Last Thursday I visited my favorite Italian restaurant and Cardinal hang-out, Alongi's in Du Quoin, Illinois. I was admiring a team photo of the 1967 Cardinals, who defeated the Red Sox to win the World Series that year. That team had a cast of characters whose names have stayed with us to this day. There stood the late Roger Maris next to cherished Cardinal jawbone Mike Shannon. Lefty Carlton towered over most. There was Curt Flood in the lower right front row, Lou Brock, Cha Cha Cepeda, and Julian Javier whose name continues to linger as I mispronounce Julian Tavarez' first name.
There was the great Bob Gibson, whose season was interrupted by a Roberto Clemente line drive to the shin. And there stood the remarkable Nelson Briles, who was handed the ball and helped lead the Redbirds to take all the marbles when Gibby went down . Gibson's leg was broken in July of that year by a ferocious shot off Clemente's bat. It was Briles, he of middling record, who accepted the challenge and reeled of nine straight victories for the good guys.
I hadn't thought much about Nelson Briles in recent years. It was one of the strange circumstances in life that Briles' sudden death three days later at age 61 brought back his image in that picture and the memories of another incredible year for the Cardinals. I also felt that increasingly familiar sadness at the loss of one of Cardinal Nation and one of the truly nice people in the game.
For any mortal to be asked to pick up the slack for Bob Gibson – Bob Gibson, for God's sake – would have seemed to be an insurmountable challenge, especially for a pitcher whose record the year before was 5 wins and 14 losses. Nelson Briles, though, was known for his competitiveness on the field. A sharp dresser and gentleman off the field, he would play like a man possessed when he crossed the white lines.
Briles showed that not only could he pitch and win during the regular season, but that he could be just as effective during the play-offs. He started game 3 of the World Series in '67, defeating the Red Sox (don't you love the ring of that) by a score of 5-2 in a gutsy seven-hit performance that was also highlighted by a two-run Shannon home run.
Nellie continued his hot pitching in the 1968 pennant winning year, going 19-11. No stranger to post-season, Briles would eventually appear in the 1971 fall classic, helping the Pirates defeat Earl Weaver's Baltimore Orioles.
Briles' best years were as a Cardinal, though. From 1965 through 1970 he wore the birds-on-bat. While his first three years were relatively nondescript and unremarkable, his last three years in St. Louis were productive as he won 54 games while losing 36. Briles retired from the game in 1978 as a member of the Orioles after stints with the Royals and Rangers with a career record of 129 wins and 112 losses with a 3.44 ERA and 22 saves.
Nellie Briles is one of those names that harkens us back to some of the glory days of Cardinal baseball. The Cardinals of the mid-1960's were an awesome team with many names familiar still today. The Redbirds had a stellar decade and for those of us in our late 40's and early 50's they defined Cardinal baseball as Harry and Jack spoke so eloquently of their exploits over crackly KMOX. Although as a junior high-schooler I didn't appreciate Curt Flood's issues with free agency, the Cardinals of that day personified the values and traditions of baseball as America was dramatically changing through the turbulent 60's.
The death of Nelson Briles is like losing a part of that past – my past. His death is a reminder again that those to whom we assign heroic status are indeed fragile, mortal humans. It is still difficult to come to grips with Jack Buck's passing. The characters "DK57" are forever forged in my brain. But these people are, well, people, like you and me, and in that realization lies their own mortality and mine.
Rex Duncan email@example.com