10/13/2003 4:33 PM ET
Cards saved the best for last in '64
Late-season rally stunned the National League
ST. LOUIS -- After dominating the National League for the two decades before and up through the second World War, the immediate postwar period was a dry one for the proud Cardinals franchise. A team that won nine pennants from 1926-1946 went the next 17 years without a first-place finish.
By Matthew Leach / MLB.com
But the early 1960s showed signs of a return to prominence for St. Louis. A young pitcher named Bob Gibson began to show what he could do in 1961 and 1962. Around the same time, players like Bill White and Curt Flood began to hit their primes. The 1963 Cards won 93 games and finished in second place. Something was brewing.
It came to fruition down the stretch in the 1964 season, as the Cardinals returned to their expected place atop the NL. Gibson, White, Flood and new acquisition Lou Brock all played roles as the Cards steamrolled past the Phillies, then triumphed over the favored Yankees in the World Series. It was the beginning of another Golden Age in St. Louis baseball, as the "Birds on the Bat" took three out of five pennants through 1968.
The Cardinals-Yankees battle was so compelling as to be immortalized in October, 1964, David Halberstam's fine chronicle.
From the start, 1964 had a chance to be the first pennant year by the banks of the Mississippi since 1946, but it started slowly. The Cards were 28-31 when they acquired Brock for Ernie Broglio in probably the most misassessed trade in the history of baseball. The deal was panned at the time -- for the Redbirds.
As late as the morning of Sept. 21, Brock, Gibson and the Cards trailed the Phillies by 6 1/2 games. The Phils' magic number, as it were, was seven with two weeks of baseball remaining.
Then it started to crumble for the Phils, and the Cards came together. A brutal 18-game road trip didn't weaken the Redbirds -- it made them stronger. St. Louis swept five games from the Pirates in Pittsburgh. When the schedule finally brought the barnstorming 'Birds home, the Reds had taken over first place, with the Phillies a game out and the Cards 1 1/2 back.
"They're stealing the money right out of your pockets," Phils manager Gene Mauch was quoted as telling his players in October, 1964. "If it was me and someone tried to steal my money there'd be a hell of a fight."
But there wasn't much of a fight. Entering the season's final weekend, the Cards found themselves in first place -- leading the Reds by a game and the Phillies by 2 1/2.
However, St. Louis dropped the first two of a home series with the Mets, falling back into a first-place tie with the Reds, before winning the season finale and taking the pennant by a game over both Cincinnati and Philadelphia. Gibson notched the win in relief in the clincher.
Ironically, it was a Phillies win over the Reds that secured the flag for St. Louis.
"The Cardinals could still hardly believe they were in the World Series," Halberstam wrote. "Winning the pennant had come as a quick high for the Cardinals, and an equally quick downer for the Phillies."
Yet as quickly as it all happened, it endures as one of the sport's most famous races. And while it may have been the end of a World Series era and the end of the Yankees dynasty, it was the beginning of an era in the National League.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Jonathan Mayo contributed to this story, which was not subject to approval by Major League Baseball or its clubs.