The Cardinals Way: How One Team Embraced Tradition and Moneyball at the Same Time

The Cardinals Way: How One Team Embraced Tradition and Moneyball at the Same Time

by Howard Megdal

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Overview

The St. Louis Cardinals have experienced the kind of success that is rare in baseball. Regarded by many as the premier organization in Major League Baseball, they not only win, but do so with an apparently bottomless pool of talent, one that is mostly homegrown.

Despite years of phenomenal achievements, including going to the World Series in 2004 and again in 2006, the Cardinals reinvented themselves using the "Cardinal Way," a term that has come to represent many things to fans, media, and other organizations, from an ironclad code of conduct to the team's cutting-edge use of statistic and analytics, and a farm system that has transformed baseball.

Baseball journalist Howard Megdal takes fans behind the scenes and off the field, interviewing dozens of key players within the Cardinals organization, including owner Bill DeWitt and the general manager John Mozeliak. Megdal reveals how the players are assessed and groomed using an unrivaled player development system that has created a franchise that is the envy of the baseball world.

In the spirit of Moneyball, The Cardinals Way tells an in-depth, fascinating story about a consistently good franchise, the business of sports in the twenty-first century and a team that has learned how to level the playing field, turning in season after successful season.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250058317
Publisher: St. Martin''s Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/23/2016
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 753,673
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.50(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

HOWARD MEGDAL has written for Capital New York, Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, and USA Today, among others. The Cardinals Way is his fourth book. He lives in Rockland County, New York with his wife, Rachel and his two daughters, Mirabelle and Juliet.

Read an Excerpt

The Cardinals Way

How One Team Embraced Tradition and Moneyball at the Same Time


By Howard Megdal

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2016 Howard Megdal
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-6239-5



CHAPTER 1

THE CARDINAL IDEA


Want to know what will happen tomorrow? Read yesterday's paper.

— Mike Shannon


I love Baseball Prospectus. But I couldn't help noticing this paragraph by Russell Carleton, in his March 4, 2014, column on the Cardinals:

"Before we create too much of a mythology surrounding The Cardinal Way, let's be realistic for a minute. The Cardinals did not invent player development. They do not have a monopoly on smart guys who are good at molding young bats and young arms. They did not invent the idea of making sure that there was a coherent philosophy running through the player development system. Lots of teams make it a point to ensure that from the Sally League to the National League, the expectations that pitchers have are as uniform as they can be. It sets up a nice uniformity and eases the transitions that players might face as they move up in the minors. For all we know, they may not be the first team to write an internal book — or a series of memos which, if someone had bothered to collect them into a three-ring binder, would look like a book."

Let me stop you right there, Russell. The Cardinals did, in fact, invent player development. They did invent the idea of making sure a coherent philosophy ran through the player-development system.

And they were the first team to write an internal book, too — but we'll get to George Kissell soon enough.

First, we need to talk about Branch Rickey, inventor of the farm system. Rickey was many things: an Ohio schoolboy. A catcher good enough to play in the major leagues, before an arm injury ended his career. An academic and a teacher, repeatedly offered jobs outside the confines of the game that ultimately employed him for six decades. The bringer of integration to Major League Baseball, and of Jackie Robinson to millions of people who will never forget seeing him play.

But Rickey spent twenty-five years of his life, from 1917 to 1942, with the St. Louis Cardinals. And the foundation for how the Cardinals, and ultimately, every major league team acquired and developed talent came from Rickey himself.

It is easy to assert, with benefit of hindsight, that the farm system was an eventuality, a claim that still allows Rickey to claim credit for getting there first. But both opinion at the time of Rickey's great innovation, and even the example of other leagues to this day, argue against this limited view.

The idea of a farm club predates Rickey. John T. Brush, owner of the Cincinnati Red Stockings, also owned the Indianapolis Hoosiers of the Western League and shifted players between the teams. But pushback from other minor league teams limited this practice until the second decade of the twentieth century.

Around this time, Rickey was coaching baseball at the University of Michigan. And he was hired by Robert Lee Hedges, owner of the St. Louis ... Browns.

