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. 59: PETE VUCKOVICH
“I really hate hitters,” he said. “They’re goofy.”
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Nobody doubted the competitor that came out in Vukovich when he toed the rubber, or his desire to remain employed. But “goofy?” His use of that particular pejorative reeked of hypocrisy — teammates called him “Vuke the Spook” for a reason.
At 6-foot-4, 220 pounds (generously) with a stubbled jaw and bushy fu manchu, Vuckovich was a menacing enough presence on the mound. It was his sometimes bizarre antics, though, that made those much-disdained hitters think the big right-hander was “goofy” himself.
“Vuke” would talk to hitters as he pitched and shout unintelligibly to seemingly no one. Sometimes he’d wink at a batter or stick out his tongue.
In his own clubhouse, he kept a sign above his locker that read “Out to Lunch.”
It’s little wonder he was picked to play the role of Yankees’ slugger Clu Haywood in the movie “Major League” — he’d been typecast.
“He borders a little on Frankenstein,” Ted Simmons, Vuckovich’s catcher in St. Louis and Milwaukee, told Eisenbath. “When he pitches, he puts himself in another world.”
A native of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Vuckovich had been a third-round pick of the Chicago White Sox and an expansion draft selection of the Toronto Blue Jays in 1976. He recorded both the first save and first shutout in that franchise’s history.
The Cardinals got him in a trade for a couple of prospects in December of 1977 and he began to feud immediately with his manager, Vern Rapp, who had ordered Vuckovich to shave his trademark fu manchu.
But Rapp got fired 17 games into the season and was replaced by Ken Boyer, the former third baseman and St. Louis World Series hero who had managed Vuckovich in the Puerto Rican winter league two years prior.
The whiskers grew without further debate and Vuckovich quickly established himself as the best starter in the Boyer’s rotation by winning six of his first nine starts. In those three losses, the Cardinals’ offense supported him with just four runs total, which was typical of a middling team that finished 11th in the National League in runs scored and 21 games out of first place in the East Division.
Vuckovich had command of four pitches and could change both speed and arm angle on all of them. He was sharp during that first season in St. Louis with a career-best 2.54 ERA in 198.1 innings, but had just a 12-12 record to show for it.
He won 15 games in 1979 and 12 more the year after, throwing more than 220 innings with a sub-3.60 ERA in each season. But those were lean years for the Cardinals, who posted a .471 winning percentage and didn’t finish better than third place over that three-season stretch.
Boyer and General Manager John Claiborne got fired less than a third of the way into the 1980 season and their one-man replacement, Whitey Herzog, took to the team’s roster with a sledgehammer.
Vuckovich had been asked to slim down to 215 pounds before he reported to spring training. When he arrived in St. Petersburg at 240, Vuke the Spook told the team he couldn’t help it, “I’m just one of the better partiers.”
Herzog liked Vuckovich’s focus and competitive nature but not his healthy appetites. Nor did he believe the Cardinals could, or should, re-sign him when his contract expired after the 1981 season.
“We’d just signed Bob Forsch to a five year deal and I knew Vuke would want the same kind of deal,” Herzog said. “I didn’t want to get tied up in a five-year deal with him because he didn’t keep his body in shape and didn’t take good care of his arm. I didn’t think he’d last five more years.”
But just in case, though, Herzog didn’t want to leave Vuckovich “hanging around” the National League, so he shipped him to the Milwaukee Brewers with Simmons and closer Rollie Fingers.
Vuckovich led the American League with 14 wins in the strike-shortened 1981 season, then won 18 and the AL Cy Young Award the following year. Herzog’s Cardinals saw him in Busch Stadium again during the World Series that season.
He took the loss in Game 3, after being admonished by the home plate umpire for pitching with his fly open. The Cardinals also knocked him out in the sixth inning of the decisive seventh game.
True to Herzog’s prediction, Vuckovich missed almost all of the 1983 and ‘84 seasons and appeared in just 31 more major league games.
SEASONS IN ST. LOUIS: 1978-’80
39-31 with Cardinals | 3.21 St. Louis ERA | 9.2 WAR with Cardinals
TOP 100 SCORE: 2.87