In September 1972, the Cardinals gave Ken Reitz a look in the majors for the first time and liked what they saw.
Playing with confidence and aggressiveness, Reitz, 21, fielded smoothly and hit for average, convincing the Cardinals he was ready to be their third baseman.
In two stints with the Cardinals, Reitz led National League third basemen in fielding percentage five times (1973, 1974, 1977, 1978 and 1980) and won a Gold Glove Award (1975).
His surehanded glovework earned Reitz the nickname “Zamboni” because, like the machine, he cleaned everything in his path on the artificial turf at Busch Memorial Stadium in St. Louis.
A right-handed batter who played in the majors for 11 seasons, including eight with the Cardinals, Reitz died on March 31, 2021, at 69.
A son of a beer distributor, Reitz grew up in Daly City near Candlestick Park in San Francisco. “When I was a kid, I used to sneak into Candlestick over the fence,” Reitz told the San Francisco Examiner. “That’s before they enclosed the park.”
His favorite player was Giants slugger Willie McCovey.
The Cardinals chose Reitz in the 31st round of the 1969 amateur draft. Signed as a shortstop for $3,000, Reitz, 18, played first, second and third for Cardinals farm clubs in 1969. At the Florida Instructional League in the fall, he played 10 games at catcher and also was tried in the outfield.
Reitz settled in at third base in 1970 and began a steady rise through the Cardinals’ farm system. With Class AAA Tulsa in 1972, he led the club in doubles (26) and RBI (66) and dazzled with his defense, even though he twice dislocated his left shoulder.
“Ken is an aggressive hitter,” Tulsa manager Jack Krol told The Sporting News. “He’s not going to be cheated. You might say he’s a lot like Joe Medwick. If the ball is quite a bit outside, he’ll still swing.”
Regarding Reitz’s fielding, Krol said, “Ken makes the play coming in as well as any third baseman I’ve seen.”
Born for baseball
In late August 1972, the Cardinals sent first baseman Matty Alou to the Athletics, clearing the way for Joe Torre to move from third to first and for Reitz to get a chance at third.
Reitz was a refreshing addition to a Cardinals club that was out of contention. Bob Broeg of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch described Reitz as a “throwback to an era when ballplayers came to play nothing but baseball.”
When asked on a National League questionnaire about his ambition outside of baseball, Reitz answered, “Baseball is my life. I have always wanted to be a professional baseball player. I was born with a baseball glove in one hand and a bat in the other.”
Asked about his hobbies, Reitz replied, “Hitting line drives.”
Wearing uniform No. 47, Reitz made his Cardinals debut against the Expos at St. Louis on Sept. 5, 1972, and had two hits, two runs and a RBI. Boxscore
After five games in the majors, Reitz was batting .571 (12-for-21). On Sept. 19, he drove in the winning run against the Phillies in the 10th inning at St. Louis. Boxscore
In 21 games for the 1972 Cardinals, Reitz hit .359 and had 10 RBI.
The Cardinals liked his hitting and fielding, but not his lack of speed. They hired UCLA track coach Jim Bush to put Reitz on a running and conditioning program during the off-season in California. Bush had success with several athletes, including Lakers guard Jerry West, Rams receiver Lance Rentzel and UCLA quarterback Mark Harmon, the future actor.
“Harmon’s dad, Tom, asked me to work with him,” Bush told The Sporting News. “Mark’s legs were as good when the football season ended as they were at the start. My running program really paid off for him.”
The Cardinals opened the 1973 season with rookies on the left side of the infield, Reitz at third and Ray Busse at shortstop. Reitz switched from No. 47 to No. 44, the same worn by his boyhood hero, Willie McCovey.
April was a tough month for the club. The Cardinals lost 15 of 18 games. For the month, Reitz hit .177 and Busse hit .114, drawing boos from home fans.
Busse never recovered and was traded to the Astros. Reitz rebounded and hit .256 with 12 RBI in May. He also established himself with his glove.
On May 4, 1973, at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, the Dodgers had runners on first and third, one out, in the ninth inning when Joe Ferguson drilled a grounder down the third-base line. Reitz dived, made a backhanded grab, spun and threw a strike to catcher Tim McCarver, who tagged out Bill Buckner.
“The greatest play I’ve ever seen any third baseman make,” Cardinals manager Red Schoendienst said to the Post-Dispatch.
According to the newspaper, Reitz “had to make an arching throw to keep from possibly hitting the runner. He was falling away when he made the throw.”
First baseman Joe Torre said, “I think he threw the ball without looking.” Boxscore
Bob Broeg noted, “It’s nice to have the kind of brilliant plays Ken Reitz has been making at third base, but it’s even nicer to see the routine plays made, the kind that the center fielder and a medley relay of shortstops have been unable to execute.”
Another highlight occurred on May 9, 1973, when Reitz hit his first major-league home run. It came against the Giants’ Ron Bryant at Candlestick Park. Reitz’s parents were in the stands, along with some of the boyhood buddies who used to sneak into games with him at Candlestick Park. Boxscore
A month later, Cardinals broadcaster Mike Shannon, the third baseman for the pennant-winning 1967 and 1968 teams, told The Sporting News that Reitz “probably will become the best defensive third baseman the Cardinals ever had.”
“The plays Reitz makes are unbelievable,” Shannon said in June 1973. “For a guy slow afoot, he has the best lateral movement I’ve ever seen. He has great range, a sure and true arm, great confidence, and can come in well on a ball. I think he can become better than, or as good as, Ron Santo, and he’s the best I’ve seen.”