Consider this: The St. Louis Cardinals baseball club has won eleven world series titles (second only to the deep-pocketed New York Yankees), nineteen National League pennants, and thirteen divisional titles after baseball introduced divisional play in 1969. All this while playing in what the
Census calls a “mid-market” town, in a sport that (unlike football, basketball, and hockey) has no salary cap, and where teams in first-tier cities such as San Francisco and New York acquire high-priced players from a seemingly inexhaustible resource base. Even fans of opposing teams (probably not the Chicago Cubs, though) marvel at how the Cardinals play competitively year after year. Howard Megdal dives deep into the storied club’s history and provides a coherent thesis that traces the arch of excellence that starts with Branch Rickey and culminates with current general manager John Mozeliak.
Megdal focuses on two people primarily, each of whom is surrounded by a capable cast. George Kissel, a player with limited success, spent a big part of his life (till his death in 2008), on the training fields of the Cardinals’ minor league teams drilling the fundamentals to the players. While many of the players chafed at the duration and monotony of Kissel’s drills, they came back later on to thank the coach for helping them professionally. The on-field adherence to sound fundamentals is a hallmark of any Cardinal player and is justifiably a significant part of what is called the “Cardinals way.”
More interestingly, though, what makes this book singular is the decision by the DeWitt group, who took ownership of the team in 1996, to eschew the traditional way of identifying and developing talent solely via observation in favor of analytics--
technique that grew in popularity (amidst controversy) by the publication of the
book Moneyball. The Cardinals did this pivot even as they were winning using traditional scouting methods. The Cardinals did this pivot even though Bill DeWitt Sr. learnt his baseball chops under the legendary Branch Rickey, back in the time when scouts were near mythical figures. The ownership fired general manager Walt Jocketty when he did not fully embrace analytics--this a year after Jocketty engineered a World Series triumph in 2006.
Megdal introduces the reader to a wonderful cast of characters--from McKinsey trained consultants to NASA scientists, in addition to standout athletes--to chronicle this narrative of a team’s longstanding success. Their voices are heard, often with uncharacteristic candor, in isolation and in concert, and they help explain how an organization has adroitly mixed tradition and context to cultivate a culture of success.