photo: Memphis Redbirds (2018)
The lofty goal of this initial article in our St. Louis Cardinals Minor League History Series is to summarize the last 57 years across the organization, while keeping in mind that in-depth reviews by level of play and highlights of individual player statistical leaders are to follow.
After a very difficult prior decade financially for the minor leagues, 1963 was chosen as the start of this work, as a major inflection point in minor league history . The previous May, the Player Development Plan was ratified by MLB owners. It guaranteed that at least 100 minor league clubs would survive, with MLB teams paying salaries above a sliding scale by level.
This was also the point at which the long-standing prior Class B, C and D leagues and their teams either ceased operation or were moved up to Class A. In addition, the American Association folded, with Triple-A baseball dropping from three leagues to two in the process.
The challenge here is to distill many tabs of spreadsheet data into interesting tidbits, while setting up the upcoming articles in which we will delve into each level of the Cardinals system during these post-1963 decades as well as its top teams and individuals.
First, a summary table is offered, with discussion about each line following. There is a lot to consume here, but if you stay with it, we should be able to get through it all!
|Cardinals system (1963-2019)||Mark||Count||Years|
|Winning seasons – total (of 57)||0.632||36|
|Number of league championships||45|
|Most consecutive winning seasons||8||1982-1989|
|Most consecutive losing seasons||3||twice||2005-2007||1999-2001|
|Best single season||0.579||416-302||1966|
|Worst single season||0.417||370-517||1991|
|Most team playoff appearances – season||5||three years||2010||2016||2018|
|Fewest team playoff appearances – season||0||six years||1961||1991||1997|
|Most league titles – season||3||2016|
|Fewest league titles – season||0||22 years||1st 1966||last 2015|
|Consecutive title seasons||8||1970-1977|
|Longest title-free period – seasons||4||1996-1999|
|Most minor league clubs – season||9||6 years||1st 2007||last 2019|
|Fewest minor league clubs – season||5||6 years||1st 1963||last 1980|
|Most different cities – level||15||Class A|
|Fewest different cities – level||1||JC SS-R||1975-2019|
Across the entire Cardinals system – from Triple-A down through the international complex leagues – during these 57 seasons, over 42,000 games were played. The organization was an aggregate 569 games over .500, for a .507 winning percentage.
Perhaps more impressively, winning has been a consistent result. In 36 of these 57 years, 63.2 percent of the seasons, the Cardinals farm teams played winning baseball in aggregate.
In terms of league championships, players on Cardinals affiliates hoisted 45 trophies in celebration over this period.
System peaks and valleys
We will get into the top decades in the next article, but in terms of repeated annual success, the period of 1982 through 1989 was the longest sustained period of winning baseball across the system, with eight straight years of over .500 play.
Though St. Louis’ records are not included in this analysis, it is fair to note the Major League club was also playing some excellent and exciting baseball during this time under the overall leadership of Whitey Herzog. Lee Thomas was farm director through 1988, when Ted Simmons took over.
Despite that impressive overall run, just four Cardinals affiliates won league championships during those eight years. Under manager Jim Fregosi, Triple-A Louisville took back-to-back American Association crowns in 1983 and 1984. Individual standouts included Jim Adduci (league-best 101 RBI in 1983) and Vince Coleman (AA-leading 97 runs scored in 1984).
In 1986, the St. Petersburg Cardinals rolled to the Florida State League title. Future Major Leaguer Alex Cole batted .343 and swiped 56 bags.
Powered by the offensive pair of Ray Lankford (league-leading 158 hits) and Bernard Gilkey (league-best 104 runs scored) plus pitcher Dave Osteen (FSL-best 15 wins), skipper Gaylen Pitts’ Arkansas Travelers took the 1989 Double-A Texas League title.
In another indicator of consistency, the longest period during which the system did not log an overall winning record was just three years in duration. This occurred twice, fairly recently, from 1999 through 2001 and again from 2005 through 2007.
As will become evident as we get into the details by level, the late 1990s and much of the first decade of the new century represented rough times for the farm system overall in the win-loss department.
But even during these dry spells overall, there were pockets of success.
The 2000 Memphis Redbirds, also under Pitts, powered their way to the Pacific Coast League championship. Fans may recall a young third baseman named Albert Pujols, who was a late addition to the Redbirds roster after earning Most Valuable Player honors in the Class-A Midwest League. Current St. Louis coaches Stubby Clapp (.375 OBP) and Bryan Eversgerd (3.50 ERA in relief) were also among the 2000 Memphis stalwarts.
In the 2005-2007 period, another club also led by a future St. Louis coach claimed its league title. Despite a losing regular season record, manager Ron “Pop” Warner’s Palm Beach Cardinals got hot in the playoffs and won the 2005 Florida State League championship. Beach Birds FSL All-Stars that season were shortstop Brendan Ryan (.303 batting average) and closer Mark Worrell (35 saves).
