The improbably named Vaughan P. “Bing” Devine served as the general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals for most of a 20-plus-year period. His Cardinals’ tenure was broken up into two stints: the first from November 1957 until August 1964, and the second from December 1967 until October 1978. (In between, Devine spent one season as the GM for the New York Mets.)
Devine’s two terms in St. Louis differed distinctly in tone and results. In the first, the young GM, through a long sequence of remarkable trades, boldly and cleverly rebuilt the ball club—only to find himself rashly fired by owner Gussie Busch just as the team was about to begin its dramatic stretch run that won the 1964 National League pennant.
The second time around, Devine inherited the best team in baseball. Yet after a quick repeat pennant in 1968, for the next decade Devine was never able to get them to the postseason, as instead the Cardinals became mired in chronic middle-of-the-pack mediocrity.
To be sure, the failure to sustain their mid-1960s success wasn’t due to any lack of effort on Devine’s part, as throughout this period the Cardinals were extremely active in the trading market. But the eye for undervalued up-and-coming talent that Devine had so impressively exhibited earlier in his career was distinctly not in evidence. Indeed, time and again it was other GMs picking Devine’s pocket.
In Devine’s defense, it may well be the case that many of the most regrettable St. Louis transactions weren’t his ideas. Owner Busch had demonstrated his impetuous streak in firing Devine in the middle of the 1964 season, and by the 1970s Busch had firmly established himself as perhaps the very most cranky, reactionary and impulsive of all the Lords of Baseball—and that’s saying something. As we’ll see, there were probably several times when Devine was summarily ordered by his boss to get rid of a player with whom Busch was peeved—not exactly putting the GM in the strongest of bargaining positions at the trading table.
But regardless of whose wishes were being served by these deals, they followed no coherent plan of building and/or sustaining a winning ball club. At best, many of the Cardinals’ trades in the early-to-mid-1970s fall into the pointless “deal for a deal’s sake” category, and often they were just appalling giveaways. The result was a St. Louis franchise churning through a remarkable bounty of talent and getting nowhere.
What might have been: Element No. 1
It had been interesting that the Cardinals accepted Rojas as part of their massive October 1969 trade with the Phillies that included, among so many notable others, Curt Flood. Rojas, though always highly regarded with the glove, was 30 years old at that point and coming off his worst season with the bat since becoming established in the majors. Meanwhile, the 1969 Cardinals had Julian Javier handling second base, even more highly regarded with the glove than Rojas, and coming off probably his best season with the bat in his long career. Javier’s 1969 OPS+ had been 108, while Rojas’s was 59. Why bring on Rojas?
The explanation would seem to be some wisdom on Devine’s part: Javier would be 33 in 1970, and one had to expect he couldn’t keep up that kind of performance for long. Having Rojas on hand as his backup would strengthen the Cardinals’ bench and flexibility going forward.
But the Cardinals would show scant commitment to that plan. Though Javier did indeed hit far less well in the early months of 1970 than he had in ’69 (Javier would finish 1970 with an OPS+ of 57, in over 550 plate appearances), field manager Red Schoendienst largely ignored Rojas, giving him just 11 starts and 51 plate appearances in two months. In that limited chance, Rojas produced feeble offensive stats, and clearly the Cardinals concluded that he was washed up at the age of 31, as Devine packed him off to Kansas City in exchange for the token payment of a minor league journeyman.
The Cardinals couldn’t have been more wrong about Rojas. When given the opportunity to play regularly with the Royals, he would demonstrate that he had several more years of solid performance left in the tank, long after Javier was retired.
Let’s suppose Devine hadn’t engaged in this pointless dumping, but had kept Rojas on board as his utility infielder and Julian Javier insurance policy.
What might have been: Element No. 2
This big fellow here had, of course, been the key player in that mega-deal in which the Cards had picked up Rojas. And then this. It was just … well, as we described it a few years ago:
… this one caused observers to utter a collective, “Huh?”
Despite Allen’s history of unruliness in Philadelphia, in St. Louis in 1970 there had been nary a rumor of problematic behavior on his part. And Allen had delivered a terrific performance on the field, blasting the most home runs by any Cardinal since Stan Musial way back in 1949, and leading the ball club in RBIs, despite missing most of the final six weeks with a hamstring injury.
