The Cardinals Way: How One Team Embraced Tradition and Moneyball at the Same Time
By Howard Megdal
Thomas Dunne Books / St. Martin’s Press
The St. Louis Cardinals are one of the great franchises in baseball, and they are in the midst of one of the most successful periods in their history.
They have made the playoffs in each of the past five seasons. In that time, they won the World Series in 2011, made it back to the Fall Classic in 2013, and reached the National League Championship Series twice, losing to San Francisco both times, in 2012 and 2014.
Howard Megdal takes an extensive look into their history, dating back to the days of Branch Rickey a century ago, in The Cardinals Way.
“Coming on the heels of Tony LaRussa’s 2011 World Series championship in his final season, the Cardinals have put together the kind of sustained success that is rare in baseball, drawing all kinds of attention and a simple question. How are they doing it?
“Accordingly, there’d been a great deal of talk about “the Cardinals Way.” It had come to represent many different things in the public eye and media discussions: a code of conduct, a particular outlook on baseball, a moral compass,” writes Megdal.
One thing that separates the Cardinals organization and their fans is their modesty and gentility compared to other teams.
Megdal notes a comparison to another successful baseball team close to home, “Had the New York Yankees manage to build the kind of organizational strength the Cardinals have, can you imagine them trying to step back from the praise and, yes, the envy engendered by what the St. Louis Cardinals have created? Please – they’d have told Mariano Rivera to step aside and named Rivera Avenue “The Yankee Way” instead.”
The origins of the Cardinals turning into the model franchise can be traced to when Branch Rickey took over in 1917, and he saw the value of having a farm system to develop young players.
“First, we need to talk about Branch Rickey, inventor of the farm system,” Megdal writes. “Rickey was many things: an Ohio schoolboy. A catcher good enough to play in the major leagues, before an arm injury ended his career. An academic and a teacher, repeatedly offered jobs outside the confines of the game that ultimately employed him for six decades. The bringer of integration to Major League Baseball, and of Jackie Robinson to millions of people who will never forget seeing him play.
“But Rickey spent twenty-five years of his life, from 1917 to 1942, with the St. Louis Cardinals. And the foundation for how the Cardinals, and ultimately every major league team acquired and developed talent came from Rickey himself….
“Rickey. and the Cardinals scouts, such as Charlie Barrett, has been scouting the high minors for players for the last few years of the 1910s. But their eye for talent had become so respected, other owners, armed with the knowledge that Rickey wanted these players and nothing else, would swoop in and outbid the relatively penniless Cardinals for them. Rickey, fed up with this happening, wired Barrett in Texas, ‘Pack up and come home – we’ll develop our own players.’
“Thus, the Cardinals acquired a controlling interest in a Class C team in Fort Smith, Arkansas. The youngest, rawest players with promise Rickey could find would be sent there, preparing them to play with the Cardinals. However, no player could be expected to jump from Class C to the majors. Accordingly, when Charlie Barrett brought word of a possible ownership stake to be had in the Houston franchise of the Texas League, the steps that would become commonplace for all began to fall in place for the Cardinals.”
The origin of “The Cardinals Way,” and the growth of this team, can be traced back to George Kissell, who worked in all aspects of the Redbirds organization for 68 years.
“If you didn’t know any better, you’d think George Kissell was an entirely fictional creation, a stand-in for the values most treasured by the game of baseball. His record is too impossibly broad, his reach ridiculous to behold and incalculable in scope. He lived eighty-eight years and not only stayed on with the Cardinals for sixty-eight years – from his signing in 1940 to his death in 2008 – but combined the length of his tenure with the kind of tangible results, and correlating respect, that few achieve in this game.
“For Kissell, it was a constant. You hear it in Hall of Fame speeches from some of the greats who played this game, and you hear it in letters written to Kissell by long-forgotten minor leaguers who crossed Kissell’s path, briefly, decades ago.
“The reason this matters to the Cardinals – the Cardinals of Lou Brock and Bob Gibson, of Willie McGee and Terry Pendleton, of Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen, right through to the Cardinals of Michael Wacha and Matt Carpenter – is that so many of those people are still teaching the game the way George Kissell taught it to them in the organization. A man steeped in Rickey’s lessons – signed by Rickey himself – directly mentored many of the managers in the Cardinals system here in 2015. Such continuity should be impossible for purely chronological reasons.”
