Cardinal Pennant Clusters
St. Louis was the last of the eight National League franchises that began the twentieth century to win a pennant. Through the first quarter of the century, the Cardinals were one of the worst teams in the league--finishing last or next-to-last ten times in 25 years, losing 90 or more games ten times, and posting a winning record in only eight seasons. By the mid-1920s, however, Branch Rickey was transforming the Cardinals--in fact, transforming all of white professional baseball--with his development of an extensive farm system and somewhat ruthless strategy of holding onto promising talent in his minor league system as an investment in the future and discarding veterans abruptly when he felt their skills were on the precipice of decline. Rickey‘s creative genius proved to be the foundation for the Cardinals being the most successful National League team between 1926 and 1946.
Until the major leagues expanded to divisional alignments in 1969, no National League team did better over any six-year stretch than the Cardinals in winning four pennants between 1926 and 1931. The Giants won four pennants in four years from 1921 to 1924, and the Cubs from 1906 to 1910, Cardinals from 1942 to 1946, and Dodgers from 1952 to 1956 each won four pennants in five years. But extend the run of each of those teams to six years and their achievement was exactly the same as (which is to say, no better than) the 1926-31 Cardinals--four pennants ('26, '28, '30, and '31) in six years. They made it five pennants in nine years by winning again in 1934, playing scrappy, die-hard, we-ain't-gonna-lose baseball that earned them the gritty nickname, "Gashouse Gang," which fit so perfectly the Depression Era.
The Cardinals may have logged five pennants and three World Series championships from 1926 to 1934, but were hardly a dominant team. In only one year--1931, by 13 games--did they win the NL pennant in a rout; their four other pennants were each won by identical two-game margins. Moreover, St. Louis was not competitive in three of the four years they did not win the pennant, finishing fourth in 1929, sixth in 1932 with a losing record, and fifth in 1933. Notwithstanding Hall of Famers Jim Bottomley (1B), Frankie Frisch (2B), Chick Hafey (OF), and Jesse Haines (P) playing on at least three of the first four St. Louis pennant-winning teams, only Hafey was at the peak of his career in performance, the others on their downside. The 1934 Gashouse Gang was largely a different team, led by now-player-manager Frisch, near the end of his playing career, and including third-year outfielder Joe Medwick, whose best years were still to come, and third-year ace Dizzy Dean, whose 30 victories that year has been matched only one time since, in 1968.
After winning their ninth pennant and sixth World Series in 1946, it would be 18 years before the Fall Classic returned to St. Louis. The 1964 Cardinals made for a compelling story with their dramatic surge at season's end to overtake the collapsing Phillies, and in 1967 and 1968 the Cardinals were not seriously challenged in winning back-to-back pennants, giving them three in five years. But the 1964-68 Cardinals played below expectations in the two years they did not win the pennant, buried in the second division in both 1965 and 1966. While Ken Boyer had a superb 1964 and Orlando Cepeda a superb 1967 to each win MVP honors, St. Louis had only three stars—Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, and Curt Flood (four, if you want to include Tim McCarver)—among its core players for the duration of their run, but Gibson was their only player who was the best at his position (as one of four starting pitchers) for all of that time, based on the wins above replacement metric. (Brock had the disadvantage of outfielders Mays, Aaron, and Clemente still in their prime.)
Similarly, the St. Louis team that won three pennants in six years between 1982 and 1987 (in '82, '85, and '87) endured two losing seasons and a third when they were never in the race for the NL East. They had only one true star and historically great player—Ozzie Smith, the best defensive shortstop ever—but otherwise won with a cast of solid, fundamentally-sound players who played effectively and efficiently within manager Whitey Herzog's framework. Like the 1926-34 and 1964-68 Cardinals, the 1982-87 St. Louis team had great success with few of the league's best players, which made them vulnerable to poor seasons in the midst of their winning three division titles, three pennants, and two World Series championships.
With the exception of 1942 through 1946, many of the Cardinals‘ pennant-winning teams through history can be said to be overachievers. Although by definition, they were the National League‘s best in the years they won the pennant, the 1926-34, 1964-68, and 1982-87 Cardinals cannot be considered among the all-time best National League teams over any extended period of at least five years because they all endured poor seasons in the middle of their otherwise impressive achievements. Those Cardinals clusters of pennants were accomplished with relatively unimposing teams when it came to their core regulars. Indicative of this legacy, 11 of the 24 times the Cardinals have finished first in the league or their division, they did so by margins of three games or less. In fact, they won more such close pennant races than they lost (7), and in 2001 tied the Astros for the best record in their division (and the league, for that matter) but had to settle for the wild card because Houston won their season series. Living so close to the edge makes for exciting pennant races and terrific lore, and even embodies the American ethic of overcoming great odds to achieve success, but it does not make a case for being the best over time. It does make the St. Louis Cardinals one of the most compelling franchise stories in baseball history, who probably have not gotten quite the historical acclaim they deserve.