The St. Louis Cardinals are one of baseball’s most consistently successful franchises, but the period immediately following baseball’s realignment in 1969 weren’t standout years. With both leagues split into a just an East & West division and the winners moving straight to the League Championship Series, the Cardinals went twelve years without winning the NL East. Only once did they win as many as 90 games and there were six losing seasons. The 1981 St. Louis Cardinals started a new era when they hired Whitey Herzog and a decade of success began.
Herzog had spent a year out of baseball after turning the Kansas City Royals into a winner and he wasted no time in turning the roster upside down. It started by bringing in free agent Darrell Porter, his catcher in KC. Herzog then shipped six players to San Diego, the most notable of which was catcher Terry Kennedy and got a haul back that included Hall of Fame closer Rollie Fingers.
So you would think Whitey was set in his bullpen, right? One day later he pulled the trigger on a deal with the Chicago Cubs for another Hall of Fame closer in Bruce Sutter. This one cost the Cardinals corner infielders Leon Durham and Ken Reitz.
Great closers were a lot harder to come by in the early 1980s, when the position was still coming into vogue and you didn’t have every team with a ninth-inning guy that saved 30 games a year. Herzog now had an abundance of riches and he reached out to a team in desperate need of bullpen help.
St. Louis moved Fingers, along with Hall of Fame catcher Ted Simmons and future Cy Young Award winner Pete Vuckovich to Milwaukee. The Brewers sent back two of the most prized prospects in all of baseball, outfielder David Green and pitcher Dave LaPoint, along with a reliable starter in Lary Sorensen and a proven rightfielder in Sixto Lezcano.
It was a dazzling array of moves and to be fully candid, the trades don’t look incredibly great on paper from the vantage point of history. But Herzog had shaken up his roster and positioned himself for an even bigger trade that would come after this season was over.
For now, the offense was built around rightfielder George Hendrick and first baseman Keith Hernandez. Hendrick posted a stat line of .356 on-base percentage/.485 slugging percentage. Hernandez’s stat line was .401/.463. He also hit 27 doubles in a strike-shortened season that saw the Cardinals play just 112 games.
Ken Oberkfell was a solid third baseman with a .353 OPB and Porter’s OBP ended up at .364. Lezcano’s power fell off sharply playing in the more expansive Busch Stadium, but he still ended up with a .376 OBP. Gene Tenace, a part of the package that came from San Diego was on base consistently with an OBP of .416.
Even with a bad year from shortstop Garry Templeton, St. Louis put enough runners on the base paths. The Cardinals finished second in the National League in on-base percentage and second in the bottom line of scoring runs.
The pitching was a little dicier. There were no obvious weak points. Sorensen, Bob Forsch, John Martin and Silvio Martinez all finished with ERAs in the 3s. But none got below 3. So the Cardinals lacked an ace and they also lacked depth, with Sutter being the only consistent arm out of the bullpen. St. Louis’ staff ERA ranked 8th in the 12-team National League.
The Cards came blazing out of the gate. An early eight-game winning streak keyed a 12-3 start and included a 5-0 mark against the Cincinnati Reds, who were on their way to the best record in baseball. St. Louis was rolling along to a narrow early lead in an NL East that included the Cubs and Pirates, along with the New York Mets, the defending World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies and the contending Montreal Expos (today’s Washington Nationals).
Between May 22 and May 27, the Cardinals lost five of six in a series against the lowly Mets and the Expos. On the final weekend in May, St. Louis played a three-game set in Philadelphia.
Hendrick got the party started on Friday night with a three-run jack, the Cards took a 7-0 lead and cruised home 11-4. But Sorensen was hit hard in a 10-2 loss on Saturday and the offense could only get five singles in a 6-1 loss to the great Steve Carlton on Sunday.
In a normal year this would be a disappointing stretch, but a blip on the radar. In the strange baseball world of 1981 it would be decisive. Even though St. Louis won their next three series, they were a game and a half back of the Phils when the strike hit on June 12.
Two months were ripped out of the season. When play resumed in August, MLB decided to adopt a split-season format to rejuvenate fan interest. The teams in first place as of June 12 were declared “first-half champions.” Everyone would reset and the “second-half champion” would meet the first-half winner in the first installment of the Division Series come October.
So Philadelphia was in and St. Louis was starting from scratch. If nothing else, there was less competition. There was no reward for a team winning both halves—if that happened, the second-place team in the second half would qualify. So the Phils had nothing to play for and played like it. The Cardinals and Expos were the only teams in the NL East that played winning baseball in the second half.
For much of the second half, St. Louis looked on their way to a date with Philadelphia in the Division Series. But losing to bad teams would be a problem. The Cardinals lost three straight at home to the Cubs and saw a 2 ½ game edge over Montreal be wiped out. St. Louis responded by going north of the border to Quebec and winning three times in a five-game set. They nudged their lead over the Expos back out to 3 ½ games by September 18.
Then the Cardinals lost three in a row in New York. They lost three straight in Philly. The lead was gone. St. Louis was able to open the final week by sweeping a two-game set from Montreal. If only the Cards could have played as well against the bottom-feeders as they did against their principal rival.
The two-game sweep gave them a 26-21 record, with Montreal at 26-22 and five games to play. But in this strange year, that extra game the Expos had played would prove decisive. St. Louis split their next four games. Montreal won their next four. By the last day of the season, the Expos were a game and a half up and the race was over.
Even though Montreal lost and St. Louis won on the final day to close the final margin to a half-game there was no extra game scheduled in to make sure each team played the same number of games.
The injustice the Cardinals suffered is even worse when you consider that their 59-43 composite record over both halves was the best in the NL East. The strange circumstances of 1981 had denied them the playoffs. And if you want to make matters even worse then that they aren’t even first on the list of teams that got robbed in 1981—the Reds, of the aforementioned best record in baseball, suffered the same fate in the NL West, including losing one half by a half-game. The Cardinals don’t even get the dignity that comes with historical martyrdom.
Unlike Cincinnati, who collapsed after this season, St. Louis fans can look back and hopefully laugh about the circumstances a little. Because the good times under Herzog were just getting started. In the coming offseason they leveraged Lezcano in another deal with San Diego, whose centerpiece was swapping Templeton for Ozzie Smith. On this trade, St. Louis crushed it, getting a Hall of Fame shortstop who anchored their defense. And in 1982, they won the World Series.