Obituary: Mike Shannon (1939-2023)

RIP to Mike Shannon, a long-time and beloved member of the St. Louis Cardinals organization, both as a player and broadcaster. He died on April 29 in Marion, Ill., after suffering a stroke. Shannon, who was 83, played for the Cardinals from 1962-70. When his career was cut short by kidney disease, he transitioned to the team’s radio booth and was a mainstay as a broadcaster for 50 years. He retired from that position in 2021.

Thomas Michael Shannon was born in St. Louis on July 15, 1939. He attended Christian Brothers College High School, where he became one of the city’s top football players. A 6’3″ quarterback, he was named to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch All-Star team in 1956. The Missouri Sportswriters Association likewise honored him after he led the CBC Cadets to an 8-0 season, the school’s first undefeated, untied season since 1930. He was also a second-team all-district basketball pick and a great pitcher on the baseball team as well. More than 50 colleges attempted to recruit Shannon, but he accepted an athletic scholarship from the University of Missouri in 1957. “I’d like to do as much as possible, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to. I certainly want to play football and baseball, and I’ll play basketball if I can,” he said.

Shannon as a high school quarterback. Source: St. Louis Globe-Democrat, November 8, 1957.

The St. Louis Cardinals intervened with a contract worth an estimated $40,000 in June of 1958. Shannon had completed his freshman year at Mizzou and was considered coach Dan Devine’s top defensive back, as well as a potential starting quarterback as a sophomore. The Cardinals worked him out at Busch Stadium under the watchful eye of manager Fred Hutchinson and determined that they couldn’t wait on Shannon any longer. “We feel the youngster’s at an age when he should be playing,” said Walt (no relation) Shannon of the Cardinals. “This is the formative period for young ballplayers.”

Though Shannon was a very talented pitcher, the Cardinals saw him as an outfielder, and that’s where he played when he entered pro ball in 1958 with the Albany Cardinals of the Georgia-Florida League. He quickly showed that his offensive capabilities were as good as his pitching, as he hit .322 with 6 home runs and 54 RBIs in 62 games with the team. Shannon had always been a natural athlete, and success had come pretty easily for him in all of his sports. So when he hurt his foot in 1959 with Class-B Winston-Salem and slumped badly enough to get pulled from the lineup for a time, it was the first time that Shannon had really struggled in a sport. Not that the experience discouraged him.

“You can’t be a success unless you can take the bad with the good,” he told the Twin City Sentinel in August of 1959. He was batting .252 at the time, and his foot made it impossible for him to play regularly. “Now I’ve experienced the bad, and I don’t think it will ever hurt as much again. No, it hasn’t shaken my confidence at all. I still think I can do it,” he said.

That injured foot eventually healed, and Shannon finished 1959 with a .273 batting average, with 14 homers. As he moved up the ranks of the Cardinals organization, his successes far outweighed his failures. The first time he was sent to Triple-A in 1961, he batted just .230 with Portland. He came back to Triple-A in ’62 and hit a combined .288 for Seattle and Atlanta, swatting 16 home runs as well. He also had a tremendous arm and made 18 assists from the outfield that year. The Cardinals may have wanted his development to happen a little quicker, but everyone who saw him work out was impressed by his tools. When Seattle’s season in the Pacific Coast League ended, Shannon was brought to the majors by the Cardinals.

Shannon debuted as the starting right fielder against Cincinnati on September 11, 1962. He was 1-for-4 on the day, singling off Bob Purkey in the 6-2 loss. Shannon spent most of September on the bench, managing 2 hits in 15 at-bats. He was sent back to the Atlanta Crackers for 1963, but he barely played for the team. He had to return home to St. Louis multiple times to tend to his wife, Judy, who had been ill after giving birth to the couple’s fourth child. The Cardinals recalled him in July, which had the benefit of keeping him closer to home. Shannon again barely played — unsurprisingly, considering St. Louis’ starting outfielders were Stan Musial, Curt Flood and George Altman. Shannon was productive when he came to bat, with 8 hits in 26 at-bats for a .308 batting average. His only extra-base hit of the year was his first career home run. It was a 2-run shot off Chicago’s Dick Ellsworth on September 11, 1963 — exactly a year after his major-league debut.

