With the signing of Yadier Molina, the Cardinals continue a streak few know exists. For the past 113 years, the Cardinals have had at least one Hall of Famer on their roster. Yes, yes I know Molina isn’t technically in the Hall of Fame yet, but that feels like enough of a foregone conclusion that we can count it for now. A claim like this demands some sort of proof, so let’s look at the past, starting this year.
2004-2021: Yadier Molina
1996-2011: Tony LaRussa
1982-1996: Ozzie Smith
1980-1982: Whitey Herzog
1964-1979: Lou Brock
1941-1963: Stan Musial
1936-1941: Johnny Mize
1927-1937: Frankie Frisch
1915-1926: Rogers Hornsby
1913-1914: Miller Huggins
1909-1912: Roger Breshanan
In case you didn’t notice, I tried to craft the easiest timeline instead of just listing every Hall of Famer the Cards had. To fill in a few gaps if you’re someone who knows this stuff, Lou Brock retired at the end of 1979 and Whitey wasn’t hired until the middle of 1980. But Ted Simmons was featured on both squads. Similarly, Stan Musial retired after 1963 and Brock didn’t arrive until midseason the next year, but Bob Gibson was teammates with both. Stan Musial went to war and missed 1945, but Red Schoendienst was here during that season. Frankie Frisch and Rogers Hornsby were traded for each other, making that transition easy. Huggins and Breshanan were both player-managers.
It’s worth pointing out that some of these teams did not necessarily seem like they had a Hall of Famer at the time. Whenever Yadi retires, it will look like there won’t be a Hall of Famer on the squad. That doesn’t mean there won’t be. So for the purposes of this post, a thought exercise: when was the last time the Cardinals fielded a team that didn’t seem like it had a Hall of Famer?
A disclaimer if you will: this will require certain assumptions that you can either accept or not. For most of my assumptions, I was not capable of thinking about whether or not someone was a Hall of Famer at the time. So I have to imagine what I would have thought at the time or what the general consensus was.
With that out of the way, I’m going to work backward to answer this question. Was the last time it seemed like the Cardinals didn’t have a Hall of Famer in fact while Yadi was still with the team? I myself am somewhat of a recent convert to Yadi being a Hall of Famer, but I was later than most Cardinals fans I am sure.
I can’t find the original time he said this, but Buster Olney was certainly among the first national guys to talk about Molina to the Hall. He called him a lock sometime early in 2015. He may have done it earlier, but everything I can find is referencing him saying it months ago in 2015. Once Olney said it, it was a thing. In March of spring training in 2014, he was apparently asked by Bernie Miklasz about his chances. (His response seems like BS to me. He claims to not think about it, but come on! Of course he does. I would! )
Anyway, so the Hall of Fame debate was there in 2014 at the very least. And thankfully, I don’t need to search beyond that. Because for the 2012 and 2013 squads, the Cardinals had Carlos Beltran. Whatever you consider his chances in the wake of the cheating scandal, most people thought he was a lock while he was a Cardinal. Before the 2012 season, Beltran had 59.2 fWAR and 7 seasons of 5+ fWAR. He was also in his age 35 season. He was coming off a 4.3 WAR season. It would have taken a catastrophic fall for him to not make the Hall.
During the 2011 season, the Cardinals had both Tony La Russa and Albert Pujols, both virtual locks at the time. The question is: did La Russa look like a Hall of Famer as early as 2002? I’m sure people were talking about it earlier, but Albert Pujols had 45.7 WAR after just six seasons. I’m comfortable calling 2006 the year where Pujols’ Hall of Fame candidacy was evident, although you could easily argue earlier.
But I would argue Tony probably seemed like a future Hall of Famer even before Pujols did. The only pertinent information I want to know though is: was he at least considered a future one in 2002? At the beginning of 2002, La Russa had nearly 2,000 career wins as manager, led his teams to seven 1st place finishes, eight playoff appearance, seven trips to the championship series, three trips to the World Series, and one World Series win. He was coming off a 93-69 season and showed no signs of being close to retirement either. People will correct me if I’m wrong, but I feel comfortable saying La Russa looked like a Hall of Famer before the 2002 season.
The reason I specified the 2002 season is because in 2001, the Cardinals had Mark McGwire. 2001 predates the steroid scandal. McGwire hit 583 career home runs. He looked like a Hall of Famer at the time. Now here’s where things get tricky. McGwire came to the Cardinals in the middle of the 1997 season. He was 33.
Here’s where I do my own guesswork. So McGwire strikes me as a guy who needed 500 HRs to make it, however if he hit 500 HRs, he would probably be considered a Hall of Fame lock. So the question is: while he was a Cardinal, did people think he would do it? And I’m forced to say yes. Having watched the 1998 home run chase documentary, he was constantly in the conversation to break the HR record. I don’t think people collectively understood aging curves, so him being 33 would mean he’d have plenty of time.
