I was very young — I had just turned 8 — to begin a torrid love affair, but the St. Louis Cardinals made it easy.
It was 1963, Stan Musial’s last year in baseball, and the young team began the season hot and stayed hot through July. So hot, in fact, that the starting infield for the National League’s All-Star team that year was all Cardinals; around the horn, first to third, it was Bill White, Julian Javier, Dick Groat and Ken Boyer.
And on the bench was Stan the Man himself, playing in his record, 24th All-Star game. Like I said, love came easy in 1963.
That final Musial summer was only a taste of the supreme delight to come in 1964. When that team came north from spring training, though, it still had a hole in its line-up, Stan’s left-field spot. No one that Manager Johnny Keane had tried seemed to fit.
Who could replace a legend? Only another legend.
On June 15, 1964, that legend arrived when the Cardinals traded a tiring star pitcher, Ernie Broglio, for a fleet-but-floundering Chicago Cubs outfielder named Lou Brock. The leadoff-hitting Brock would never replace Musial, but Stan’s ghost gave the skinny kid room, and he blossomed.
Still, Brock’s spark couldn’t ignite the team that had won 90 games the year before. Two months after his arrival, the Cardinals languished 10 games back of league-leading Philadelphia. Cardinals’ owner, beer baron August A. Busch Jr., decided to act.
Since Augie Jr. couldn’t fire any players, he fired the team’s general manager, Vaughn “Bing” Devine. It was Devine, of course, who only 60 days earlier had pulled off what would soon become the biggest steal in baseball history, the Brock-for-Broglio deal.
In mid-September, the team turned some unseen corner and began to make a run at league leaders Philadelphia and Cincinnati. Then, at the end of the month, one of those beautiful baseball things happened: the Phillies lost 10 games in a row while my Cardinals won eight in a row.
The Cards, improbably, were in first place and stayed there until late Sunday, Oct. 4, when they clinched their first pennant in 18 years.
What a year
When the final out that sent the Cardinals to the 1964 World Series was made, my father danced a little jig in the milking parlor. I know because I was with him, too nervous to stay home and listen to the game alone. What a sight! What a day! What a year!
The World Series pitted the now-flying Cardinals against the powerful New York Yankees, the only major league team to win more pennants and World Series than St. Louis.
But there was a hitch; by tradition, all World Series games were day games. That meant, of course, several games would be held on school days. What rotten luck.
But lightening struck again: My teacher at St. John’s Lutheran School that year — a dour lady who ruled the classroom with a pine scepter made from a bed board — was a Cardinals fan. She brought a transistor radio to school so no one missed one pitch or one beer commercial of one game.
The 1964 Series was baseball at its best, a seven-game nail biter that was won by the boys of my youthful spring and summer. I cried — it seemed like everyone cried — when pitcher Bob Gibson got the final Yankee out on a weak pop fly to second.
And now I tear up whenever I hear that one of these incredible players has traded baseball glory for eternal glory. It’s hard to let go of those who were bona fide heroes on the southern Illinois dairy farm of my youth and, in most cases, I never will. Brock. Gibson. Boyer. Shannon. McCarver. Flood. Sadecki. Washburn. Maxvill. Groat. White. Javier.
Yes, they won a few World Series but they also won millions of hearts, and mine still beats faster at the mention of their names. That’s love, right?
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