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. 50: SILVER KING
On June 11, 1992, Anheuser-Busch Brewery, owners of the Cardinals, erected a large stage across the center field Astroturf at Busch Stadium II, packed the seats with fans and rolled out a red carpet for Redbird royalty.
There were old game films, speeches by the luminaries of Cardinal Nation and a joyous retrospective of 100 years of Major League Baseball in St. Louis.
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It was the celebration of a century. Only it wasn’t.
That season merely marked 100 years since the Cardinals had joined the National League. For 10 years previous to 1892, the team, which was still known as the Browns, existed as charter members of the old American Association. Lost in that forgotten decade of Cardinals’ history are men who played vital roles in the formative years of the professional game, not to mention baseball in St. Louis.
One of them was St. Louisan Charles Frederick Koenig, more commonly known as Silver King — “Silver” for the unusual tint to his hair while “King” was just the English translation of his German surname.
Whatever you call him, he was the best pitcher on two American Association championship teams that have earned their rightful place in the Cardinals’ legacy.
The team was owned by a colorful grocer and tavern proprietor named Chris van der Ahe, who revived professional baseball in St. Louis after a gambling scandal got the city’s first team, the Brown Stockings, banned from the National League after just one season. His manager was the Old Roman, Charlie Comisky, who would experience his own issues with gamblers many years later as owner of the Chicago White Sox.
The Browns had won the World Series in 1886, defeating a different version of the Chicago White Stockings (who would eventually change their name to the Colts, then Orphans before settling on the Cubs in 1903) four games to two. Von der Ahe also had laid claim to ownership of the title in 1885 — which the record book shows ended in a 3-3-1 tie.
King came along in 1887, still just 19 years old but having spent part of the previous season with the Kansas City Cowboys of the National League.
In 390 innings, he won 32 games with just 12 losses and had a 3.78 ERA. The Browns won a then-record 95 games and captured their third American Association pennant. They fell, however, to the the NL-champion Detroit Wolves in a 15-game World Series, which was played over 16 days in 10 different cities. Detroit clinched the championship with a 13-3 win in Game 11, but as part of the series’ purpose was to spread popularity of the game, the two teams played on with trips to Baltimore and Washington, D.C., before returning to St. Louis for the finale.
King took a back-seat to veteran pitcher Bob Caruthers, who had not only won 29 games with a 3.30 ERA that season, but also batted .357 as a part-time outfielder.
St. Louis captured its fourth straight American Association title in 1888 with King leading the way. In his second season, the 20-year-old led the league with 45 wins and a 1.63 ERA in 584 2/3 innings pitched. But he went just 1-3 in the World Series, which the Browns lost to the New York Giants, six games to four. Ice Box Chamberlain and Jim Devlin got the other wins for St. Louis.
The Browns fell to second place the following year, but King again posted a 35-16 record with a 3.14 ERA while topping 458 innings pitched. It was final season in his hometown. King made the leap to the Chicago Pirates of the ill-fated Players League, which folded after a single season.
As has been previously mentioned as the “Greatest 100 Cardinals” project has unfolded, comparing 19th century and deadball era players to those of the modern era is problematic because the game was so vastly different. That is especially true of pitchers.
There was no pitcher’s mound in King’s day, for example, just a 5 1/2-by-4 foot chalk line box from which hurlers made their deliveries. They were required to keep one foot on the back line of the box, which was just 55 feet away.
King liked to begin at the far corner of the box to his right, then deliver with a sweeping side-armed motion to achieve the most extreme possible angle from hand to home plate, which, by the way, was just 12 inches wide (as opposed to 17 today).
But major changes came along in 1893, the year after the Browns and other American Association teams merged into the National League. The pitcher’s box was replaced by a 12-inch wide pitching rubber that was pushed back to 60 feet, 6 inches where it has remained.
King and his side-armed delivery were suddenly not as effective. He went from 22 wins in 1892 to just 8 in ‘93, then disappeared from baseball for three years. He was out of baseball for good by the time he turned 30.
But in just three seasons with the Browns, King amassed a record of 112-48 (.700) with a 2.70 ERA while averaging more than 477 innings pitched per season. In the modern era, that record would be impossible to duplicate. Considering the achievements in his day and the influence he and his great teams had on the formative years of the Cardinals franchise, it’s equally impossible to exclude King from this list.
SEASONS IN ST. LOUIS: 1887-1889
112-48 | 1,432.2 IP | 29.1 WAR
TOP 100 SCORE: NA