What ever happened to the 1970s St. Louis Cardinals?

ST. LOUIS - 1970. Joe Torre of the Cardinals heads for first after taking a walk during a 1970 National League game at St. Louis. (Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images)
ST. LOUIS - 1970. Joe Torre of the Cardinals heads for first after taking a walk during a 1970 National League game at St. Louis. (Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images) /

A half-century ago, the St. Louis Cardinals had a really bad year. Then the whole decade went sour. What happened in the 1970s?

Fifty years ago, the St. Louis Cardinals fielded a team with five future Hall of Famers, a near Hall-of-Famer in Dick Allen, and a future fWAR that ranked 20th in baseball history. Yet they underachieved their way to a 76-86 record, the team’s worst in 12 years.

How did that happen? And how did that season presage a doomed decade?

Cardinals fans with a sense of history cherish the 1960s, when the team won three pennants and two World Championships, and the 1980s when they won three pennants and one World Championship. But the 1970s? That was the dreary decade, the one no one wants to talk about, like a shameful family secret that must never be mentioned.

It shouldn’t have been that way. Twenty-seven days before the dawn of the ’70s, the Cardinals traded Curt Flood, Tim McCarver, and two others to the Phillies for Allen, Cookie Rojas, and one other. The deal is mostly remembered for Flood’s refusal to accept the trade and his subsequent lawsuit against commissioner Bowie Kuhn and Major League Baseball. But getting the 28-year-old Allen, one of the top sluggers in baseball, should have been a boon.

Reviled in Philly, Allen seemed to love his new home. He received a standing ovation before the Cardinals home opener and called it “the greatest thing that ever happened to me.” He also said, “No wonder they win over here … This is the best ballclub I ever played with, and I’m not kidding. This team has a lot of talent …”

But that talent never coalesced, partly because a soon-to-be great lefty saw his season go south. Steve Carlton stopped throwing the slider, his signature pitch and went 10-19 with a 3.73 ERA in 1970. “There are conflicting tales as to why he stepped away from the pitch, but one story that sticks out is that the Cardinals cajoled Carlton into not throwing the slider for fear it might hurt his curveball,” wrote Cosme Vivanco of sabr.org.

A starting pitching staff of Carlton, Cy Young Award winner Bob Gibson (23-7, 3.12 ERA, 274 Ks), Mike Torrez, Nelson Briles and 21-year-old Jerry Reuss should have been formidable, but the Cards’ team ERA of 4.06 was a startling dropoff from their league-leading 2.94 ERA of 1969. A fine starter from 1967-69 (48-29, 2.97 ERA), Briles had the biggest freefall, going 6-7 with a 6.24 ERA. Torrez also faltered, slipping from 10-4 with a 3.59 ERA in 1969 to 8-10 with a 4.22 ERA in 1970.

The bullpen posed an even larger pitching problem. Closer Chuck Taylor compiled competent numbers (6-7, 3.11 ERA, eight saves) but the Cardinals’ inability to finish resulted in a horrifying 5-16 record in extra-inning games. “I knew we were going to have some trouble with our relievers,” manager Red Schoendienst said, quoted in Mike Eisenbath’s The Cardinals Encyclopedia. “But I never dreamed it would be that bad.”

The St. Louis offense tied for fifth in NL runs scored in 1970 despite some glaring holes. Allen, in just 122 games, drove in 101 runs and Joe Torre drove in 100. Lou Brock (.304, 51 steals, 114 runs) and José Cardenal (.293, 74 RBIs) had strong seasons, but third baseman Mike Shannon was diagnosed with glomerulonephritis, a kidney ailment that ended his career. Shortstop Dal Maxvill hit .201 and tied an ignominious record by failing to hit a home run in 399 at-bats, and right fielder Leron Lee hit just .227 with a .642 OPS.

Despite that rotten season, the future looked bright. St. Louis had several young players, most notably Ted Simmons, José Cruz, and Reuss, who were bound to improve. “If the Cardinals had kept their wits about them they probably could have been competitive if not dominant through the 1970s,” baseball analyst Bill James wrote in The Bill James Goldmine 2008. But owner Gussie Busch and general manager Bing Devine couldn’t leave well enough alone.

