- Faith and Fear in Flushing - http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com -

Mets Versus St. Louis

While you’re waiting for 2018 to commence in earnest, or should you find yourself jonesing for compelling content amid the plethora of upcoming off days (why have off days when we just had an offseason?), I suggest treating yourself to some quality streaming, courtesy of Nine Network of Public Media, the St. Louis PBS affiliate. On their Web site, you can access The St. Louis Browns: The Team that Baseball Forgot [1], a wonderful documentary that sentimentally remembers one of the town’s baseball teams, the one few outside of St. Louis invoke anymore.

To be fair, it’s tough to generate too many thoughts in 2018 regarding the St. Louis Browns, a franchise that changed its name and address in 1954. They just don’t come up in internal conversation all that often without a reason. Until very recently, the last instance in which the Browns crossed my mind more than incidentally — and one of the only times it ever happened — was in the winter preceding the 2016 baseball season, specifically Super Bowl Sunday. Jonathan Schwartz, then with WNYC, was airing his annual Salute to Baseball, blending long-ago play-by-play, the host’s wistful musings and the best music ever made about the best game ever invented. Some of the song choices were more predictable than others. A pair of lines from one song wasn’t.

“The St. Louis Browns were a baseball team. And they lost more than the Mets could ever dream.”

Browns versus Mets. An unlikely matchup, albeit not fully unprecedented when you consider bloodlines of postseason rivals once removed. Never mind the nostalgia that in 1972 fueled singer-songwriter Skip Battin to record an ode to a ballclub that was already more than half-forgotten [2]. America was just getting the hang of nostalgia as a going concern in 1972. Battin released his number the same year Roger Kahn published The Boys of Summer. The Brooklyn Dodgers went on a decades-long retroactive winning streak, clinching first place in the warm memories division. Battin’s best efforts notwithstanding, the St. Louis Browns forgottenness quotient only expanded.

They did, however, rate a mention in another nostalgia-rising period classic, The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book by Brendan C. Boyd and Fred Harris. Unsurprisingly, it was unflattering. In assessing the family structure of the early 1950s American League, the authors pegged the Browns as “the stupid distant cousins,” which may or may not have been worse than how outsiders saw the hapless Mets of the early 1960s. He may have grabbed a few winks on the bench, but nobody ever accused Casey Stengel of stupidity.

Despite the desire to compare the historic levels of losing committed by the Browns to the early if profound stumbles of our Mets, the ballclubs crossed paths at their heights…if you want to take a leap roughly the distance that the Browns took when they moved to Baltimore after 52 seasons in St. Louis. In October of 1969, the New York Mets took on and defeated the direct descendants of the St. Louis Browns for the championship of the world.

Of all the many millions have words that have been devoted to the 1969 Mets, I’ve never heard or read anything that brought the Baltimore Orioles’ St. Louis lineage into play. I never thought of it myself until maybe a week ago. No wonder. By 1969, there was no visible connection between the Browns and the Orioles. Sixteen years had passed since the last Browns game. They moved and disappeared in a way none of the other franchises that shifted in the ’50s so thoroughly disappeared from the scene. The Dodgers, the Giants, the Braves and the Athletics each pulled up stakes, taking their identity with them. To this day, in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta and Oakland, homage gets paid to the ancestral players and records. Whoever did the packing for the Browns left their name off the truck. Baltimore had the Orioles in the 19th century and they were delighted to revive their heritage in the middle of the 20th.

The Orioles could be accused of being the former Browns in their first season. They went 54-100 in Baltimore, same as they’d gone 54-100 in St. Louis a year earlier. Then they got rid of as many former Browns as possible. Among the handful of Brown-tinged facts I gleaned as a religious reader of Baseball Digest in my youth (George Sisler collected 257 hits in 1920; the World Series was an all-St. Louis affair in 1944; Pete Gray played the outfield with one arm as World War II dragged on; Satchel Paige brought his legend to bear; Ned Garver won 20 while his team lost 102; try-anything Bill Veeck signed 3’ 7” Eddie Gaedel to pinch-hit) was the post-Brown Orioles made a 17-player trade with the Yankees after finishing last in 1954. Among those the Orioles sent Bronxward were erstwhile Brownies Don Larsen and Bob Turley. Larsen pitched a perfect game to help the Yankees win one World Series; Turley won 20 games en route to the Yankees winning another World Series. While the Yankees were augmenting their jewelry box, the Orioles were content to shed most of what was left of their lingering Brown aura. “By the middle of the ’56 season,” John Eisenberg wrote in his 2001 Oriole oral history, From 33rd Street to Camden Yards, “all remnants of the St. Louis Browns were gone.”

