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Triple Play - Red heads into the IL Hall

 

“Triple Play: Red heads into the IL Hall”

by Bill Flynn

This feature originally appeared in the 2009 Red Wings yearbook

Throughout Major League Baseball organizations for 2009, the most senior participant in uniform is a former Red Wing. Albert "Red" Schoendienst and his No.2 continues as part of the St.Louis Cardinals operation. Red turned 86 in February, but he hasn't lost his passion and dedication to the game in this, his 66th year in organized baseball.

Already a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Red Wings Hall of Fame, Red this summer adds “International League Hall of Famer” to his baseball legacy as one of the newest inductees into the revived IL Hall.

Red's official title is "Personal Assistant to the General Manager.” Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa was a fan of Schoendienst as a player. These days, he can rely on Red for judgements on ball players. "He understands it's a game of men and not machines," LaRussa says. "He's someone to learn from. And he's ready with an opinion, a no-nonsense yes or no. But he does it in a way where he doesn't make you feel like he's trying to do your job. He's there for support and to be a listening board about an issue or question."

A product of the Depression, Schoendienst was born on February 2, 1923 in tiny Germantown, Illinois (population about 800). In 1929, it was a community without electricity, telephones or plumbing. Water for cooking, washing and bathing was carried in from a well. Red's father was a coal miner, and shot rabbits and squirrels to keep the family - including seven children - from going hungry. Red's mother would preserve fruits and vegetables from their garden. Schoendienst remembers his childhood as a time when his family "didn't have much, didn't have anything really" but they were a close family - and family values is something Red has embodied all of his life. Fishing and baseball were his passions growing up. Baseballs were fashioned with string wound around a hickory nut or a corncob. A piece of wood was good enough to swing for a bat.

When Red was 16, he dropped out of school to work with the Civilian Conservation Corps, at a dollar a day. It was a program initiated by the government, providing jobs for people during the Depression. One day while working on a fence, a nail ricocheted into his eye. For weeks, doctors considered removing the organ, but after Schoendienst's pleading and the support of one doctor, surgery was avoided. Soon after, Red hitchhiked to a St. Louis Cardinals tryout with good friend Joe Linneman and around 400 other hopefuls including Joe Garagiola and Yogi Berra. Red was thrilled when his father signed a contract for him, sending Schoendienst to Union City, Tennessee - part of the Class D Kitty league - at $75 a month. Head Cardinals scout Joe Mathes pushed the team to sign "the skinny, freckle-faced kid." Along with the contract, Red's so-called bonus was a ham sandwich and a glass of milk. Schoendienst cannot recall if the Cardinals left a tip.

Red started 8-for-8 at the bat in Union City, but the league soon folded and he was sent on to Albany, Georgia in the Georgia-Florida League. His salary was the same, at $75 a month and Red would sleep late to save money by skipping breakfast. A pear tree near his rooming house was usually his stopover on the way to the ballpark, plus a Coca-Cola on a good day.

Red was invited to the Cardinals’ 1943 spring training camp and then assigned to Lynchburg (Class B), Virginia. But only a couple of weeks into the season, he was on the move again, and this time, to Rochester, New York.

The 1943 Rochester Red Wings had begun on a sour note, losing five of their first six, then won four of five entering the team's home opener May 6th at Red Wing Stadium. 76-year-old Hall of Fame pitching legend Cy Young was among the 10,941 fans that day - enjoying temperatures in the 80's as the Wings topped Newark, 5 to 2.

Managing Rochester was John "Pepper" Martin, who played for the Red Wings more than 10 years earlier. He graduated to the Cardinals to help assemble the notorious Gas House Gang that captured the 1934 World Series. Pepper was known for his speed, his spirit and a dirty uniform- often from dusty headfirst slides. Playing third base, the ornery Martin was known to throw at the runners - instead of to first - when they dared to drop bunts down his base line. Years after his stay in Rochester, while managing Miami in the International League, he was suspended for the final two weeks of the 1949 season for choking an umpire. For the 1943 Wings, the 39-year old was still playing occasionally and started in right field for Rochester's home opener. (Martin went 1-for-4 that day, was robbed of a hit, and was out on a close play at first on a bunt try.)

