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Nonfiction

Review: '64 Cardinals' touches all thrilling bases of comeback, Series victory

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McCarver, Gibson, and Boyer

Winning pitcher Bob Gibson is embraced by third baseman Ken Boyer with catcher Tim McCarver after the Cardinals won Game 7 of the 1964 World Series at Busch Stadium I, securing the team's first championship in 18 years.

The years 1947 through 1963 were dark, frustrating times for fans of the St. Louis Cardinals. This was before playoff baseball, when the only way to play in the World Series was to finish first in the National or the American League. After the Cardinals won the 1946 World Series, the team finished second five times, but no better, for 17 seasons.

I didn’t give a hoot. As a teenager in the early 1950s, my team, inexplicably, was the woebegone St. Louis Browns. When the Browns were spirited away to Baltimore in 1954 and became the Orioles, it was impossible to switch allegiance to the Cardinals, who were still the Bad Guys. All around me were Cardinals diehards, suffering through the team’s many failures.

''64 Cardinals'

“’64 Cardinals: A Team, a Season, and a Showdown for the Ages’

By Robert L. Tiemann with Ron Jacober

Published by Reedy Press, 154 pages, $39.95

By 1964, Stan Musial, the sui generis of the franchise, had retired, but general manager Bing Devine assembled a formidable team, a vibrant mix of seasoned and burgeoning players. The cherry on top was Bob Gibson, a 28-year-old pitcher destined for the Hall of Fame.

By August, however, it was the Same Old Cardinals. Gibson was no longer unstoppable; Johnny Keane, the manager, was on the outs with his star shortstop, Dick Groat; and Gussie Busch, the beer tycoon whose Anheuser-Busch had bought the team in 1953, was shopping for mass changes. On Aug. 12, Devine got a call from one of Busch’s advisers, reminding him that he had a meeting with the boss the next day.

“You know what’s going to happen?” the caller said.

“No, what?” Devine said.

“You’re going to get fired,” the caller said.

With Devine on the sidelines, and with Keane constantly looking over his shoulder as Busch considered Leo Durocher and others as his replacement, the Cardinals started winning. And the teams ahead of them — the Philadelphia Phillies, the Cincinnati Reds and the San Francisco Giants — collapsed.

World Series 1964

Cardinals catcher Tim McCarver scores on a double steal in the third inning of the final World Series game Oct. 15, 1964, in St. Louis. 

On the final day of the season, with Harry Caray broadcasting from a corner of Busch’s field-level box seats, came the confirmation: “The Cardinals win the pennant! The Cardinals win the pennant! The players are coming off the field and headed our way. The crowd is all over the place! I don’t know if they’ll ever get here.”

Besides ending the 17-year drought, the Cardinals defeated the vaunted New York Yankees, four games to three, in the World Series.

All of these memories come rushing back in “’64 Cardinals: A Team, a Season, and a Showdown for the Ages,” a book written by Robert L. Tiemann and Ron Jacober. (Full disclosure: Jacober and I were college classmates, an eon ago.)

The crisp narrative by the authors shares top billing with hundreds of photos from that roller-coaster summer. David Halberstam might have said it better, with his analytic “October 1964” in 1994, but for sheer intimacy, “’64 Cardinals” touches all the bases.

I identify with every word. As a young reporter for the Metro-East Journal in East St. Louis, I covered that World Series. I still have a tattered photo of me interviewing pitcher Mel Stottlemyre of the Yankees after his victory in the second game.

It was Gibson, however, who was the hero in the deciding game. Overworked, the Cardinal ace went into the last inning with a four-run lead and won by two. He was voted most valuable player, but, as the authors point out, honors could just as easily have gone to catcher Tim McCarver, who batted .478 with a crucial home run in the pivotal fifth game.

World Series Yankees Cardinals

Tim McCarver (right) is greeted by Cardinals teammates Dick Groat, Bill White and Mike Shannon after his three-run homer in the 10th inning of Game 5 in the 1964 World Series at Yankee Stadium.

The book is at its best in the final pages, when it goes inside the turmoil that followed the Series. At a team party at Stan Musial’s restaurant the night of the seventh game, first baseman Bill White bluntly reminded Bob Howsam, Devine’s successor, that “we won this title for Bing Devine.” The next day the Yankees fired their manager, Yogi Berra, and Keane, reminding Busch how insecure he had been all season, took the job in New York. “The sudden October success could not erase the rancor of the summer,” the authors write.

There are a few quibbles: A large team photo of the Cardinals lacks player IDs; and in an illuminating appendix, there’s an inscrutable two-page graph that fails to delineate the daily progression of the pennant race. But “’64 Cardinals” saves the day on the next page, with reproductions of the trading cards of 20 of the players. Included is Bob Uecker, second string behind McCarver and team jester. Uecker rode the bench in the Series and was docked $250 for denting a tuba — yes, a tuba — when he tried to catch fly balls during practice. On the card, the mischievous Uecker is shown as a lefthanded batter. Like hell he was.

Bill Christine, who wrote “Roberto!,” a biography of Baseball Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente, shared in a Pulitzer Prize when he was at the Los Angeles Times and is now working with Upton Bell on “Jocks, Journalists, Jesters and Frauds,” a collection of sports humor.

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