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The Auteur: Whitey Herzog

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With control of both the dugout and the front office, Whitey Herzog implemented his vision on the St. Louis Cardinals.

True Detective Season Two? The White Rat with Red Schoendienst.
True Detective Season Two? The White Rat with Red Schoendienst.
Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

In a recent post, I looked at the Cardinals first (major) free agent acquisition, Darrell Porter. That move was the end of the story of how free agency came to the Cardinals, but also the beginning of the story of Whiteyball.

For a brief period, Whitey Herzog was the auteur of the St. Louis Cardinals. Like a Kubrick or a Tarantino, he controlled every aspect of the ball club, and crafted a team that matched his unique vision.

And he did it all in just 387 days.

We've seen teams go through a makeover. The Chicago Cubs are on the verge of a potential renaissance after years of stockpiling young talent. When Guggenheim Group purchased the Dodgers, they opened up their wallet and restocked the franchise. Usually, these things are dictated by financial factors. What Herzog did was so unique because it was really about philosophy.

Whiteyball was primarily about speed - we know that. But in his autobiography, "White Rat," Herzog doesn't frame it as some universal credo of How The Game Should Be Played. Instead, he insists it was just a response to the cavernous outfields and artificial turf of Busch Stadium II and indeed, most of the National League.

As for the team he inherited in the middle of the 1980 season, Herzog said "I've never seen such a group of misfits."

Nobody would run out a ball. Nobody in the bullpen wanted the ball. We had guys on drugs - and another guy who sneaked off into the tunnel between innings so he could take a hit of vodka.

There was a clear gulf between the team Herzog had and the team he wanted. They already had three of the top ten player salaries in the league, so he wouldn't be getting a sudden infusion of cash to buy new talent. The minor league system was full of journeymen, with Tommy Herr the only promising prospect, so there was no youth movement knocking at the door. If Herzog wanted to remake this team, he was going to have to do it with lateral moves, the kind of horse trading a kid might do on franchise mode of a video game. And that's exactly what he did.

Dec. 7, 1980

Cardinals sign Free Agent Darrell Porter

Ted Simmons was a beloved player in St. Louis, still a very productive hitter, but as Herzog put it, "the kind of player they invented the Designated Hitter rule for." His first move as GM brought in Porter to bolster the defense and be an advocate for Herzog's mantra of hustle in the clubhouse.

The very next day, the Cardinals lost Jody Davis to the Cubs in the Rule 5 draft. Davis would post comparable value to Porter over the next few seasons.

Dec. 8, 1980

Traded Terry Kennedy, John Littlefield, Al Olmsted, Mike Phillips, Kim Seaman, Steve Swisher and John Urrea to the San Diego Padres for Rollie Fingers, Bob Shirley, Gene Tenace and Bob Geren.

In acquiring Fingers, Herzog said he got the relief pitcher he needed, but not the one he wanted. So, the next day...

Dec. 9, 1980

Traded Leon Durham, Ken Reitz and Ty Waller to the Cubs for Bruce Sutter

Fingers told Herzog he would be okay with pitching out of the same pen as Sutter, but Whitey foresaw conflict between the two righty relievers / egos.

Dec. 12, 1980

Traded Rollie Fingers, Ted Simmons and Pete Vuckovich to the Milwaukee Brewers for David Green, Dave LaPoint, Sixto Lezcano and Lary Sorensen.

Oops. Rollie Fingers would go on to win the Cy Young and MVP Award in 1981. The next year, Vuckovich would earn the Cy Young.

When Simmons learned Porter would be coming in to catch, He initially told Herzog he would agree to play first base, moving Keith Hernandez into the outfield. But Herzog said Simmons later had doubts, and Whitey himself wanted to avoid moving Gold Glover Hernandez out-of-position.

Green was the centerpiece of the deal for the Cardinals, one of the top prospects in the league. Prospects don't always pan out.

June 7, 1981

Traded Tony Scott to the Houston Astros for Joaquin Andujar

***

Even after being fleeced by Milwaukee and with his makeover only partly finished, Whitey's 1981 Cardinals would go on to post the best record in the NL East in 1981, up from 4th the year before. What's that? You don't remember the 1981 Cardinals in the playoffs? Because of the midseason work stoppage, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn implemented a bizarre system where the best team from each half-season would meet in a mini-playoff. The Cardinals finished second in each half.

***

Oct. 21, 1981

Traded Bob Sykes to New York Yankees for Willie McGee

When the Yankees signed a mega-contract with Dave Winfield, it kept the promising McGee in Nashville and meant he would be available in the minor league draft at the end of the season. Knowing they would lose McGee, the Yankees swapped him for the lefty reliever.

Nov. 20, 1981

Traded Silvio Martinez and Lary Sorensen; received Lonnie Smith in a 3-team deal

Once a promising pitching prospect and only 25, Martinez was already in the midst of a physical breakdown and would never pitch in the majors again. Sorensen was about to begin his downward slide. Lonnie Smith would finish 2nd in the 1982 MVP voting as a Cardinal.

December 10, 1981

Traded Garry Templeton and Sixto Lezcano to the San Diego Padres for Steve Mura and Ozzie Smith.

Herzog called Templeton the only player he wanted to keep when he took over the club. But after grabbing his crotch and flipping off fans during a game in August, he was a pariah in St. Louis. To replace him, Herzog targeted Alan Trammel, Rick Burleson and Ivan De Jesus. Unable to manage a swap for one of those players, he settled for Ozzie Smith.

Just over a year after he signed Darrell Porter, Herzog completed his transformation of the St. Louis Cardinals.

In February of 1982, Herzog would relinquish GM duties to focus on managing his team on the field (though the move wouldn't be announced until April).

Through a modern lens, some of Herzog's moves were questionable. He wasn't pinpointing a market inefficiency (at least not consciously in those terms). He was following his gut. But the results were spectacular.