From a Baltimore perspective, the future was all that mattered, and the Orioles eventually developed a practically dynastic one. But without any players staying on and without the name in regular use, who besides Skip Battan and the editors of Baseball Digest would make a point of keeping alive the memory of the St. Louis Browns?

The only contemporary reference point we have is the Montreal Expos, who themselves stopped existing fourteen years ago, close to the amount of time that lapsed between the Browns leaving St. Louis and the Orioles losing to the Mets. The Expos may not be active at the moment, but they haven’t completely flitted from our collective subconscious. We are programmed differently today. We do nostalgia as a matter of course. We go to YouTube and marvel at the kinds of musical tributes [3] we no longer need a radio host to play for us annually. We offer opinions on ex-Expos and their Hall of Fame plaques. We snarl at the ingrate Washington Nationals for not doing more to tip their caps to those who wore their franchise’s previous caps (though we, as Mets fans, snarl at the Nationals at the drop of a deciding NLDS game). We keep tabs on the last Expo still active in the bigs (Bartolo Colon is hanging on in the Ranger rotation [4]) and a few other stragglers (final Expo outmaker Endy Chavez is a Somerset Patriot [5]; 1995 draft choice Tom Brady is a New England Patriot). Those of us who retain a soft spot for what we hazily remember as unique to MLB between 1969 and 2004 get a kick out of the annual Olympic Stadium series the Blue Jays host on the eve of the next season. And I think we all wish Montreal luck in their quest to rejoin the major leagues.

When a team name is dispatched to the circular file, it’s challenging to fish it out or do any kind of makegood. The Washington Senators vanished twice, but were always replaced (sometimes it took a while). The Seattle Pilots vanished, but they were replaced in their city and, more importantly, live on in Ball Four. The Browns, though, despite Skip Battan’s song and the efforts of some dedicated preservationists, got next to nothing of substance until this new documentary. And what they did get, they received from the team that shoved them onto their eastbound path.

You don’t get three minutes into the PBS film about the St. Louis Browns until the St. Louis Cardinals poke their head into the narrative. Well, of course they do. This is a St. Louis production (even the narrator, Jon Hamm, is a Cardinal celebrity fan). They can’t talk baseball out there without the Cardinals, and it seems difficult to tell a Browns story without nodding to the survivors. St. Louis may be considered a quintessential baseball town, but it was never going to be big enough for two teams in the long haul. The Browns had the edge until the middle of the 1920s. The Browns owned the ballpark both teams called home. But the Browns stood forever on shaky ground until the ground gave way. They couldn’t beat their National League counterparts in the ’44 Series and they couldn’t beat them at the turnstiles. Dust settled, Cardinals remained.

With the Cardinals on deck as the Mets’ first opponents of 2018, I’d like to take a gratuitous shot at the Cardinals. As with the Nationals, we rarely need an excuse. But it’s nice what the Cardinals do where the memory of the Browns is concerned. They exhibit Browns memorabilia in their museum. They present a Sisler statue outside Busch Stadium. They invite the still vital St. Louis Browns Fan Club to their winter fanfest. Their owner, Bill DeWitt, was a Browns batboy, though he had to know somebody to get the gig. He did — his father (also named Bill DeWitt) was one of the club’s pre-Veeck owners. When little Eddie Gaedel needed a uniform for his only big league plate appearance, he used the junior DeWitt’s.

Perhaps its fitting that the Blue Jays are taking on the Cardinals in Montreal this week, two teams briefly brandishing a torch on behalf of their fallen regional rivals before getting back to baseball that counts, without Expos, without Browns.

___

As long as we’re magnanimously linking the words “nice” and “Cardinals,” I’ll allow that it’s nice to see the Mets opening their season against the Cardinals. It feels traditional. It reminds me of all those Opening Days when Tom Seaver faced off against Bob Gibson, never mind that Tom Seaver and Bob Gibson never faced off on Opening Day, because during the time they overlapped as mound masters, the Mets and Cardinals never opened the season in tandem. Seemed like they did, though. I’m probably thinking of how the Mets and Cardinals shared St. Petersburg all those years, usually kicking off their exhibition slate against each other at Al Lang, one team the home team one day, the other the home team the next.

