Every year, I impose upon a few St. Louis sports figures to sign some autographs I can donate either to our church or school auctions.
Tony La Russa, Kolten Wong, Whitey Herzog, Ted Simmons, Kurt Warner and many others have gladly complied with my request.
In January 2009, I happened to be at an event with the Cardinals No. 1 draft pick, Brett Wallace, who you may recall was flipped less than a year later to bring Matt Holliday to town for a couple of pennants.
He scribbled on my 8-by-10 glossy something that looked more like an EKG reading than a signature. Wallace was 23 years old at the time, hadn’t seen a pitch in a big league game and has been looking for a job since getting his release from the Padres just last April.
You couldn’t make out a single letter.
On the other side of the room was Red Schoendienst, who has spent the better part of his life in baseball.
He was 86 years old when I asked him to sign that ball for the Cathedral fundraiser. It took from seam to seam to include all 15 letters of his name, which is the verified longest ever to be stitched on the back of a Cardinals jersey.
Every letter is legible — every ascender and descender is aligned in perfect order, every “i” dotted, the only “t” crossed.
Former Boston Red Sox infielder Bobby Doerr died Monday at age 99. That makes Schoendienst, who turns 95 Feb. 2, the oldest living Hall of Famer.
That’s certainly not something he has ever aspired to be, but it underscores his continued vitality and his value to the Cardinals both now and to their legacy.
The red-headed native of Germantown came up with the Cardinals in 1945, played in 10 All Star Games, amassed 2,449 hits, and retired as a player in 1963 at the age of 40. His most impressive statistic: In 9,224 career plate appearances, Schoendienst struck out just 346 times and never more than 32 times in a single season.
The Hall of Fame came calling in 1989.
“Sleek, far-ranging second baseman for 18 seasons,” says his plaque in Cooperstown. “The greatest pair of hands I’ve ever seen,” said his long-time roommate Stan Musial.
In 1965, he became the Cardinals’ manager and, over the next 12 seasons won more than 1,000 games, two pennants and a World Series championship.
Even after yielding the manager’s job to Vern Rapp in 1976, Schoendienst stayed on as bench coach through five managers, hitting fungos well into his 80s. The team still employs him as a special assistant to Mike Matheny, though arthritis and neuropathy have limited his time around the ballpark in the last year or so.
Still, one does not last in the game for 72 years by cutting corners or by taking for granted the privilege of wearing a big league uniform.
Schoendienst has endured with pride, loyalty, dedication and consistency.
Letter perfect consistency.