You could say Mike Matheny has his work cut out for him this year. Having inked his first regular-season lineup card on April 4, he is the 35th manager in the history of the St. Louis Cardinals, a span that stretches back to the beginning of the twentieth century, when the St. Louis Perfectos (formerly the St. Louis Browns) formally abandoned the greatest baseball team name ever, forsaking it for that of the color featured most prominently on their uniforms.
Matheny has no major-league managerial experience. He has no minor-league managerial experience. He has no major-league coaching experience. He has no minor-league coaching experience.
Yet there are many (the author of this piece included) who believe the front office made a very astute hire when they handed the Cards keys to Matheny. Players love him. Coaches love him. His reputation in the league is unquestioned.
Yadier Molina, the Cardinals' All-Star catcher and recent recipient of a dump truck full of money (and a new contract to go with it), credits Matheny for mentoring him in 2004, his rookie season. Matheny knew the pudgy Puerto Rican kid was there to replace him, yet in an act of unselfishness that goes utterly against the grain of the grizzled-veteran stereotype, he did everything in his power to provide Molina with the tools to succeed. The role of teacher seems to fit Matheny well. Given the wave of youth coming in the next handful of years for the Redbirds, that professorial hat may be one he wears often.
Mentoring is all well and good, but wins and losses are the currency by which managers earn their legacies. Matheny will be given time to grow into the job, but a position of this stature carries commensurate expectations, expectations that cannot help but be magnified in light of last year's World Championship.
Oh, and Matheny now occupies the office most recently vacated by the third-winningest manager in the entire history of the game.
What with the leadership torch passing from a guy whose managerial résumé is one of the game's longest to a guy whose managerial odometer currently reads 000000.0, it seems appropriate to look back at the franchise's most notable helmsmen and see how their tenures played out from start to finish. What follows, then, is the St. Louis Cardinals' Managerial Mount Rushmore, if there were such a thing.
Billy Southworth: 1929, 1940-1945 William Harold Southworth managed the Cardinals for seven seasons, serving as a player-manager in 1929 and non-playing skipper from 1940 through 1945. The stretch that covers the first half of the '40s stands as the greatest six-season run in franchise history.
The Cards had been a powerhouse in 1939, but when the 1940 team stumbled out of the gate, Southworth was handed the reins after the early-season ouster of his predecessor, the combative Ray Blades. The Cardinals won 97 games in 1941 then reeled off successive campaigns of 106, 105, 105 and 95 victories. (Bear in mind that in those days a season consisted of 154 games, as opposed to today's 162.) Southworth took his Cardinals to the World Series three years in a row, winning the whole mogilla in '42 and '44. No other Redbirds manager has accomplished so much over such a short stretch. The good times continued under Southworth's successor, Eddie Dyer, who led the ballclub to a title in '46, his first year. All told, the 1940s stands as the team's best decade.
Red Schoendienst: 1965-1976, 1980, 1990 Stan Musial is the single ballplayer most identifiable with the St. Louis Cardinals. If the man known as "The Man" had a sidekick, it would have to be Albert Fred "Red" Schoendienst. Over the past seven decades, the native of Germantown, Illinois, played for the Redbirds, managed them, managed them again, and again, and he now serves as special assistant to the general manager. Red's tenure as skipper (the long one), was immensely successful, especially for the first half or so.
Like Matheny, Schoendienst took over the team following a World Championship season. The 1965 campaign was a down year for the defending champs, who finished 80-81, mired in seventh place in the National League. The next season was incrementally better (83-79; sixth place). Then came 1967, and the Cards won 101 games and another world title. In 1968 the Cardinals again won the pennant but lost to the Detroit Tigers in seven games. By the dawn of the '70s, Schoendienst was increasingly called upon to play the role of the good soldier as beer baron Gussie Busch became disenchanted with the evolving realities of team ownership. Nothing, however, can tarnish the brilliance of Schoendienst's and the Redbirds' late-'60s run.
Whitey Herzog: 1980-1990 Dorrel Norman Elvert Herzog's curatorship of the Cardinals was marked by nearly peerless brilliance. But just as it followed an epoch of frustrating mediocrity, it was destined to give way to a similar dry spell. Busch brought aboard Herzog — like Schoendienst, born and raised less than 50 miles from downtown St. Louis — as general manager in 1980, a season that saw the Cardinals cycle through three field generals — Ken Boyer, Jack Krol (for one game) and Red Schoendienst — before the buck finally stopped with Whitey. The Redbirds finished with a dismal 74-88 mark, but Herzog already had an overhaul under way.
