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. 19: 2B RED SCHOENDIENST
The play-by-play voice of France Laux arrived in the farm fields and coal mining communities of Southern Illinois without a hint of static, thanks to the 50,000-watt signal of KMOX radio.
So, even though St. Louis was still a two-team town during the post-depression era, Germantown teenager Albert “Red” Schoendienst was an avowed Cardinals man with his ears glued to the family Philco. St. Louis’ Sportsman’s Park was less than an hour drive due west, but even by the age of 19, the slick fielding star of the Clinton County League had never seen a big-league game in person.
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It was while on his new job at Scott Field in 1942 that Schoendienst and his buddy, Joe Linneman, learned that the Cardinals were holding open tryouts and — bonus! — that the attending prospects would be allowed to stay at the ballpark to watch the eventual World Series champions play for free.
With 25 cents in his pocket, he and Linneman hitchhiked down IL-50 and across the bridge to St. Louis. While his buddy stayed with a favorite aunt, Schoendienst found a comfortable park bench, which was a fine place to sleep on a summer’s evening until the unpredictable Midwest weather whipped up a thunderstorm. He’d already spent 10 cents on dinner, a hotdog. The remaining 15 went to a cheap hotel that left him flea-bitten for the tryouts.
After a week of drills, the Cardinals signed the red-headed infielder and dispatched him to Class-D Union City, Tennessee, “which is the bottom of the barrel,” he said. “If you go any lower than that you’re going home.”
Schoendienst, who learned the game by playing with his six siblings and the saw-dust packed balls his mother made, thought he’d be sent back to Germantown sooner than later. He got some hits in his first professional game, but made two bad errors playing left field that cost his team runs. Cardinals General Manager Branch Rickey happened to be in the ballpark that night, a detail Schoendienst didn’t know until he found “The Mahatma” waiting for him in the modest bush-league lockerroom.
“So he was sitting there in that little clubhouse in Union City, Tennessee, and he said to me ‘Young man, I know you made some errors today, but you’re a good ballplayer and you’re going to make a lot more errors before you get out of the game,’ “ Schoendienst recalled in 2015, his 70th anniversary in the game. “He made me feel pretty good. I thought I was going home, but I stayed and I’m still here.”
In 1944, playing for his Gas House Gang idol, Pepper Martin in Rochester, New York, Schoendienst was drafted, though he received a medical discharge due to an eye injury he sustained from a nail while working for President Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps a few year earlier. Though initially told he would lose the eye, doctors were able to save it. The haze the residual damaged cast on a pitched baseball, however, prompted Schoendienst to learn how to hit from the left side, where he could turn his good eye toward the pitcher.
It must have worked because, by 1945, the red-headed Germantown kid who had witnessed his first professional game just three years earlier, suddenly had a starting outfielder’s view of the big leagues. As a rookie, Schoendienst batted. 278 with 22 doubles, three triples and a National League-best 26 stolen bases.
With the end of World War II, major league rosters were suddenly flush with players returning from service. Among them were St. Louis outfielders Stan Musial and Enos Slaughter, which left Schoendienst again wondering if his baseball days were numbered. But Lou Klein, the regular second baseman, was among a handful of Cardinals to bite on the promise of better pay in the Mexican League.
Paired suddenly in the middle of the Cardinals infield with Mr. Shortstop himself, Marty Marion, Schoendienst’s career flourished as a second baseman. He hit .281/.322/.343 his sophomore season, but earned his first All-Star Game selection as much for his defense, which had been a liability in the minor leagues.
The Cardinals won 97 games and their fourth National League pennant in five years. Schoendienst drove in a run in the decisive seventh game of the World Series, which the Cardinals won over the Boston Red Sox, 4-3, on Slaughter’s famous “Mad Dash” from first on a single by Harry Walker.
Though the Cardinals had winning seasons and would finish in second or third place six of the next nine years, it was Schoendienst’s only World Series championship with St. Louis. Individually, he continued to post career bests season after season and played in eight straight All-Star Games from 1948-55.
All along the way, Schoendienst was the picture of consistency both in the field and at the plate. His most impressive statistic: In 9,224 career plate appearances, he struck out just 346 times and never more than 32 times in a single season. In the 1950 All-Star Game, it was the redhead’s walk-off home run that won the game for the National League in the 14th inning.
But his career year was in 1953. Schoendienst finished fourth in the NL MVP balloting by batting .342/.405/.502 with 35 doubles, 15 home runs and 79 runs driven in and 107 more scored, all career highs.
In 1956, Gussie Busch and his brewery hired Frank Lane as the Cardinals’ general manager. Known as “Trader” for reasons that would soon become obvious, Lane agreed with the Phladelphia Phillies on the swap of Musial for pitcher Robin Roberts. Busch promptly vetoed the deal.
So Lane, hell bent and determined to live up to his reputation, instead brokered an eight-player deal with the New York Giants that boiled down to Schoendienst for Alvin Dark. The next season, the Giants flipped Schoendienst to the Milwaukee Braves.
Musial said losing his best friend and road-trip roommate was his “saddest day in baseball.” Hank Aaron, who was a 23-year-old outfielder with the Braves, said their new acquisition “made us all feel like Superman. We knew he was going to mean so much to our ballclub that wouldn’t show up in the box score.”
Together, they won the 1957 World Series and repeated as NL champs in ‘58.
Schoendienst, meanwhile, hadn’t been feeling well. His loss of weight and energy eventually led to a diagnosis of tuberculosis, a condition doctors said he’d been playing through for years. They removed part of his lung to speed his recovery.
He was 36 by the time he made his way back to the Braves, who released him in October of 1960. St. Louis welcomed Schoendienst back as a utility player and veteran influence.
When Musial retired in 1963, Schoendiest followed, though he kept his uniform and the formalized role of bench coach. After the 1964 World Series championship, Cardinals manager Johnny Keane left for the New York Yankees, knowing Busch wanted to bring in Leo Durocher to guide the team. Instead, Busch hired Schoendienst, who went on to manage two pennant winners and the 1967 World Series champions.
Apart from a two-year stint as a coach with the Oakland A’s in 1977-78, the Redhead remained a Redbird until his death in June of 2018.
On his plaque in Cooperstown are words spoken in tribute by his old pal, Stan the Man: “Sleek, far-ranging second baseman for 18 seasons. The greatest pair of hands I’ve ever seen.”
SEASONS IN ST. LOUIS: 1945-’56, 1961-’63
.289/.338/.388 | 10x All-Star | 1 WS ring (as player) | 33.1 WAR | HoF’89
TOP 100 SCORE: 4.11