St. Louis Cardinals: Redbirds, yes; Birdbrains, not even close
The St. Louis Cardinals have a recent and distant history of acquiring egghead players. Has prioritizing big brains been one of the team’s secret weapons?
Have the St. Louis Cardinals intentionally targeted brainy players in recent drafts? And if so, is that, um, wise?
In the 2012 draft, St. Louis drafted Stephen Piscotty of Stanford, who has a degree in atmosphere and energy engineering, plus a player whose surname means “sagacity, discernment, or insight” — Patrick Wisdom.
In 2014, they picked Paul DeJong of Illinois State, who has a degree in biochemistry. In 2016, they picked Dylan Carlson, who carried a 3.9 or 4.0 grade-point average— reports vary — at Elk Grove (Calif.) High School, and Tommy Edman, who majored in math and computational science at Stanford.
Baseball and brains don’t always mix. It was said of Moe Berg (1923, 1926-43), one of the brightest players ever, “He can speak 10 languages, but he can’t hit in any of them.” In 1946, two Yankees rookies roomed together, one a future cardiologist, the other an eighth-grade dropout. Bobby Brown, the egghead, had a so-so eight-year baseball career. Yogi Berra, the dropout, earned three MVP awards and a plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
If ignorance isn’t bliss, it might be a baseball asset. As the great Cardinal Dizzy Dean once said, “The good Lord was good to me. He gave me a strong body, a good right arm, and a weak mind.” Kevin Costner’s Crash Davis, the brightest player in 1988’s Bull Durham, advised Tim Robbins’ Nuke Laloosh, “Don’t think. It can only hurt the ball club.”
A distinction is often made between academic intelligence and “baseball smarts.” Cardinals broadcaster Mike Shannon has called Willie Mays, who never advanced past high school, “the smartest player I’ve ever seen” and said of the young Albert Pujols, “I’ve never seen a smarter guy with less experience.”
Manager Mike Shildt says Yadier Molina is “the smartest player I’ve ever seen.” Pujols and Molina may have higher baseball I.Q.s than former pitcher Craig Breslow, the 12-year pro who majored in molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale.
Sometimes, academic and diamond smarts go together. Ozzie Smith attended a fine college, California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo, on an academic scholarship. More than a decade later, a Baseball Digest poll of National League Managers named him the league’s “smartest player.”
Here are some retired Cardinals who were as good in the classroom (or better) than they were on the diamond:
Brian Barton, outfielder-pinch hitter, 2008
Barton’s blink-and-you-missed-it baseball career consisted of one not-bad year (.268 BA, .746 OPS) as a part-timer with St. Louis and one game with the Atlanta Braves. Raised in South Central Los Angeles, Barton carried a 3.7 high school GPA and received an academic scholarship to the University of Miami, where he majored in aerospace engineering.
Tito Landrum, outfielder-pinch hitter, 1980-87
Landrum made his baseball mark in the postseason and his academic mark in his post-baseball career. He hit just .251 in eight regular seasons in St. Louis but batted .385 in with 17 hits in 12 postseason games in 1985.
Ten years after his playing career ended in 1988, Terry Landrum (no longer known as Tito) was selected valedictorian of his college class at New York University after receiving a degree in physical therapy. He didn’t have the highest GPA in his class, but he had the respect and admiration of his younger classmates. He became a physical therapist with a practice in New York City.
Dal Maxvill, shortstop, 1962-72
At 5-foot-11 and a rake-thin 157 pounds, Maxvill looked more like a nerd than an athlete. Before joining the Cards, he attended the prestigious Washington University in St. Louis, graduating in 3½ years with a degree in electrical engineering. Maxvill’s college training resulted in an offseason job as an electrical engineer for Bussmann Fuse Company.
The skinny infielder hit just .217 over 14 years but was good with the glove and respected for his brains. He served as the Cardinals union representative during his playing days and was the team’s general manager from 1985-94.
Jim Brosnan, relief pitcher, 1958-59
While Brosnan attended Cincinnati’s Xavier University without earning a degree, no one questioned his egghead credentials. “The relief pitcher known to his teammates as ‘The Professor’ listened to Bartok, read Dostoevsky, sipped martinis and hauled a portable typewriter from stadium to stadium,” Steve Chawkins of the Los Angeles Times wrote in a 2014 obituary for Brosnan, author of 1960’s The Long Season, a candid memoir of a summer spent with the Reds and the Cardinals.
“I had eclectic tastes,” Brosnan once said, quoted by Mark Armour of sabr.org. “My ambitions as a kid were to write a book or be a doctor, something like that, and way off in the distance, maybe be a major league baseball player.” Brosnan spent nine years in the majors and later wrote articles for Sports Illustrated, the New York Times, Playboy, and Boys Life.
Taylor Douthit, center fielder, 1923-31
Douthit (pronounced “DOW-thit”) was recommended to Cardinals’ executive Branch Rickey by the young man’s Latin History professor at the University of California. Douthit graduated from Cal in 1923 with a bachelor’s degree in agriculture, studying the canning and packaging of fruit and vegetables while specializing in chemistry and bacteriology. He hit an even .300 in nine seasons with the Cardinals and also played for the Red and Cubs.
Frankie Frisch, second baseman-manager, 1927-37
A rough-tough player and manager, Frisch was also an educated man with a degree in chemistry from Fordham University. “Despite his rugged persona, Frisch had genteel interests off the field,” wrote Fred Stein of sabr.org. “He enjoyed frequenting fine restaurants and reading good literature … and he was a classical music devotee.”
Vic Keen, pitcher, 1926-27
A little (5-9, 165) right-hander who went 12-10 over two years with the Cards, Keen studied pre-med at the University of Maryland, graduating in 1922. He lasted eight years in the big leagues and never pursued his medical degree.
Miller Huggins, second baseman, 1910-16
Tony La Russa wasn’t the first Cardinals manager with a lawyer’s skills. Huggins received his law degree from the University of Cincinnati in 1902, two years before starting a 13-year major league playing career and a 17-year managing career.
Ed Konetchy, a Redbirds first baseman from 1907-13 called Huggins the athlete “the smartest player in the history of the game” and legendary Giants skipper John McGraw said, “There is no smarter man in baseball today than Miller Huggins.” The little (5-6, 140) skipper managed the Cardinals for four years and the Yankees for 12 seasons, leading the Murderers’ Row teams to their first three World Championships (1923, 1927, 1928).
Fred Beebe, pitcher, 1906-09
Beebe studied at the University of Illinois and “had planned to become an engineer after graduation, but “discovered that engineers were not in demand,” wrote Steven A. Riess in Touching Base: Professional Baseball and American Culture in the Progressive Era.
Beebe briefly “worked at his profession in electrical engineering,” wrote Bill Lamb of sabr.org, then embarked on a seven-year career that included four years with bad Cardinals teams. He had a 36-62 St. Louis record despite a 2.79 ERA.
George Barclay, outfielder, 1902-04
Barclay attended two fine private colleges, Bucknell and Lafayette, later studied dentistry, and had a four-year major league career, most of it spent with the Cardinals, but his real claim to fame was inventing what some have called the first football helmet.
Barclay hired a saddlemaker to make a “head harness” from three leather straps that wound around his head, a device that gained fame when his Lafayette Leopards upset Penn on the way to the 1896 national championship. Barclay made no fortune from his invention and was just 32 when he died of appendicitis.
When the shortened (just five rounds) player draft takes place in June, the Cardinals will be looking for the best available players, regardless of IQs. Still, the recent success of DeJong and Edman prove that smart students can be darn good players. Don’t be surprised if the Cards add another brainiac or two.