Thus it was a stunner that not only were the Cardinals trading Allen, they appeared to be in a rush to unload him for whatever they could get. Why in the world was Devine so eager to accept this modest Dodgers offer of just Sizemore (a nice second baseman, but no star) and Stinson (a scrubeenie wannabee)? If Devine was intent on trading Allen anyway, why wouldn’t he at least hold off until deeper into the trading season, after shopping Allen around, finding out what other offers were out there and playing them off one another, instead of immediately settling on one as meager as this?
The official explanation the Cardinals offered was that the transaction had nothing to do with any behavioral issues regarding Allen, that instead it was simply part of an effort to re-shape the ball club’s mode of play, to tighten up the defense and instill a more contact-oriented, “slashing” style of offense. Well, o-o-okay, most everyone responded, shrugging our collective shoulders, because there was hardly anyone in the world (including experts, casual fans, Tasmanian Aborigines and reindeer herders in Lapland) who didn’t fully understand that Allen was incomparably more talented than Sizemore, and nearly guaranteed to generate more wins, mode of play be damned, if performance on the field was indeed all there was to it.
Something smelled fishy.
Let’s assume the Cardinals had decided to stick with Mr. Allen for at least a few more years. Besides, with Rojas still on the roster, they wouldn’t need to be bringing in yet more help for Javier, anyway.
What might have been: Element No. 3
Not a giveaway, but another head-scratcher. As we’ve described it:
This was questionable wisdom on the part of Cardinals GM Bing Devine, from two perspectives. First, he was dealing Briles when his market value was at a low; Briles had been a fine pitcher for several years but was coming off a dreadful, injury-wracked 1970 season. And Devine was expending Briles along with the useful role player Davalillo for the underwhelming package of Alou, who’d enjoyed a nice run as the Pirates’ center fielder but was now in his early 30s, and Brunet, who looked to be over the hill.
Let’s imagine that Devine had decided against this buy-high-sell-low maneuver.
What might have been: Element No. 4
The young Torrez had earned his way into the starting rotation in 1970, but was completely collapsing in ’71, overweight, personally troubled and utterly ineffective. St. Louis was giving up on him a couple of months into the 1971 season, cashing him in for the so-so prospect Reynolds.
Torrez was a peculiar pitcher. He threw very hard, yet even when at his best he wasn’t a good strikeout pitcher (and when decidedly not at his best, as in ’71, his strikeout rate disappeared). To make matters worse, he constantly battled his control, always surrendering a lot of bases on balls.
A poor walk-to-strikeout ratio is, of course, a classic recipe for pitching failure, as Torrez was abundantly demonstrating in 1971. But there are exceptional pitchers who can succeed despite that weakness. When at his best, Torrez was one of them, due to his combination of positives: his fastball and his hard, sharp-breaking slider were both “heavy,” with distinct downward action, which kept his home run rate low, and also erased a lot of the walks via double-play grounders. And Torrez was huge, extremely strong, utterly tireless and relentlessly competitive. He was an extraordinary workhorse who could sustain high walk-infested pitch counts and endless jams without wilting or rattling.
The Expos demonstrated the patience to look beyond Torrez’s disastrous 1971 performance (and it would last all year long; for Montreal’s Triple-A affiliate over the balance of the season, he would post a mind-blowing 8.16 ERA in 75 innings), and see what he might yet become. They stuck with Torrez, worked with him, got him back into top physical and mental condition, and would be rewarded when he blossomed in 1972 with the first of many very good years.
Let’s assume the Cardinals had seen Torrez through his struggles.
What might have been: Element No. 5
It was the case that the fleet-footed and hard-hitting Cardenal was having a bit of a down year at the plate, holding a .243 average at the end of July. And with the midseason arrival of hotshot rookie Jose Cruz, Cardenal had recently lost his everyday-starter status.
But, come on. Ted Freaking Kubiak?
The trade made no sense from a talent-exchange perspective. But the young Cardenal (and he was still only 27 at this point) carried a bit of a reputation for “attitude,” and I’ve always suspected this otherwise mystifying transaction was one of the times in which Busch was throwing a tantrum, commanding his GM to banish a player.
Let’s suppose that cooler heads prevailed, and Cardenal remained a Cardinal.
What might have been: Element No. 5-A
So this is what Devine then parlayed Cardenal into: a soon-to-be-35-year-old journeyman reliever. Well, we don’t have Kubiak, so we’ll have to decline this kind offer.
What might have been: Element No. 6
It must be remembered that no one at the time foresaw just how lopsided this one would be, because, as we’ve commented, “Steve Carlton wouldn’t become, you know, STEVE CARLTON until he donned the Phillies uniform in 1972.”
