ST. LOUIS -- Much has been made of the back-and-forth between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the St. Louis Cardinals, rivals in this year's National League Championship Series.
The teams have traded barbs over things like Yasiel Puig's emotional responses. Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright created what is likely to be the enduring visual of the series by calling Adrian Gonzalez's chirping from third base "Mickey Mouse stuff"; Adrian Gonzalez responded with some mouse ears of his own as he neared home plate after one of his two home runs in Wednesday's 6-4 win.
Really, though, the rivalry between the Cardinals, winners of 18 National League pennants, and the Dodgers, 22-time National League champions, peaked decades ago -- when the two best teams in the NL would meet, rather than in a seven-game series, 22 times during the regular season.
"No, not really," said longtime Cardinals player, coach and manager Red Schoendienst Friday afternoon, prior to Game 6, when I asked if the current battle could measure up in intensity to the Dodgers-Cardinals tilts from the pre-divisional era. "You'd play hard. You wouldn't talk to them on the field, they wouldn't talk to you on the field. It was a different thing."
Schoendienst participated in what might best be described as the first League Championship Series. It took place in 1946, after the Dodgers and Cardinals finished tied atop the National League at 96-58. And the rivalry was already stoked by several years of close finishes.
"One of my favorite Dodger-Cardinal stories: 1942," Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully told me Friday afternoon, just outside his broadcast booth. "The Dodgers were 9 ½ games in front in August. And the owner was a man named Larry MacPhail. And Larry MacPhail went into the clubhouse at Ebbets Field, and called the team together, and said -- and they were full of themselves, you know, 9 ½ in front -- and Larry MacPhail said to them, 'The way you're playing, you're gonna lose.'
"And they were all upset. Dixie Walker was a famous Dodger outfielder. And Dixie Walker said, 'I'll bet you $200 we win.' And MacPhail said, 'I can't bet against my own team,' but he said, 'The way you're playing, I'm telling you, you're gonna lose.' And that was the year -- you're gonna have to look it up -- that was the year the Dodgers won 104 games, out of 154! And the Cardinals won 106."
I looked it up, but obviously Scully was right. And that came at the beginning of a period from 1941-1956 in which the Cardinals and Dodgers won 11 of 16 National League pennants, while either the Cardinals or Dodgers finished second in the five seasons when someone else took temporary possession of the National League. The two teams viewed each other warily across the league for almost two decades. And as Scully explained, the rivalry began before players even reached the major leagues.
"In those days, guys spent several years in the minor leagues, before they got up. So the young Giant player, working his way up through the Giant organization, and the young Dodger player, who was in the Dodger organization, working his way up, and they competed against each other, starting at the very bottom, and working all the way up. So by the time you got to the big leagues, you knew the rivalry was intense, because of the fact they'd been doing it all their careers."
The same was true of Dodgers-Cardinals, Scully said, but due to reasons of success, rather than geography.
"The Dodgers and Giants just had a natural rivalry," Scully said. "After all, they were in the same city, you know, the battle of the boroughs. But the Cardinals were a dominating team, and the Dodgers -- the war was over now, and they were all trying to get better."
So by 1946, the two teams knew each other well, had seen each other celebrate pennants and taken each other on at minor outposts across the county. Schoendienst took the field at Sportsman's Park in St. Louis for the first game of a best-of-three series to advance to the World Series. And that's just what Schoendienst did, hitting leadoff and collecting two hits against an eventually far more famous losing pitcher, Ralph Branca. Schoendienst collected a hit in the second game, this one at Ebbets Field, as the Cardinals beat the Dodgers, 8-4, to advance to the 1946 World Series, which they won.
"It was always great at the end of the year, you were always fighting for the pennant," Schoendienst recalled. "We won in Brooklyn, and we had to play an extra game, in 1946, I guess it was. The weather's different right now," Schoendienst said, smiling, a nod to the late-October weather. "Brooklyn always had a great pitching staff, they could throw five guys at you. Of course, the Cardinals could, too. So there was a lot of great baseball."
Scully didn't join the Dodgers until 1950, but the Cardinals-Dodgers playoff of 1946 was memorable to him as well.
