I recently reread David Halberstam’s October 1964 about the World Series between the New York Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals. Halberstam uses the World Series of 1964 as a foil to discuss race relations in the decade, both inside baseball and out, for the Yankees represented an approach to society reflective of a status quo that had much more to do with police brutality against civil rights workers in Selma than the Yankees would care to admit. Meantime, the Cardinals expressed much more of the changing climate in America.
As Halberstam points out, it looked as if all the ingredients of a great team were coming together for the Cardinals in the early 1960s. The team had all of the attributes of its successful teams of the past, excellent pitching, great defense, and speed. But there was something more that was critical to the Cardinals success in 1964, how the team bridged the racial divide in the United States to create a cohesive unit. Everyone who visited the Cardinals locker room recognized that something was different from other teams. The African American, White, and Latino players seemed to have an easier relationship than elsewhere.
No question, many of the premier players for the Cardinals were African Americans in 1964—Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Curt Flood, and Bill White—and they certainly helped set the tenor of the clubhouse. But southerners like Ken Boyer and Tim McCarver were also committed to the successful integration of American life and brought that perspective to the team as well. This relative racial harmony was significant for the Cardinals and stood in striking contrast to the problems present with the Yankees and other major league teams.
One anecdote about the Cardinals offered in October 1964 elucidates this issue. Curt Flood recounted a story of going to Cardinals spring training camp in Florida in the latter 1950s and finding himself sent to an African American boarding house in another town, instead of staying in the same hotel where his white teammates were housed. A sensitive and thoughtful man, and an activist in race relations, Flood was both hurt and angered by this situation and when the opportunity presented he said something. When the Cardinals owner, August A. Busch Jr., saw him at the training camp and struck up a conversation Flood let slip that the situation of the black players was not the best. Busch was genuinely surprised that Flood and the other black players were not staying at the main hotel with the “rest of the guys” and promised to do something about it. He went out and purchased a hotel in St. Petersburg where all the Cardinals could stay together with their families during spring training.
In later years, players from other teams recalled visiting that hotel to see members of the Cards and finding cookouts taking place with entire families, black and white, together. The fact that they lived together for several weeks during spring training may have broken down the barriers of prejudice more than any other action the Cardinals could have taken. The team was, without question, more successful in integrating its players than many other major league clubs. This contributed to the success of the team on the field and the attraction of the team off it.
The World Series between the Cardinals and Yankees in 1964 had symbolic value far beyond the match-up on the field. The Cardinals were a well-integrated team with excellent African American players. The Yankees had failed to integrate until the mid-1950s and then only modestly so. Indeed, their first African American player was St. Louis native Elston Howard and he only came up to the Yankees in 1955. A superb player, the Yankees ballyhooed Howard’s breaking of the color line on the team by saying that he was a true “gentleman,” and thereby appropriate to wear Yankee pinstripes. One wit observed that this was so much nonsense, after all since when did baseball players have to be “gentlemen?”
The Yanks in 1964 were also a franchise on the verge of collapse, with aging superstars and not much down on the farm to call up to the majors. Their best player, Mickey Mantle, was nearing the end of his Hall of Fame career, and his replacement in the outfield would be Bobby Mercer, a decent journeyman player but not someone who would carry on the tradition of Ruth-DiMaggio-Mantle.
The 1964 World Series marked the tenth time the Cardinals played in the fall classic, and it was the fifth time they had met the Yankees. The series opened in St. Louis where the two teams split the first two games. As game three at Yankee Stadium went into the ninth inning with the score tied 1-1, Yankees great Mickey Mantle parked one in right field and the game was over.
The Cardinals evened up the series the next day when Ken Boyer hit a grand slam in the top of the fifth inning to make the score 4-3. As Boyer rounded the bases, his younger brother Clete threw pebbles at his feet from the third base position. The fifth game went into the tenth inning before Tim McCarver hit a three-run shot to make the score 5-2. Gibson went the distance in that game, striking out thirteen Yankees in the win.
The teams then returned to St. Louis and the Yankees forced a seventh game by beating the Cardinals 8-3, with an eighth inning grand slam by Yankees first baseman Joe Pepitone sealing the loss. The split contest set up a dramatic seventh game in which Bob Gibson came back to pitch on two days rest. Brock and Boyer hit home runs to power the Cards to a 6-0 lead after five innings, but the Yankees took the score to 7-5 in favor of the Cards before Gibson got the last out in the ninth.
The victory gave the Cardinals their first world championship since 1946 and the seventh in the team’s history. Immediately after the series, Johnny Keane announced that he was leaving the Cardinals to take the manager’s job with the Yankees. He did so just as August Busch prepared to fire him, and Keane presided over the demise of the Yankees during the mid-1960s. In his place, Red Schoendienst took the helm, serving more than twelve years as the Cardinals’ field leader.
The Cardinals victory in the World Series in 1964 symbolized at some level the death of the old approach to baseball, and thereafter every championship team would have African American stars as critical elements to success.