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.