Cardinals fans can easily name off the 11 best teams in franchise history. The 1926, 1931, 1934, 1942, 1944, 1946, 1964, 1967, 1982, 2006, and 2011 teams will always make up the top 11. They won the World Series, which is memorable no matter how forgettable the regular season was. The 83 win 2006 team will always be remembered more than the 105 win 2004 team, in part because of the flag that flies at Busch.
There have been some incredible teams in Cardinals’ history that have fallen short of the ultimate goal. I pulled the top-ten non-championship teams in terms of winning percentage. They rank, in my opinion, as follows.
10. 1945 Cardinals: 95-59, 2nd National League
Missing former MVP Stan Musial and Enos Slaughter to military service, the 1945 club’s WAR leader was none other than baseball legend Willie Kurowski. Kurowski, manning the hot-corner, slashed (.323/.383/.571). Cardinals Hall of Famer Marty Marion played 123 games at shortstop. 1945 was also Red Schoendienst‘s rookie year, making it the first of 71 (and counting) consecutive years wearing a MLB uniform.
On the mound, Red Barrett, Ken Burkhart, and Harry Brecheen anchored the staff, each winning 15 or more games. In fact, all five starters listed on the 1945 team’s baseball reference page had ERA’s under 3.00.
The 1945 club were bested by the Chicago Cubs for the NL pennant, finishing three games back.
9. 1935 Cardinals: 96-58, 2nd National League
The 1935 version featured several St. Louis and MLB legends. Dizzy Dean, “Ducky” Medwick, Daffy Dean, Terry Moore, Pepper Martin, Frankie Frisch (who was both a player and manager), and Leo “The Lip” Durocher were members of the defending champions. On the mound, Dizzy finished with one of the best seasons by a starting pitcher in franchise history. He pitched 325.1 innings, won 28 games while losing just 12, and finished with a 3.04 ERA. His 7.1 WAR was highest on the club.
Joe Medwick finished with a slash line of .353/.386/.576, 23 home runs, and 126 RBI’s were enough for a top-five finish in the MVP voting. The team was unable to recapture the magic of the Gas House Gang, and finished four games behind the Cubs in the National League.
8. 1949 Cardinals: 96-58, 2nd National League
1949 was Musial’s last real chance at a championship. Along with Cardinals legends like Enos Slaughter, Red Schoendienst, and Marty Marion, the Cardinals gave Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers all they could handle down the stretch, but ultimately fell just a single game shy of another pennant.
Musial posted yet another historically good season. He finished with a .338 average, 36 home runs, and 128 RBI’s. He led the league in hits with 207 and OBP with .438. On the mound, Henry Pollet won 20 games while losing 9, boasted a sub-3.00 ERA, and pitched 230 innings.
7. 1941 Cardinals: 97-56, 2nd National League
The Man was simply “a kid” in 1941, when he debuted and made only 49 plate appearances. The Cardinals, led by Enos Slaughter, Terry Moore, Marty Marion, and Johnny Mize were good enough for 97 wins and finished just 2.5 games behind the Dodgers.
Ernie White anchored the staff, going 17-7 with a 2.40 ERA in 210 innings. The 1941 team hit fewer home runs than the 1985 Whiteyballers. Only the future HOF’s Slaughter and Mize hit more than ten. Strong defensive play and good pitching kept them in the pennant race up until the very end of the season.
6. 1928 Cardinals: 95-59, Lost World Series 4-0
The 1928 NL champions were led on the mound by Bill “Wee Willie” Sherdel, a 5’10”, 160 pound, a southpaw. He pitched in 38 games, starting 27. Of his 27 starts, he finished 20 and won 21. He totaled 248.2 innings, and finished with a 21-10 record and a 2.86 ERA. He lead the team in WAR with 5.9.
Although he didn’t lead the team in WAR, the lineup centered around the NL MVP, Jim Bottomley. He batted .325, crushed 31 homers, and drove in 136 runs, good enough for a 162 OPS+.
The Cardinals won their second NL pennant in franchise history by outlasting the New York Giants by two games. Bottomley and Sherdel were no match for Ruth, Gherig, and the Yankees, just one year removed from the famed “Murderers Row” lineup. The Yankees easily dispatched the Cards in four games.
