Red Schoendienst passed away yesterday.
I don’t have any spectacular firsthand accounts. I don’t have any personal stories to relay. You probably knew this before you clicked, but you did anyway. I suspect it’s because, on a day like this, consuming all of the words you can find on Red helps the pain. Understanding that the sinking feeling you got when you heard the news also happened in me, happened in millions of others, helps the lonely feeling you suddenly get realizing that you’re walking the Earth without Red.
It seems silly though. You probably didn’t know Red. I didn’t either. There was, at a minimum, always a chain link fence between us. He had no idea I existed. Most casual baseball fans, upon hearing of his death, probably react by wondering who is this Red Schoendienst person? But today, in St. Louis, we’re all sad. We all feel the pain.
That’s part of the charm of Red. As much as Red symbolized the Cardinals, the Cardinals also symbolized Red. I can’t imagine another city falling for Red as much as St. Louis did.
There are different levels of love in life, working your way up to soul mates. That’s what Red and the Cardinals were. Soul mates. You couldn’t find a better match.
People have said this better than I ever could, but the love for Red never came from the usual sources. He was never the leader of his team; that was Stan. He never had memorable post-season heroics like David Freese. He never set record books like McGwire (his career high was 15). He never won any major awards. His highest MVP finish was 3rd, and it came when he was away from the Cardinals. He was never the Cardinals best 2B, not on a franchise that employed Rogers Hornsby. He’s not the most celebrated manager, in a city where Whitey is a God and Tony LaRussa has more wins. He was never a media presence, an announcer who you fell in love with day after day, like Mike Shannon. He isn’t even the most famous Cardinal with his name – Albert. He was always the guy one step back from the limelight. No child ever looked upon his name and knew how to say it. No writer ever wrote it without double checking the spelling thrice. Hell, even his uniform number was the number 2, chose for his Birthday 2/2. And when he died? He died on 6/6. Even his death played homage to face of the Cardinals’ Franchise, Stan Musial.
I suspect, that makes us love him all the more. I suspect we all know the feeling, rooting for a team that will never be fawned over like the Yankees or Red Sox, will always be the underdog to the mighty revenue streams of the big city Chicago Cubs, and has become routinely ridiculed, somehow, for having a loyal, baseball loving fan-base.
It’s a team whose Hall of Famers often get eye rolls from current statisticians. Lou Brock? Chick Hafey? Jesse Haines? Bruce Sutter? Really? These guys don’t have HOF numbers. Ted Simmons? Forgotten to time and region. Jim Edmonds? One ballot. Ozzie Smith? Couldn’t hit, Vizquel is his equal. Yadier Molina? He doesn’t have the numbers. Red Schoendienst? What did Red Schoendienst ever do?
I guess you had to be there to understand how special a part of baseball Red is. I don’t think any one of us realizes what he means to Cardinals fans. To all of us, he’s brought something different.
Red was the underdog. Red was the grinder Cardinals fans have always loved. Red was loyal, he loved St. Louis, and he dedicated his life to Cardinals baseball. Red embodied everything Cardinals fans hold dear – and get mocked by outsiders for celebrating. That’s why Red had to be a Cardinal.
Red slept on a bench in the rain at the chance to be signed by the Cardinals – for $75 a week. He rode in a car with Branch Rickey, the savior of the franchise, with Yogi Berra to try out for the team. He overcame a serious eye injury to make the major leagues. The injury probably would have stopped most players from making it. Red instead worked at learning how to switch-hit.
He came up and wore Stan’s #6 (imagine the pressure). His first game with the Cardinals was the first MLB game he’d ever seen in his life. He became a World Champion at the age of 23 in the 1946 World Series. He fielded the final ball to get the last out with two runners on base and a one run lead. He made nine All-Star games as a Cardinal, hit over .300 six times, and had five seasons in which he garnered MVP support. In 1956 he found out over the radio that he’d been traded away to the Giants. Cardinals’ fans went ballistic. Stan Musial called it “The saddest day in baseball.” Red has always been popular.
