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Why St. Louis Cardinals’ Opening Day traditions are the best in baseball

st. louis cardinals
Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

ST. LOUIS — For the first time since the major leagues expanded to 30 teams some 25 years ago, all the teams are scheduled to play on Opening Day on Thursday. There will be dignitaries, Hall of Famers and full houses at many of the 15 sites.

But no one will do it like the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium III. And no one ever has.

The St. Louis Cardinals have embraced their stellar past and linked it to the present. They will have their living National Baseball Hall of Famers and their living Cardinal Hall of Famers wearing their red sports coats circling the warning track from right field to home plate in convertibles followed by the current Cardinals players and staff in trucks.

The Hall of Famers, featuring National Hall of Famers Whitey Herzog, Ozzie Smith and Ted Simmons, along with the newest electee, Scott Rolen, will wait at home plate for the current squad to arrive and there will be handshakes and hugs all around as the former stars encourage the current ones to keep the postseason train moving all the way to the World Series. The St. Louis Cardinals will celebrate its 2022 National League championship but, before these aforementioned events will come the highlight for many fans.

The world renowned Budweiser Clydesdales team will take a ceremonial lap, just as they first did in the 1980s when Anheuser-Busch owned the team before selling it in 1996 to Bill DeWitt Jr., and partners.

St. Louis Cardinals and history of Clydesdales

St. Louis Cardinals
Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

There have been some memorable experiences involving the Clydesdales at Busch Stadium II during the 1980s. Before a World Series game, the carriage holding club President August A. Busch Jr., careened over the pitching mound with the accompanying dalmatian barking madly. On another occasion when the caravan was stopped, there was a deposit left in the first-base coaching box.

Neither is expected this year. And, in fact, St. Louis Cardinals President Bill DeWitt III said the front office had mulled having the Clydesdales make two laps around the field but was told the tight pre-game schedule before the start of the game with the Toronto Blue Jays wouldn’t allow it.

The Clydesdales have not been only fan favorites but Hall of Famer manager Tony La Russa, who will be unable to attend because of an illness, said that when he was managing, he didn’t want to get into the car waiting to take him around until he could see the Clydesdales take their lap.

“I was watching them all the way around,” said La Russa. “And you could hear the fans just go nuts.”

DeWitt III said, “I hope it never goes away.”

“Opening Day is a big thing everywhere,” La Russa said in a telephone interview. “But I’ve heard the comment enough a little before I was a Cardinal, when I was a Cardinal and often since I took the uniform off. The combination of the Clydesdales — no one else has the Clydesdales — and the number of Cooperstown Hall of Famers . . . you could make up a ceremony but it’s the history. The fans know every one of those Hall of Famers by heart and it’s their chance to welcome them back. They want the old-timers to know that they’re never forgotten.

“Some of them would pull you aside that first year (that La Russa managed), almost grabbing you by the collar, and just say, ‘You know what’s at stake here?’ The winning happens if you do things right. But what they cared about was, ‘Just make sure the team plays hard.”’

The only downside to the ceremony is that since last Opening Day, National Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Bruce Sutter has died, as well as St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Famer and Ford Frick award winner Tim McCarver. In the past three years, Hall of Fame greats Lou Brock and Bob Gibson have died, and in the last decade, Hall of Famers Stan Musial and Red Schoendienst, longtime friends, have died.

Parade of St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Famers

Musial’s appearance, which came in his last years via golf cart from right field, was always the show stopper. No matter what age he was, he would insist on reprising his corkscrew batting stance and swing. You always hoped, “God, please don’t let him fall down.” And he never did.

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There wasn’t a dry eye in the stadium. “Now, just talking about it … Red would go over to that cart and give him a hug …  and it makes me want to tear up,” said La Russa by telephone.

The same as it was for Brock, just a few months after having his leg amputated late in life. He threw a ceremonial pitch before one opener while the crowd held its breath. He stood firm.

Before the parade of players past and present, one of the highlights of Opening Day, also seen nowhere else was shortstop Smith doing a backflip as he took his position at shortstop in the top of the first inning. Smith last performed the feat in 1996, his final season, but DeWitt III cracked, “We haven’t got him to do it with his red jacket on yet. We’re still working on that. But I have no doubt that he could do it.”

Talking about the confluence of history and present, DeWitt said, “We all get sentimental—because it’s all on display. That passage of time comes into focus on Opening Day. And it’s a rebirth.” 

Rick Hummel, who was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame for baseball writing, is the baseball columnist for Sportsnaut.