Gibson most definitely opened the Spring schedule against the Mets in 1968, responsible for one of the few legitimately memorable (and truly unfortunate) moments in Mets Grapefruit League history. The first batter Gibby faced was the Mets’ new leadoff hitter Tommie Agee. Gibson infamously came in high and tight on Agee, beaning him on the helmet, inflicting the White Sox import with a concussion. Tommie never really recovered his batting eye that season. Gibson being Gibson, it was assumed fifty years ago that Bob was simply welcoming Agee to the National League.

(Concussion protocols apparently weren’t taken all that seriously in sports fifty years ago.)

In 1980, recollecting on his career with Roger Angell [6], specifically the day he knocked down Agee, Gibson implied hitting a batter in the body was fair game, adding, “It’s a lot harder to hit him in the head. Any time you hit him in the head, it’s really his own fault. Anyway, that was just Spring Training.”

Yet somebody, per Gibson’s memory, kept track of these sorts of wayward pitches from games that didn’t count. “I did throw at John Milner in Spring Training once,” Gibson told Angell. The pitcher didn’t like the way Milner swung — “that dive at the ball. […] it doesn’t show any respect for the pitcher.” So Gibson took care of business in that way baseball people have praised Gibson for taking care of business for a half-century. Also taking care of business was Gibson’s opposite Mets number:

“So I got Milner that once, and then, months later, at Shea Stadium, Tom Seaver began to pitch me up and inside, knocking me down, and it took me a minute to realize that it must have been to pay me back for something in Spring Training. I couldn’t believe that.”

___

Maybe the Mets and Cardinals were bound to get on each other’s nerves having spent so many weeks in proximity in St. Pete. Long before Seaver showed up in any Mets camp — and before Gibson was automatically the pitcher a Cardinals manager would turn to start a season — the two clubs not only shared a Spring Training base, but one helped the other begin its life for real. Some help. The Cardinals were the Mets’ first Opening Day opponent, which is to say the Cardinals were the Mets’ first opponent ever. If you know your 1962 as I’m sure do, you can infer the Cardinals, playing at the first Busch Stadium (formerly Sportsman Park, formerly property of the Browns), whacked the Mets good, 11-4, behind budding Met-killer Larry Jackson. One loss down, 119 to go, including the first nine overall. Thanks for the shove, Cardinals. Now we know how the Browns felt.

As if they hadn’t seen enough of each other by then, the Mets and Cards hooked up again to start the 1963 season. More not great times for New York, though at least they were in New York. At the Polo Grounds, Ernie Broglio and the Cardinals throttled the Mets, 7-0. The Mets were headed in the wrong direction once more, losing their first eight and 111 overall. Somehow the Cardinals convinced themselves to part with Broglio a year later in order to secure the services of Cubs outfielder Lou Brock.

Brock, like Gibson, would craft a Hall of Fame career as a Cardinal, but neither would display his talents versus the Mets on Opening Day. Despite their St. Petersburg connection and the scheduling precedent set at the outset of the first two Met seasons, there were no more Mets-Cardinals Openers during the rest of the 1960s, any of the 1970s, nor the first half of the 1980s. It wasn’t until 1985 that Opening Day again meant Cardinals versus Mets.

The meaning got much better than it was at the time of the franchise’s birth. The 1962 Mets didn’t have Gary Carter. The 1963 Mets didn’t feature Dwight Gooden. The 1985 Mets trotted both out, sixty feet, six inches apart at Shea Stadium. With Gooden pitching and Carter catching — as well as swinging and belting the game-winning home run in the tenth inning — the Mets began to get even with the Cardinals.

They haven’t stopped. After Kid (who is scheduled to be the subject of his own documentary on SNY [7], 6:30 this Thursday night) took it to Neil Allen to allow the Mets to prevail, 6-5, the Mets won the second game of the season, completing a series sweep. The tone was set for all Mets-Cardinal opening rounds forever more…pending what happens later this week.

