NOTE: The BND has endeavored to identify an objective list of the top 100 St. Louis Cardinals players of all time, based on statistical formulas developed through sabermetrics. We’ll count down the list daily, player by player, until April 4, the day of the Cardinals’ 2019 home opener. The running list and player bios can be found at bnd.com.
NO. 43: BILL SHERDEL
Bill Sherdel joined the St. Louis Cardinals at just about the right time.
Over nearly three decades prior to his arrival, the once model franchise of the old American Association had routinely found itself in the second division of the National League. From 1893 through Sherdel’s rookie year of 1918, the Cardinals (nee Browns, nee Perfectos) posted just four winning seasons.
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But the dead ball era was at its end, a new era of ownership under local businessman Sam Breadon was dawning, and an innovative young executive named Branch Rickey was at the helm to navigate the Cardinals toward brighter horizons.
Sherdel, a left-handed pitcher from southern Pennsylvania, endured three losing seasons at the start of his career, but was a central part of the Redbirds renaissance that would put a World Series ring on his finger before it was over.
He was listed at 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds on the league roster and in game programs, but that was a generous overstatement. The St. Louis Star in 1929 said he was closer to 5-7 and 145 pounds, which is why teammates and opponents alike came to refer to him as “Wee Willie.”
Rickey found him with the minor league Milwaukee Brewers in 1917, laboring in the midst of a 10-game personal losing streak. But “The Mahatma” liked the little-lefty’s three-pitch repertoire which consisted of a slow ball, slower ball, and slowest ball. They didn’t call it a changeup back then, but noted baseball statistician Bill James rates Sherdel’s off-speed delivery among the best all-time, just below Trevor Hoffman’s.
Because he was left-handed and had a rubber arm, Sherdel was used in spot relief between starts throughout the majority of his career and he was as successful as he was durable. He won 17 games in 1922, 15 the year after and 15 more with a league-best .714 winning percentage and 3.11 ERA in 1925. In fact, from 1922 through 1928, his 109 wins were second among National League left-handers, according to the Society of American Baseball Researchers.
But it wasn’t until Rogers Hornsby replaced Rickey as manager early in the 1925 season that Wee Willie was viewed as viewed as the giant of the Cardinals pitching staff. Being named the Opening Day starter by the popular superstar stoked his confidence on the mound, Sherdel would later say. He also credited a veteran teammate, the great Grover Cleveland Alexander, for sharing generously from his wealth of baseball know-how.
“Alexander taught me more about pitching than any manager or coach,” Sherdel told the St. Louis Star.
That season, Sherdel went 16-12 with a 3.49 ERA and the Cardinals captured their first pennant as members of the National League. He might have been the hero of the World Series against the mighty New York Yankees, too, if not for some hard luck.
He allowed New York just two runs on six hits in Game 1, but without much support from the Cardinals’ bats — they got just three hits off New York starter Herb Pennock — Sherdel was saddled with a 2-1 loss.
In Game 5, Sherdel had held the Yankees scoreless through five when outfielders Wattie Holm and Chick Hafey collided on a ball to the gap by Pennock, who then went to third when shortstop Tommy Thevenow botched a perfect pick-off throw. He scored the unearned tying run on a single by Mark Koenig.
The Cardinals regained the lead for Sherdel, but Gehrig doubled in the top of the ninth on another misplayed ball in leftfield and scored on a single by Ben Paschal. The Yankees won the game in the 10th when Koenig scored on a sacrifice fly by Tony Lazzeri.
When all was said and done, Sherdel had allowed just four earned runs through 17 innings against one of the most powerful teams in baseball history and had only a 0-2 series record to show for it. Nevertheless the Cardinals won the championship in seven games. For his part, Wee Willie was satisfied to have flustered Ruth, who batted. 300 in the series, but just 1-for-6 against Sherdel.
“Ruth hates that slow ball of mine,” Sherdel would say.
Not so much, apparently, in the 1928 World Series.
Murderer’s Row got back at the Cardinals with a four-game sweep, with Ruth belting three home runs along the way. Two of those were against Sherdel, who took the losses in Games 1 and 4.
“I like to pitch to Ruth, for it gives me a great thrill,” he told the Star after the 1929 season. “He out-guessed me 100 percent in that last game of the 1928 World Series when he tagged me for two home runs. ...”
Still, 1928 was Sherdel’s best season. He went 21-10 with 20 complete games and a 2.86 ERA in 248 innings. At 33, his career slid backwards and he was traded to the Boston Braves for Hall of Fame spitballer Burleigh Grimes, though he’d be back in 1932 for a three-game farewell
Sherdel’s name still dots the Cardinals record book. His 153 wins are the most by a left-hander and fourth most all-time in franchise history. He also ranks third in all-time games, fourth in inning pitched and seventh in complete games. The Cardinals have yet to induct him into their franchise hall of fame, but Sherdel’s family did memorialize him with a paver brick outside Gate 1 of Busch Stadium III.
SEASONS IN ST. LOUIS: 1918-1930, 1932
153-131 (.539), 3.64 ERA | WS ring| 25.7 WAR
TOP 100 SCORE: 3.31