It's startling to consider just how much fate could have shifted in St. Louis baseball if any number of things had happened slightly differently, or earlier, or later. This book could easily have been about the most successful franchise in baseball history — the Browns. Hedges believed in Rickey's idea of a farm system and hired Rickey originally in 1913, for $7,500, to create that farm system. Hedges also hired Charlie Barrett, who went on to become one of Rickey's most successful scouts with the Cardinals.

During his time with the Browns, Rickey, in need of an administrative assistant, hired a thirteen-year-old peanut vendor at Sportsman's Park to be his new assistant: Bill DeWitt Sr.

The Browns, not the Cardinals, owned Sportsman's Park. The Browns drew bigger crowds than the Cardinals. The Cardinals were the money losers in town. Even after the Cardinals were sold by the Robison family, the debt the new ownership took on (the deal with the Robison family essentially mortgaged the Cardinals, with payments constantly due) meant constantly trying to meet debt obligations while maintaining, if not building, the team.

The Cardinals even opened up shares of the team to fans, hoping for a cash infusion. It was referred to publicly as "The Cardinal Idea." Incredible as it may seem, given the fan support the Cardinals enjoy today, response was tepid at best. No St. Louis child born since 1902 has reached age twenty-five without seeing a World Series championship parade in his town. But in 1917, the year Rickey started with the Cardinals, the oldest children that astonishing stat covers were only fifteen years old.

Hedges became a casualty of the settlement with the Federal League, a third major league built to challenge that NL and AL circuits. As part of the settlement, Hedges sold the Browns to Phil Ball, owner of the St. Louis Federal League team, a man temperamentally unsuited, and not particularly inclined, to work with Rickey. As for Rickey's farm system? "I don't want anything to do with it!" Ball reportedly said.

So when an opportunity opened up with the Cardinals, under their new ownership group, to join their front office as president, Rickey made the move. DeWitt and Barrett soon followed, along with other scouts, who helped populate those first Cardinal farm system teams. That wouldn't have happened for the Cardinals had Rickey remained with the Browns.

Those early years were hardly representative of what the Cardinals would become. Rickey would bring expensive rugs that belonged to his wife's family into team offices in Sportsman's Park for the day to make the team look more respectable during meetings with the owners of potential minor league affiliates.

But two circumstances changed for the Cardinals at the tail end of the 1910s. Sam Breadon, who'd had a small stake in the team, decided to get more involved, eventually buying enough to become president of the team, fully funding the expansion of Rickey's farm system for the Cardinals, while simultaneously retiring the last of the debt due to the Robison family. In exchange, Rickey willingly gave up his title of president to Breadon.

And the second thing: Breadon, now in charge, decided to give Branch Rickey an entirely free hand to run baseball operations.

Now the farm system would become the true "Cardinal Idea."

The system, born in part of necessity, would quickly expand as was necessary. Bill DeWitt, Sr., ultimately, became the first "farm director" in Major League Baseball history.

"He was very close to Branch Rickey," Bill DeWitt Jr. recalled, in my September 2014 interview with him, about his father. "He used to travel with him. When they had all these farm teams, they would go visit them and sort out what was going on — check on the players. There were so few people in the front office, like eight to ten people. They really didn't have a farm director, but he was the de facto farm director."

Rickey, and the Cardinals scouts, such as Charlie Barrett, had been scouring the high minors for players for the last few years of the 1910s. But their eye for talent had become so respected, other owners, armed with the knowledge that Rickey wanted these players and nothing else, would swoop in and outbid the relatively penniless Cardinals for them. Rickey, fed up with this happening, wired Barrett in Texas, "Pack up and come home — we'll develop our own players."

Thus, the Cardinals acquired a controlling interest in a Class C team in Fort Smith, Arkansas. The youngest, rawest players with promise Rickey could find would be sent there, preparing them to play with the Cardinals. However, no player could be expected to jump from Class C to the majors. Accordingly, when Charlie Barrett brought word of a possible ownership stake to be had in the Houston franchise of the Texas League, the steps that would become commonplace for all began to fall into place for the Cardinals.

There to implement it all was Rickey's farm director, DeWitt Sr. Or as DeWitt Sr. himself put it in a 1980 interview: "I think I knew more about Branch Rickey in the twenty years I was associated with him. I used to sleep at his house at night. I lunched there. I ate dinner at his house. And so I knew him better than anybody during that twenty-year period."