Early on, the '43 Wings were having problems with Dean Cain at shortstop. In his May 11th Democrat and Chronicle column, Eliot Cushing wrote that Cain couldn't turn the all-important double play.. that he was "doing his honest best, but an outfielder's best." Steve Collins was moved to short, but his two errors on May 14 th - including a critical 9th-inning miscue - led to a Newark win, and Rochester's third loss in a row. The next day, with yet another Wing at short, Rochester lost again- falling into 7th place at 7-10. But help was on the way.

20-year old Albert Schoendienst rode the train from Lynchburg all night, rushing to Rochester Sunday May 16th. Earlier that weekend, the Cardinals decided to send the youngster to the International League, although Red still had not completed an entire season of minor league ball. Shortly before noon, the train dropped Red off in Rochester and he went straight to the ballpark - interrupting a team meeting. Years later, he admits he was hardly an imposing figure at about 150 pounds. "When I got there, I reported to the clubhouse," Red recalls. “Pepper Martin was the manager at the time. When he looked at me, I heard him rumble to somebody, maybe the trainer: 'Oh, that's all I need- another bat boy!' I didn't look like too much, but I got it done."

Pepper immediately penciled Red in at shortstop and leadoff hitter for both games of the Sunday doubleheader. Toronto was in town, managed by the future Hall of Famer Burleigh Grimes. Just over 2,500 fans disregarded threatening skies and the forecast of rain squalls, but couldn't revive the team. Schoendienst went 1-for-4 and scored the club's only run in a 2-1 Wing loss in the opener. In the second game, Red was replaced after going 0-for-2 and injuring his hand. The Wings lost the nightcap as well and fell into the International League basement. There would not be a pennant chase forthcoming at Norton Street that summer, but the club had found its everyday shortstop. The next morning in the Democrat and Chronicle, Eliot Cushing wrote that the switch-hitting Schoendienst "looks like a real shortstop prospect…red-haired and standing 6-foot…powerful throwing arm and takes a nice cut at the ball."

Red was batting just .200 through six games. But by the end of May, Dean Cain was traded to Philadelphia and Schoendienst's average had climbed over .300. The Wings - or "Martinmen," as they were referred to by the press - finished the year at 74-78 and 5th place. But the rookie Schoendienst had an outstanding season. His .337 average led the circuit - becoming the first Red Wings league-batting champ since Wings Hall of Famer George Puccinelli in 1932. Red also led the IL in hits (187), putouts (339), and assists (438) and was named the International League's Most Valuable Player. Despite the club's record, Red was part of the reason for the team's near 30,000-fan attendance jump through the turnstiles.

Rochester Red Wings Board member and life-long fan Dorothy Fox saw Schoendienst play at Red Wing Stadium. "We've had some pretty good shortstops here," she recalls. "But you'd have to compare him to Marty Marion. And the kids used to chase him for autographs. Red signed for everybody. He enjoyed talking to the children."

"I played against hard-nosed guys in Rochester," Schoendienst remembers. "Most of the guys I played against had experience. They knew how to play, except a few rookies like myself." Red showed respect for his teammates and the opposition but was careful never to be in awe. "I listened; that was the big thing. I didn't do much talking but I listened good. And I think you learn a lot in the way others play against you," he says. "You try to play just as hard or harder. That's how I tried to handle it. "

The Cardinals knew that Red was going to be drafted into the armed services eventually, so they returned him to Rochester for the 1944 season. Schoendienst held on for 25 games, hitting .373 before the Army called. On May 21, 1944, 6,952 Red Wings fans said goodbye to Red at the Stadium. Before one of his at bats, Public Address Announcer Al Sisson told the crowd: "Ladies and gentlemen… tomorrow, shortstop Al Schoendienst becomes Private Schoendienst of the US Army." The fans stood, giving Red a tremendous ovation. Later, a chant rose from the stands: "Give him the money!" and the game was stopped again. Fans had "passed the hat" collecting $425. Red Wing players chipped in another $30. Published reports say Red smiled and "blushed from ear to ear." Schoendienst wasn't the type to go out and blow the money on a big party or personal expense. "I sent it all to my mother," he recalls. In Albert "Red" Schoendienst's final Rochester at bat, Montreal pitcher Joe Codde grooved a fat one. Maybe Red didn't believe the catcher when he was told an easy one was on the way, and fouled it off. The Wings were trouncing the Royals at the time 11-0, so the visitors didn't mind delivering another "softie" plate-ward. This time, Red popped out to shortstop Gene Mauch, the future long-time major league manager.

