Asking who the greatest St. Louis Cardinal is at a given moment can be a bit of a tricky question because, honestly, it’s hard to weigh the factors to call somebody the greatest. But I want to try it anyway.

One easy solution would be to look at the team’s leader in Wins Above Replacement for any given season and conclude that the guy at the top is the team’s best player. And while I don’t think WAR is perfect, it is certainly the statistic I would be most inclined to use if I had to choose just one, as it allows me to compare batters to pitchers and sluggers to fielding specialists with relative fairness. But I also don’t think that this is quite what I’m looking for, because I don’t think a player having one huge season necessarily allows them to be rightfully the team’s best player in most peoples’ minds. For instance, in 1926, Les Bell led the Cardinals in FanGraphs WAR by decimal points over Rogers Hornsby, who had been the best non-Babe Ruth player in baseball for a decade. I don’t question that Bell was more productive than Hornsby that season, but I would never have the audacity to claim him to be the team’s best player.

To assign what I am calling the Championship Belt of the St. Louis Cardinals, I am going to use the following semi-arbitrary but I think intuitive formula–the previous season’s fWAR times 0.5 plus the season prior’s fWAR times 0.35 plus the season prior to that’s fWAR times 0.15. Only fWAR accumulated with the Cardinals franchise counts. In the event of a tie, the belt is retained by the previous belt holder. Occasionally, the belt holder for a season won’t even have been on the team that season–it is up to the new generation to snatch the belt from the old guard.

More belt transfers happen in the early years of the franchise–despite the perception of modern players as mercenaries, early professional baseball was far more erratic. This largely means discussing players I do not know about, so I’ll keep things brief.

  1. Jumbo McGinnis (1882-1884): McGinnis led the franchise in fWAR for the franchise’s first season, tied for the team lead in its third season, and finished in second in 1883. Over the three seasons, McGinnis tossed 1125 1/3 innings and posted three consecutive sub-3 ERAs.
  2. Bob Caruthers (1885-1887): “Parisian Bob” Caruthers was the franchise’s first superstar, being a superb hitter in two of these three seasons (his wRC+ hit 172 and 160) and serving as the team’s best pitcher. Caruthers led the team in fWAR in each of these three seasons.
  3. Tip O’Neill (1888): 1887 was O’Neill’s apex, the season in which he posted an unfathomable triple-slash of .435/.490/.691, but the presence of Bob Caruthers kept him in check. However, O’Neill was also quite good in 1888, and with Caruthers gone, the Canadian outfielder took the mantle of being the team’s best player.
  4. Silver King (1889): Although he sounds more like William Jennings Bryan’s running-mate than a great pitcher, was a dominant starting pitcher for the then-Browns, and like O’Neill before him, he had a superior season the year before he inherited the crown. His comical 1888 season saw him throw 585 2/3 innings, accumulate a 45-21 record, and allow a 1.64 ERA, and while 1889 was comparatively middling, a 34-17 record with a 3.14 ERA is sufficient.
  5. Jack Stivetts (1890-1892): Although a bit less famous than some of his predecessors as the title holder, Stivetts was the team’s top starting pitcher in an era where being an ace generally assured WAR domination. A glance at his innings totals for the 1890 and 1891 Browns, 419 1/3 and 440, give this away.
  6. Kid Gleason (1893): While Gleason eventually became a position player, he was a pitcher in St. Louis, and in 1892, he was a 5-win player over 400 innings for an admittedly lousy era in franchise history–in his full two seasons, the team won 56 and 57 games.
  7. Pink Hawley (1894): In 1894, the year after which Hawley briefly inherited the Championship Belt, Hawley lost 27 games and had a 4.90 ERA. Also, he was born and died in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. That’s all I got.
  8. Ted Breitenstein (1895-1896): While his ERA numbers look pretty suspect by modern standards, the St. Louis native was an innings-eater and one of the decade’s top pitchers. Those who have been to the Cardinals’ franchise page on Baseball Reference may recognize Breitenstein as one of the two 19th century Cardinals to appear among the franchise’s top 24 players (Bob Caruthers was the other).
  9. Monte Cross (1897): A rare position player among 19th century Championship Belt holders, this shortstop was an above-average hitter for the 1897 team that finished 29-102. Cross was decidedly not a star–his wRC+ came out to a fairly normal 104–but he was also certainly not the reason the then-Browns were so abysmal.
  10. Lave Cross (1898): Cross was barely a Brown, but given the turmoil of the franchise, one full season as a pretty good hitting, good fielding third baseman is enough to hold the title.
