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Original Issue

The black cats are stalking the Redbirds

Deserted by the luck that kept them free of injuries last season, the St. Louis Cardinals find themselves marginally bad enough to lose, just as they were marginally good enough to be World Champions in 1964

It is a matter of videotape record that General Manager Bob Howsam sat with a Cheshire-cat grin last October 16 while Field Manager Johnny Keane was telling Owner Gussie Busch what he could do with his St. Louis Cardinals. "You have a young club," Keane said. "It's fast, and it's good." And Busch could have it. Howsam grinned.

The Cardinals, who had just beaten the New York Yankees for baseball's world championship, had been put together by former General Manager Bing Devine, who was unable to attend the ceremony in the Anheuser-Busch brewery because of an invitation two months earlier by the beer baron to get lost. Devine, that same October day in St. Louis, possibly by coincidence, had been named baseball's Executive of the Year by The Sporting News. But, "no," Busch said thoughtfully, when asked if he'd like to live the year over, "I wouldn't have done a thing different." At his side, Howsam grinned on.

Such a cheery reaction to the somber doings of the day seemed out of place at the time—though by nature Howsam is a cheery man. Certainly the Cardinal players, flushed with victory and eager for its spoils, were cheerful. The patois of baseball is extravagant: if an event is probable, it's "got to" be; if it is unlikely, there's "no way" it can happen. The salary raises had to be good; there was no way there could be a winter of discontent. And—especially in view of the little-boy enthusiasms they had seen in Gussie Busch during that final, wonderful week of the season—you better believe it, baby.

But somehow Busch's Bavarian Gem√ºtlichkeit didn't filter down even one echelon. "Man, he [Howsam] was hard with those contracts," one of the champions said. "He talked to us as if we were a seventh-place club." The champion said that this season—last week, in fact—when the Cardinals were a seventh-place club. They had to be better hitters than their .250 team average, and there was no way the opposition could keep clobbering pitchers that weren't "that bad." But there they were, a game further behind than they had ever been in 1964 and figuring to remain seventh—at best—for at least another week.

Unless, of course, the sixth-place Phillies came charging backward at them as they did last September, when the Phils yielded 7½ games in the standings in seven days. During their surge to the pennant, the Cards won eight straight, by an average score of 5-2, not really outclassing anyone, any more than anyone has really outclassed them this year. Last season they were marginally good enough and lucky enough to win; this season they have been marginally bad enough and unlucky enough to lose. "The black cats have got them," it was sympathetically suggested by Milwaukee Brave Coach Ken Silvestri. After his first week as a Cardinal, Hal Woodeshick wondered if they weren't truly "snakebit," inasmuch as his luck had been better in the presumably depressed area of the Houston Astrodome. Maybe, but while time has made a cliché of Branch Rickey's aphorism, it has not diluted its universality: luck is still the residue of design.

Devine inspiration (a pun whose coiner shall remain nameless lest he become jobless) might have made two truths self-evident to the St. Louis management last winter. One was that their champions had staggered home with a distinctly unimpressive winning percentage of .574, the second lowest in the history of big-league baseball. The other was that in 1964 they had enjoyed a season singularly unaffected by disabling injury.

"There's the story," Center Fielder Curt Flood said last week, as he lay prone on the rubbing table while Trainer Bob Bauman kneaded the agonized knot of muscle on the back of Flood's right leg. Flood, the most indispensable Cardinal because he catches just about everything that stays inside the ball park and makes 200 hits a year when he is healthy, was pointing to the at bats recorded by the champions of 1964. Five regulars had 628 at bats or more, meaning they were never marked absent, and a sixth had 535, meaning he didn't miss much. "And look at Timmy McCarver," Flood said. "He was in 143 games. That's a tremendous number of games for a catcher." Starting pitchers Bob Gibson, Curt Simmons and Ray Sadecki averaged 250 innings of work; that is not unheard of, but only two other teams in the majors (one was the Yankees) had triumvirates as steady and durable.