Schoendienst remembers Pepper Martin as a "gung-ho character" bent on winning at all costs. Martin was a delight with the press with his stories and quotations, and tried to take the losses - and even rain outs - in stride. After one game was cancelled because of showers, Martin took the team bowling. Another time, waiting for the skies to clear, he ordered hot dogs and soda for the players then led the team in a rousing rendition of "It Ain't Gonna Rain No More." Schoendienst remembers how Martin found a way to get back at the umpires at Red Wing Stadium one afternoon. "He got thrown out of a ballgame and Pepper called time, walked across the diamond and hopped a little fence they had in left field. He had a garden out there and he started watering it. The umpires couldn't do anything about it!"

After serving about a year for Uncle Sam, Schoendienst received a medical discharge; partly for the eye problem and for a sore shoulder he first injured during a game in Rochester. The repeated shocks from bazooka training to that right shoulder also made it slow to heal. But Red recovered to join the Cardinals for 1945 spring training. The Cards were coming off a World Series win, despite several stars serving hitches in the armed forces. Although there was no room at shortstop with Marty Marion at that position, Red impressed the Cardinals and made the team. He started the '45 season in left field and tripled for his first major league hit, off former Red Wing Paul Derringer at Chicago's Wrigley Field. Red played 137 games that year, hit .278 and led the league with 26 stolen bases.

Red went on to play parts of 19 years in the majors: 14 with St. Louis, and the rest with Milwaukee and the New York Giants. His lifetime average was .289 with 2,449 hits- including a league-leading 200 in 1950. Defensively, he led or tied for the best fielding percentage at his position seven times. In 1956, he set a league record with a .9934 fielding mark. Second baseman Schoendienst teamed with Marion at shortstop to form one of the game's best double play combinations throughout the 1950s. His lifetime fielding average was .983. Hall of Famer Stan Musial (another former Red Wing and Schoendient's long time big league roommate) credited Red with having the best pair of hands he'd ever seen in the game. Schoendienst was chosen to 10 National League All-Star squads, and his 14th-inning homer won the 1950 classic. In 1946, he beat out all sluggers to win the All-Star Home Run Derby.

In 1957 Red was traded to Milwaukee at mid-season and promptly rallied the second division team to the pennant and a World Series victory over the mighty New York Yankees. The next year, Schoendienst battled through injuries that limited him to 106 games. The Braves made it back to the fall classic and a rematch with the Yanks. Red led the Cards in hits and runs but New York took the crown in seven games. At 35-years-old, Schoendienst knew something was wrong with his health. For several seasons, he especially felt tired after the All-Star break. Red arranged for a checkup soon after the season was over.

Doctors diagnosed Red with tuberculosis, believing he had been carrying the germ for years. Today, TB, which commonly attacks the lungs, is controlled by antibiotics. But 50 years ago, rest was the primary treatment and Schoendienst spent four months in the hospital. Red says he received 10,000 pieces of mail from well wishers. Doctors operated to remove a piece of his lung in February of 1959, and he was discharged from the hospital in March - with a goal of playing that season. At 36, his comeback bid made national headlines and in September, Red played in five games for Milwaukee. 1960 saw a change in managers for the Braves - Fred Haney was out and Charley Dressen was signed. Red's playing time fell off and he was released before the '61 season. Schoendienst turned down a chance to play second base for the expansion Los Angeles Angels and came back to St.Louis as a part time player and pinch hitter. He hit .300 for two years, leading the league in pinch-hitting in 1962. In '63, the Cards and General Manager Bing Divine, a Rochester Hall of Famer, asked Red to stay on as coach. And when the former Red Wing Johnny Keane left St. Louis in 1964 to manage the Yankees, Schoendienst took over as bench boss in St. Louis.

