The St. Louis Cardinals are one of the most storied franchises in baseball. They began playing professional baseball in St. Louis in 1882, as the St. Louis Brown Stockings, in the American Association. They dropped the “Stockings” part of their name the following season, and then joined the National League in 1892. They didn’t win a pennant until 1926, but in the 89 seasons since that point, they have won more World Series titles than anyone in the National League – and, are second only to the Yankees in all of baseball, with 11 titles.
Historically, their winning has come in spurts. From ’26-’34, they won the NL pennant 5 times, and won the World Series 3 times. From ’42-’46, they won 3 championships, and appeared in a 4th World Series. From ’64-’68, they won the NL pennant 3 times, and were world champions twice. From ’82-’87, they made 3 World Series appearances, and won the title once. But, their most consistent success has come in the last 19 seasons. Granted, there are more playoff teams than ever before, but the Cardinals have made playoff appearances in 12 of the last 19 seasons (and 11 of the last 15). They have won the NL Central division 9 times, won the NL pennant 4 times, and have been World Series champions twice (2011 & 2006). The other impressive piece of information is that in the last 19 seasons, the Cardinals have finished below .500 just 3 times.
Choosing the top 5 players in the history of a franchise with such a long and rich history is not an easy task. Especially when you take into consideration that they have had 16 MVP winners, 2 Cy Young winners, 2 Triple Crown winners, and currently have 14 players in the Hall of Fame who spent the better part of their careers in St. Louis. So, while I imagine there may be many who disagree with my list, here’s my best effort:
5. Ozzie Smith (’82-’96) – The Wizard of Oz is so universally tied to the St. Louis organization, I wonder how many remember that he actually won his first two Gold Gloves with the Padres in ’80-’81. Or, who knew that the only time he ever led the league in any offensive stat, it was in San Diego? But, while Ozzie does rank 7th on the Cardinals’ all-time hits list (1,944), 10th on their all-time doubles list (338), and 3rd on their all-time stolen bases list (433), it was not his offensive prowess that put him on this list. From the time he arrived in St. Louis in 1982, until his retirement after the 1996 season, Ozzie appeared in all but one All-Star game (14), and won 11 consecutive Gold Gloves (13 total for his career – the most in baseball history at shortstop). He was also the MVP of the 1985 NLCS, in which he hit .435 with a 1.196 OPS, and hit a rather memorable HR to win game 5. He was a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 2002, receiving an impressive 91.7% of the vote. But, really, what I’ll always remember him for is his signature backflip, as he ran out onto the field at the start of the game – which he was still able to do even after turning 40!
4. Bob Gibson (’59-’75) – Some might be surprised to see Gibson this far down the list. But, for all of his dominance as a pitcher, Gibson only won 251 games in a 17-year career (fewer than the likes of Jack Morris and Andy Pettitte). And, while his 2.91 career ERA looks spectacular today – he only led the league in ERA once, which is indicative of the pitching-dominant era in which Gibson played. His 3,117 career strikeouts rank 14th all-time, but he only led the league once, and he also ranks 27th all-time in career walks (1,336). Don’t get me wrong – Gibson is a deserving Hall of Fame member (inducted on his first ballot with 84% of the vote in 1981). But, when choosing the best of the best, he fits here for these reasons. On St. Louis’ all-time lists, he leads all pitchers in wins, strikeouts, and shutouts (56). And, among pitchers with at least 1,000 IP, he ranks 8th in ERA, 8th in WHIP (1.19), 3rd in K/9 (7.22), and 6th in K/BB ratio (2.33).
3. Albert Pujols (2001-2011) – Pujols burst onto the scene in 2001, putting up gargantuan numbers at the age of 21: .329/.403/.610 stat line, 37 HR, and 130 RBI, leading to a unanimous selection as the NL ROY, his first All-Star game appearance, his first Silver Slugger award, and finishing 4th in MVP voting. And, he didn’t slow down from there. In his 11 seasons in St. Louis, Pujols hit 40+ HR six times (leading the league twice), he hit over .300 every year but his last (winning a batting title in ’03), and his OPS was over 1.000 eight times (leading the league 3 of those years). Pujols appeared on nine All-Star teams, won 3 MVP awards, and finished in the top 5 in MVP voting an amazing 7 more times. He ranks 7th on the Cardinals’ all-time batting list (.328), 4th in OBP (.420), 2nd in SLG (.617 – though, I would give him credit for ranking 1st, since the only person ahead of him is McGwire, whose stats we know are artificially inflated), 2nd in OPS (1.037 – again, only behind McGwire), 4th in hits (2,073), 2nd in doubles (455), 2nd in HR (445), 2nd in RBI (1,329), and 4th in OPS+ (170).
2. Rogers Hornsby (’15-’26, ’33) – While Pujols’ totals are often going to be ahead of Hornsby, I believe Hornsby was the more complete (and perhaps the more dominant) player. Pujols won one batting title – Hornsby won six in a row from ’20-’25 (including a batting average over .400 three times!). Pujols led the league in OPS three times – Hornsby led the league seven times while with St. Louis (and a few more after he left!). Hornsby led the league in HR just as many times as Pujols (twice), he also led the league in RBI four times, hits four times, OBP six times, and SLG seven times. Hornsby also won the MVP in 1925, when he won his second Triple Crown. If the MVP had been in existence during the early part of Hornsby’s career, he almost certainly would have won it in his first Triple Crown year (’22), and would have been at or near the top in ’20 & ’21. He was the runner-up in ’24. Hornsby also helped lead the Cardinals to an unlikely World Series title in ’26, defeating the Ruth/Gherig Yankees. On the Cardinals’ all-time lists, Hornsby ranks 2nd in batting (.359 – including 5 of the top 7 seasons in Cardinals history), 2nd in OBP (.427), 4th in SLG (.568), 4th in OPS (.995 – which includes 3 of the top 5 seasons in Cardinals history – all better than any season in Pujols’ career), 3rd in hits (2,110), 2nd in triples (143), 7th in HR (193), 5th in RBI (1,072), and is 2nd only to McGwire’s inflated stats in OPS+ (177).
1. Stan Musial (’41-’63) – Stan the Man may be one of the most overlooked players in history. Do you know how many players have eclipsed 3,500 hits & 450 HR in their career? – Two. Hank Aaron & Stan Musial. Do you know who holds the record for most All-Star games? – Stan Musial (tied with Aaron & Mays). Do you know how many players have won 3 NL MVP awards? – 5 (Musial, Schmidt, Pujols, Campanella & Bonds). Do you know how many NL players have 10 or more 100-RBI seasons? – 3. Musial, Aaron & Bonds. When Musial retired, he shared or held 17 major league records, 29 NL records, and 9 All-Star Game records. All of this, in spite of missing the entire 1945 season (in the midst of his prime) to serve in the military. Here are his staggering stats: League Leader: Hits – 6 times; Doubles – 8 times; Triples – 5 times; RBI – 2 times; Batting – 7 times; OBP – 6 times; SLG – 6 times; OPS – 7 times; Total Bases – 6 times. Career: .331/.417/.559 stat line; 3,630 hits (4th all-time); 1,951 RBI’s (7th all-time); 725 Doubles (3rd all-time); 1,377 XBH (3rd all-time); 6,134 Total Bases (2nd only to Hank Aaron all-time). And, in addition to his 3 MVP awards, he finished runner-up four more times – contributing to 6.96 MVP shares (see baseball-reference.com for an explanation), which is second only to Bonds, all time. There’s no question who is the greatest Cardinal – and one of the greatest hitters – of all time.