"I was just out of the Navy for a little while," Scully said. "But I just knew they had a playoff." Scully added -- a trace of regret over that result, along with 1951 and 1962 -- "And I know the Dodgers failed, as they have done in the past when they get into that kind of a situation."
At the center of that baseball was Cardinals Hall of Famer Stan Musial. It has always been notable to me that Musial's nickname, "Stan the Man", was bestowed upon him not by the St. Louis faithful, but by the crowd at Ebbets Field. It is impossible to imagine that happening today, according to Scully, with the two teams facing each other only six times each regular season.
Nor did a player need to be as historically great as Musial to earn that honor, when teams saw each other so often.
"There was an outfielder with the Cubs named Bill Nicholson," Scully said. "He was a home run hitter. And Bill was big, and strong, and he would get up to the plate, move that bat, you know, back and forth. And the Ebbets Field crowd would go, 'Swish, Swish'. And he became known as Swish Nicholson."
But the rivalry of the time extended well beyond the fans. Schoendienst is as accommodating an interview as there is, and remembers seemingly every play from every vital contest he's participated in over seven decades. Here's his response when I asked him what he remembered of 1949, when the Cardinals, up a game on the Dodgers with four to play, lost the NL on the final day of the season: "Oh, I don't remember all of that," Schoendienst said, chuckling. "I don't even want to talk about it."
Scully wasn't surprised that Schoendienst still hurts, 64 years and many subsequent successes after the fact.
"Well, look at the Dodgers of '51," Scully pointed out. "They were 13½ games in front, in August, and lost to the Giants. There aren't too many around from that era, but I'm sure Ralph Branca would be very sensitive about that."
Schoendienst, at least, got a measure of revenge after the Cardinals traded him to the Giants in 1956. New York dealt him to the Milwaukee Braves the following year, and it was the Braves who finally ended the Cardinals/Dodgers axis in the National League, winning the pennant in both '57 and '58.
"Well, I was pretty fortunate when I went over there," Schoendienst. "They had a great ballclub. A lot of great ballplayers on their club, like [Eddie] Mathews, and [Hank] Aaron, and [Del] Crandall, [Warren] Spahn, [Lew] Burdette. We had a fine, outstanding ballclub in Milwaukee.
The pre-divisional Cardinals and Dodgers did have one final battle, with St. Louis, just a game out of first place, hosting L.A. in mid-September, 1963. But even though there was that Man again, Stan Musial, collecting hits in all three games, the Dodgers swept Musial and the Cardinals, all but ending his bid to reach the World Series in his final season.
Fifty years later the Cardinals, invoking Musial, have made a fuss about the celebrating from the Los Angeles Dodgers. They've gained support in some corners from people praising the Cardinals, and criticizing the Dodgers, for failing to uphold the traditional, emotionless ways of baseball past.
Well, Scully was there, and he's not buying it.
"With me, I like the show of emotion," Scully said. "I would much rather see this going on. Finally, somebody wrote about it, because I had spotted it. The first time Puig came up at Dodger Stadium, the entire Cardinal bench, they were all on the rail. And they were all twisting, and turning, imitating Puig.
"I think that's great! I loved it!"
Ah, but what of the Mouse Ears that roared? Scully's observations run counter to the media narrative that somehow, Gonzalez has been personality-less until this series.
"As far as Gonzalez, normally, every time he gets a key hit, he throws his hands in the air and lets out a roar," Scully said. "It's just the inner stress coming out. I was a little surprised the Cardinals picked up on that, because he does it all the time. And he's not trying to show anybody up. I think the modern-day player is a little bit sensitive, when compared, to, you know..."
Scully trailed off, but we know: the players those critical of the Dodgers supposedly hold up as beacons of a past Scully explains never existed, from a past where the Dodgers-Cardinals rivalry burned much brighter, and players treated as appropriately epic.
"I love it," Scully concluded. "I would like to see emotion. I certainly do not find any fault in somebody celebrating a wonderful event."
And to be sure, winning the NLCS in 2013 will certainly qualify, even if it isn't quite the same rivalry between the two teams.