Red piloted the Cardinals for 12 seasons through 1976, winning pennants in '67 and '68, and taking the '67 World Series from the Boston Red Sox. In 1980 and 1990, he served as an interim bench boss for the Cards. Schoendienst got along with his players but also got results. "He treats us like men," Orlando Cepeda said of Schoendienst. "He lets us play and gives our young players confidence." Red's rules were simple: don't be late and and give 100 percent at all times.

In 1989, Schoendienst was elected to both the Baseball Hall of Fame and the St. Louis Walk of Fame. The following year, Rochester included Red in their second class of the Red Wings Hall of Fame. His uniform number two was retired by the Cardinals in 1996, only the sixth number retired in St.Louis' rich history. Today, a statue of Red turning the double play is proudly displayed outside the Cardinals’ new stadium at 7 th and Clark. During his playing days, Red was also a member of the Budweiser national bowling team.

Ask Red Schoendienst today about his proudest accomplishment in baseball and he modestly says it was being able to play with some of the game's all time stars like Musial, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. "When I came up to the big leagues, I was fortunate to play with some great guys that had been to the World Series before like Marion, Musial, Enos Slaughter, the Cooper boys (Walker and Mort), and (Red Wings Hall of Famer) Whitey Kurowski. They had the experience and I was able to learn a lot from those guys."

The recent connection between sports players and steroids is depressing for Red. "They didn't have anything like that when I was playing. I gave it one hundred percent and I didn't break training. I'm sorry everything came up about all of that junk. Drugs are bad, no matter what it is. The big thing is to stay on the real path, the path you're supposed to be on, the good path."

During spring training, Red puts in long days in camp, hitting an occasional fungo, participating in team meetings and observing Cardinals prospects. "I'm in uniform and on the field. It's getting a little tougher at my age, but I enjoy being around all the young ballplayers. I'll watch the minor leaguers practice and see how this one or that one is doing - and I try to follow them through the season. And I have a pretty good idea if a kid has a chance to come up. His work ethic is a big thing… and determination."

Schoendienst lives about 30 minutes from Busch Stadium and makes all of the Cardinals home games. He's in uniform for the pre-game workouts, then changes into street clothes and watches the games with the General Manager. Red tries to make at least one road trip with the club each year.

"Professionally, he's very helpful," says Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa. "Red is still very into the game, and understands the game. It hasn't gotten too modern for him. And the thing I like about him: because of his personality, he can make an impression with a rookie, a 15-year veteran, or the coaches. Really, there isn't anybody he hasn't touched."

Red and his beloved wife Mary were married for 53 years before she passed away in 1999. Mary spent her last years as the unofficial liaison between the ball club and new players and their families, helping them get adjusted to life in St. Louis. Red and Mary had four children: three daughters, and a son. The families - and Red's 10 grandchildren - still get together regularly.

As for his newest baseball honor, Red made sure to recognize the city and fans that help him start the road to his legendary life in baseball. “I have fond memories of Rochester. It is a great city, and I enjoyed my first full season as a professional there very much. The International League is a league with such a solid history, and to be inducted into its Hall of Fame as a Red Wing is a great honor.”

If you get Schoendienst's answering machine at his home, you'll hear an invite to leave a message "for the old Redbird." Here's hoping the former Rochester Red Wing stays awhile longer on his perch - still very much involved with, in love with, and giving back to the game of baseball.

WHAM’s overnight person, Bill Flynn also webmasters the amerksbooster.com website and runs the scoreboard and keeps stats for the mighty basketball RazorSharks.

 Former Rochester players Red Schoendienst, Walter Cazen, Steve Demeter, Joe Knight, Bill Short, and Ed Stevens and Harry “The Hat” Walker are among the 2009 inductees into the International League Hall of Fame. Find out more at ILBaseball.com.

 The Red Wings will hold a pregame ceremony honoring the inductees on June 27; Demeter, Short and Stevens are expected to participate in the ceremony.