The exodus of talent began with the October trade of Allen to the Dodgers for second baseman Ted Sizemore and backup catcher Bob Stinson. “Devine said the reason for the trade was to replace the aging Julian Javier at second base,” wrote Rich D’Ambrosio of sabr.org. “He (Allen) and I talked … and I told him that he did everything we expected of him,” Devine said, according to D’Ambrosio. “It was just that the club wasn’t balanced enough … the vital aspect being defense.”

While a competent second baseman, Sizemore was no Dick Allen at the plate. Four months after the Allen deal, the Cards traded Briles and outfielder Vic Davalillo to the Pirates for outfielder Matty Alou and a pitcher, George Brunet, who would throw just nine-and-a-third innings before his career ended.

Alou played well for St. Louis, but the loss of Briles, who went 36-28 with a 2.98 ERA for the Pirates from 1971 to ’73, weakened a shaky pitching staff that finished next to last in NL ERA in 1971. Then two serviceable pitchers, Torrez and Fred Norman were traded in June. Torrez would win 123 games in the ’70s for the Expos, Orioles, A’s, Yankees, and Red Sox. Norman would win 85 games with 64 losses and a 3.43 ERA with the 1970s Reds.

The 1971 Cardinals finished 90-72, seven games back of the Pirates in the NL East. That would be their best record of the decade. Despite an 81-81 record, they finished just 1.5 games behind the division-winning Mets in ’73. A year later, they were 86-75, 1.5 behind the Pirates.

Meanwhile, good players kept leaving town in mostly one-sided swaps. The largest loss was Carlton, traded to the Phillies for Rick Wise in February of 1972, but there was also the 1971 trade of Cardenal to the Brewers, plus the ’72 trades of Reuss to the Astros and Larry Hisle to the Twins and the 1974 sale of José Cruz to the Astros.

The 1973 trade of Wise and Bernie Carbo to the Red Sox for Reggie Smith and a throw-in would have been great if it hadn’t been canceled by the horrible 1976 trade of Smith to the Dodgers for catcher-outfielder Joe Ferguson and a couple of nobodies.

By 1976, the Cardinals were pitiful, finishing 72-90, 29 games back of Carlton and the first-place Phillies. That year they drew just 1,207,079 fans, their fewest for a full season since 1964.

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Did the demoralizing 1970 season torpedo the rest of the Cardinals decade? Possibly. After back-to-back pennants in 1967 and ’68, the ‘69 Redbirds posted an 87-75 record. The acquisition of Allen and the presence of prospects Simmons and Reuss brought high hopes for 1970. But a bad record combined with second baseman Javier’s age (33), third baseman Shannon’s forced retirement, and a huge surge in staff ERA, made management itchy to fix the infield and tinker with the pitching staff.

1970 was also the year that Gussie Busch got his undies in a twist when Carlton rejected the team’s salary terms.  “I don’t care if he ever pitches a ball for us again,” the Cards owner said.

The pitcher and the Cardinals eventually agreed on a deal but, as retrosimba.com reported, “Busch held a grudge.” “This thing was generated by our difference with Carlton two years ago,” Devine told the Sporting News after dealing Carlton to the Phillies in 1972. “Having gone through that experience, we could sense a similar situation developing.”

Pettiness played a considerable part in the demise of the 1970s Redbirds. Less than two months after trading Carlton, their best lefty pitcher, they dealt away Reuss, their second-best southpaw. Why? “Because the owner didn’t like his mustache,” wrote Paul Hirsch of sabr.org. Due to a wisp of facial hair, Reuss was shipped to the Houston Astros for pitcher Scipio Spinks, who had a bald lip but was just 6-10 with a 4.07 ERA in two seasons in St. Louis, his last in the majors. Reuss, a St. Louis native, played 19 more seasons and won 172 more games.

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You can see why old Cards fans would prefer to forget about the ’70s. As Bill James put it, the front office spent the decade “arguing with their players about haircuts and travel policies.” That’s a good way to run a bad ballclub. And it all started with that one sorry season in 1970.