Still, everyone at the time recognized that it wasn’t an even-up balance in terms of innate talent. At this point Carlton and Wise were nearly exact equals in career innings, at 1,265 to 1,243, but that’s where the equalities ended, as Carlton’s won-lost record was 77-62 while Wise’s was 75-76, Carlton’s ERA was 3.10 while Wise’s was 3.61, and Carlton had 951 strikeouts while Wise had 717.
So, as everyone understood, this deal was entirely a function of Busch’s pique against Carlton regarding salary negotiations. So Busch “won” by saving a few thousand dollars. Boy, that showed ’em.
What might have been: Element No. 6-A
I’ve designated this one as “6-A,” because it was essentially a repeat of the Carlton deal, in that it had nothing to with attempting to improve the St. Louis roster, and everything to do with ridding it of a personality who displeased Busch. The not-yet-23-year-old Reuss was still a work in progress, but was already established as a big league starter, so converting him into a couple of prospects was competitively senseless.
Let’s assume the Cardinals hung on to both Carlton and Reuss.
What might have been: Element No. 7
There was nothing wrong with this deal from either team’s standpoint; it was sound and fair. But we don’t have Wise, so it’s one we can’t make.
What might have been: Element No. 7-A
This was nothing of particular consequence, but since we don’t have Spinks, it’s a no-go.
What might have been: Element No. 8
Oct. 24, 1974: The Cardinals sold outfielder Jose Cruz to the Houston Astros.
The superbly all-around-talented Cruz had been an enigma: After breaking in wonderfully in mid-1971 and grabbing the starting center field job, he spent the next two seasons failing to hit well, and by 1974 he was no longer a first-stringer. But in the utility role in ’74, Cruz perked up and performed splendidly, his bat productive again.
It wasn’t necessarily a bad idea for the Cardinals to be dealing Cruz at this point. What was strange was the notion of just selling him for nominal cash, and moreover doing so in October, at the very outset of the trading season. If they were going to put Cruz on the market, why not shop him around, and find the best deal out there? Cruz was just 27, and if perhaps he wasn’t going to become the star it had seemed he would, he was certainly still looking like a highly useful asset. It’s inconceivable that this marginal offer from the Astros was the best the Cardinals could have yielded for this ballplayer.
And that’s assuming he ought to have been dealt at all. Let’s imagine that the Cards elected to keep Señor Cruz.
What might have been: Element No. 9
Anderson was a toolsy athlete who’d once appeared ticketed for stardom, but by this point in his mid-20s it was clear that all he’d ever be was a utility guy. Reed was a veteran who’d also never broken through as a star, but had instead put together a solid career as a middle-of-the-rotation innings-eater.
But Reed presented an interesting profile: a durable strike-throwing right-hander, just the sort of so-so starting pitcher who often thrives when shifted to the bullpen in his early 30s. Recent examples of talents similar to Reed who’d done just that included Ron Kline, Pedro Ramos, Orlando Pena, Mudcat Grant, and Dave Giusti.
Seeing as how our Cardinals, with Cardenal and Cruz still on board, won’t have any room for Anderson in their outfield anyway, let’s imagine that they held on to Reed, and it would be they instead of their division-rival Phillies providing the long, tall former NBA forward with the opportunity to re-invent himself as a reliever.
What might have been: Element No. 10
Crawford was a useful ballplayer who had a good year for St. Louis in 1976. But we don’t have Sizemore, so there’s no deal here.
What might have been: Element No. 10-A
Oct. 20, 1976: The Cardinals traded outfielder Willie Crawford, pitcher John Curtis, and infielder-outfielder Vic Harris to the San Francisco Giants for catcher Dave Rader and pitchers Mike Caldwell and John D’Acquisto.
Caldwell would later break out as a star, but not for the Cardinals, as this deal had little consequence for them. But we don’t have Crawford anyway, so scratch it.
What might have been: Element No. 10-B
Smith had performed wonderfully for St. Louis, but was struggling with injuries this season, and Devine foolishly gave up on him. But since we don’t have Smith anyway, it’s a moot point for us.
What might have been: Element No. 10-C
Here Devine compounded the problem of downgrading from Smith to Ferguson by converting Ferguson into a stick-a-fork-in-him Dierker. But—yeah, you know the drill.
We’ll find out how these re-feathered Cardinals might fly.