All around the diamond African-American players have brought glory to the St. Louis Cardinals. To honor Black History Month, who was the best of the best?
For the St. Louis Cardinals and their fans, Black History Month is a fitting time to reflect on the legacies of the club’s finest African-American ballplayers, particularly those, like Curt Flood and Bob Gibson, who endured racial discrimination in the minors and initial pushback in the majors.
The Cardinals signed their first black ballplayer, first baseman Tom Alston, in 1954, seven long years after Jackie Robinson had debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Yet a decade after Alston’s arrival, four standout African-American players — Flood, Gibson, Bill White, and Lou Brock — propelled the team to the 1964 World Championship, the team’s first since 1946.
The Cardinals have placed 18 African-American players on All-Star teams, beginning with Bill White in 1959, but none since Ray Lankford and Royce Clayton in 1997 (multiple Central American players have been selected since then, including Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina).
The number of Black, non-Latino players has been in decline throughout baseball, which makes it all the more urgent that we honor the still-living African-American ex-Cardinals — particularly White, 86; Gibson, 84; and Brock, 80 — who did so much for this franchise, as well as the late, crusading Flood.
From position one (pitcher) to position nine (right field), here are the best and boldest African-American Redbirds:
Pitcher: Bob Gibson (1959-75)
No African-American hurler can match Gibson’s 251 career wins, and no pitcher of any race has approached his 1968 ERA of 1.12, but it wasn’t easy getting started. Both Gibson and his long-time roommate, Flood, would claim that Solly Hemus, the Cards manager from 1959 through July of 1961, had no use for them. “(Hemus) told me, like he told Curt Flood, that I would never make it in the majors,” Gibson wrote in Stranger To The Game: The Autobiography of Bob Gibson (1994). “I made the team in 1959, but Hemus had me convinced that I wasn’t any damn good and, consequently, I wasn’t.”
Flood said that Gibby “could throw as hard as any man alive,” but Hemus “never used him if someone else was available.” Fortunately for Gibson, Flood, and the St. Louis franchise, Hemus gave way to Johnny Keane, who was “the closest thing to a saint that I ever came across in baseball,” Gibson said. Flood agreed. “Keane didn’t give a damn about color. He said ‘You’re my best nine men.’ What a powerful, supportive feeling that was!”
The Cardinals have never suited an everyday African-American catcher, although they might have signed Elston Howard if not for Fred Saigh, the team’s owner from 1947 to ’53. A St. Louis native (Vashon High), Howard performed well at a tryout camp at St. Louis’ Sportsman’s Park, but Bing Devine, later the Cardinals general manager, said that Saigh refused to sign black players.
Howard instead signed with the New York Yankees and had a stellar 14-year career (he was the 1963 AL MVP) despite being stuck behind Yogi Berra, another St. Louisan, for the first half of his career.
First Base: Bill White (1959-65)
White became the Cardinals’ first African-American All-Star in 1959, one of many firsts for the seven-time Gold Glover, acquired from the San Francisco Giants in March of ’59. The trade proved a godsend for White, who’d been stuck behind two future Hall of Fame first basemen, Willie McCovey and Orlando Cepeda, in San Francisco.
White hit .298 with 140 homers and five All-Star appearances in eight years with St. Louis but is best remembered for being the major league’s first black play-by-play broadcaster, calling Yankees games with Phil Rizzuto from 1971 to 1988, and becoming the first African-American president of a major sports league, holding the National League’s top position from 1989 to 1994.
Second Base: Delino DeShields (1997-98)
The Cardinals have fielded three white Hall of Famers (Rogers Hornsby, Frankie Frisch, Red Schoendienst) at this position, as well as some fine Latin American (Julian Javier, Jose Oquendo), but African-American second baseman have been scarce.
Although he spent just two years with the Cardinals, DeShields may have had his finest season in 1997 when he hit .295 with a league-leading 14 triples, a career-high 92 runs scored, and an .804 OPS. He had another fine season in ’98, batting .290 with a .799 OPS, before leaving via free agency.
Third Base: Terry Pendleton (1984-90)
A two-time Gold Glover but just a .259 hitter (.664 OPS) in seven years with St. Louis, Pendleton enjoyed two years of stardom with the Braves, winning MVP in 1991 and finishing runner-up in ’92. Pendleton led the NL in hits (187), total bases (303) and batting average (.319) with an .880 OPS his first year in Atlanta, then paced the league again with 199 hits to go with a .311 average, 105 RBI, and his third Gold Glove in ’92.
While his Braves seasons stand out, Pendleton was a durable defensive marvel for the Redbirds, leading NL third basemen in range factor from 1986 to ’89 and games played at third in ’86, ’87 and ’89.
Shortstop: Ozzie Smith (1982-96)
Smith was born in Mobile, Alabama, the childhood home of four Hall of Famers — Satchel Paige, Hank Aaron, Willie McCovey, and Billy Williams — but his family moved to Los Angeles when he was just six. The six-player 1981 trade that sent him from San Diego to St. Louis was initially considered a steal — for the Padres.
