Red Schoendienst, RIP

Red Schoendienst died last week at age 95. A member of baseball’s Hall of Fame, Schoendienst was associated with the St. Louis Cardinals during six decades as a player, manager, and/or coach, and two more as a member of the front office.

Schoendienst overcame a serious eye injury suffered as a teenager to hit over .300 in eight seasons and play in nine all-star games (his 14th inning home run won the 1950 contest). He also played in three World Series. The last two were with the Milwaukee Braves, for whom I first saw him play.

Red’s veteran leadership helped put the Braves over the top in 1957 and 1958. Hank Aaron said of the acquisition of Schoendienst:

It made us all feel like Superman. We knew he was going to mean so much to our ballclub that wouldn’t show up in the box score. . .[H]e definitely became the leader of that ballclub.

The absence of Milwaukee’s leader for most of the 1959 season due to tuberculosis undoubtedly prevented the Braves from repeating in 1959, a season in which they tied the Los Angeles Dodgers in the regular season and then lost in a three-game playoff. To speed his recovery, Schoendienst had surgery to remove part of his lung. However, he was only able to play in five games.

Schoendienst finished his playing career back with the Cardinals in the early 1960s. In his last full season, 1962, he batted .301 playing part time at the age of 39.

Schoendienst was a player-coach that year and a full time coach on the 1964 World Champion Cardinals. When Johnny Keane abruptly quit after the World Series, Red took over as manager.

Schoendienst inherited an aging team and it showed in 1965, when the Cards finished in seventh place. By 1966, the Cards were rebuilding (and finishing sixth).

The rebuild went quickly. In 1967, the Cardinals were a powerhouse thanks to the emergence of four young starting pitchers (Steve Carlton, Nelson Briles, Larry Jaster, and Dick Hughes) and the shrewd acquisition of Orlando Cepeda and Roger Maris. Schoendienst guided this team to World Series victory in 1967 and to the pennant the following year.

Schoendienst was a conventional manager of the era. He played it by the book.

Schoendienst expected his starting pitchers to go nine innings or as close to it as possible. He expected his regular stars to play 162 games or as close to it as possible. In 1968, Bob Gibson completed 28 of his 34 starts. Cepeda (on a bad knee), Lou Brock, and Mike Shannon played 157, 156, and 159 games respectively.

With a team like the 67-68 Cardinals, Red could afford to be something of a push-button manager. He wrote out the same lineup card every day against right-handed pitchers. Maris, when healthy, always batted third despite being only the fifth best hitter on the 1967 team and probably fourth best the following year.

This may have raised eyebrows even at the time, and certainly would today. However, Red was a little ahead of his time in that he alternated lefty and righty hitters through the first six slots:

Brock
Flood
Maris
Cepeda
McCarver
Shannon

And Schoendienst’s Cardinals won 198 games during this two-season stretch.

The Cardinals slipped in 1969 and then went into decline. A less popular manager might not have survived until the end of 1976, as Red did.

Schoendienst moved on to Oakland as a coach. After volatile owner Charlie Finley fired the two managers Schoendienst worked for — Jack McKeon and Bobby Winkles — he offered Red the job. Red declined, wisely I think, and returned to the Cardinals as a coach.

When Ken Boyer, his old teammate, was fired in 1980, Schoendienst took the job on an interim basis while Whitey Herzog, the manager in waiting, observed the team. Red then became Whitey’s right-hand man, coaching on three pennant winners and a world champion.

When Herzog was let go during the 1990 season, Red did one last tour of duty as an interim manager. He had already won more than 1,000 games as a manager. His 1990 output brought the total to 1,041 (with 955 loses).

Schoendienst stayed on with the Cards as a coach for Joe Torre. And he remained involved during the super-successful Tony LaRussa era. His title was Special Assistant to the General Manager.

Red appeared in uniform for most home games and still hit fungoes to the St. Louis infielders even as he approached the age of 90. He continued to wear his old number 2, even though the Cardinals had retired it. A sign in the clubhouse said: “His number’s retired. He’s not.”

Stan Musial said of his fellow Cardinal legend and Hall of Famer:

A lot of guys had the privilege of playing with or for Red over the years, and I’m proud I was one of them. He is one of the kindest, most decent men I’ve ever known in my life. Even more important than having been his teammate or roommate, however, is having been his friend for so many years. They don’t come any better.

That’s why there’s a statue of Red Schoendienst outside of Busch Stadium.

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