For the 1997 season, the Cardinals also had Dennis Eckersley. Eckersley later was a first ballot Hall of Famer. Eckersley was at the very end of his career so I don’t even consider it an assumption that Eckersley was an acknowledged Hall of Famer during the 1997 season. So to go back to McGwire, McGwire had 387 home runs going into 1998. People thought he had a chance at the single season home run record before a ball had been thrown. If that’s the case, 113 home runs to end his career surely didn’t seem like a stretch at all? (He ended up hitting nearly 200 home runs to end his career)
Prior to the 1997 season, the Cardinals had Ozzie Smith. Ozzie Smith got 91.7% of the vote when he was first eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2002. This not only guarantees he was considered a Hall of Famer in 1996, he’s probably got quite a few seasons before that too. We can safely transport back to 1993 at the very least. He barely played in his last two seasons and his season before that was not impressive. The season before that, he had a pretty good year but nothing that would be a difference maker in the Hall.
Things get interesting when we roll around to 1991 and 1992, which were, at least in the case of WAR, extremely vital seasons for his Hall of Fame candidacy. He had 10.2 combined WAR in those years at the ages of 36 and 37 and since he had 67.6 career WAR, removing those puts him below 60 WAR. Of course, voters at the time didn’t know what WAR was.
However, I’m going to make a somewhat arbitrary distinction here. I think once Ozzie won 10 Gold Gloves, he was probably considered a Hall of Famer. When he won his 10th Gold Glove, it had happened just six times before. Of those six players, four were in the Hall, one was Keith Hernandez who was a 1B, and the other was Jim Kaat, who was a pitcher. He was the only shortstop to have won double digit Gold Gloves at the time. Considering Omar Vizquel has a much, much, much, much, much, much, much weaker case than Ozzie did and he’s getting Hall of Fame votes, that feels like a strong point where it becomes evident to me.
He won his 10th Gold Glove in the 1989 season, and everyone probably knew he was going to win a 10th before the 1989 season, so I’d say people knew the Cardinals had a Hall of Famer in 1989. Which brings me to Whitey Herzog. This might be the point where I just have to say “I have no idea.” Theoretically, Whitey was two seasons removed from his managerial career ending, and he ended up making the Hall, and nothing in those last two seasons did it, so he should be considered a Hall of Famer by 1988.
But... he had such a short career and it took him 20 years to get in. Not exactly the mark of someone who was obviously going into the Hall. But there was probably still a strong case to be made, because well, like I said, he made the Hall eventually, so there must have been rumblings. And as for Ozzie, if there was talk of Yadi going into the Hall as early as 2014, surely there was talk of Ozzie in the Hall before he actually got 10 Gold Gloves. Sometimes, the defensive narrative assumes you’ll get in well before you actually deserve to.
And Whitey maybe got in less for his resume, although it’s a good one, it’s just a short one. But I think the Whiteyball brand helped him a lot. The Whiteyball brand was a moniker first bestowed on the Cardinals in the 1982 season. That’s too early of course. But I feel like once Whiteyball was successfully repeated for the second time, that is probably when it might have become evident. Whitey had two pennants, and should have won two World Series. The Cardinals won 101 games in 1985. Whitey won Manager of the Year for his first and only time that year.
In 1984, the Cardinals had Bruce Sutter, and while it took him a while to actually get voted in, he started with 23.9% of the vote. He didn’t do anything after he left the Cardinals. So Bruce Sutter was probably considered a possibility during the 1984 season. He was probably considered a possibility after the 1982 season in fact. Did you know that Bruce Sutter finished in the top 6 of Cy Young voting five times purely as a reliever. He was a top 10 MVP vote getter five times as well. I mean that is bonkers voting behavior but it does show he was respected at the time for his pitching.
Anyway, my official answer to when was the last time the Cardinals didn’t seem like they had a Hall of Famer is the beginning of the 1985 season. Ozzie was far too early in his career and had too much work to do. Whitey was coming off two mediocre seasons and it wasn’t totally clear this whole Whiteyball thing was something that could be replicated.
People who were around for the 80s could perhaps give a better answer than me. It seems hard for me to believe Whitey would be considered a future Hall of Famer as early as 1985, and in fact I think the real answer might be a bit later. But I’m not sure I even need to consider Whitey. Ozzie’s bat first showed up in 1985. Before that, he was all glove, no hit. After 1985, he had six straight Gold Gloves and actually became a threat offensively. That had to be the moment where people stood up and thought: “he might make the Hall of Fame.”
So that’s my answer: beginning of 1985, once Bruce Sutter left, before Whiteyball had repeat success, and before Ozzie had proven himself to be an offensive threat. This is a purely subjective thing of course, so there really is no right or wrong answer and make your case if you think I’m wrong.