It’s been four decades since “Whiteyball” first gripped St. Louis, then all of baseball.
Whitey Herzog transformed the Cardinals from sometimes stagnant, also-rans of the 1970s into energetic dynamos in the ‘80s that surged into three World Series, winning in 1982 and going to Game 7s two other times before losing. That special era in St. Louis sports is the subject of a documentary on MLB Network, “Birds of a Different Game: The ‘80s Cardinals.” Its debut was at 7 p.m. Tuesday, but it will be shown again several times through Sunday.
Those teams melded speed, defense and pitching into prosperity, a vast difference from today’s swing-for-the-fences, analytics-driven approach.
“Every time I talk to somebody today who saw the style of baseball that we played, they really miss it,” Andy Van Slyke, a key cog for much of that run, says in the program, which is narrated by actor John Goodman, a native St. Louisan.
“They were fun to watch, a blast to root for and totally, completely original,” Goodman says in setting the stage. “. . . . The St. Louis Cardinals made baseball look a little different — and drove the rest of the game crazy trying to keep up with them. Because another look all these years later proves they were just as much of a thrill as you might remember.”
The documentary intersperses many highlights from those days with interviews conducted both then and recently.
Among the Cardinals expressing their thoughts are Ozzie Smith, Keith Hernandez, Tommy Herr, Ken Oberkfell, Terry Pendleton and John Tudor, plus Herzog and Van Slyke. Several journalists who covered those clubs, including Bob Costas, Rick Hummel and Al Michaels, provide insight. So does actor and native St. Louisan Jon Hamm — a huge fan of the local sports teams.
Early in the piece Herzog recounts the situation the Cardinals faced when he was hired as their manager by owner Gussie Busch in the summer of 1980, after being fired following a big run in Kansas City.
“I watched them play for two weeks and I went to Gussie and I point-blank said, ‘You’ve got overpaid prima donnas that are never going to win,” Herzog says. “Well he said, ‘What do you want to do about it?’ I said, ‘I want to tear it apart. I want to get speed, I want to change the philosophy.’ His answer was, ‘Do it.’”
So Herzog became the team’s general manager and rocked the 1980 winter meetings by remaking the team via blockbuster trades, including picking up now-Hall of Fame closers Bruce Sutter and Rollie Fingers (who was traded four days later) and outfielder David Green, and dealing catcher Ted Simmons (who goes into the Hall of Fame this year) and the next two American League Cy Young Award winners (Fingers and starter Pete Vuckovich). He also signed free-agent catcher Darrell Porter.
Herzog addressed the matter in a vintage clip from those meetings.
“If I can do one or two more things by the time I leave here I think the general manager has done his job and if the manager don’t screw it up, we’ll be all right,” he says.
That set the stage for perhaps the cornerstone deal of the Herzog era, the swap of shortstops as the Cards sent Garry Templeton to San Diego for Ozzie Smith.
Herzog recalls hearing from Padres manager Dick Williams.
“He said, ‘Are you still interested — Templeton for Ozzie Smith? I about fell off the seat.”
“I came here and my life changed,” Smith recalls.
So did the fortunes of the Cardinals.
“That was kind of the glue that put the club together,” Herzog recalls.
Then he says of winning the 1982 World Series: “It was like I finally had peace of mind.”
The team evolved as the decade progressed, with the trade of Keith Hernandez, the arrival of Jack Clark and Vince Coleman.
Included in the film are the 1985 NLCS “go crazy” home run by Smith, then the Clark homer that sent the Cards to the World Series. Third baseman Pendleton says that just after Clark hit the ball he looked into the Cardinals’ dugout and yelled “’That’s a big fly, (bleeps)!’ That was Jack Clark. That was him.”
The Don Denkinger call that contributed to the Cards losing to Kansas City in the ensuing World Series is highlighted, with the bad call at first base by the umpire helping the Royals rally to win Game 6. Then the Cards were flat in Game 7 and blown out.
The Post-Dispatch’s Hummel recalls a meeting he and a few other writers had with Herzog leading into the decisive game.
“Boys, I don’t think we’ve got a chance here,” he recalls Herzog saying. “He was right.”
The Cards were back in the Series two years later, but couldn’t win in Minnesota.
“No one knew it then but just like that, the Whiteyball era had essentially ended,” Goodman says. “... The magic of those special runs was gone. Still, the ‘80s Cardinals had for the better part of a decade played the game in a way no one had ever really seen before, or since.”
Adds Costas: “The '80s Cardinals reignited baseball in St. Louis. It was always a very, very good baseball town. It became an over-the-top baseball town and stayed there.”