Musial retired after the 1963 season, and Altman was traded to the Mets. The roster moves created some opportunities to fill the vacant outfield spots. Shannon was not the first choice. He made the team’s 1964 Opening Day roster, but the outfielders who started alongside Flood included Charlie James, Johnny Lewis and Carl Warwick. Shannon appeared as a late-inning replacement in left field but was hitless in 3 at-bats over the month of April. He was sent to the minor leagues when the roster was cut to 25 players in early May. The Cardinals filled one of those outfield positions with Lou Brock, acquired in a trade with the Cubs, but none of the other outfielders on the roster grabbed the right field spot.

When Shannon was sent to the minors, Cardinals general manager Bing Devine told him that the team needed to see him hit consistently. So while he was in Triple-A Jacksonville, Shannon batted .278 with 11 home runs. He returned to St. Louis in early July and was put in right field. He had hits in each of his first 6 games, including a home run off Sandy Koufax. He stayed in right field for the rest of the season. The Cardinals won 93 games and the National league pennant in 1964, and the team then beat the Yankees in seven games to win the World Series. Shannon, who slashed .261/.310/.415 with 9 home runs and 43 RBIs during the regular season, hit .214 in the Series. But he helped make a big statement in Game One, which the Cardinals won 9-5. Shannon crushed a home run off Whitey Ford that traveled more than 450 feet and hit a beer sign on top of the left field scoreboard. “That homer gave me the biggest thrill of my life,” he told reporters. “Dick Groat, Ken Boyer and Bill White are the big men on this club, but every day one of the rest of us comes through to help out. Today, it was my turn.”

Shannon started the 1965 season by going hitless in the opening series against the Cubs, and he never really got on track. He didn’t get his batting average above .100 until June and didn’t reach .200 until August. He was benched for much of September and finished a frustrating season with a .221 batting average. He played all over the outfield and even caught a few games. Shannon re-established himself as a starting right fielder in 1966 with his best overall season, batting .288 with 20 doubles, 16 home runs and 64 RBIs. On one West Coast road trip in July, Shannon hit 4 home runs — off Koufax, Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry and Lindy McDaniel. He also turned in a 5-for-5 performance against the Cubs on July 22, falling a triple short of a cycle. Unsurprisingly, he was named the NL’s Player of the Month for July, thanks to a .385 batting average, 7 home runs and 23 RBIs.

Coach Joe Schultz (left) admired Shannon’s hot bat while teammate Tim McCarver (right) looks on. Source: Atlanta Constitution, July 27, 1966.

After scuffling for a couple of seasons after the World Series win, the Cardinals returned to the top of the National League in 1967. Shannon got to experience his second World Series from a new position — third base. In the offseason, the Cardinals had traded third baseman Charley Smith to the New York Yankees for outfielder Roger Maris, and Shannon made the position shift to accommodate the slugger. He would remain at third for the rest of his career. Shannon had the arm strength to fire a ball across the diamond, but he was a better outfielder. While he struggled with the position in ’67, he eventually got to the point that he was league average, or close to it.

“I can’t really say I’m enjoying third base, but I want to help the club any way I can,” he said that July. He credited Cards manager Red Schoendienst for working with him and, above all, having faith in him. “There weren’t too many people in St. Louis over the winter who thought Mike Shannon could play third. When Red had confidence in me like that and it turns out good, it makes me feel good.”

Shannon’s batting average dipped to .245 in 1967, but he drove in 77 runs while homering 12 times. He hit just .232 over the second half of the season, and his performance in the World Series against Boston didn’t improve — he batted .208 against the Red Sox. Again, though, he had an important home run. It came in Game Three, with the Series tied at 1 game apiece. Curt Flood had an RBI single in the first inning off Sox starter Gary Bell, and then Shannon hit a 2-run blast in the second inning, after Tim McCarver led off the inning with a single. Boston scored a couple runs, but the Cardinals took the game by a score of 5-2. The Series would go to the full seven games, but Shannon and the Cardinals became world champs again.

Typically, the Cardinals had featured a potent lineup, with a power hitter like Orlando Cepeda in the middle of the lineup and others, like Flood, Brock, Julian Javier or Ken Boyer adding to the offense. Shannon usually found himself at the lower end of the batting order, which helps to account for his lower run totals and RBI totals. In 1968 — the Year of the Pitcher — Shannon led the Cardinals with 79 RBIs and was second behind Cepeda with 15 home runs. He was also second on the team with 29 doubles and 186 hits while appearing in a career-high 156 games. St. Louis’ 97-65 record led the National League, and the team headed back to the World Series for the third time in Shannon’s tenure. He had the best World Series of his career, with a .276 batting average and 4 RBIs. However, the Detroit Tigers were a little bit better, winning the Series in seven games. Shannon hit another World Series home run, and it was the only run that Mickey Lolich allowed in a Game Seven, 4-1 win. For Shannon’s productivity and his leadership, he was recognized with a few MVP votes that year, finishing seventh in the vote. Teammate Bob Gibson won the award, and Cardinal stars Flood and Brock finished in fourth and sixth place, respectively.