Single season peaks and valleys
In terms of winning percentage, 1966 was the ultimate peak for the Cardinals system, under farm director Chief Bender. The six clubs came in a whopping 114 games over .500, at 416-302, for a .579 winning mark. However, all four to make the playoffs fell short of their respective league titles. Three lost in the finals – Triple-A Tulsa, and Class-A St. Petersburg and Cedar Rapids. Double-A Arkansas fell in the first round.
All four of those managers went on to work in the majors – Charley Metro (Tulsa), Vern Rapp (Arkansas) and Sparky Anderson (St. Pete) managed MLB teams and Ron Plaza (Cedar Rapids) was a long-time coach. Outfielder Walt Williams of the Oilers led the PCL in batting average (.330), runs (107) and hits (.193) and went on to play 10 years in the majors, mostly for the White Sox.
The toughest year in system history was 1991. Seven of the eight clubs had losing records with the aggregate winning percentage just .417 (370-517). The top three classification teams (Louisville, Arkansas and St. Pete) all limped home with marks between .357 and .360. The lone bright spot was rookie-level Johnson City, which despite going 40-26 (.606) finished in second place and missed the post-season.
Three seasons tied for the most playoff entrants with five each. All are in the most recent decade, in 2010, 2016 and 2018. Of those three high-water years, 2016 stands highest, as three clubs went all the way in their respective leagues.
It was a short-season sweep in the US, as State College (New York-Penn League), Johnson City (Appalachian League) and the Gulf Coast League Cardinals all were champions. Managers of the three teams were Joe Kruzel, Roberto Espinoza and Steve Turco, respectively. Gary LaRocque was (and remains) the farm director.
Spikes shortstop Tommy Edman had a .400 OBP, catcher Andrew Knizner led JC with 42 RBI and batted .319 and 17-year old outfielder Dylan Carlson debuted with 22 RBI, just one of the GCL team lead in 2016.
In an impressive 51 of the most recent 57 seasons, at least one Cardinals affiliate made the playoffs. Of the six exception years during which no teams played in the post-season, three were during the 1990’s and two occurred in the early 2000’s.
Of course, winning league championships are much more difficult. Still, in 35 of the 57 seasons, at least one Cardinals club brought home the hardware. The longest such streak was eight years, from 1970 through 1977. During that run, Cardinals clubs claimed a whopping 11 league titles.
That leaves 22 dry seasons, the most recent of which was in 2015. The longest title-free run was four years, also in the 1990s.
Adding and subtracting affiliates
While the recent years have been very quiet in terms of changes to the Cardinals minor league structure, it hasn’t always been that way. Almost by season, the organization added a team here or subtracted one there, but always remained in the bandwidth of five to nine teams.
The Cardinals’ full-season teams, which play roughly 140 games from April until Labor Day, have ranged between four and five, with the constants being Triple-A, Double-A and Class-A. In fact, three Class-A teams were relatively common until the mid-1990s. All of the additions, subtractions and movements meant that 15 different locations hosted a Cardinals Class-A team during these 57 seasons. In 1990, the Florida State League moved up to Class A-Advanced level, a new classification for the system, the fourth in full-season ball.
Annually since 1981 and 1975, respectively, the Cardinals have fielded short-season teams in the New York-Penn League and Appalachian Leagues. The latter club, located in Johnson City, Tennessee, holds the distinction of the longest continuous current Cardinals affiliation, at 45 years and counting. Recent success has been especially impressive, with five Appy League titles in the last 10 years.
The Cardinals first entered an in-season “complex” league in Sarasota in 1964. After several breaks, the current run in the Gulf Coast League began in 2007. The year before, the organization established its Venezuelan Summer League affiliate, which played for five seasons before safety concerns led to the team’s (and eventually the league’s) demise.
2005 marked St. Louis’ first season in the Dominican Summer League, with a second club added in 2018.
Much, much more on these teams and levels is still ahead in the upcoming installments of this series.
I was going to include the information here, but based on the length of the above, I have decided to hold the system-wide views of the best and worst decades for a separate article. That article will also include the year-by-year background data summarized above, for those who want to dig even deeper.
Then, we will progress into the level-by-level analyses before moving into player leaders.
This preview is free for all readers, with the hope that you will appreciate the quality and uniqueness of the content enough to become a subscriber to The Cardinal Nation. Until we get to the part of the series that will highlight the best seasons by players, subsequent team-focused articles will be exclusively for TCN members.
Link to related article
This series would not be possible without the record-keeping of Baseball America as delivered via their book, The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, as well as the staff of the St. Louis Cardinals, who have maintained individual player leader lists for decades. Baseball Reference remains a valuable fact-verification resource.
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