The Ol’ Redhead

We’ve spent much of the year revisiting Mark McGwire‘s run at Roger Maris‘s home run record.  Besides his muscular body, one of McGwire’s most notable characteristics was his shock of red hair.  We might call McGwire Big Red or something of that nature, but there’s someone else that is always going to own the title of The Ol’ Redhead.  While Red Schoendienst might have been originally noted by the color of his head covering, Red became so much more to the history of the Cardinals.

As you know by now, Albert “Red” Schoendienst died earlier today at the age of 95.  He had missed spring training the last couple of years and wasn’t around the ballpark for things like Opening Day or the 1968 reunion that was a couple of weekend ago, which meant that you got the feeling something like this was coming.  Red loved spending time at the ballpark.  Well into his 80s, he was suiting up, hitting fungoes, and teaching in that inimitable style that he had.  He was amazingly fit for his age and got around remarkably well for someone that hadn’t played since 1963.

For a couple of years, the Cardinals tried to do some of the fun and cute commercials that teams like Seattle have perfected.  Why they’ve gone away with those, I’m not sure, but before they did they gave us a classic.

It was a fun commercial, for sure, but it was also believable.  We could easily imagine Red cranking one over the fence, even at that age.

Dan McLaughlin has told the story many times, including tonight after the news of Red’s passing, of talking to him one spring a few years ago and asking why he still went through the effort.  Why spend the time putting on a uniform and getting out under the hot sun?  Red answered, “I like being around young people.  It keeps me young.”  There was no doubt on that score, none at all.

It’s fitting in a way that Red wore the number 2.  Of course, it symbolized his February birthday, but the number 2 can also symbolize someone that sits in the shadows.  Red played most of his career in the long shadow of Stan Musial.  There’s no doubt that Stan is Mr. Cardinal.  His numbers are legendary and his personality even more so.  Stan is the first name people think of when you say “St. Louis Cardinals” and he should be.

However Red, maybe even more than the great Musial, may be the perfect embodiment of The Cardinal Way.  It was Red, after all, who plugged away with an eye ailment and still was able to put together a Hall of Fame career.  It was Red who then took over coaching and managing, leading some of the greatest teams in Cardinal history.  It was Red who stood atop the career wins leaderboard for Cardinal managers for so long, until Tony La Russa came and knocked him off.

No matter what the role, Red excelled at it.  And yet, when you go to list the Cardinal greats, Red’s name will come up but usually well down the list.  You’ve got Musial and Ozzie Smith and Bob Gibson and Lou Brock that usually come up before Red, with Albert Pujols perhaps in that mix as well.  A younger generation only knows him truly as that grandfatherly figure that FSMW would sometimes show up in the general manager’s box or whatever suite he might be watching the game from.

I’ll admit I don’t think I properly appreciated Red.  When the Cardinals used their year-long campaign to honor Red a few years back as he celebrated his 70th year in baseball, I made one of the short videos the Cards were looking for (because like I’m going to pass up a chance to honor 70 years).  I am not sure any of us really can comprehend 70 years in baseball.  We have enough trouble really grasping a career at times.  Where does that time go?  Yet Red was in baseball for the length of almost four careers.

Who does that?  Who spends their retirement doing the same thing they did as their career?  Someone that truly loves the game.  Obviously salaries weren’t what they are now and there was a financial incentive to stay in baseball after retirement, but that passed years ago.  Red could have made enough at card shows and personal appearances to be financially secure.  He stayed in baseball to teach, to help shape the next generation, and because there was nothing better than a day at the old ballpark.

They say only the good die young but that’s incredibly inaccurate.  Musial lived to 92, Red to 95, and both of them were considered as close to saints on earth as you can get.  Hardly a bad word, hardly a grudge nursed.  Sure, time softens edges but both of these men didn’t need any passage of time to blur memories and imbue them with greatness.  They had it all along and lived it every day.

A little more Cardinal history has slipped from us today.  John Fleming has a great piece up at the STL Bullpen that illustrates just how much of the span of the Cardinals has Red involved with it.  (Spoiler–a lot.)  However, though Red is no longer with us, his lessons and his example still shine brightly and can be seen in the players today and the players coming up.  Like George Kissell, Red is always going to be with this organization and not just as a number on the wall and a statue out front.

Godspeed, Red.  Enjoy your first day at the greatest ballpark.

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