In 1946, the St. Louis Cardinals needed the first-ever playoff series to sneak past the Brooklyn Dodgers, but swept that best-of-three tiebreaker to attain the World Series. They met the Boston Red Sox there. Boston was fresh off a much easier regular season, in which they more handily dispatched the Detroit Tigers.
Both of those teams won with offense. Each led their league in runs. Each led in doubles. Each was clearly the best team in their league, top to bottom, although the Cardinals had a hard time separating themselves from the pack.
For the Cardinals, the ensuing Series was a potential coronation. They had won three of the four War pennants, on the strength of the farm system Branch Rickey had built for them, a factory for young talent no other team in baseball could match. Even if one considers sheer production from a team’s farm, rather than their ability to identify, retain and leverage the best of their farm products, the Cardinals of those years had the most productive farm system ever.* Their whole lineup was homegrown, and included the likes of Stan Musial, Enos Slaughter, Red Schoendienst, Joe Garagiola, Marty Marion and Harry Walker.
The Red Sox, on the other hand, viewed that season as a redemption, a revival. They were a fairly homegrown group themselves, with owner Tom Yawkey having learned the hard way that buying pennants is an expensive and inefficient endeavor. When the four core players whom the Sox had brought along since they were teenagers (Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, Johnny Pesky and Dom DiMaggio) went off to World War II, though, the Sox suffered disproportionately. They had finished next-to-last in the American League in 1945, with a 71-83 record.
With the Big Four back, though, and thanks to some outside hires—most notably Rudy York, who drove in 119 runs in 1946 and hit two game-winning homers in the Series, but also Wally Moses—the Sox surged back to the front of the AL. They won 104 games en route to the Series.
The Fall Classic that year more than earned its name. The Red Sox won Games One, Three and Five. The Cardinals won Games Two, Four and Six. In Game Seven, DiMaggio hit a two-run, game-tying double in the top of the eighth inning, but pulled his hamstring in the process. Thus, he wasn’t in center field to handle—with his legendary aggressiveness—a ball shot up the gap by Walker during the bottom of the frame.
Instead, Leon Culberson was out there, and he got the ball in much less quickly than DiMaggio would have. Pesky took Culberson’s relay throw as Slaughter, who’d been on first base when the ball was hit, rounded third without hesitation. Pesky had trouble handling the ball, though, and couldn’t get the ball in. Slaughter scored. The Cardinals won the Series three outs later.
That;s what the 2013 World Series has to live up to. Two teams, each clearly the best in their league, pushing past the Dodgers and Tigers to ensure they get the chance to settle the question of who’s really the best team in baseball. Two similar, but seemingly divergent philosophies for roster-building.
Baseball, like history, has a neat way of repeating itself. The similarities between experiences separated by generations remind us that there is a certain order to things, that for all the variance and all the breaks and all the sudden changes imposed by the guardians of the game, baseball has certain patterns. There are things that always work.
This Series matches two teams who have found extremely sustainable success. The Cardinals, now as then, are a hometown team. They draft and develop players better than anyone else in baseball, and they don’t let guys go until their utility is fading, their cost is rising, or both. The Red Sox do those things well, too, but they’re more holistic, more aggressive and richer. Things change, but they stay the same, too.
Here’s an interesting dichotomy: Contrast the Cardinals’ insular approach to leveraging farm products with the Red Sox’s much more expansive one. Put another way, note how the Cardinals don’t leak talent very often, and how the Red Sox, while good at churning out home-grown studs, have a footprint that spreads across the league much more.
The Cardinals have just a few contributors who have worn another big-league uniform: Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran, Jake Westbrook, John Axford, Randy Choate and Edward Mujica. Westbrook isn’t even going to see the field during the Series. Holliday and Beltran are certainly huge cogs for them, but the point here is that drafting well accounts for virtually all of the Cards’ success.
They haven’t drafted more than they’ve needed, though, or at least, the developmental magic they work on their draftees doesn’t carry elsewhere. Of the other playoff teams this season, only the Dodgers had even a hint of Cardinals mojo to thank for their success—and even they only had Skip Schumaker.
The Red Sox are different. They’ve got homegrown stars at the top of their lineup (Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia) and the front of their rotation (Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz), but they do rely on free agency and trades, too. They have less than a perfect drafting record.
On the other hand, look at the assemblage of former Red Sox farmhands (or plain old former Red Sox) dotting the rosters of the other teams who reached this postseason. There are Anibal Sanchez and Hanley Ramirez, who in a universe not so different from this one could be squaring off in the World Series right now, seven years after Boston dealt them away to fuel its own (2007) title run. There are Jed Lowrie and Josh Reddick and Coco Crisp, all former Red Sox, now crucial parts of the Oakland offense. (Brandon Moss passed through Boston once, too, though not for long.) There is Jose Iglesias, who impressed with his base-running, his tough at-bats and (as expected) his sparkling glovework during the ALCS. He’s the Tigers’ starting shortstop now, because the Red Sox had Stephen Drew already, and knew Xander Bogaerts was on the way, and wanted Jake Peavy for the back of their rotation.
There are Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, a different sort of export, but undeniably talented players from whom the Sox needed distance only because of a nightmare sequence beginning in September 2011. There were also, however briefly, Justin Masterson and Bronson Arroyo.
These Red Sox, like those, are in search of redemption, after a needlessly ugly year-plus. These Cardinals, like those, are trying to prove their preeminence. Both teams got here because they have used their resources wisely, emphasized aggregating talent and then fostered it well.
Which team wins doesn’t matter that much, in one sense. The outcome won’t prove that one is better than the other. It should, however, highlight the differences between the two approaches. Boston has superior depth, because they’re not afraid to add a free agent even when it looks like a prospect could do the job. They load their 40-man roster until it bursts, and the result is a team without holes in its lineup, and with a deep bench, and with two players under 25 years old sharing time at third base.
On the other hand, the Cardinals have some really remarkable talent, and their approach ensures they can maximize it. The organization’s lavish developmental investments in Michael Wacha, Matt Carpenter and Trevor Rosenthal this year alone have churned out three elite players at their positions. There’s something to be said for leaving as little as possible up to an athlete, and with their diligent instruction and willingness to challenge guys, the Cardinals really don’t risk missing out when they identify a talented ballplayer.
In 1946, it didn’t occur to anyone to begrudge a team or its fans its success. There might have been envy for the Yankees and the Cardinals among baseball fans, but there wasn’t baseless enmity. The games on the field won or lost the world’s attention on their own merits, not based on an irrational hatred for one or both clubs. I hope we can rediscover that. The Red Sox and Cardinals are exciting, well-built teams looking to carve distinct niches in history by winning this Series. They deserve to be viewed as the heirs to the legacies of Williams and Musial, Doerr and Schoendienst, Pesky and Slaughter, DiMaggio and Walker, Yawkey and Rickey.
The joke in Washington used to be that for a Democratic Congressman, the Republicans were just the opposition; the Senate was the enemy. That jovial spirit seems irretrievably lost these days, in politics. We should strive to maintain it in sports. Whichever team you hate most, be they your favorite team’s rival or just the public’s supervillain du jour, treat them as the opposition. Football is the enemy.Next post: 2013 World Series Preview: The 10 Most Exciting Players in the Series
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