  11. Cy Young (1899-1900): The legend’s time with the Perfectos/Cardinals was brief, but he was as excellent as one might expect. In 1899, Young was 26-16 with a 2.58 ERA in 369 1/3 innings, and while his 1900 season was comparatively mediocre, he remained a 6.4 fWAR pitcher. Sadly, he did not receive a Cy Young Award either season.
  12. Jesse Burkett (1901-1902): Burkett was so good in 1900 and 1901, the latter of which culminated with a 169 wRC+ offensive explosion, that despite spending 1902 on the Browns (now a reference to St. Louis’s American League team, rather than a previous name of the Cardinals), he remained the team’s Championship Belt holder following the 1902 season as well.
  13. Patsy Donovan (1903): Donovan was late in his MLB caeer when he arrived in St. Louis and was a perfectly acceptable corner outfielder. My Patsy Donovan fun fact, as long-time Bullpen readers may know, is that he is the greatest Irish-born player in MLB history.
  14. Kid Nichols (1904): An all-time great starting pitcher, Nichols had his last great season in St. Louis in 1904, tossing 317 innings with a 2.02 ERA. His time in town was short-lived but he made his presence known.
  15. Homer Smoot (1905): In 2,653 plate appearances with the Cardinals, Homer Smoot hit 14 home runs.
  16. Mike Grady (1906): The veteran catcher had a career resurgence in St. Louis, posting three consecutive above-average offensive seasons, and while his historical defensive reputation is somewhat shaky, the metrics that we do have about his time with the Cardinals read respectably.
  17. Ed Karger (1907-1908): The pitcher had a very good 1907 season, during which he sported a 15-19 record and a 2.04 ERA. His 1908 was less good, but his 1907 season carried him along. And now, we go on to a bunch of players I’d actually heard of.
  18. Ed Konetchy (1909-1913): The best Cardinals position player until this point in franchise history, the star first baseman was the team’s best hitter throughout his Cardinals tenure and provided solid defense in an era which prioritized first base defense relatively to today.
  19. Miller Huggins (1914-1915): Although more famous today as the manager of the 1920s New York Yankees, Huggins was a second baseman as a player and a rather good one, at that. In 1914, Huggins had a 120 wRC+ with solid defense and a terrific 16.5% walk rate.
  20. Rogers Hornsby (1916-1926): The first truly great St. Louis Cardinal, Hornsby was the National League’s best player for a decade. In the first six seasons of the 1920s, Hornsby’s second-worst season still saw him accumulating 9.8 wRC+ as he combined superior defense at a premium position with tremendous power and perhaps the greatest contact skills in baseball history.
  21. Frankie Frisch (1927-1928, 1930): It seemed like heresy to try replacing Rogers Hornsby at second base with anybody, but Frisch was capable of the task. In 1927, Frisch was already a powerhouse, with otherworldly defensive statistics and a 129 wRC+, guided largely by his incredibly low 1.4% strikeout percentage.
  22. Chick Hafey (1929, 1931): The outfielder alternated with Frisch as the team’s best player in the early years of the Great Depression, and while Frisch was usually the superior player, Hafey was the superior hitter. For five straight seasons, from 1927 through 1931, he put up wRC+ numbers of 159, 151, 143, 144, and 156.
  23. Dizzy Dean (1932-1936): Dean was just 27 years old when he pitched his final game for the Cardinals, but he forged an incredible legacy as the team’s ace. In 1934, Dean became the last (to date) pitcher to win 30 games in the National League, a season during which he was also the league’s MVP.
  24. Joe Medwick (1937): Speaking of Cardinals to have NL most-recent status, Medwick is the last Cardinal to win the NL Triple Crown, which he won in 1937, as well as wrestling the Championship Belt away from Dean in the latter’s final season with the Cardinals. While his reign didn’t last long, it was certainly memorable.
  25. Johnny Mize (1938-1941): The first baseman had a memorable run as the most lethal hitter in the Cardinals’ lineup. His peak hit in 1940, when he belted 43 home runs, which stood as the franchise record for home runs in Cardinals franchise history for the next 58 years.
  26. Enos Slaughter (1942): Slaughter had a terrific 1942, his age 26 season, with a triple-slash of .318/.412/.494, and although he would have many great seasons ahead of him, he would miss the next three seasons serving in World War II and by the late 1940s, the team had firmly become another man’s team.
  27. Stan Musial (1943-1946, 1948-1958): With fifteen seasons as the title holder, Stan Musial is, unsurprisingly, the longest-tenured belt holder in franchise history.
