St. Louis Cardinals

Whitey Herzog revists the year he rebuilt the Redbirds

With eight transactions over 368 days from Dec. 7, 1980 to Dec. 10, 1981, Whitey Herzog moved 31 players in an overhaul of the Cardinals roster. The three pennants and World Series championship that resulted helped earn him a place in the Hall of Fame.
With eight transactions over 368 days from Dec. 7, 1980 to Dec. 10, 1981, Whitey Herzog moved 31 players in an overhaul of the Cardinals roster. The three pennants and World Series championship that resulted helped earn him a place in the Hall of Fame. BND/Todd Eschman

The way Whitey Herzog tells it, it started at Grant’s Farm over braunschweiger sandwiches, a few hands of euchre and, of course, some cold bottles of the family label.

Gussie Busch, the Big Eagle himself, handed Herzog the keys to the Cardinals kingdom with a mandate — “Whitey,” he said, “get me one more championship.”

Those orders might as well have been etched into stone tablets, because Herzog — who became both the club’s field manager and general manager that day 35 years ago — took to it as if on a sacred mission.

From Dec. 7, 1980 to Dec. 10, 1981, Herzog initiated eight transactions that sent 31 players either coming or going — that’s almost four players every time he picked up the phone.

There were some spare parts on the list, sure, but there also were five Gold Glove winners, six Silver Sluggers, 13 All-Stars, three Cy Young Award winners, two Most Valuable Players and three current Hall of Famers.

Saturday night at Belleville Hilgards American Legion Baseball banquet, I had the chance to sit down with Herzog and review, trade by trade, those crazy 368 days during which he rebooted the entire franchise.

The roster he inherited, Herzog said, was full of “overpaid prima donnas” who could hit, but were too slow to ever win in cavernous Busch Stadium II. With the Big Eagle’s blessing, Herzog took a sledge hammer to the Redbird roster and built a team with a depth of speed and defense that defined the Whitey-ball era.

Dec. 7, 1980: Herzog, who managed the previous five seasons in Kansas City, signed his former catcher Darrel Porter to a free agent contract. The Cardinals already had seven-time all-star Ted Simmons as well as eventual all-stars Terry Kennedy and Jody Davis. “Simmons would have died a Cardinal if the National League had the DH,” Herzog said. But he liked Porter’s defense and game-calling ability and Kennedy was trade bait.

Dec. 8, 1980: Kennedy and six others were sent to the San Diego Padres for Rollie Fingers, catcher Gene Tenace and a few others. Herzog said he learned the value of a good closer — or the lack thereof — during his days with the Royals, when three divisional titles in five years were spoiled by the Yankees in the League Championship Series. Having a good closer, he said, made him smarter.

Dec. 9, 1980: Top prospect Leon Durham and popular third baseman Ken Reitz were shipped to the Cubs for Bruce Sutter. Now the Cardinals had baseball’s two best closers. Sutter was the one Herzog really wanted, so ...

Dec. 12, 1980: He pulled off the block buster I’m still not sure I’ve forgiven him for. He sent Fingers, Pete Vuckovich, and Simmons to the Milwaukee Brewers for outfielders David Green, Sixto Lezcano, and pitchers Dave LaPoint and Lary Sorensen.

Fingers went on to win both the AL Cy Young and MVP awards in 1981, Vuckovich won the Cy Young in ’82. Simmons, one of the game’s best switch hitters ever, belongs in the Hall of Fame, a point Herzog even conceded.

But Green was, at the time, considered the top prospect in baseball and was the big trophy in the deal from the Cardinals’ perspective. He just never lived up to the promise.

On its face, the Cardinals got fleeced in this deal, but at least Herzog was able to flip Green and LaPoint in 1984 to bring Jack Clark to St. Louis as the vital cog in two more pennants. Sorensen also would become part of another important trade.

June 7, 1981: On the recommendation of his colorful pitching coach, Hub Kittle, Herzog sent center fielder Tony Scott to Houston for pitcher Joaquin Andujar, who twice won 20 games for Herzog’s Redbirds.

Oct. 21, 1981: Herzog had previously expressed a passing interest in a double-A prospect of the Yankees. During a chance meeting with New York GM Gene Michael, he offered the Yankees their choice of any left-handed pitcher the Cardinals had in their system. Michael picked Bob Sykes, who never pitched another inning in the major leagues.

The Cardinals got Willie McGee, a two-time batting champion, an MVP and one of the most popular players ever in St. Louis. Herzog called Sykes the Cardinals’ MVP of the 80s.

Nov. 20, 1981: Silvio Martinez and Sorensen were flipped to the Phillies for Lonnie Smith. Smith was a risk, Herzog said, because of a known cocaine habit and an apparent fight he had with the Phillie’s mascot, the Phanatic. But he pulled it together in St. Louis and was runner-up for the 1982 MVP as the Cardinals’ leadoff man.

Dec. 10, 1981: When Herzog arrived and got to work on the rebuild, he said shortstop Garry Templeton was his one untouchable. “He might have been the best athlete I ever saw on a baseball field,” he said.

But in August of that year, Templeton drew boos from a Ladies Day crowd with a half-hearted effort in running out a ground ball. He responded in kind with some obscene gestures and Herzog angrily dragged Templeton into the dugout by the arm.

Templeton was treated for a “chemical imbalance,” and was set to get his outright release at the end of the season. As a replacement, Herzog set his sights on the Tiger’s Alan Trammel, the Cubs’ Ivan DeJesus, or the Angels’ Rick Burleson.

Meanwhile, in San Diego, Padres GM Jack McKeon was in contentious negotiations with a light-hitting shortstop who had made some outrageous contract demands. At baseball’s winter meetings, he asked Herzog if he was interested in a trade.

By the end of the day, the Cardinals acquired Ozzie Smith, the future Hall of Famer, in exchange for a player they thought they couldn’t give away.

“Without Ozzie Smith, I wouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame, and I wouldn’t be here talking to you today,” Herzog said.

And that was the final brick of Herzog’s Redbird rebuild.

From the big league roster he was handed that day at Grant’s Farm, only first baseman Keith Hernandez, rightfielder George Hendrick and pitcher Bob Forsch remained. But in less than 28 months, Mr. Busch got his “one more championship,” a seven-game triumph over a Milwaukee club that Herzog helped build with that lop-sided trade. As a bonus, he also got National League championships in 1985 and 1987.

The club hadn’t drawn 2 million fans since 1968, but Whitey-ball brought 3 million through the turnstiles twice. The Cardinals haven’t had fewer than 2.5 million fans in a non-strike season since.

In a very real way, Herzog’s whirlwind year dealing the Cards accomplished more than rebuilding a roster. It rebooted the entire franchise.

Sports Editor Todd Eschman: 618-239-2540, @tceschman