So you're in the market for a baseball team, and you have a certain set of qualifications that never, ever waver: You want to have a team that wins a lot, but without raiding the whole of the league for the best players. You also want them to be tough and scrappy because you relate to that image and respect the exciting brand of small baseball. You want them to have a farm system with a lot of depth. You want them to be an original team - have a long, storied tradition with many great players and lots of historical highs and lows. You want the players to be relatable guys and not corporate drones, but who still have talent to the rafters, fun characters, and are even willing to accept the occasional asshole player. You want the fans to be loud and devoted but not completely arrogant, and the city the team represents to be a part of the gritty, hard, scrappy America instead of a glamor center.
Is that possible? Yes it is. Aspiring baseball fan, have I got the team for you!
The Cardinals are a smaller-city operation based in St. Louis, a blue-collar city which is only just beginning to solve its longstanding problems with a bad industry-based economy and a leaky population. They were founded in 1882 and joined what is now the National League in 1892. They were once run by Branch Rickey, who created the massive farm systems used by baseball teams today. You want talent and characters, ballplayers don't get much more talented and outrageous than Dizzy Dean, Bob Gibson, Ozzie Smith, Whitey Herzog, and Stan Musial. (Although being a Cardinals fan also involves accepting the fact that your team had Rogers Hornsby. Ty Cobb gets a lot of credit for his vicious personality, but his own brand of racism wasn't any different than any other Georgia native's of his time. Hornsby, on the other hand, was part of the fucking Ku Klux Klan.)
Cardinals fans are famously nice and devoted. I like to believe this is because they know how special their team is, and realize how lucky they are to have been blessed with them.
The Cardinals, for an operation based where they are and not having the necessary monetary resources to compete with Boston or New York, have done everything in their power to destroy the idea that winning baseball is about deep pockets. When Branch Rickey joined the team in 1920, he sold the team's ballpark and used the money to pioneer the minor league farm system that every MLB team uses today. It paid off big, and in 1926 the Cardinals won the first of their current 18 Pennants, then defeated the New York Yankees in seven games to win the first of their current 10 World Series titles. (As I write this, the Cardinals are in the World Series again.) The 1926 title was eventually joined by titles in 1931, 1934, 1942, 1944, 1946, 1964, 1967, 1982, and 2006. That's ten titles, the most in the National League and second in Major League Baseball only to my New York Yankees.
The most famous and beloved of those World Series-winning teams is probably the famed Gashouse Gang team of 1934, a band of oddballs from working class backgrounds whose circus antics helped put the Great Depression out of peoples' minds. Dizzy Dean became the last National League pitcher to win 30 games in a single season that year, his brother Paul added 19, and the team featured five regular players who hit at least .300. They included famed baseball names like Leo Durocher, Burgess Whitehead, Joe Medwick, and Pepper Martin.
Later teams brought the Cardinals Lou Brock, one of the great base-stealers of all time; Bob Gibson, the intense, fiery pitcher who scared opponents and pitched the team to titles in 1964 and 1967; and backflipping Ozzie Smith, the Wizard of Oz, and his surehand glove at shortstop for the 1982 title. Currently, the team is led by strategic great Tony La Russa, one of the league's best catchers in Yadier Molina, and first baseman Albert Pujols.
In short, the Cardinals have done everything right and wrong in baseball that can possibly be done right or wrong. They had one of the great announcers, Jack Buch, whose life was tragically cut short by Parkinson's Disease in 2002. They play a large, essential role in Boston's Curse of the Bambino: They stopped the Boston Red Sox from ending the Curse earlier by defeating them in the World Series in 1946 and 1967, taking them to a seventh game both times. In 2004 they went to the World Series again, facing the Red Sox, and being favored by merit of greater depth, more talent, and a league-leading 105 wins during the regular season. Well, the Red Sox broke the Curse that year, completely flattening the St. Louis Cardinals in four games. Really, though, the Cardinals perhaps shouldn't have been favored as they were; after what the Red Sox accomplished, it was pretty clear to everyone watching that nothing was gonna stop them that year. The Cardinals were simply in the way, and they got mowed down.
The Cardinals share a fantastic territorial rivalry with the Chicago Cubs, one of the oldest in baseball. It's one of the few baseball rivalries people contend are better than the ongoing nuclear war between the Red Sox and the New York Yankees. Baseball writer Will Leitch - a lifelong devotee of the St. Louis Cardinals himself - describes it as a generations-old territorial fight spanning large tracts of adjacent land in the midwestern United States. This rivalry was cranked up to eleven in one of the most famous trades in baseball history: In 1964, the Chicago Cubs had an outfielder named Lou Brock for a couple of years, and I guess they didn't think he would ever be any good or they were otherwise just tired of waiting for his talent to blossom. The St. Louis Cardinals had a pitcher named Ernie Broglio who was a proven 20-game winner and, the season before the swap, had won 18 games. They traded, and Broglio went on to win just seven more games in Major League Baseball while Brock retired with over 3,000 hits, the then-record in stolen bases, six all-star appearances, and two World Series rings. This trade still gets a lot of heat in Chicago on the end of Cubs fans, but at the time the trade looked like a real steal for Chicago. In fact, it originally pissed off Cardinals fans no end, while Cubs fans were happy about finally having a pitching rotation as good as any in the league.
In 1964 (wow, that was a pretty extraordinary year for the Cardinals, huh?) the Cardinals were involved in another classic baseball event: The famous "Phold." That year, most teams in the National League - including the Cardinals - were under the impression they would be competing for second place. First place was taken all season by the Philadelphia Phillies. With twelve games left in the season, the Phillies had a six-game lead on the second-place Cardinals. As they only needed one more win to clinch the Pennant, everything was assumed said and done for the year. Which meant it was the worst possible time for the Phillies to go on a ten-game losing streak. Although the Phillies regrouped enough to win their two final games, it was too late. The Cardinals had leapfrogged Philadelphia and taken the Pennant which should have been Philly's. (Forgotten amidst the drama is that the Cincinnati Reds also pulled ahead of the Phillies and won second. That's right - the Phillies actually dropped back two spots after being one win away from a Pennant.)
A factoid people frequently forget about the Cardinals is that they once played a crosstown World Series. It was 1944 and Major League Baseball was facing depleted rosters because of World War II. The St. Louis Browns - who were the Mets to the Cards' Yankees, the Angels to their Dodgers, the Boston Braves to the Boston Red Sox - managed to take advantage of the lack of talent and won their only Pennant. That's how pathetic the Browns were - they could only win when other teams didn't have any talent. But they faced the Cardinals in the World Series and lost. Don't feel too bad for the Brownies, though - they eventually moved to Baltimore, where they became the Orioles and created a brand new identity littered with a respectable number of Pennants and titles. And in 1985, the Cardinals lost an all-Missouri World Series to the AL team at the other end of the I-70, the Kansas City Royals.
The only thing I dislike about the Cardinals - besides Rogers Hornby - is that they're one of those teams that insists on simply plastering their home logo over an ugly gray shirt and calling it a road uniform. Otherwise, if you're shopping for a cool baseball team, the St. Louis Cardinals are one of the true beacons of light in Major League Baseball. To get an idea of how tall they stand, you should be reminded that one of the big steroid names - Mark McGuire - played for them during the great home run chase of 1998. He hemmed and hawed about steroids during the Congressional hearings. Yet, people have stopped identifying him as a Cardinal.