Templeton, the main player sent west, was a .305-career hitter with a .743 OPS and two-time All-Star appearances while Smith had hit just .231 with a .573 OPS in four San Diego Seasons. Plus the Padres were getting Sixto Lezcano, a 28-year-old outfielder who’d drive in 84 runs with an .860 OPS in 1982.
Of course, nobody played shortstop as well as the Wizard of Oz. Smith could and maybe should have won MVP in 1987, the year he hit .303 with 40 doubles and 104 runs scored for the NL’s best team. Instead, the award went to Andre Dawson (4.0 WAR) of the last-place Cubs.
Left field: Lou Brock (1964-79)
A 2014 story by Steve Bogira of chicagoreader.com suggests that racism played a role in the 1964 trade that sent Brock to the Cardinals for pitcher Ernie Broglio. The Cubs had five black players at the time, and when coach and former Negro Leagues star Buck O’Neil objected to the trading of Brock, general manager John Holland said that many fans had written letters complaining about the team’s racial makeup.
“What are you trying to make the Chicago Cubs into? The Kansas City Monarchs?” Holland said, paraphrasing a letter he’d received that compared the Cubbies to the Negro League dynasty that O’Neil had played for.
The Brock-for-Broglio deal is another example of why scribes and bloggers should wait to grade a trade. “None of us liked the deal,” Bill White said, quoted in Peter Goldenbock’s The Spirit of St. Louis: A History of the St. Louis Cardinals and Browns. “Lou had a lot of talent, but he didn’t know anything about baseball … But somehow, when he came to us, he turned everything around.”
Centerfield: Curt Flood (1958-60); Willie McGee (1982-90, 1996-99); Ray Lankford (1990-2001, 2004)
Sure, it’s cheating sticking three center fielders here, but who would you omit? Flood was a groundbreaker with a higher career WAR than Brock; the beloved McGee was one of two African American Redbirds (Gibson was the other) to win league MVPs, and the underrated Lankford generated an .846 OPS over 13 St. Louis seasons.
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All three of these players, incidentally, came from northern California: Flood, born in Houston, grew up in Oakland and attended McClymonds High, the alma mater of Hall of Famers Frank Robinson and Ernie Lombardi, plus Vada Pinson; McGee was born in San Francisco and went to high school in Richmond, located 12 miles north of Oakland; and Lankford matured in Modesto, located 81 miles east of Oakland.
Flood was named co-captain of the Cardinals, along with Tim McCarver, in 1965. Bob Sykes, the pitcher traded to the Yankees for McGee in 1981, never pitched in the majors after the deal, yet cherished his connection to the Cardinals No. 51. “Personally, and I mean this from the bottom of my heart,” he said, “it will be an honor for the rest of my life to be known in baseball as the player traded for Willie McGee.”
Right field: George Hendrick (1978-84)
Reggie Smith would hold this spot if the Cardinals had signed him to an extension in 1976. Instead, worried he’d opt for free agency, the club traded him to the Dodgers in a woefully one-sided deal for catcher-outfielder Joe Ferguson and two warm bodies. Hendrick has the slightest of offensive edges over Brian Jordan; both played seven years in St. Louis with nearly identical OPS numbers — .815 for Hendrick, .813 for Jordan.
The latter was the better fielder, but Hendrick’s numbers stood out in a lower-scoring era, plus “Silent George” helped the Birds win it all in 1982, hitting a team-high 19 homers with a team-high 104 RBI. Like Ozzie Smith, Hendrick grew up in the Watts area of Los Angeles.
Left fielder Vince Coleman (1985-90), a two-time All-Star, led the NL in steals in each of his six Cardinals seasons, averaging 91.5 per season. Hall of Fame reliever Lee Smith (1990-93) led the NL in saves in ’90 and ’91 and finished second and fourth in Cy Young voting those years. Right fielder Brian Jordan (1992-98) hit .291 over seven St. Louis seasons, peaking with a .316 average and a .902 OPS in ’98.
Starting pitcher Lynn McGlothlen (74-76) was the Redbirds’ winningest hurler over his three years, going 44-40 with a 3.49 ERA and earning All-Star honors in ’74. Center fielder Bake McBride (1973-77) won the NL’s Rookie of the Year in ’74 and hit .335 and made the All-Star team in ’76.
Left fielder Lonnie Smith (1982-85) was the Cardinals best player during the championship season of 1982, batting .307 with an .815 OPS, stealing 68 bases, scoring a league-high 120 runs, and finishing runner-up to the Braves Dale Murphy in MVP voting. Starter-reliever Brooks Lawrence (1954-55) was the Cards’ first successful African-American player, posting a 15-6 record with a 3.74 ERA as a 29-year-old rookie in 1954.
In all, the Cardinals have had some amazing African-American players in their history and for a lot of them, they don’t get all the respect they deserve. Hopefully, this list helped you remember some names you may have forgotten or taught you some new names that you can learn and respect from the history of your favorite team.