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Goold: Cardinals' history began with Cleveland's heartbreak

Goold: Cardinals' history began with Cleveland's heartbreak

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CLEVELAND • As if to add immolation to insult, the shaky-kneed National League scheduled the Cleveland Spiders’ 1899 opener at St. Louis against the newly christened, smartly garbed, but strangely familiar St. Louis Perfectos.

Just a year before many of them had been Spiders.

That included the opening day starter, a fellow by the name of Cy Young.

As Cleveland readies to host its first ever Game 1 of the World Series, newspapers will spill a lot of ink – pixels? – on the history at stake in this Fall Classic. Cleveland is out to win its first World Series since 1948, three years after the National League champion Chicago Cubs last visited the World Series. They last won in 1908. Nine years before that, the lineage of the modern-day Cardinals began in St. Louis on opening day with Cy Young on the mound – but only after that pitcher and the franchise had relocated from Cleveland.

Although in different leagues now and rarely an opponent – separated by more space in the standings than on the map – the baseball history between Cleveland and St. Louis is strong, intertwined. The Cardinals owe their genesis to Cleveland. Nap Lajoie may owe a batting title to St. Louis. From the day Bob Feller debuted to a recent trade that involved the Cardinals and netted Cleveland its Game 1 starter, Corey Kluber, these clubs are virtual cousins. At several seminal moments in Cleveland baseball history there was St. Louis.

Apart of it.

A party to it.

A prop for it.

Or, rubbing Cleveland’s nose in it.

It begins when Cleveland was forced to take St. Louis’ “misfits.” On April 15, 1899, at League Field (in St. Louis), Young delivered a six-hitter and win, arguably launching the franchise that is today’s St. Louis Cardinals. The win came against the Cleveland Spiders and the team came at the expense of Cleveland. Before the 1899 season, Spiders’ owner Frank DeHaas Robison purchased the St. Louis Browns, a moribund franchise. St. Louis was a few years away from hosting the World’s Fair, and baseball, professional baseball, was sprinkled around the city. From Terry Pluto’s memoir, Our Tribe:

"(Robison) liked St. Louis better than Cleveland; he’d had some beefs with local politicians (who had banned Sunday baseball) and the newspapers (for being critical). He also thought the St. Louis fans would be better behaved and more supportive of his team than the dirty-nailed, blue-collar, unsavory European immigrants who were the backbone of the Cleveland crowds. Robison didn’t exactly endear himself to the Cleveland fans when he hired scab to operate his streetcar company, which caused some unions to boycott his baseball team. His revenge was to load his St. Louis team with his best players and stick Cleveland with the leftovers."

The worst of the 1898 Browns were moved to Cleveland, including player/manager Joe Quinn, and the best of the 1898 Spiders came to St. Louis to put on the new Perfectos jerseys with the bright scarlet accents that would later earn the team its nickname, the Cardinals. Three Hall of Famers came to St. Louis as a result of Robison’s franchise swap. Young* had won 25 games in 1898 for Cleveland, and he had played the entirety of his major-league career for that organization. When he left Cleveland for St. Louis, he was 241-135 all-time with a 3.10 ERA and 346 complete games in 369 games started. In his final season with the Spiders, he’d go 25-13 with 46 starts and 40 complete games. He’d go 26-16 with a .258 ERA and a league-high 40 complete games in the first of his two seasons with the St. Louis Nationals.

* You could make the case that Young threw the first pitch in modern Cardinals history. I have.

And he wasn’t even the best. Infielder Bobby Wallace, a future Hall of Famer, also came along to St. Louis after leading the Spiders with 13 triples in their final year in Cleveland. And outfielder Jesse Burkett, the third Hall of Famer, starred in St. Louis.

He hit .341/.415/.399 in 1898 in Cleveland.

He hit .396/.463/.500 in 1899 for St. Louis.

With several of their former teammates staring at them from a new dugout, a new home, and in their shiny new uniforms, the Spiders lost, 10-1, on opening day. They would lose both games of the series in St. Louis, lose four straight to start the season, and finish the year on a 16-game losing streak. As if a 20-134 record wasn’t bad enough, various articles describe how the Spiders of 1899 weren’t paid consistently. Ownership promised the players paychecks when they would return for home games in Cleveland – and then kept cancelling the home games in Cleveland. The Spiders finished the season, but the Spiders were finished after the season.

The franchise folded at the turn of the century.

In 1900, the Perfectos adopted the name Cardinals, and voila.

NAP

But baseball wasn’t done connecting St. Louis and Cleveland. In 1901, Cleveland became an American League city, and it was during a season-ending series nine years later in St. Louis that the Cleveland Naps’ star – he was so good the team was named for him – had a crack at the American League batting title. At the start of the year, automobile manufacturer Hugh Chalmers, of Detroit, said he would award a car to the player with the highest batting average in the game. Heading into the final games of the season, perennial batting champ and Detroit’s own Ty Cobb had a lead on Cleveland’s Nap Lajoie, .383 to .376. Cobb irked his peers by claiming to be ill and leaving the Detroit club, his average frozen so that he didn’t cost himself a car with a couple oh-fers to end the year.

