinals fell short. Despite sustained brilliance from Musial, they were never able to put a completely solid team around him, and again and again the Cards were able to do no better than middle-of-the-pack.

By the late ’50s, Musial was aging, and it was obvious that no Cardinal team with Stan the Man as its centerpiece was ever again going to be a winner. The team went into a period of rebuilding.

Enter Bing, Stage Left

On November 12, 1957, Cardinals’ GM Frank Lane resigned, and was replaced by Bing Devine. (Okay, before we go any further here — his name really was Vaughan P. “Bing” Devine. “Bing Devine.” That was really his name: one that would have seemed outlandish in a Busby Berkeley extravaganza. That was really his name. Anyway, back to our story …)

Here’s the best of what Devine had on hand to work with in 1958-60, in addition to the still-good-but-declining Musial:

- The one star the organization had come up with in the mid-50s: third baseman Ken Boyer, a terrific all-around player.

- One reliable workhorse starting pitcher in Larry Jackson.

- A strong-but-inconsistent relief ace in Lindy McDaniel.

Devine did find a couple of pearls in their farm system, to be sure – Gibson obviously, and Tim McCarver, signed as a much-ballyhooed teenager in 1959 – but the rest of the home-grown talent they came up with in those years was nothing special: pitchers Ray Sadecki and Ray Washburn, catcher Gene Oliver, and outfielder Charlie James were little more than role players. Bonus baby pitcher Bob Miller was promising, but the Cards ended up losing him in the October 1961 expansion draft.

It wasn’t the kind of core that a team can build around; major elements were lacking. But the Cardinals filled in the remaining pieces through a series of amazingly clever acquisitions. Devine made the following deals:

December 5, 1957: Traded pitchers Willard Schmidt, Marty Kutyna, and Ted Wieand to the Cincinnati Reds for outfielders Curt Flood and Joe Taylor.

October 8, 1958: Traded catcher Hobie Landrith, pitcher Billy Muffett, and infielder Benny Valenzuela to the San Francisco Giants for pitchers Marv Grissom and Ernie Broglio.

March 25, 1959: Traded pitchers Sam Jones and Don Choate to the San Francisco Giants for first baseman Bill White and third baseman Ray Jablonski.

May 20, 1960: Signed pitcher Curt Simmons as a free agent.

May 28, 1960: Traded pitcher Wilmer “Vinegar Bend” Mizell and infielder Dick Gray to the Pittsburgh Pirates for second baseman Julian Javier and pitcher Ed Bauta.

Conducted in a period of two and a half years, this series of acquisitions is among the most remarkable of all time. In four separate trades, the Cardinals acquired four young players (Flood, Broglio, White, and Javier) with little or no major league experience – each of whom would become a star. The talent the Cardinals gave up in exchange was marginal, with the obvious exceptions of Jones (a veteran ace whom Lane had stolen from the Cubs in a 1956 swindle) and Mizell (a solid starter who did well for the Pirates in 1960 before running out of gas). Many teams will go ten or twenty years without pulling off a single trade like this. All in all, the true value exchange for the Cardinals in these four trades was astoundingly advantageous.

And the pickup of Simmons was one the best scrap-heap snares of all time. The one-time “Whiz Kid” southpaw star had been dragged down with arm trouble, until the Phillies finally just gave up and released him. But immediately upon signing with the Cardinals, Simmons regained his health, and emerged as a crafty control artist, one of the better starting pitchers in the majors from 1960 through 1964.

These moves reinvigorated the Cardinals, and the team was good in 1960 and 1961 as their young talent developed. In ’62, they stepped forward in run differential (92-70 Pythagorean record), but didn’t win the close games, coming in at 84-78, in 6th place. Gibson, White, Broglio, Flood, and Javier had all emerged as stars, but the team hadn’t yet emerged as a contender.

So in the fall of 1962, Devine made two more major trades:

October 17, 1962: Traded pitchers Larry Jackson and Lindy McDaniel and catcher Jimmie Schaffer to the Chicago Cubs for outfielder George Altman, pitcher Don Cardwell, and catcher Moe Thacker.

November 19, 1962: Traded Cardwell and infielder Julio Gotay to the Pittsburgh Pirates for shortstop Dick Groat and pitcher Diomedes Olivo.

Unlike the previous series of deals, these acquisitions weren’t about picking up prospects with an eye toward the future. These trades were focused on winning now: Altman was an established heavy-hitting right fielder, and Groat was a standout veteran, the NL MVP in 1960. Devine was clearly rolling the dice; the Cardinals were going for it in 1963.