Red discovered he had tuberculosis in 1959, and returned home to St. Louis to rest and recover. He had part of his lung removed. Needless to say, that would end most athletes’ careers. While he was resting and recovering, he received over 10,000 letters wishing him well. One of those letters came from President Dwight David Eisenhower. Red has always been popular.
In 1961 Red, the Free Agent, returned to St. Louis to try and win a bench role over the guarantee of a job from the Angels. It worked. He hit over .300 in part time duty at the age of 38. In 1962 Red actually signed on to coach. This was because Red and the team feared that he would be taken in an expansion draft. No one wanted Red out of St. Louis. Once the draft was over, Red signed on to play. He played through 1963, just like Stan. In 1964 a bungled controversy sent manager Johnny Keane, who had just won the World Series, to the Yankees. To settle an angry Cardinal’s fan base, they hired Red Schoendienst. Red has always been popular.
Red Managed the Cardinals for 12 seasons. He oversaw two pennants and a World Championship. He taught Mike Shannon 3B to make room for Roger Maris. Then, in a poor 1976 season, the Cardinals let him go again. In the meantime Red went to coach the Oakland A’s. He was later offered their managing job. He said no.
Instead, he chose to return to St. Louis, where he became the hitting coach. In 1980, the Cardinals started disastrously, and soon finished the season using 4 managers including Red to finish the season. For a team that went 74-88, they finished 18-19 under Red.
Red then became a coach under Whitey Herzog, and served by his side until 1990 when Whitey quit. Red took over until Joe Torre was hired as a replacement. For a team that finished 70-92, Red led them to a 13-11 record. Players just always respected and responded to Red Schoendienst.
Red remained as an active coach until 1996 until his age required him to take a less active role. His last role with the team was a Sr. Special Assistant to the GM. Red never actively chose to leave the Cardinals. Only death could remove the uniform.
For us, for every Cardinals fan, he has been a part of the script our entire lives. Maybe you watched him play. Maybe you saw manage. Maybe you saw him coach. Maybe you saw him hit fungoes. Maybe you saw him in commercials, or in parades with Clydesdales. He was there for your every memory. You can see pictures of him in Sportsman’s Park with those beautiful 40s uniforms complete with piping. You can see him in Busch Stadium II. You can see him in the Cardinal baby blues. Maybe you watched him manage in the pullover jerseys. Maybe you saw him with the modern, pristine uniform. Maybe you watched him watch batting practice at Busch Stadium III. You’ve see him side by side with Stan, Boyer, Whitey, Ozzie, Gibby, Brock, Pujols, Yadi. His roots run through every part of the Cardinals franchise. We will never see a name more synonymous with Cardinal Baseball than the guy they nicknamed the perfect color: Red.
As fans we’ve watched multitudes come and go. We’ve screamed cheers for Pujols only to watch him leave. We’ve adored David Freese and anointed him a Cardinal for life – when he’s actually now spent more time with other teams than he did with the Redbirds. We wanted to give our loyalty to players like Jason Heyward, who rejected us.
We have watched roster churn after roster churn of thousands of players and coaches who ever so briefly became a part of our lifelong obsession. Red was always there. You never had to say goodbye to Red. I guess that’s why that even at 95, it feels shocking that we have to let go of Red too.
The Cardinal Way has taken on a bigger meaning than the simple guide book was ever meant to be. Now it’s become something abstract, with a meaning each person holds in their own hearts of what it means to play like a Cardinal. I would submit, that in his Hall of Fame speech in 1989 Red Schoendienst sums up exactly what we think it means to be a Cardinal.
“I would play any position my manager asked. Whatever it took to win, I was willing to do. All I ever wanted was to be on that lineup card and become a champion.”
After all, who better to define the Cardinal Way, than Mr. Cardinal?
Rest in peace with Baseball’s Perfect Knight, Red Schoendienst, St. Louis’s Perfect Cardinal.