Lajoie had a doubleheader at St. Louis to end the season, and he would finish the day eight-for-eight to overtake Cobb. The details were devilish.

Lajoie tripled in his first at-bat and then dropped bunt after bunt after bunt before finally legging out a single on an overthrow that might have been an error. The Browns, who shared baseball’s dislike of Cobb, were giving Lajoie hits down the third base line by positioning the third baseman roughly on Grand Blvd. The Cleveland Plain Dealer cited newspapers from St. Louis when it revealed the Browns’ conspiracy, writing in a subhead: “St. Louis Papers Say Browns Made it Easy for Nap Slugger.”

From the St. Louis Globe-Democrat’s baseball writer:

“Every time Lajoie stepped up to the plate, (the third baseman) walked out to the very edge of the grass almost. The Browns’ third sacker was virtually playing a short left field for Larry (Lajoie’s name). This always resulted in the same old thing happening, that Lajoie bunting down the third base line, (Red) Corridon rushing in to field the ball and then not throwing because a throw to first would have been useless.”

After his eight-for-eight finish, Lajoie had the lead according to all of the newspapers’ calculations at the time, either .385 to .382 or .3824 to .3817. American League president Ban Johnson was not thrilled by the Browns’ premeditated compliance and awarded the batting title to Cobb. A sportswriter even changed his ruling on a hit for Cobb much earlier in the season to support the claim. Didn’t matter. Both players got a car. Even decades later, the number of hits that season were in dispute. The batting title remains unresolved.

“The talk about my not earning those eight hits in St. Louis, thought, makes me tired,” Lajoie said at the time. “We got down to those six bunts that I beat out. Suppose Corridon did play fairly well back. If he had played in for a bunt and I had swung hard on the ball, I suppose the youngster would have been roasted to a turn because he did not play deep.”

RAPID ROBERT

In 1936, the baseball history of the two cities would again wrap around each other, with one of the greatest pitchers of the time meeting the greatest pitcher about to arrive.

The Cardinals were in Cleveland for an exhibition game, and Cleveland wanted a chance to see how its new 17-year-old righthander fared against big-league hitters. Growing up in Iowa, Bob Feller had been a Cardinals fan – and here he was about to pitch against the Gas House Gang, two years removed a World Series championship. Feller threw three innings and only fastballs, according to reports.

He struck out eight Cardinals.

Again from Cleveland columnist Pluto’s memoir: “After the game, All-Star Dizzy Dean was asked to pose with Feller for photographs. Dean said, ‘Ask this kid if he’ll pose with me!’” Dean entered the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1953. Nine years later, Feller followed.

LOU

At 24, standout shortstop Lou Boudreau made his case to be the manager of the Cleveland club. He and his teammates had gone through a variety of managers, had one revolt and several firings, and the young infielder thought he could be a leader of men, so why not? He wrote letter to make his case, and was awarded the job. At least the least the kid manager would be a spectacle that might sell a few tickets.

Like Chicago and St. Louis, Cleveland shares in the baseball history of the Veeck Family, and it was Bill Veeck who purchased Cleveland’s American League franchise during the 1946 season. In 1947, Veeck’s first full year as owner, Boudreau led the majors with 45 doubles, batting .307 and had a .811 OPS – at shortstop. He was an All-Star and he’d finish third in the MVP voting that summer. With him at shortstop and at the helm, Cleveland went 80-74, good enough for fourth in the AL.

Veeck adored his shortstop.

He was less enamored with his manager.

Boudreau said he had to be both – or neither.

So Veeck orchestrated a trade. Enter St. Louis, yet again. The lowly Browns, fresh off a 59-95 season at the bottom of the league, were eager to make a deal for Boudreau, sending shortstop Vern Stephens to Cleveland in exchange. Stephens would be the shortstop without having to be the manager. Boudreau would be a Brown. Win-win, Veeck thought. Not so. Fans revolted. A Cleveland paper ran a front-page ballot asking the city whether Boudreau should be traded or kept as manager at shortstop. The votes, according to SABR research, ran 10-to-1 to keep Boudreau. Veeck, who reveled in the headlines the trade had created, relented.

Again, at least Boudreau sold tickets.

Several indications from the time suggest that it was St. Louis that nixed the deal more than the fan vote. The Browns couldn’t come up with the money that the Browns needed. While Broudeau was more appealing, the Browns needed the cash and on Nov. 17, 1947 dealt Stephens to Boston for a package of players that included Roy Partee and, of course, $310,000. Veeck spun it his way in Cleveland and announced, going into the next season, that Boudreau would remain the manager and the shortstop. And what a season.

Boudreau would win the AL MVP award with a .355 average and a .534 slugging percentage to go with 106 RBIs and 116 runs. (Stephens led the AL in grounding into double plays, with 25.) Lou, that kid manager, skippered Cleveland to a 97-58 record and the pennant.

They won the 1948 World Series in six games.

That was the last World Series Cleveland won.

Mostly because of a trade with St. Louis that didn’t happen.

-30-

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