They almost got there in ’63; in Musial’s final season the Cards came on with a late-season rush and just fell short, finishing in second place at 93-69, their best performance since 1949. Groat had a great year, completing the quartet of Boyer-Groat-Javier-White that was one of the best all-around infields ever seen, before or since. Gibson and Broglio each won 18 games, giving the Cardinals a pair of aces, and Flood was firmly established as a high-average hitter and a brilliant defensive center fielder. McCarver completed his minor league apprenticeship and settled in as a standout catcher. Altman’s lackluster performance was one of the few disappointments on the roster, and he was immediately traded away for a serviceable pitcher in Roger Craig.

The team went into 1964 with high expectations, but as of June 15th, they were languishing at 28-31, in eighth place. So on that trading deadline day, Devine pulled the trigger again on a major deal, surrendering one of his ace starters in a package that yielded a toolsy young outfielder who hadn’t yet hit well at the major league level:

June 15, 1964: Traded pitchers Ernie Broglio and Bobby Shantz and outfielder Doug Clemens to the Chicago Cubs for outfielder Lou Brock and pitchers Paul Toth and Jack Spring.

We all know what happened then.

What may not be as well-remembered today is that on August 17, 1964, just two months after pulling off one of the most successful trades of all time, Bing Devine was fired. Owner Gussie Busch was frustrated with his team’s 62-55, fifth-place record, and Devine was the fall guy. The team would go 31-14 the rest of the way, and the GM who had navigated the Cardinals’ seven-year journey to a championship wouldn’t be there to celebrate it.

Now Here’s Bob’s Big Entrance, Stage Right

Devine’s replacement was Bob Howsam, an up-and-coming executive in his first big league GM job. Howsam’s road became a rough one from the get-go: the 1965 Cardinals slumped badly, to 80-81, seventh place, as Boyer, Groat, and Simmons all suddenly showed their age.

Howsam demonstrated no hesitation. Few times in history has a former champion been torn apart quite so decisively as this:

October 20, 1965: Traded third baseman Ken Boyer to the New York Mets for pitcher Al Jackson and third baseman Charley Smith.

October 27, 1965: Traded first baseman Bill White, shortstop Dick Groat, and catcher Bob Uecker to the Philadelphia Phillies for outfielder Alex Johnson, pitcher Art Mahaffey, and catcher Pat Corrales.

The Boyer trade worked out well; both Jackson and Smith did well for the Cardinals in 1966. The deal with the Phillies came out dismally, as Johnson, the prize talent in the package, was a spectacular bust. But that trade served the purpose of clearing room for the deployment of new talent; defensive whiz Dal Maxvill stepped in as the new regular shortstop.

And the space created at first base led to this blockbuster early the next season:

May 8, 1966: Traded pitcher Ray Sadecki to the San Francisco Giants for first baseman Orlando Cepeda.

Thus in the space of less than two years, the Cardinals pulled off two of the greatest steals in trading history.

But the ’66 Cardinals were a .500-ish team again, as overall the team didn’t hit as well as it could have. That off-season, Howsam made this deal:

December 8, 1966: Traded third baseman Charley Smith to the New York Yankees for outfielder Roger Maris.

This was an interesting move: taking on the injury-diminished former slugging star Maris to play right field, and transplanting incumbent right fielder Mike Shannon – who had a tremendous arm, but not really a corner outfielder’s bat – to third base to replace Smith. While this parlay was not decisive in itself, Maris was better than Smith (116 OPS+ in 1967 to 84), and his presence along with the shift of Shannon would improve the Cardinals.

For his trouble, Bob Howsam was fired by Busch in January of 1967.

The Cardinals surged to back-to-back runaway pennants in ’67 and ‘68. In both of those seasons, as in 1964, a huge portion of the ball club’s core talent had been acquired in deals that were spectacularly one-sided. In the history of baseball, there has never been a championship team so dependent upon clever trade acquisitions as the 1960s Cardinals. But just like Devine before him, Howsam didn’t survive as Cardinals’ GM to taste the fruits of his labor.

We remember Bob Gibson’s and Lou Brock’s tremendous World Series deeds, as we should. But let’s also acknowledge the amazing work of two different General Managers who made it possible.

(Cue exit music … Bing Devine and Bob Howsam together, wearing exotic hats and riding an elephant or something … there’s Dorothy Lamour in her sarong …)

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