  28. Whitey Kurowski (1947): Kurowski may have only spent one year at the top of the franchise, but that he was able to dethrone prime Stan Musial is an accomplishment in and of itself. In that season, Kurowski was the superior hitter by home runs, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage, and was the more valuable fielder.
  29. Ken Boyer (1959-1962): He wasn’t Stan Musial, but Ken Boyer was a worthy successor to the title. The well-rounded third baseman reached his career apex in 1964, when he won the NL MVP award, but, well, another player was about to take over the franchise.
  30. Bob Gibson (1963-1973): For a while, Bob Gibson was arguably the greatest pitcher ever. For a longer period of time, Bob Gibson was certainly the best pitcher on the Cardinals, and his eleven years on top of the organization, depriving such legends as Lou Brock and Curt Flood from the belt, is a perfect explanation of why he is the greatest pitcher in St. Louis Cardinals history.
  31. Ted Simmons (1974-1978): It wasn’t a great time in Cardinals history, but the star catcher was a rare highlight for the late 1970s St. Louis Cardinals. Long underrated, Simmons is finally being enshrined in Cooperstown in 2020.
  32. Keith Hernandez (1979-1982): Beginning with his co-MVP performance in 1979 and culminating with a World Series championship in 1982, Keith Hernandez was a consistently good hitter and perhaps the best defensive first baseman in baseball history and acted as something of a transition between the 1970s Cardinals and what would come to be known as Whiteyball.
  33. Lonnie Smith (1983): The best player on the 1982 team, Lonnie Smith finally captured the crown the next season, and while he was eventually pushed out of left field by Vince Coleman, Smith was one of the pivotal players of a World Series champion.
  34. Ozzie Smith (1984, 1986-1992): He is arguably more associated with the World Series champions and NL champions of 1985 than any of the teams of his belt run, but Ozzie Smith was continuously improving and had his best seasons, as a defense-first shortstop, in his thirties. He had an interesting Cardinals tenure in that he was both a star with good teams and a superstar with mediocre teams.
  35. Willie McGee (1985): His run as a premium player was somewhat limited, and it didn’t help his case that he was on some loaded teams, but Willie McGee dethroned Ozzie Smith in 1985 amidst his NL MVP season.
  36. Bob Tewksbury (1993-1994): It doesn’t seem like Tewk should have held this title, but he played for some pretty lousy teams, and while he was a notoriously non-dominant pitcher, he was the unquestioned ace for a few years in St. Louis.
  37. Ray Lankford (1995-1998): One of the most underrated players in franchise history, the star center fielder was a well-rounded focal point of some often forgotten Cardinals teams, but was just one additional NLCS victory in 1996 away from being the belt-holder for a World Series team. He deserved better.
  38. Mark McGwire (1999-2000): While Lankford retained the title through 1998, there is no denying that Mark McGwire owned the cultural moment surrounding the Cardinals. McGwire hit 135 home runs between 1998 and 1999, and while he battled injuries in 2000, McGwire remained a lethal force at the plate, the likes of which St. Louis had never seen before.
  39. Jim Edmonds (2001-2002): His run was necessarily brief, but the star center fielder marked a transition from the mediocrity of the late 1990s into the perennial title contenders of the 2000s. He could have been the star player on great teams, but he quickly became a very good second banana.
  40. Albert Pujols (2003-2011): Albert Pujols would have been the championship belt holder for baseball as a whole for a chunk of this time. Albert Pujols was an absolute superstar and despite how great the teams he was on were, that he held down the fort for so long should go unchallenged.
  41. Yadier Molina (2012-2014): It’s hard to analyze Molina in the moment, as he remains an active Cardinal, but at the end of the day, we will probably look back at Molina as less of an accumulator than we do now and look at his stunningly productive peak. He led the Cardinals in fWAR for three consecutive seasons, two of which saw him as a legitimate MVP candidate.
  42. Matt Carpenter (2015-2018): While Carpenter would alternate between MVP-level seasons and merely productive ones, he took over the mantle in the late 2010s. He was a carryover from the early 2010s mini-dynasty that remained productive as a younger core emerged in the latter half of the decade.
  43. Paul DeJong (2019): DeJong may not hold the title long–Jack Flaherty certainly seems like the odds-on favorite to become the franchise guy very soon. But for now, shortstop Paul DeJong holds the title thanks to his consistency–he is a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop whose offense, while inconsistent, is slightly above-average, which is huge for a shortstop with his defensive talents.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s