By the end of June this year nothing but their pride was hurting the Cardinal pitchers, but every regular except Dick Groat had logged more sick-bay time than in all of 1964. Julian Javier, whose virtuosity at second base had caulked the defense, was gone for two months or more with a broken hand. Manager Red Schoendienst worked patiently with the spare parts that had gone untried last year, and they didn't fit. Phil Gagliano began to hit like a big-leaguer but made nobody forget Javier. Jerry Buchek, a battler with an inadequate bat, showed Schoendienst more at shortstop than at second base. "But you can't win without Groat," Red concluded, though Groat, not even a Buchek in the field, was not looking much like a Groat with the bat. Mike Shannon tried hard filling in for Flood in center, but he is not close to Flood as a fielder, and the pitches he was chasing at the plate were no better than the bridge hands he was drawing on the team plane.

Bob Gibson, the World Series hero, whose eight straight wins gave the Cardinals a semblance of respectability in April and May, lost his next six. Every time Lou Brock started to hit at something like the pennant-winning .348 he had the second half of last season, somebody hit him with a pitch. A positive-thinking man, Brock found two causes for optimism. One was the fact that the last pitcher who hit him, Frank Carpin of the Pirates, didn't throw as hard as Ryne Duren of the Phils and Sandy Koufax of the Dodgers, who between them had mashed a muscle in his back. The second sign that things were looking up for Brock was the airline's swift recovery of his wallet after he lost it on the way to Cincinnati. But that night he hit the ball on the nose four times yet went 0 for 9 as the Cards lost 5-4 and 4-2. Just one hit, in any of several places, could have won either game.

The next day, during the interminable lobby-sitting that occupies the void between night games, the voice of the loser was heard in the Netherland Hilton. "What the hell," somebody said, "how many games have we played?" Somebody else couldn't see no way the Dodgers could stay up there all year, and still another found solace in the fact that the Cards had 96 games to go. Losing players of no special dexterity on the field almost invariably have the logical agility in the lobby to propound that a game in September counts more than a game in May, and there is no point in trying to convince them that 1 = 1. The only thing different about 1965 is that the casuistry was begun by the Yankees.

"It's a natural tendency," said Curt Simmons, who came to the big leagues 18 years ago, "that when a team goes bad the hitters talk about the pitchers, and the pitchers say the plays aren't getting made. What you ought to do is say to yourself, 'I'm a pitcher. That's the only thing I can do.' Then you might get something done." That night Simmons said something to himself on the mound after Brock missed a leaping catch near the fence in right, and Simmons was undone. Brock had saved two runs with a similar play in Milwaukee a few nights earlier, but the tendency toward constructive criticism is natural.

The importance of morale to professional athletes can be overrated simply because they're professional. "This club won't give up," Bill White said, "because this is all we do for a living. I have a little radio show, and some of the other guys have outside interests. But it isn't like New York, where you get paid for walking in some place and waving to the people. Baseball is a means to an end, and it's the only means we have."

The affluent Cards' fiscal indignation had been assuaged last winter when the management ultimately agreed to pay most of them in the manner to which they wanted to become accustomed. ("I guess Gussie gave Howsam the word," a player said.) And, contrary to popular opinion, they were not devastated by the loss of Johnny Keane, however pragmatic or principled his reasons for leaving. They like Schoendienst, who so far has practiced what he preaches: "You got to have a hard belly for this game."

The players sympathize with Schoendienst for the supersupervision he gets, or they think he gets, from upstairs. Red has no such complaint, but he has a hard enough belly to ingest one hard fact: "Every club in the league has improved itself; we haven't."

The Cards did not stand pat completely. They traded Roger Craig for Bob Purkey, which may or may not have been a good idea, and they got Tracy Stallard from the Mets. Between home-run balls Stallard has been helpful, despite his faint-praise damnation in the Cards' literature as "one of the better pitchers in the National League."

So they drew only two Cards, which can seem like a good idea if you filled an inside straight the last time around. Their design is the residue of luck, which isn't what Mr. Rickey said.


DOWNCAST Bob Gibson (consoled by Dick Groat, right) won eight, then lost six.