The 1982 St. Louis Cardinals inherited the legacy of the National League’s proudest franchise, but one that was—relatively speaking—in a dry spell. After going to consecutive World Series in 1967-68 and winning one, this great baseball city had been quiet in October. Baseball expanded in 1969, the leagues split into two divisions each, but St. Louis didn’t win the new NL East.
It wasn’t as though the team was bad—there were seven winning seasons between 1969-81, and the 1981 team had the NL East’s best overall record—but the strike of that year caused a split-season format and St. Louis didn’t finish first in either half. 1982 saw the Cardinals again paint their hometown red for October.
Whitey Herzog had managed the excellent teams that won division titles from 1976-78, and he switched Missouri locales in 1980, taking over the Cardinals midway through the season. Herzog brought an aggressive, running style to the offense and St. Louis was one of the most unique offensive teams in baseball in 1982.
The Cardinals were fifth in the National League in runs scored, and they did it without a single player hitting 20 home runs and only one batting over .300. St. Louis was, in one respect, the original Moneyball team—they did it with on-base percentage and just getting runners on base, at a time when taking a walk was still seen as something a little less than manly.
But in another important respect, the Cardinals were decidedly anti-Moneyball. The statistics-driven philosophy preaches against the stolen base, believing it a play that’s on the wrong side of the risk-reward equation. The Cardinals swiped 200 bases and led the National League.
Lonnie Smith, the team’s one .300 hitter, led the way with a .381 OBP and he stole 68 bases. Ozzie Smith, the defensive whiz at shortstop, had a .339 OBP and good speed. Second baseman Tom Herr and third baseman Ken Oberkfell were consistent at getting on base and centerfielder Willie McGee provided another great speed threat.
The middle of the lineup might not have had home run hitters, but that should not be mistaken with a lack of talent. Keith Hernandez, one of the best all-around first basemen of his day, had a .397 OBP. Rightfielder George Hendrick hit 19 home runs and drove in 104 runs. Darrell Porter, the catcher, hit 12 home runs and a .347 OBP. It wasn’t a conventional offense, but it was deep and they had a good manager overseeing everything.
St. Louis’ pitching was even better, ranking third in the National League in ERA. Joaquin Andujar won 15 games with a 2.47 ERA and logged 265 innings. Bob Forsch won 15 games with a 3.48 ERA. Pitchers ranging from Steve Mura to John Stuper and Dave LaPoint were steady in filling out the rest of the rotation. And in relief stood one of the great closers in the game at a time when that position was starting to really come into vogue—Bruce Sutter, with his split-fingered fastball, saved 36 games with a 2.90 ERA.
The Cardinals came out of the gate fast, with a 12-game winning streak in April, and they went 5-1 against the Philadelphia Phillies, who had won the NL East four of the previous six years, the World Series in 1980 and won one of the “halves” in 1981.
From mid-April to June 23, St. Louis stayed in first place, by as many as 4 ½ games. Along with the Phils, the Montreal Expos were in the hunt. Montreal had won the division in 1981 and with a slew of young talented players, led by catcher Gary Carter, were a popular pick to go the distance.
The three teams stayed fairly close together through the summer. St. Louis ranged anywhere from two games up to two games into early September. Then they won two important series that opened up the division.
On Labor Day, the Cardinals hosted the Expos to open a three-game series. St. Louis won two of the games, and both wins were by 1-0 counts. Their aces, Andujar and Forsch came up with complete-game wins. In mid-September, St. Louis won two of three in Philadelphia, again both wins being shutouts. Stuper and Sutter combined on a five-hit whitewashing and Andujar added another complete-game gem.
By September 17, St. Louis had a three-game led and they never looked back. They got up by as many as 6 ½ games and clinched the NL East on the Monday that began the regular season’s final week. The clinching win came in Montreal, representing a symbolic changing of the guard in the NL East.
The Atlanta Braves were the opponent in the National League Championship Series. The Braves were led by MVP centerfielder Dale Murphy, and they were managed by another legend in Joe Torre. The difference is, that unlike Herzog, Torre’s managerial skills were not yet recognized and wouldn’t be until he landed in New York for 1996.
St. Louis got an early break when their 1-0 deficit after four innings in Game 1 was wiped out by rain and they started fresh the next night. They took full advantage, winning Games 1 & 3 easily and rallying to win Game 2 on a walkoff single by Oberkfell. They swept what was then a best-of-five series.
Now it was time for the World Series and it would be an all-Midwest affair as the Cardinals played the Milwaukee Brewers, then in the American League. The Brewers were the polar opposite of St. Louis—Milwaukee was built on a fearsome power attack.
St. Louis and Milwaukee played a compelling World Series. Each team got one blowout win, each team won a nail-biter and it went the full seven games. The Cardinals rallied from a two-run deficit in the sixth inning of Game 7 and brought the championship back to St. Louis.
The Cardinals have never gone away over the ensuing thirty-plus years. They won National League pennants in 1985 and 1987. They remained a relatively consistent contender, though it was 2004 before they got back to the World Series and 2006 when they won it again. Another championship came in 2011, with yet another pennant in 2013. It was 1982 that a 15-year drought ended and essentially ushered in the modern era of St. Louis Cardinals history.