The Greatest Series?

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Some World Series are great when you watch them, and some look great in the rear-view mirror of history. The 1964 World Series looked terrific at the time and has only gotten better. (You can check it out yourself, $34.95 on DVD from Baseball Direct, www.baseballdirect.com/world2, in color and with commentary by the great Harry Caray.) The New York Yankees were the better team that year and the betting favorite. They won 99 games to the Cardinals’ 93, they out-homered St. Louis during the regular season, 162 to 109, and had a team earned run average of 3.15 to the Cardinals’ 3.43. The Series went the full seven games; two of the games were decided by one run; one game, the seventh, by two runs. The Yanks had more homers, 10–5, and four more runs batted in, 33–29. But the little things (such as committing 10 errors to the Cardinals’ 4) did the Yankees in, and St. Louis won the championship.

Both teams had major stars. The Cardinals had two Hall of Famers, Bob Gibson and Lou Brock, with several candidates, including the outfielder Curt Flood and the third baseman Ken Boyer, the National League’s Most Valuable Player that year. The Yankees also had two HOFers in the lineup, Mickey Mantle and the pitcher Whitey Ford, with many still claiming Roger Maris should be in. No other World Series ever featured so many players who had an impact on the game both on and off the field. The most controversial would prove to be the Yankees’ brash young right-hander Jim Bouton, who won 18 games during the season and 2 more in the Series and in 1970 would change the sports world forever with his candid and acerbic revelations about the game in Ball Four. “I thought most of the stuff I said about the players’ personal lives was kind of amusing and rather mild even back then,” says Bouton, “but people just weren’t used to thinking of athletes as three-dimensional people with flaws and foibles.” The Yankees’ irrepressible first baseman Joe Pepitone routinely thumbed his nose at both civil authority and the Yankees’ front office, and in the 1980s he went to jail on gun and drug violations.

The Cardinals’ lineup was dotted with rebels, most notably Curt Flood, whose 1970 lawsuit against Major League Baseball very nearly succeeded in removing the infamous “reserve clause,” which bound a player to one team for life. “Curt’s courage in taking on the system led to the compromise of arbitration,” says Marvin Miller, founder of the major league players’ union. (In 1975 an arbitrator declared all players free agents after their contracts had expired.)

The Cardinals had other outspoken players, and like Flood, they were black. Both Bob Gibson, the Series’ MVP, who had two victories, including the seventh and final game, and the first baseman Bill White, later the first black National League president, were unyielding in their views on integration and equal treatment for black ballplayers.

The Cardinals’ starting catcher Tim McCarver would become, by the mid-1980s, the most astute and quoted of baseball announcers, one of the first commentators attuned to racial and political issues that affected the game. (Tony Kubek, the shortstop, was for a while regarded as McCarver’s equal as an announcer.) McCarver’s backup, Bob Uecker, would go on to become a staple of late-night talk shows with his humorous and generally self-deprecating stories as well as a fine character actor in films such as Major League.

In the bizarre aftermath of the Series, Yogi Berra, one of the most popular Yankees ever, was fired—such a thing would have been unthinkable if the Yankees had won the seventh game—and was replaced as Yankees manager by Johnny Keane, who had guided the Cardinals to their triumph. Berra’s sacking horrified Yankee fans; no one, least of all Yogi, could have had the slightest notion of how lucky he was. The year 1964 was the last stand of the old-guard Yankees, who had dominated baseball since the Babe Ruth era. (At the end of the season the club was sold to CBS.) Undermined by injuries, age, and bad trades, the Yankees collapsed and would not be revived until George Steinbrenner became the principal owner in the next decade. The Cardinals would go on to win two more pennants and another World Series before the 1960s were over.

The 1964 Yankees and Cardinals were a microcosm of the changes that were whirling in professional sports. Bouton and Flood, most notably, exemplified the new breed of articulate professional athletes who were skeptical of authority and unafraid to challenge traditions. In truth, it seems that nearly every member of the two teams had something to say. Bouton, Berra, Mantle, Ford, Kubek, Pepitone, Flood, McCarver, Gibson, and Uecker are credited with 22 books among them, which makes them the writingest teams ever to play in the World Series.