Over the weekend, this tweet caught quite a few eyes, among Cardinal fans and beyond:
Most recent season having the worst record in the National League:— Jim Passon (@PassonJim) November 28, 2020
SDP (2016 also)
That’s pretty amazing. For all the (warranted) frustration over the years about the Cardinals organization being stingy with contracts, settling for being competitive over being dominant, etc., it’s worth taking a moment to be thankful that we follow a team with such a track record of success.
But it also got me interested in turning back the clock to 1918. What did the Cardinals (and the world) look like the last time St. Louis finished in the cellar?
The year 1918 jumps off the page. That year - like 2020 - is very much an asterisk year for Major League Baseball.
March saw the first wave of the “Spanish Flu” hit the US, but unlike our current pandemic, that virus largely subsided in the summertime and so the baseball season began on schedule. Even so, several players were struck with the virus during the season, including Babe Ruth, who fell gravely ill for about a week.
It was actually the other big thing going on in 1918 that shortened the season - World War I. The Selective Service issued a ruling commonly called “work or fight,” which ordered all able bodied men to either enlist or work in “essential” industries by July 1. Baseball was not ruled essential, but after much haggling between the leagues and government officials, ballplayers were given an extension, though the season was still ordered to end early on Sept. 1.
The result was a shortened mishmash of a season, where teams played anywhere between 123 and 131 games. The St. Louis Cardinals would play 129 games, losing 78 of them and finishing last in the National League.
While the season was ended early because of the Selective Service rules, historians now agree that it also likely saved lives of ballplayers and fans, as the fall of 1918 also saw the deadliest wave of the flu virus.
Fans in 1918 - to the extent they were thinking about baseball at all - likely took that last place finish with a grain of salt, in the same way we now look back at the 2020 season. But for Cardinal fans in 1918, finishing last was not exactly a new phenomenon.
In the 20 years leading up to the 1918 season, the Cardinals finished last in the NL five times. Only three times did they finish in the first division, and even then no higher than third. The St. Louis baseball team - though they had been dominant in the 1880s - spent the tail end of the 19th and first two decades of the 20th century as real doormats.
1917 had actually been one of the best years for the franchise, winning 82 games and finishing in 3rd place (though a distant 15 games behind the New York Giants). Miller Huggins, who had been the team’s player/manager since 1912, ended his playing career and spent 1917 as his first year of managing only. But it was also the last year of his contract, and the club did not offer him an extension.
For the 1918 season, the Cardinals hired longtime minor league player and coach Jack Hendricks to manage the club. He resigned following the team’s last place finish.
So that was the situation, in the fall of 1918, with the flu pandemic and World War I ravaging the nation, and the Cardinals doing what they do: Losing. Could anyone have imagined that the team would not finish in last place again for going on 102 years? What could spark such a turnaround?
The answer to these questions is usually complex, but in the case of the Cardinals, there’s a strong case to be made that one man was responsible for turning the franchise from perennial losers to the most winning franchise in the history of the league: Branch Rickey.
Rickey had actually assumed the role of Team President before that successful 1917 season, but then spent 1918 serving as a Major in the Army Chemical Corps, where he commanded Ty Cobb and Christy Mathewson.
In 1919, Rickey was back in St. Louis, and to save money on payroll, he appointed himself as field manager in addition to his role as general manager. While his managerial skills on the field were questioned - leading to his firing from that role in 1925 - his work in the front office was legendary.
Most notable of course was the construction of the farm system, which began with the Cardinals acquisition of a Houston A-ball team in 1924. While every other club would eventually emulate the Cardinals system, Rickey’s innovation gave the Cardinals a tremendous head start and laid the blueprint for how to win with a franchise that would not or could not spend like the Yankees.
By 1926, the Cardinals would win their first World Series, now managed by Superstar 2nd Baseman Rogers Hornsby.
And as the tweet describes, the team has never again finished with the worst record in the National League. In fact, they did not even finish last in their division until 1990. They have not done it again since.