Does the Rickey/DeWitt farm system, in retrospect, seem obvious, the only proper way to develop talent? Perhaps. But no one can claim it was inevitable. No less a man than John McGraw dismissed the idea of a farm system, and the New York Giants didn't begin to build one until after he died in 1934. That echoed the feelings of many throughout the major leagues. The Yankees didn't speak to Commissioner Landis about doing so until 1928 and didn't buy their first farm team until 1931, in Newark, New Jersey.

Nor were many minor league teams happy about this new idea, either. As John B. Sheridan wrote in his February 5, 1920, column in The Sporting News, "Managers of minor league baseball want players. Grievously. Must have them. Are turning heaven and earth to get them. Players are hard to find. When a minor league manager does light upon a likely lad he offers him a contract. The lordly lad pushes the minor league contract aside with a wide wave of his hand and says:

"'I am very sorry, but Charley Barrett has offered me a contract with the St. Louis Nationals, which you are probably aware is a major league club, even if it is in a lowly position....'

"Barrett's specialty is signing untried, fledgling, amateur, semi-professional, any sort of platers to the St. Louis National League club contracts at figures which will permit of the players being sent to the minor leagues for development. Barrett goes about the country picking up boys at from $125 to $200 a month."

The Cardinals won the World Series, finally, in 1926. That first crop of astonishing young stars, developed through the nascent farm system, included Jim Bottomley, George Toporcer, Lester Bell, Chick Hafey, Taylor Douthit, Ray Blades, Wattie Holm, Heine Mueller, Tommy Thevenow, Flint Rehm, and Eddie Dyer.

For those keeping score at home, that's a pair of Hall of Famers in Bottomley and Hafey, a 20-game winner for those world champions in Rehm, two-thirds of the championship outfield in Douthit and Blades, and a number of other key contributors who powered the Cardinals for much of the decade.

And once the time came for the Cardinals to build that farm system, finding enough other minor league teams to go along with it still might have proved impossible if not for Rickey's vast network of contacts and personal relationships, and the ability of people such as Charlie Barrett to scout and Bill DeWitt Sr. to carry out that vision.

As he did so, DeWitt Sr., at the strong urging of Rickey, finished his education.

"I have a picture of my father and his brother with Branch Rickey," DeWitt Jr. told me. "It says, 'To William, a great friend.' The fact that he said 'to William.' I read someplace that he called everybody by their formal name. I mean — I wonder if, when he was eighteen, he called him William — he must've!

"But Charlie Barrett called him Orville, which was his middle name. So he was the young guy around the office, relied on to contribute, do a lot of stuff."

Then DeWitt Sr. went to college. Rickey sent him.

"My college work I did all at night, and I worked for the Cardinals in the daytime," DeWitt Sr. said.

Then Rickey sent him to law school. DeWitt passed the bar. Eventually, he became treasurer for the Cardinals, working under Rickey.

Remarkably, the farm system Rickey, DeWitt, and Barrett put together is largely the one the Cardinals use even now. A man Rickey himself hired, George Kissell, spent many of the subsequent decades formulating its consistent approach to training players.

But the people who engineered it, and the animating principles behind player procurement that went with them, had another job to do before the Cardinals' restoration we see today. They had to go build out the rest of baseball. Bill DeWitt Sr., to the Browns (who won the AL pennant in 1944), the Yankees, the Tigers, then Cincinnati Reds, with the foundation that became the Big Red Machine. Larry MacPhail, then Rickey, to the Brooklyn Dodgers, who won NL pennants in 1941, 1947, 1949, 1952, 1953, 1955 and 1956.

All the while, a young man from upstate New York put together the animating principles, not to mention the hard work and personal relationships, that came to define the Cardinals minor league experience for scores of Hall of Famers, All-Stars, and those who never even made the big leagues.

CHAPTER 2

THE LANGUAGE OF GEORGE KISSELL


He's legendary in this organization. And I would say about thirty to fifty percent of other organizations know George Kissell. And the reason they know him is because of how many managers and coaches he's sent to the big leagues.

— Mike Shannon


You meet George Kissell, and right away, in a day or two, you knew who he was.

