Mike Shannon’s last game as a professional baseball player was August 12, 1970. He had been trying to play all season under the shadow of a devastating spring diagnosis. During the routine annual exam, it was discovered that Mike was afflicted with glomerulonephritis -a potentially life-threatening kidney disease.
Trying to balance treatments and playing, his final efforts weren’t outstanding. His final major league season consisted of just 55 games and 174 at bats. On August 12, playing at home against San Diego, Mike got the final two hits (singles) of his major league career (both against Padre starter Danny Coombs) in six at bats in a 14-inning, 5-4 Cardinal win. Cardinal Starter Bob Gibson threw a fourteen-inning complete game to earn the win (the game was quite a bit different in 1970).
Two days later, team physician Stan London determined that Shannon’s condition had degenerated to the point that he could no longer play. Less than a month after his thirty-first birthday, and with the suddenness of a summer storm, Shannon’s career was over.
For years, this was the first thing that I always thought about when I thought of Shannon – the poignancy of a ballplayer’s career ending early. Of the millions who dream of playing major league ball, only a few ever have that opportunity – and even fewer are good enough to make a career out of it. And when one of those guys has that career taken from him, well, tragic is the first word that comes to mind.
A couple months ago, my wife’s grandson was playing in a volleyball game at CBC High School – the new one on Outer Forty, not the original building on Clayton Road that Shannon would have attended. Still, they have transported all of the memorabilia of their storied past, and walking down the hallways was almost like walking into a time capsule.
Next to the gym, they had Shannon’s #18 jersey in a glass case. The plaque underneath outlined the highlights of Mike’s career – both before and after his nine seasons as a Cardinal. And as I read – knowing that one day soon I would be writing this column – I realized as I hadn’t before that this guy had a truly enviable life.
First, he was the high school superstar that we all wanted to be. Back in the day, being the high school basketball player or football player was a big deal. Mike was all of that and so much more. He was a three-sport superstar, and was the only player to win the state Player of the Year Award in two sports (football and basketball) in the same year. He was recruited by football programs all over the country, but ended up at Mizzou – albeit for only one year. As near as I’ve been able to determine, Mike never actually took the field for the Tigers. His coach at the time, Dan Devine, reportedly said that Mike would have been in the Heisman conversation had he stayed with football.
But all of this was just prologue.
After returning to baseball, he made his way into the lineup of the St Louis Cardinals – his hometown team. How many people get to do that for even one day? Mike played in three World Series, winning two. In the first, against the storied NY Yankees, Shannon hit a series-shifting home run against no less than Whitey Ford.
If his baseball career was short, it was also glorious. Ernie Banks – a Shannon contemporary – played 19 seasons in the majors and hit 512 home runs on his way to 14 All-Star games and 2 MVP awards. But Ernie never played in a single postseason game.
And, speaking of his contemporaries, Mike played in one of baseball’s golden ages. He took the field against Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Duke Snider. Against Roberto Clemente, Johnny Bench and Willie McCovey. He hit against Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. Against Warren Spahn, Tom Seaver and Juan Marichal. And then, there were the stars in his own clubhouse.
Shannon, in fact, bridged two era’s in Cardinal baseball. His first teammates on the 1962 Cards included Stan Musial and Red Schoendienst – the two remnants of the great Cardinal teams of the 1940’s. He would go on to be an integral part of the great teams of the 1960’s that included Lou Brock, Orlando Cepeda, Tim McCarver, Julian Javier, and, of course, Gibson. If his years were brief, they were certainly memorable.
But baseball and Mike Shannon weren’t quite done with each other, yet. His playing career over, Mike parlayed his long association with the team into an opportunity to be a member of the Cardinal broadcast. In the era before television ruled the roost, the various radio broadcasts were the voice of baseball that permeated the summer evenings over the wide expanse of this great country. And, as Mike had played during a golden age of players, he was now on the air in an equally golden age of broadcasters. The names are familiar to all who grew up on baseball in that era – Ernie Harwell, Bob Prince, Harry Kalas, Jerry Coleman. Harry Caray. And, of course, Vin Sculley.
But, just as when he played, Mike had to look only to his own “clubhouse,” if you will, for the very best of the superstars. For thirty years he shared the microphone with John Francis Buck – only the gold standard by which all broadcasters are judged (and the platinum standard for human beings).
In the broadcast booth, Mike then became an integral part of the next two great eras of Cardinal baseball – the storied WhiteyBall era of the 1980’s, and then the great Tony LaRussa teams of the early 2000’s.
It occurs to me that any of his individual careers or achievements by themselves would have marked his life as enviable. More, certainly, than most of us could ever dream of. All put together, it becomes an extraordinary life, arising, mostly, out of a circumstance that most would regard as tragic.
I think it is impossible to look at Shannon’s life and not see it as a tale with a moral. When things don’t go as planned, my wife refers to them as “plot-twists.” Things that – although a difficulty now – will make the evolving story more interesting. The plot-twist in Shannon’s life was severe. The thing he loved to do was suddenly taken away from him.
Here, though, the timing becomes intricate. 1970 was the year that Caray and the Cardinals parted ways (a colorful story for another time). That left the broadcast in a state of flux. Buck – who had been Caray’s color man – would now inherit the play-by-play duties. If Shannon’s playing career had lasted another three or four years, that spot in the booth would almost certainly have been filled by someone else – and someone else would have had all or part of the iconic 50-year ride Mike enjoyed. And because Shannon was available, had strong ties to the community as well as the recent World Series successes – and because he was willing to work tirelessly at his new craft – Mike turned out to be the perfect fit.
The moral here is that the happily-ever-after isn’t always a straight-line proposition. Whether you believe that God is in the details of our lives, or that Mike was just fortunate, the disease that ended Shannon’s playing career turned out to be a lucky break in the end. A good, but not great, ballplayer, Shannon’s legacy in the booth was almost certainly greater than his legacy as a player would have been. It certainly proved to be more lucrative. On his page on the baseball reference site, researchers have estimated Mike’s career baseball earnings at around $219,000 – far less than his earnings as a broadcaster.
This was not the direction he was headed, or the destination he would have chosen. But it was clearly where he was meant to be.