Shannon was less productive in 1969. He still hit 12 home runs, but his batting average slipped to .254. The Cardinals slipped in the standings to fourth place, and after the disappointing season, GM Devine began to break up the ballclub. Flood, McCarver and pitcher Joe Hoerner were traded to Philadelphia for Dick Allen, though Flood’s refusal to join the Phillies made the trade an infamous one in baseball history. Shannon himself didn’t know where he fit in with the team. “I’m sure the club is not finished trading yet. I just hope I stay,” he said. Shannon remained with St. Louis, though his career would end in a most unexpected way. A routine physical exam during spring training in 1970 led to the discovery of a kidney disorder, glomerulo nephritis, and Shannon was hospitalized for further tests. He missed the first month of the season and hit poorly when he did make it back to the active roster, with little power. He played in his 55th game of the season on August 12 against San Diego and had 2 singles in 6 at-bats, raising his batting average to .213. On August 15, it was announced that doctors ordered Shannon to skip the rest of the season. He vowed to return to the team in spring training 1971, but the risks were too high. Over the offseason, his weight ballooned up to 260 pounds. The right medication helped to reverse his symptoms and lose the weight, but he was ordered by doctors to avoid getting too fatigued. Shannon never returned as an active player.

Cardinals teammate Joe Torre noted that when Shannon was first diagnosed with nephritis, Shannon’s uniform was taken out of his spring training locker. “He couldn’t be hurt bad enough to keep him out of the lineup. The only way they could take Mike out of the lineup is to do what they did. Take him out of his uniform,” he said.

Over the course of 9 seasons, Shannon slashed .255/.311/.387. His 710 hits included 116 doubles, 23 triples and 68 home runs. He drove in 367 runs and scored 313 times. His career OPS was .698 and OPS+ was 97. In the field, Shannon’s fielding percentage at third base was .938, but his percentage in the outfield was .987. He even caught for parts of 5 games and handled 25 chances flawlessly.

Shannon, the St. Louis native, never left the Cardinals organization. “Ever since I’ve been working, since I was 19 years old, I’ve been in the St. Louis organization. On and off the field, I’m a Cardinal all the way,” he said. He joined the team’s promotion and sales department in 1971. The next year, he was offered the color commentator job on the flagship radio station KMOX, working Cardinals games alongside Jack Buck. Some of the early reviews of his work were unkind, but he grew into the role. He didn’t have Buck’s polish, but he was endearing and enthusiastic if not always grammatically correct. Shannon, who eventually became a featured part of televised broadcasts as well, was the voice of the Cardinals for multiple generations of Cardinals fans. The man who initially found paying time as a late-inning substitute for Stan Musial witnessed, from the broadcast booth, world championships, tragic passings, no-hitters and heroics from Keith Hernandez to Ozzie Smith to Albert Pujols to Paul Goldschmidt. The Cardinals inducted him into the team’s Hall of Fame in 2014.

Shannon stepped away from the Cardinals broadcast booth (which was renamed the Shannon Broadcast Booth) in 2021. He was sickened with COVID in 2020 and still struggled with the lingering after-effects a year later. In his final broadcast on October 3, he was too emotional to say everything he wanted to say in the pre-game ceremony but was given a loud ovation by the Busch Stadium as he was given a golf cart ride around the stadium. Once the game had started, Shannon had barely settled into his seat when Tommy Edman blasted the first pitch from Cubs starter Alec Mills over the right field wall. It came a little too quickly for Shannon to go into his usual home run call. “I didn’t have a chance to say, ‘Get up, baby. Get up baby. Oh, yeah!'” he said.

In the wake of his death, the St. Louis Cardinals honored Shannon with a tribute video (see below), featuring some of his on-field and in-booth highlights. It also showed part of his speech when he was inducted into the Cardinals Hall of Fame. He ended that speech by saying, “We’re here for a short time, and enjoy it, and try to enhance it in any way that we can. Hopefully, I’ve done that over the years.”

Shannon was preceded in death by his first wife, Judy. He is survived by his wife, Lori, children Mike, Tim, Patricia, Peg, Danny and Erin, along with a large extended family.

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