Red Schoendienst has represented traditional Cardinal baseball so long that many people aren’t aware that, as a player, he was something of an innovator. In particular, a couple of things that today seem either standard practice — like switch-hitting — or novel — moving rightward along the defensive spectrum — were features that the old redhead was incorporating into his game as he broke into the majors in the 1940s.
Of course, Schoendienst, who turned 91 today, wasn’t among the first switch hitters in baseball when he debuted in 1945. Indeed, he was merely the latest in the Cardinals’ lineage of second basemen who could hit from either side, following after Miller Huggins (1910-1915) and Frankie Frisch (1927-1935). But switch hitters in the 1940s were not nearly as prevalent as today, nor even as they had been earlier in baseball history: The practice actually reached a nadir from between 1930-1960. During Schoendienst’s rookie campaign, 1945, baseball had only 16 switchers:
Throughout Schoendienst’s career, only he, Mickey Mantle and Jim Gilliam stood out as stars who also switch-hit; it simply wasn’t in vogue. Schoendienst was among the few who exploited a personal platoon advantage, which allowed him to make the most of his ability, not to mention the nearby right-field wall at Sportsman’s Park. Switch-hitting served him well, as he hit .288/.345/.401 BA/OBP/SLG from the left side, and .284/.323/.359 righty, according to available data. Significantly, nearly two-thirds of his plate appearances came from the left side; doubtless he would not be enshrined in Cooperstown had he posted a career .323 OBP as a right-hander only.
Whereas many players today try batting from both sides as a matter of course, in order to avoid being disadvantaged by the parade of pitchers they face in a single game, the old redhead did it because of a physical problem. As he explained in his book:
I collected more hits in my second game, actually going eight-for eight to begin my professional career, before I went to my manager and surprised him by asking him if it was OK if I batted left-handed when there was a right-handed pitcher. I never will forget the look on his face. He thought I was crazy — until I explained why I wanted to do it, that I couldn’t pick up the curve from a right-hander without turning my head because of my problems with my left eye. He still was a little skeptical, but he said if I wanted to try I could.
Ambidexterity at the dish wasn’t Schoendienst’s only effort at versatility. Not only could he hit from either side of the plate, he could field from either side of second base, and beyond. Today, fans marvel at players who can transcend the defensive spectrum rightward, like Skip Schumaker, who moved from centerfield to second base, and, more recently, Matt Carpenter, who moved from the corners of the field to the keystone spot. Schoendienst mostly played shortstop in the minors, so his ultimate switch to second base wasn’t surprising. But when he first reached the bigs, the Cardinals thrust him into action in the outfield. With the great Marty Marion at short, and all three of the club’s outfielders — Stan Musial, Terry Moore and Enos Slaughter — serving in the military, Schoendienst knew that if he wanted to play everyday for manager Billy Southworth, his chance rested in left field. So the future Cardinal legend asked coach Mike Gonzalez to hit fungoes to him in the outfield. Schoendienst relates the Cuban-born Gonzalez’s response:
“Beel,” he said to Southworth. “We no need to worry about left field anymore. This Red, he great, play left field, catch everything. You watch what Mike tell you.”
Indeed, even after converting to second base in his sophomore season, Schoendienst was as steady on flyballs into shallow right as he was fielding grounders. He spent nearly the entirely of the 1945 season as the club’s left fielder, perhaps a strange image given the presence of burly slugger Matt Holliday there today. Schoendienst didn’t spend nearly as much time to begin his career in the outfield as Schumaker later would, but he did technically move rightward on the spectrum. Games played by position on the spectrum over the first 279 games of his career:
And not long after taking over at second, Schoendienst designed a new infielder glove, more flat and open than the prevailing style, and gave the pattern to Rawlings, which sold thousands. So happy birthday to the old redhead, a man ahead of his time.