The St. Louis Cardinals this week will launch a season-long program to recognize longtime player, coach and manager Red Schoendienst for his seven decades in Major League Baseball.
It's fitting because Schoendienst has been a great and powerful force for the Cardinals since he made his major league debut 70 years ago today. He was a consistent All-Star Game qualifier as a player, a steadying force in the clubhouse and a well-respected manager and coach.
But, as great of a player as he was, it's eye-opening to realize that he might have been even better if he wasn't dealt a tremendous health setback.
The Redhead was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1958. Prior to that, he was a .291 career batter who led the National League in hits with 200 in 1957. After the diagnosis, he was a .262 batsman for the rest of his career.
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But some say that Schoendiesnt may have been fighting the disease for years before the diagnosis and that it was responsible for a strange skew of his statistics. The switch hitter consistently started off the season red hot, but as the summer wore down, he faded.
He was a .295 hitter over the course of his career during the first half of the season. But he was a .282 batter in the second half. He hit .294 in the months of April, May and July and he was a .304 hitter in June. But he became a .280 hitter in August and a .270 hitter in September and October.
The silver lining to Schoendienst's bout with TB was that it put him on the bench more where he not only realized a second career as the best pinch hitter of his time. But it helped transition the Germantown native from being a player to a coach.
The battle with tuberculosis wasn't the first time Schoendienst overcame long odds to play big league baseball.
When he was a teenager he suffered a head injury that caused doctors to consider removing one of his eyes. Although he refused the procedure, the injury left Schoendienst with headaches and damaged vision. The solution: He became a switch hitter to help overcome the problems he had seeing breaking balls from right-handed pitchers.
My favorite Schoendienst story came at the Baseball Writers dinner a few years ago when former St. Louis manager Tony La Russa told the story of his first days as Cardinals skipper.
The Redbirds lost a couple of lackluster games during spring training when La Russa was visited by Hall of Fame Cardinals outfielder Lou Brock who told the new manager that the poor play was unacceptable. Just as La Russa was getting over the tense discussion, Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson walked into his office and got in the new manager's face about running a tighter ship.
After Gibson left, La Russa said he sought out the affable Schoendienst and said "Red, you gotta get these guys off my back" while he got settled in his new position. La Russa said Schoendienst smiled and said "who do you think sent them in to see you?"