— Red Schoendienst


If you didn't know better, you'd think George Kissell was an entirely fictional creation, a stand-in for the values most treasured by the game of baseball. His record is too impossibly broad, his reach ridiculous to behold and incalculable in scope. He lived eighty-eight years and not only stayed on with the Cardinals for sixty-eight years — from his signing in 1940 to his death in 2008 — but combined the length of his tenure with the kind of tangible results, and correlating respect, that few achieve in this game.

For Kissell, it was a constant. You hear it in Hall of Fame speeches from some of the greats who played this game, and you hear it in letters written to Kissell by long-forgotten minor leaguers who crossed Kissell's path, briefly, decades ago.

The reason this matters to the Cardinals — the Cardinals of Lou Brock and Bob Gibson, of Willie McGee and Terry Pendleton, of Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen, right through to the Cardinals of Michael Wacha and Matt Carpenter — is that so many of those people are still teaching the game the way George Kissell taught it to them in the organization. A man steeped in Rickey's lessons — signed by Rickey himself — directly mentored many of the managers in the Cardinals system here in 2015. Such continuity should be impossible for purely chronological reasons.

It isn't, because of George Kissell. Growing up on a farm in Evans Mills, New York, Kissell did not have a baseball-mad father. At first, his father didn't want to take him to a baseball tryout camp — there were chores to do. But a rainy night prior to the Cardinals' scheduled tryout camp — another Branch Rickey invention — meant no hay could be baled that day. So the two of them headed to the camp in Rochester. The drive is more than two and a half hours today — you can imagine how long it took back in 1940, before the existence of I-81, in a 1936 Ford.

Kissell wore number 385 on his back and fielded five balls at shortstop. He showed the Cardinals enough that they signed him to a contract. A Rickey scout asked Kissell how much money he'd spent to get to the tryout. Kissell added the hotel room, meals, gas, and told the scout: $19.80. The scout handed him a twenty and said, "You got a twenty-cent bonus."

To place the start of Kissell's career within the framework of Cardinals history, here's what 1940 meant. It meant Kissell was a Cardinal before Stan Musial had collected the first of his 3,630 major league hits. It meant Kissell was a Cardinal for most of Terry Moore's tenure in center field and overlapped the careers of Pepper Martin and Joe Medwick. Johnny Mize led the team before World War II and would play for more than another decade in the major leagues. Dizzy Dean was still active with the Cubs and had been traded only two years earlier.

All of the players in the preceding paragraph had been signed and developed by the Cardinals. So clearly, by the time Kissell arrived on the scene, the system had already figured out a way to provide the Cardinals with a steady stream of elite talent.

As he began immersing himself in this environment, Kissell was doing something else: he was writing it down. In the summer of 1941, rookie third baseman George Kissell traveled to Hamilton, Ontario, to play for the Cardinals' Pony League affiliate there. He hit .350 as Joe DiMaggio hit in 56 straight and Ted Williams cleared the .400 mark. Then Kissell returned to Ithaca College, where he was an undergraduate, and continued working toward his degree.

He earned it, a baseball-playing member of the class of 1942. His senior thesis, sadly lost to history, was nothing less than a road map for his journey to come: a manual on how to play, and properly instruct, young baseball players.

Might Kissell have been one of those players? We'll never know. World War II intervened, and Kissell spent most of the next four years out in Guadalcanal. He returned stateside in 1946, and then the Cardinals did something with the born teacher: they made him a player-manager, at the age of twenty-six.

So Kissell kept on playing, hitting .281, then .289, with the Lawrence Millionaires, the Lowell Orphans, and then back down the ladder as Kissell the player took a backseat to Kissell the manager, Kissell the molder of young men, in Hamilton, Ontario. He earned his master's degree from Ithaca College. In 1950, the Winston-Salem Cardinals in Class B won 106 games with Kissell managing. This was hardly a team stacked with future major league stars — though Vinegar Bend Mizell did pitch to a 2.48 ERA for them — but Kissell had the kind of year that eventually got him honored by the Winston-Salem Hall of Fame.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from The Cardinals Way by Howard Megdal. Copyright © 2016 Howard Megdal. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Prologue 1

1 The Cardinal Idea 11

2 The Language of George Kissell 18

3 Bill DeWitt Jr. 41

4 Luhnow Enters 55

5 Happy Days Are Here Again 124

6 After He's Gone 164

Epilogue: Transition and the Irreplaceable Cardinal 256

Acknowledgments 275

Notes 279

Index 283

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