5. 2015 Cardinals: 100-62, lost LDS (3-1)
The 2015 Cardinals are viewed as the team that ceded control of the NL Central to the ascendant Cubs – despite being one of the toughest teams in franchise history. Jason Heyward had the highest WAR on the team, but his overall offensive numbers don’t paint a picture of offensive dominance. He slashed .293/.354/.439, but most of his value came from his defense.
Most of the team’s value came from run prevention, too. Despite losing from nearly the whole season in late April, the staff was good for a 2.94 ERA. Essentially, every inning of every Cardinals game was pitched by Madison Bumgarner, who’s ERA that year was 2.93.
Despite overcoming a disproportionate amount of injuries throughout the regular season, they were overrun by the Cubs in the NLDS, a series that came to symbolize a changing of the guard atop the NL Central.
4. 2005 Cardinals: 100-62, lost LCS (3-2)
The final team to call Busch II home featured both the National League MVP and Cy Young award winners. Albert Pujols slashed a ridiculous .330/.430/.609, hit 41 homers, and drove in 117 runs. Chris Carpenter won 21 games and lost 5, finished with a 2.83 ERA, and threw 7 complete games and four shutouts on his way to joining Bob Gibson as only the second Cardinals pitcher to win the Cy Young award.
The 2005 squad fell to Roy Oswalt, Roger Clemens, and Andy Pettite in the NLCS, but not before Pujols launched one of the most dramatic home runs in Cardinal’s postseason history. The Cardinals lost their next game, however, and Busch II closed not having housed a championship team since 1982.
3. 1985 Cardinals: 101-61, Lost World Series (4-3)
The 1985 postseason was one of the most memorable for Cardinals fans, for both good and bad. Ozzie Smith‘s walk-off home run, and Jack Bucks subsequent call of “Go crazy folks, go crazy!” remains one of the most iconic home runs and calls in baseball history. Memories of Denkinger’s blown call in Game 6 of the World Series against the Royals induces opposite emotions, however.
The emotions of the postseason overshadow some truly astounding individual performances during the regular season. John Tudor finished with an ERA of 1.93 while winning 21 games, finished 2nd in the Cy Young to Doc Gooden, and finished 8th in the MVP voting. Joaquin Andujar and Danny Cox also won more than 15 games, rounding out a superb rotation.
Cardinal’s teams under Whitey Herzog will always be known for their speed and lack of power. Both were in display in 1985. Second baseman Tommy Herr homered only eight times, but drove in 110 runs (and you thought Allen Craig could drive in runs). They only homered 87 times as a team, but Willie McGee and Vince Coleman stole 166 bases between them, nearly five times as many steals as the entire 2016 team (35).
Oh, and I’ve been told Ozzie Smith played a pretty good shortstop.
2. 2004 Cardinals: 105-57, Lost World Series (4-0)
The 2004 Cardinals featured one of best offenses in franchise history. Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, and Scott Rolen all homered more than 30 times (46, 42, 34, respectively). It was peak “MV3”. Pujols finished 3rd in the MVP voting, Rolen 4th, and Edmonds 5th, and they frequently occupied exactly those spots in the lineup.
A good-but-not-great rotation of Matt Morris, Jason Marquis, Chris Carpenter, Jeff Suppan, and Woody Williams, none of whom finished with an ERA under 3.00, when paired with a historically good offense, was still good enough for one of the most dominating regular seasons in baseball history. They cruised to the NL Central title, besting Houston by 13 games.
The addition of Larry Walker at the trade deadline reinforced an already lethal lineup, and seemingly made the Cardinals unstoppable heading into the postseason. After Jim Edmonds played hero in the last two games of the NLCS, they had the misfortune of running into the recently resurrected Boston Red Sox. I’m not sure anytime could have won that series, not even the 105 win Cardinals. After some sloppy play, they were swept out of the World Series.
1. 1943 Cardinals: 105-49, Lost World Series (4-1)
On his way to his first career MVP award, Stan “The Man” had one his most dominant seasons in 1943. He led the National League in average, on-base percentage, and slugging (.357/.425/.562). Mort Cooper went 21-8, finished with a 2.30 ERA, and threw 24 complete games. His co-ace, Max Lanier, pitched 213 innings and boasted 1.90 ERA.
They only hit 70 homers as a team, but used their crisp defense, good pitching, and Musial to win the NL pennant by 18 games over the Cincinnati Reds. They fell to the New York Yankees in the World Series, but their regular season was one of the most dominant in franchise history.
Thanks for reading, as always!