Before play-in games, before the wild card, before divisions and league championship series, there was only one way to make the World Series. In 1964, the St. Louis needed to finish with the best record in the National League in order to earn a shot at a World Series title. On July 24, 1964 the Cardinals were in a tie for seventh place, ahead of only recent expansion teams in Houston and New York. They sat ten games back of the first place Phillies. They were fortunate to have a 47-48 record at that juncture having been outscored by 22 runs. Bob Gibson, Ken Boyer, and recent acquisition Lou Brock helped the Cardinals to wins in 46 of their final 67 games completing the greatest in-season comeback of all time.
In 2007, Nate Silver (yes, that Nate Silver) wrote a piece for Baseball Prospectus looking at the greatest pennant race comebacks of all time. Silver looked at different time frames during the season and the playoff odds at that time. Separating the groups into early-season comebacks (at least 60 games to play), stretch-run comebacks (21-60 games to play), and buzzer beaters (20 or fewer games to play), the 1964 Cardinals team was the only one to appear in the top five of all three lists (the 1973 Mets finished in the top ten of all three). From the Silver piece, here are the Cardinals' playoff odds at certain points in the season.
Silver noted that the Cardinals spent nearly a quarter of the season with under a one percent chance of making the playoffs making their comeback the greatest of all time. Cool Standings also uses playoff odds to determine the likelihood for a comeback. They look at the playoff odds of all teams at every point in the season. On their list, the 1964 Cardinals team came in third when they had just a 0.2% chance of making the playoffs on July 24, 1964. Only the 2005 Houston Astros and the 1914 Boston Braves overcame greater odds to make the playoffs. On that same list, the average playoff odds throughout the season are also listed. The Cardinals are one of just two teams, with the 2011 Tampa Bay Rays as the other, to have their average playoff odds throughout the season in the single digits. The 1964 Cardinals average odds of 7.4% is the lowest mark for any team to ever make the playoffs.
Fifty years ago, the Cardinals completed their unlikely comeback with the help of a Phillies collapse and eventually won the World Series against the New York Yankees in seven games. The pitching staff was led by Hall of Famer Bob Gibson, but Ray Sadecki and Curt Simmons both turned in very good years, combining for 464 innings pitched. Lou Brock played in just 103 games for the Cardinals after coming over from the Chicago Cubs for Ernie Broglio, but hit an amazing .348/.387/.527 with a .401 wOBA and 150 wRC+ during that time to help the Cardinals to the pennant. Ken Boyer won the MVP for his play that year. Dick Groat, after winning an MVP and World Series with the Pirates in 1960 played solid defense for the Cardinals as he was winding down his career. (Hitting statistics for the team can be found here with pitching statistics here).
The team was filled with players who would influence baseball both on and off the field. Red Schoendienst was a coach on that team. Tim McCarver, Mike Shannon, and Bob Uecker all went on to have very successful broadcasting careers. Bill White, who went on to a broadcasting career of his own, later served as president of the National League. Curt Flood, in addition to being an excellent player, is now known for his historic challenge of the reserve clause which increased players' rights and eventually created free agency.
The 1964 Cardinals' comeback is the greatest of all time and ended the Cardinals' eighteen year lapse in World Series appearances, the longest the Cardinals have had since winning their first title in 1926. The team featured many all-time greats like Gibson, Brock, and Boyer who comprise a third of the retired player numbers in St. Louis. The team is being honored today prior to the game against 1964 World Series foe New York Yankees. Fifty years is a long time, but that team and those players made a long-lasting impact that still resonates today.