COMMENTARY | For 60 years there was no doubt as to who was the "greatest living Cardinal." But that all changed last month when Stan Musial passed away at 92.
While there are flashier players who have roamed the field for the Cardinals over the decades, no one better defines what it means to be a Redbird than Musial's longtime road-trip roommate, Red Schoendienst. In my opinion, there can be little argument that the Redhead, who turned 90 last week, now is the standard bearer for Cardinal Nation.
Sure, Schoendienst isn't as exciting as Stan the Man. Not many players were. He's not even as exciting as fellow Hall of Famers Bob Gibson and Lou Brock. But no one alive today can come close to Schoendienst's eight decades with the Cardinals as a player, coach and manager.
Schoendienst was a darn good player. He had a .289 batting average and was one of the slickest fielding second basemen in the game during his 19 seasons on the field, 15 of them with the Redbirds. He's sixth on the franchise record list with 1,980 career hits. And he adapted, which is a hallmark of a Cardinal.
When he arrived in the majors, Schoendienst played the outfield. He played shortstop and third base before settling in at second base. And, as he got older, he developed into an exceptional pinch-hitter, batting .304 with 51 hits in that role.
He has taught generations of players the Redbirds way to play the game as a coach and a manager.
Schoendienst, according to longtime St. Louis Post-Dispatch sportswriter Bob Broeg's book "Redbirds: A Century of Cardinals baseball," became skipper of the Cardinals in 1965 when the team had an ugly divorce from manager Johnny Keane.
Languishing in third place in the National League standings in late September and 6 1/2 games back of the Phillies, St. Louis owner August Busch Jr. struck a handshake deal with Gashouse Gang shortstop and former Dodgers and Giants manager Leo Durocher to take over at the helm of the Cardinals at the end of the season. Keane would be fired. But the Redbirds staged the greatest comeback in baseball history (at least prior to 2011); they won the pennant on the last day of the season and beat the Yankees in the World Series that forced the Cardinals to back out of plans with Durocher and offer Keane a new contract.
Keane knew the Cardinals planned to fire him, however, Broeg wrote. While the Cardinals were set to announce his return for 1965, Keane announced that he was quitting to take over for Yogi Berra as manager of the team he just beat in the Fall Classic, New York.
Desperate for a replacement, the Redbirds turned to Schoendienst, who had retired only two seasons earlier to become a coach. In 12 years as the St. Louis skipper, he led the Cardinals to two World Series appearances, including a win in 1967 over Boston and a loss in 1968 to Detroit.
Schoendienst was revered by his players. Cardinals broadcaster Al Hrabosky frequently talks on the air during games about how the Redhead was the right man at the right time to run the Cardinals. Schoendienst enforced the rules and made sure Redbirds players were prepared. But he was a players' manager who allowed his athletes the freedom to play to their strengths. He lost his job as manager in 1976 during a rebuilding period following the retirement of Gibson. But in a classy move that not many major leaguers would make, he swallowed his pride and stayed in the organization as a coach. Red's dedication and his ability to check his ego has made generations of Cardinals better players. While Gibson and Brock have served short stints as coaches or instructors, Red made the managers who followed him better skippers by sharing his wealth of baseball knowledge.
I attended the St. Louis chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America's annual dinner a few years ago when former Cardinals manager Tony La Russa told a story about his first days with the team. The Redbirds had lost a sloppy spring training game, and La Russa had a visit in his office from Gibson and Brock, who told him in no uncertain terms that Cardinals players were to be prepared for every game, they execute strong fundamental play and they hustle all the time, spring training game or seventh game of the World Series.
Shaken up a bit by the confrontation despite the fact that he was an experienced manager who had three American League championships and a World Series game to his credit, La Russa went to Schendienst and said, "Red, you've gotta keep these guys off my case and get them to back off a little bit."
Schoendienst replied with a wink, "Who do you think sent them in there?"
Scott Wuerz has been a reporter and columnist at the Belleville News-Democrat, located in suburban St. Louis, since 1998. During that time he has covered three St. Louis Cardinals World Series appearances, the 2009 Major League Baseball All-Star Game and Mark McGwire's chase to break Roger Maris' home run record. He has penned the View From the Cheap Seats Cardinals fan blog for the News-Democrat since 2007.