Noted essayist, baseball fan Gerald Early says St. Louis Cardinals’ striking history deserves national attention

St. Louis’ “striking history” in baseball is not getting the national attention it deserves, says Gerald L. Early, Ph.D., the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters at Washington University in St. Louis and a noted essayist and baseball fan.

“Boston is the big story,” says Early, an American culture critic who served as a consultant on the Ken Burns documentary “Baseball” for the Public Broadcasting Service. “All the stuff about the Red Sox curse, how it’s been so long since they’ve had a World Series win, how they’re the sentimental favorite to win, the East Coast bias — it’s all about Boston.

Gerald Early
Gerald Early

“No one is talking about St. Louis and its incredible story of how baseball helped shape the city,” Early laments. Starting with its first World Series win in 1926, five world titles in the 1930s and ’40s and then from the 1960s on, “it’s an incredible story of how a baseball franchise has succeeded. The Cardinal baseball franchise should be a model for other franchises.”

During the turbulent ’60s, when race riots were prevalent in many American cities, St. Louis was “in the vanguard of race relations as far as what was going on with its baseball team,” says Early, who is a professor of English, of African and Afro-American Studies, and of American Culture Studies, all in Arts & Sciences at Washington University.

Black players like Lou Brock, Bob Gibson and Curt Flood who contributed greatly to the Cardinals two championship titles in the 1960s were respected and supported by their white teammates. “The black and white players got along very well,” Early says. “They socialized together, they worked very hard to make a community.”

Early says that in the 1980s, Whitey Herzog showed how a general manager could change the character of a team by trading just one player for another. “By getting rid of Garry Templeton and getting Ozzie Smith, Whitey ushered in the Wizard of Oz era.” Smith was instrumental in the Cardinals making it to the World Series three times in the 1980s, winning in 1982.

And in the 1990s, Mark McGwire changed the character of the team once again, moving it from a running team to a “big home-run team. St. Louis wasn’t going to win the World Series then,” Early says, “but the city developed a great affection for McGwire, even naming a section of interstate after him.

“McGwire isn’t going to be remembered for his years spent in Oakland, but for what he did in St. Louis,” Early adds.

And then there are the fans. Early points out that the team’s fans support the Cardinals whether they are winning or not. He cites statistics that show the Cardinals are a National League attendance leader with more than 3 million fans each year in recent seasons.

“What’s missing from the media coverage of the 2004 World Series is the relationship between baseball and a particular city and how it has shaped that city,” Early says. “It’s a great story of how people have supported the franchise — even during the lean years. There’s a heritage of great baseball in St. Louis that has not been played up in this series — it’s been all about Babe Ruth and the curse.”