In 1981 the team notched the best overall record in its division but was aced out by virtue of a players' strike that wound up splitting the season into halves, neither of which ended with the Birds on top. There was no denying the Cardinals in 1982, however, as the club went 92-70 and notched its first World Series triumph since 1967. Two subsequent Herzog-led Cards squads reached the World Series, in 1985 and in '87. (The star-crossed '85 season saw the Cardinals win 101 games and march into the so-called I-70 Series, only to fall victim to an ill-timed umpiring brain fart that likely cost them the title.)
Tony La Russa: 1996-2011 Tony La Russa, the man Matheny replaces, is by far the winningest manager ever to don the Birds on the Bat. He passed Red Schoendienst to take over the top spot back in 2007 and proceeded to pile on victories for four more years. A likely Hall of Famer even before he arrived on the banks of the Mississippi, La Russa has all but ensured that when he enters Cooperstown, he'll do so with a Cardinals cap atop his improbably coiffed dome.
La Russa joined the organization in 1996 and immediately turned around a moribund franchise. It had been ten years since the Cardinals had last made the playoffs, and during much of that time the brewery had been far more interested in unloading the team than in restoring it to respectability. But now there ensued a new era, with William DeWitt Jr. heading the incoming ownership group, Walt Jocketty tinkering with personnel issues and Tony La Russa maneuvering his roster like Napoleon in sweatpants.
In his first year on the job, the Cardinals reached the postseason with an 88-74 mark, only to cede the NL pennant to the Atlanta Braves after having taken a commanding three-games-to-one advantage in the best-of-seven league championship series.
It was an older team Jocketty and La Russa assembled, featuring a veteran core that included Ron Gant, Gary Gaetti and Oakland import Dennis Eckersley. Unfortunately, it proved a formula impossible to sustain, and while Mark McGwire (another Oakland transplant) stoked the fan base with long-ball pyrotechnics, the Cards wouldn't return to contention until 2000, by which time a new nucleus was forming — one that, led by a thirteenth-round draft pick named Albert Pujols, would see La Russa through a glorious (if often aggravating) decade-plus.
Joe Torre: 1990-1995 (Honorable Mention) Joe Torre's stint as St. Louis skipper was not the stuff of legend by any measure. But his tenure here was significant, especially in hindsight, a vantage point from which it's plain to see his craggy visage was destined to adorn another franchise's managerial monument.
Torre took over the Redbirds during 1990, after Whitey Herzog stepped down and Red Schoendienst briefly came out of semi-retirement (again). It was a miserable year, mostly. Willie McGee was kicking all kinds of ass offensively (he'd be packed off to the La Russa-led and World Series-bound Oakland A's before season's end), and John Tudor capped off his career with a brilliant swan song, but the Cards limped home at 70-92. The next season, Torre's first full year at the helm, was much better, as the team finished second in the NL East with an 84-78 record; the Cardinals won 83 and 87 games in '92 and '93, respectively, before the bottom fell out in the strike year of 1994. After the Cardinals commenced 1995 in lackluster fashion, Torre was shown the door.
The following season, the man who was greeted in a New York Daily News headline as "Clueless Joe" would be named AL Manager of the Year, leading the Yankees to a World Championship that began a glorious streak of success.
The Redbirds' managerial Rushmore is cut from the same granite in one aspect and one aspect only. All four great managers led great teams. And what single characteristic is shared by all great teams? Great players. (C'mon! Why do you think they're called truisms?)
Whatever kind of manager Matheny will ultimately be, he'll rise or fall based on the strength of his players. Billy Southworth inherited Stan Musial. Whitey Herzog brought in Ozzie Smith. Tony La Russa captured lightning in a bottle with his veterans of '96, but he built his legacy with players whose backs bore the names Pujols, Edmonds, Rolen, Carpenter, Molina and Wainwright. And, yes, one Michael Scott Matheny.
Mike Matheny is poised to be as successful as any of these men, right out of the gate. He has a squad stocked with young talent looking to him for leadership and a battle-tested front office poised to provide support. How will Matheny perform? If he has great Cardinals players, he'll be a great Cardinals manager.