The best part of Howard Megdal’s new book, “The Cardinals Way: How One Team Embraced Tradition and Moneyball at the Same Time,” comes right in Chapter One. Megdal recounts reading a note from Baseball Prospectus in 2014 derisively pointing out that contrary to myth, the Cardinals did not invent player development, nor invent the idea of making sure there was a coherent philosophy running through their system.
Here’s the punchline: Actually, the Cardinals absolutely did invent the idea of developing players within a farm system with a manual to guide instructors and players from the lowest farm team to the major-league team on the Mississippi. Hall of Famer Branch Rickey in the 1920s decided to buy up whole teams rather than futilely fight with richer teams for young talent, and began the process to build from the ground up a way to teach those players The Cardinal Way of playing baseball.
It’s hard to draw a line from those days when scouting reports with fewer words than a Tweet were sent tap-tap-tap by telegraph, to this day of instant high-definition video shot on smartphones sent over wireless internet connections to front offices. If any team was capable of melding a respect for tradition with the advances of the early 21st century, Megdal says, it’s the Cardinals. Megdal has exhaustively built a case that contra Michael Lewis’ effort in Moneyball, the organizations best set up for sustained success in this game do just that. After all, the game is still played much the same way it was in Alexander Cartwright’s day; the biggest difference is that the amount of information and knowledge what to do with it to win.
Perhaps the best part of the book are the stories of legendary coach George Kissel, who spent nearly seven decades with the team, beginning with Branch Rickey and ending with John Mozeliak. Imagine! Kissell, using his bachelor’s and master’s degree education in history and physical education, literally wrote the book on fundamentals on playing the game (if you want, you can visit the Cardinals museum at Ballpark Village, where you’ll find his 1969 edition), but more importantly, was the personification of the Cardinals Way, teaching more about life as a professional ballplayer. Megdal follows the apocryphal advice, that if you want to know a general, speak to his troops. Kissell passed away in 2008, so Megdal spends time with not just the former players and coaches who felt Kissel’s influence to learn more about “the Professor.” Even in the final seasons of his life, Kissel would be on the field or in the stands, studying intently, talking with the newest draft choices. Why? Even after all those years, Kissell would say he’d learn something new every day — probably learning more from his students than they from him.
The chapter on team owner Bill DeWitt was just as fascinating, and for foes of the Cardinals, might be the most cause of envy. How many wish they would have an owner who not only understands the history of the game, but was a participant in some of the game’s most iconic moments? Did you know as a youngster he served as a bat boy for the Browns? Did you know that Eddie Gaedel, a dwarf who became famous for coming to bat in an American League game, borrowed the young DeWitt’s bat boy uniform?
That’s just an interesting piece of trivia. Before buying the Cardinals, DeWitt worked in the game for various organizations, including the NL Central foes Cincinnati Reds, a team he tried to buy first before settling on the Birds on the Bat. Just imagine, as some Reds fans probably wished in the 1990s, if DeWitt had been able to buy the Reds instead of Marge Schott.
The chapter that I’d looked forward to most, though, was the one detailing the in-fighting in the mid-2000s between Walt Jocketty and his supporters in the Cardinals organization, and new hire Jeff Luhnow, brought aboard by DeWitt to put the focus back on player development. There’s no doubt that Jocketty deserves all the credit in the world for leveraging trades that brought aboard the core of the Cardinals’ postseason teams of 2000-2006, including the ’06 World Champions. But it would be Luhnow and his faction that would win out. Megdal goes into great detail how not only did Luhnow’s statistical analysis find innovate ways to grade amateur talent, but could objectively grade the performance of scouts themselves post-drafts. But I found myself in that chapter wanting to read more about the conflicts between the two–but that’s because I like a good catfight. If you’re looking for that he-said-he-said, though, you won’t find much of it here.
More: later in the book Megdal provides an oblique jib at Tony LaRussa, the most successful manager in Cardinals history who retired only to soon after take a job with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Megdal notes that under LaRussa’s restructuring, the team hired former pitcher Dave Stewart as GM; Stewart boasted in late 2015 that free agent pitcher James Shields liked that organization because of its old-school ways, a true baseball team rather than those who are geared more toward analytics and those types of things.
If there’s one criticism I have about the book, it’s that he spends far too much time repeating much of the same ground covered in Moneyball, the analysis of specific players, the coaching, the work on the field. As Cardinals fans, we’ll love reading about Rowan Wick, Austin Gomber and some of the lesser-known minor leaguers. We’ll also feel sadness as he relates the loss of Oscar Taveras, but smile as he reports that during 2014 there was at least one team that would have traded their major-league outfield for the Cardinals’ outfield of Taveras, Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk.
Megdal doesn’t ignore the events of 2015, the hacking scandal that threatened not only the integrity of the organization but the entire foundation of the Cardinals Way. You’ll also shake your head at just how much of the Cardinals evaluation and analytic talent followed Luhnow to Houston and how much the team will miss them (and how much they miss Chris Correa because of his own stupidity).
Yet Megdal provides optimistic evidence that regardless of the eventual punishment, the organization will continue what they’ve done since the 1920s: he repeats this fact in the book — since 1902, no Cardinals fan has reached the age of 25 without seeing at least one World Series celebration in a lifetime.
Just that is worth the price of the book.