Whitey's '82 Redbirds were step ahead of competition

August 12th, 2022

This story was excerpted from John Denton’s Cardinals Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. Subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

ST. LOUIS -- Defense. Speed over power. Bullpen strength. Hit and run.

Those were the tenets that guided GM/manager Whitey Herzog when he was constructing the Cardinals and taking them from a last-place finish in 1979 to a World Series championship in ‘82. Of course, that sort of roster construction -- speed over power, defensive-minded players instead of DH types and bullpen depth over strong starting staffs -- ran counter to that era of baseball, and it just proved how Herzog, the creator of a Cardinals dynasty that won a title and two other NL pennants, was a baseball visionary who was clearly ahead of time.

Long before the Warriors captured four NBA championships with a roster full of three-point marksmen instead of towering seven-footers, the Cardinals dominated the National League over a six-year period with a gameplan based around speed, speed and more speed. Instead of sitting back and waiting for the three-run home run, Herzog’s Cardinals forced the action by stealing bases, hitting balls into the gaps, beating out high hoppers and breaking the will of foes with their relentless running.

That strategy worked to perfection in 1982, when the Cardinals rode the talents of National Baseball Hall of Famers Ozzie Smith, Bruce Sutter, Jim Kaat and Herzog as well as Cardinals Hall of Famers Willie McGee, Tommy Herr and Keith Hernandez to beat the Brewers for the World Series crown.

Fittingly, with the Brewers in St. Louis this weekend, that iconic 1982 Cardinals world-champion team will be honored on Saturday Night at Busch Stadium III for the 40-year anniversary of that title run. Herzog, along with 21 players from that team, will be driven around the warning track in convertible cars so that fans can honor the squad that won the ninth World Series crown in franchise history. Also, family members will be on hand to represent late stars Bob Forsch, Darrell Porter and David Green for the championship ceremony. Several members of the clubhouse staff, including famed athletic trainer Gene Gieselmann, are also scheduled to be in attendance for the ceremony.

Younger fans wanting to learn more about the brilliance of Ozzie, Willie and Porter’s run to the MVP Award and “Whiteyball” can tour the special 1982 world champions exhibit set up inside the Cardinals Hall of Fame (located in Ballpark Village). That exhibit, which is open until March 2023, contains hundreds of articles used during that historic World Series from 40 years ago, including game-worn jerseys from George Hendrick, Lonnie Smith, Hernandez, Herr, Forsch and Herzog, game-used bats from Dane Iorg, Ken Oberkfell and Porter, Ozzie Smith’s red, satin dugout jacket, former owner Gussie Busch’s cowboy hat and, of course, the 1982 World Series trophy.

In all, there will be 29 members of the 1982 squad and more than 100 family members at Busch Stadium to celebrate the 40th anniversary of that team. McGee, the fresh-faced rookie who had six hits, two home runs, five RBIs and the most iconic catch of that World Series when he robbed a Gorman Thomas home run, still can’t believe it’s been four decades since that team ruled all of baseball.

“Time is crazy, and it’s just flying by all the time,” said McGee, now 63, who works as the outfield coach for the Cardinals. “You put your head down and you look up and it’s been 10 years. Then, you put your head down again and look up and it’s been 40. How does that happen?”

How did it also happen that Herzog went against the grain in baseball, constructed a roster based around speed, defense and bullpen strength and turned the Cardinals into a mini dynasty? Those Cardinals teams easily could have followed up the 1982 title with two more World Series crowns had they not lost in controversial fashion in 1985, and had they been able to break the spell of the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome and the Twins’ “Homer Hankies” in a seven-game defeat in 1987.

Herzog, now 90, is proud about the Cardinals having won it all in 1982 and proven that there is more than one way to build a champion in baseball. Heck, he actually built both teams in that 1982 World Series by trading Hall of Famers Rollie Fingers and Ted Simmons and pitcher Pete Vuckovic to the Brewers for Dave LaPoint, Sixto Lezcano, Lary Sorensen and Green. The Cardinals' version, the one loaded with so much speed and defense, ended up winning it all.

“They said what I did was right, but no one had the guts to do it, or the authority to do it before,” Herzog said in his famously folksy manner. “It made it a lot easier that we won. I don’t know how it would have turned out if we had fallen on our rear end.”