Seriously, we’re on a roll against the Cardinals when it comes to getting out of the gate. We won, 8-4, on Opening Day 1989 (HoJo homered and Don Aase supplanted Tommie Agee in the Mets’ all-time alphabetical leadoff position). We won, 4-2, on Opening Night 1992 (Bobby Bonilla went deep twice, ensuring we’d embrace him into eternity). We won, 7-6, on Opening Day 1996 (one of the few instances of defense trumping offense in the so-called Steroids Era, as Rey Ordoñez’s dazzling throw home from his knees to nail Royce Clayton obscured the Mets’ comeback from a six-run hole). And we won, 6-1, on Opening Night 2007 (an ESPN affair framed as a rematch of the 2006 NLCS, which we tied at four games apiece, apparently). That brings us to a five-game Opener winning streak at the expense of the Cardinals, not to mention every opening series versus the Cardinals either won or split since 1985.

Plus we won the Keith Hernandez trade. We won it as soon as Keith put on a Mets uniform in 1983 and we won it again with Carter’s blast off Allen. So, yeah, I’d say we’ve done a decent job avenging the wrong feet we got off to in ’62 and ’63.

Feels good knowing that, doesn’t it? We dislike the Cardinals in a way we dislike nobody else. To paraphrase from Full Metal Jacket, we dislike them long time. We still dislike them despite not having shared the same division with them since 1993. We still hold the 1985 — after early April — against them. We still hold October of 2006 against them. We still resent Yadier Molina’s continued insistence on excelling. We still gloat about the Keith Hernandez trade. We can add the Cardinals’ squeezing the Browns out of town to or list of grievances if we wish just to be thorough.

Yet — and I don’t usually go for this sort of thing when it comes to old-line opponents whose success speaks overbearingly for itself — I dislike the Cardinals while maintaining an embedded core of respect for the whole Cardinal thing. I probably wouldn’t have been happy picking up the next day’s papers in the spring of ’68 and reading about Gibson plunking Agee, but how do you not respect Bob Gibson? Or Lou Brock? Or Stan Musial? Or (despite his role in spoiling the ending of 1985) Ozzie Smith? Despite the worst efforts of the worst of their worst fans [8], how do you not salute the better angels of Cardinals fans on their good days? The monochromatic aesthetic isn’t my thing, but everybody wanting to all wear red together 81 times a year says something about allegiances. They seem to get baseball as a people. I try to judge other tribes on their best feet forward. Based on my personal interactions, they take some honorable steps along the way.

Bonus points for the Sisler statue and the Browns stuff in the museum. The Cardinals could be myopic about St. Louis baseball history, but they’re not. The DeWitts make telling the franchise’s and the city’s story a priority [9]. Any fan of any team should appreciate that.

I still dislike the Cardinals. I’ll hate the Cardinals this Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, with the off day Friday given over to recriminations as necessary. Then I’ll get on to hating the Phillies. I can hate any team the pocket schedule tells me to. But I have to hand it to the Cardinals for achieving the kind of success the Cubs and Astros have achieved lately without having to resort to the determined losing the Cubs and Astros undertook to achieve it. It’s news when the Cardinals don’t make the postseason. It’s shocking if the Cardinals don’t finish over. 500. They haven’t finished under .500 since 2007 (served them right after 2006). They haven’t finished under .500 in consecutive seasons since strike-shortened 1994 and 1995. They haven’t finished under .500 in as many three consecutive seasons since the Browns were the sultans of St. Louis, which is to say the Cardinals don’t do tanking. They rebuild in plain sight.

___

“The Cardinals Way” is a loaded phrase, but The Cardinals Way [10] by my friend Howard Megdal is a fine book that examines how St. Louis stays St. Louis year after year. No matter that the Cubs and Astros have perfected new Ways to be (and many in baseball are salivating over certain franchises innovating the concept of adding one 50+ HR slugger to another). Howard’s book from 2016 remains compelling reading no matter how much you dislike the Redbirds. The second chapter alone, devoted to the teachings of longtime instructor George Kissell, is worth the price of admission. Kissell, according to everybody he touched, embodied The Cardinals Way. You might have heard Hernandez attest to his impact during SNY broadcasts. Keith’s testimony is included in the Kissell chapter, as is a passage in which another Cardinal-cum-Met, Joe McEwing, shares some Super memories of one of baseball’s all-time teachers. Many who’d been Redbirds do. “The language of Branch Rickey,” Megdal writes, is also “the language of George Kissell. And it’s how the Cardinals talk to each other and have for nearly a hundred years.”

Hard to not respect that kind of consistency. But we’re welcome to dislike the results. We wouldn’t be Mets fans if we didn’t.