Megdal does an incredible job chronicling letters to Kissell, his thoughts on baseball, and stories that show how unique he was, such as turning a job on the major-league coaching staff to stay with the team he was managing in the minors.
Bill DeWitt Sr. served as Rickey’s farm director, and his son, Bill DeWitt, Jr., bought the Cardinals in 1996.
in 1965, DeWitt, Jr., was at Harvard Business School and wrote a paper on how the Cincinnati Reds could improve their business practices.
Megdal writes of what turned out to be a work that foreshadowed what was to come for DeWitt, Jr., “In his recommendations, he put cost certainty, along with making sure there was value to be gleaned from every pick, in the starkest possible terms:
“‘All free agents who are Major League prospects should be contracted, before the draft, with a determination made of the amount needed to sign them. Those wanting more than they are worth, in terms of their potential and the budget of the farm director, should be put at the bottom of the list. Those wanting what they are worth, or less, should comprise, basically, the draft list.’ DeWitt’s new system called for plotting all minor league prospects on a graph measuring level and age, with an accounting for team needs in various positions, with the completed draft list rating player potential – Exceptional, Good, Average, and Below Average – as a guide for where a player should begin his professional career.
“This may seem fairly straightforward, but plenty of teams, even now, fall in love with individual players and ultimately pay too much for them or don’t do the proper legwork to know how much a player they draft will cost. So putting these best practices to paper not fifty years after the draft began, but the very year it was created, is both significantly forward-thinking and an astonishing foreshadowing of the kind of changes DeWitt’s Cardinals would make after hiring Jeff Luhnow in 2003.”
Luhnow worked as a business-consulting specialist for McKinsey and then for a start-up called Archetype Solutions, which Luhnow described as “mass customization of apparel for brands like Lands’ End,” and he was hired as the Cardinals’ first Vice President of Baseball Development, with a focus on analytics.
DeWitt Jr. realized by the end of 2003 that they needed a new approach, and Megdal writes of that, “DeWitt recognized that $83.4 million (Cardinals 2003 payroll) wasn’t going to buy what it once did. And it wasn’t just that the Cardinals would have to spend more, though that would prove to be true. It’s that those players they once bought with their $83,4 million wouldn’t even be available.
“The Cardinals were winning. Everything looked great on the field. But their ability to compete with the New Yorks and the Bostons would disappear if they continued with their current plan, especially with the low picks that come with winning. And they’d fall behind even those who spent less but did a better job of producing young talent. To guard against this, DeWitt began encouraging offering arbitration to would-be free agents, in large part to collect draft picks if they signed elsewhere.”
DeWitt knew he needed help from the outside, and this was where he came up with the idea to bring in Luhnow. This was not without its ups and downs, as General Manager Walt Jocketty initially didn’t like the idea of hiring Luhnow.
Luhnow’s responsibilities as Vice President of Baseball Development included: “1. Establish methods of evaluation for amateur players. 2. Based on the information generated from the above, determine the best organizational structure and allocation of resources to achieve our basic goal: to acquire players on a real value basis with maximum market efficiency. 3. Develop and establish information technology system relative to professional player personnel. 4. The overall objective of this knowledge based and systematic approach is to enable the Cardinals to make the best possible player decisions; including financial commitments, and to take advantage of the inefficient market.”
In 2003, this was a radical idea, and like Rickey with the creation of the farm system a century ago, analytics became the norm across baseball.
Megdal writes of that progression, “Understand this: over the past decade, baseball has come a long way on the idea that those who didn’t play the game can eventually run it. When Luhnow was hired, the use of statistical analysis by the A’s was an anomaly. Now, clubs that don’t rely on such analysis are very much the anomaly. Clubs without an analytics department don’t exist. Theo Epstein, don’t forget, was a widely mocked hire back in 2002. That he was a breakthrough in any number of ways for the sport didn’t gain widespread acceptance until he broke a little eighty-six-year-old streak in Boston.
“But even today, someone with Jeff Luhnows background, brought in with a relatively senior title (vice president of baseball development) and an expansive portfolio, would be looked upon suspiciously by many people within a major league organization.
“And this wasn’t just a major league organization. This was the St. Louis Cardinals. And while there were a few around who’d internalized what George Kissell stood for – the constant innovation that he’d learned from Branch Rickey, the consistent adding to and changing of his manual first scripted decades ago during a snowy Ithaca winter – for many others, the Cardinals were this static, successful thing.”
This book is a must-read for any baseball fan, and especially those that are amazed at the standard set by the St. Louis Cardinals.