Vince Coleman

How Busch Stadium’s automated tarp ran over Vince Coleman in 1985

There wasn’t a catcher in baseball who could stop Vince Coleman during his rookie campaign in 1985.

Unfortunately, the same rule didn’t apply to the Busch Stadium tarp.

The Cardinals initially didn’t plan for Coleman to break their starting lineup in 1985. Coleman went just 4-for-29 in spring training[1] and was optioned to Triple-A Louisville to open the season. However, outfielders Willie McGee and Tito Landrum each suffered injuries that month, prompting the Cardinals to call the speedster up to the majors.

Upon Coleman’s arrival, general manager Dal Maxvill met with Coleman to be sure the rookie had realistic expectations about his role.

“Look, Vince, you’ve had a nice spring, but I want you to realize, right now, that you’re only going to be with us for about a week, and then you’ll be sent to Louisville,” Maxvill began.

Coleman nodded. “Yes, Mr. Maxvill, I understand, but I want you to know that I’m going to be here the whole year.”

Maxvill smiled. “That’s great, Vince. I want you to have all the confidence in the world, but you have to understand that once McGee is healthy, you’ll be sent back down to Louisville.”

Once again, Coleman nodded. “Yes, Mr. Maxvill,” he said. “I understand, but I want you to know I’m going to be here the whole year.”[2]

Coleman proved to be right. In his major-league debut on April 18, Coleman went 1-for-3 with a walk and two stolen bases. That proved just the beginning of a season in which Coleman stole 110 stolen bases, breaking Juan Samuel’s rookie record of 72.

With Coleman setting the basepaths on fire, the Cardinals won 101 games on their way to the National League East championship.

“Things just seemed to click when we brought Vince Coleman up,” said Tom Herr, who posted a career-high 110 RBIs that season. “Before, we were kind of experimenting. With a natural leadoff hitter like Vince, and a guy like Willie McGee hitting behind him, it was like a smorgasbord for me all year long.”[3]

Ahead of the National League Championship Series, Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, whose team went 95-67 en route to the National League West title, was asked how he planned to contain Coleman.

“Fake a throw to second, and then try to catch him going to third,” he joked.[4]

Coleman went 0-for-4 in the first game, a 4-1 Dodgers victory, then went 2-for-5 with an RBI as the Dodgers won Game 2. In Game 3, Coleman again went 2-for-5, this time stealing a base and scoring twice. It proved to be his final game of the season.

Prior to Game 4, a light rain began to fall. As Coleman and other players gathered their equipment, the grounds crew began to use an electronic machine to unroll the tarp. As Ozzie Smith described the scene in his autobiography:

Vince was standing right at the edge of the tarp. He turned to toss his glove to somebody who was headed into the dugout, and just as he turned, his foot slipped on the wet Astroturf, he fell, and the tarp rolled over his foot and started up his leg. Vince panicked, as anyone in that situation would, and everybody else kind of froze. Finally we sprang into action and got the guy controlling the tarp, who was down beyond first base, to shut the thing off. But in order to reverse the tarp, he had to go back over Vince’s leg. Vince was in a lot of pain, and nobody really knew what to do.[5]

Cardinals spokesperson Jim Toomey estimated that the tarp and cylinder weighed approximately 1,200 pounds spread out across their 180-foot width.[6]

 “I wouldn’t wish what happened to me on my worst enemy,” Coleman said.

“When I went home I dreamed about it and the dream was that the tarp went over my head.”[7]

As the Cardinals’ medical staff assessed Coleman, manager Whitey Herzog called Coleman’s mother at her home in Jacksonville, Florida.

“Are you sure that I don’t need to come up there?” Mrs. Coleman asked.

“No,” Herzog answered. “We’ve got Willie and Ozzie to mother him.”[8]

Dr. Stan London, the Cardinals’ team doctor, initially was optimistic. Preliminary x-rays showed no fractures, and while Coleman’s legs had suffered cuts and were tender, the initial diagnosis was that there was no structural damage.

“He could play if everything checked out tomorrow in the same fashion,” London said. “That would be contingent on how he was feeling.”[9]

Coleman, however, did not feel well enough to play. The Cardinals won each of the NLCS games they played without him to win the series in six games. When Jack Clark hit a three-run, ninth-inning home run to lift the Cardinals to a 7-5 victory in Game 6, Coleman discarded his crutches and was right behind pitcher Joaquin Andujar, the second person to greet Clark at home plate.[10]

The day after the Cardinals won Game 2 of the World Series to take a two-game lead over the Royals, London conducted a new series of tests on Coleman using a more sensitive film.

“It’s really a very small 1- by 3-millimeter bone flake that’s pulled off,” London said. “It’s not a significant injury, except for the extreme pain, but it should heal and I would not anticipate it causing him any problems.”[11]

Nonetheless, Coleman’s season was over. The Cardinals petitioned Commissioner Peter Ueberroth’s office for a special allowance to replace Coleman on the roster, but Major League Baseball denied the request.[12]

Kansas City won four of the final five games of the World Series to capture the championship. Though Don Denkinger’s missed call in Game 6 drew most of the media attention, questions remained regarding the impact Coleman could have made in the series.

“We were spinning our wheels until Vince got here this year,” Herzog said ahead of Game 6. “Everybody talked about how well our first four (hitters) complemented each other this year, and they’re right.”[13]

First baseman and outfielder Cesar Cedeno, who joined the club in July, grew frustrated with the questions about Coleman’s absence from the lineup.

“You want to talk about the offense, we’ll talk, but don’t bring up Vince,” he said. “Every time we lose a game, you bring up Vince. We won (six of eight games) with him out. I know you’ve got to make news. We obviously miss him. But we’re still winning the Series.”[14]

At the St. Louis chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America annual dinner in February, Herzog pointed out that outside of Game 6, the Cardinals’ losses were too lopsided for Coleman to have made a difference in the outcome.

“The bottom line was that we hit .168 in the Series,” Herzog said. “In the other three games that we lost, we were outscored 23-2. Vince Coleman wasn’t going to drive in 24 runs for us.”[15]

In his book White Rat: A Life in Baseball, published in 1987, Herzog wrote, “My biggest regret was that the people who watched the World Series didn’t see the true St. Louis Cardinals. We just didn’t play our brand of baseball. Coleman’s injury took the flash out of our offense.”[16]

In January, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Coleman’s injury had healed “a week or 10 days after the World Series had ended,” and he was looking forward to the 1986 season.

“Right now it feels like it’s brand new,” Coleman said. “It’s 100% healthy.”[17]

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[1] Rick Hummel, “Coleman Knows His Job’s A Steal,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 30, 1985.

[2] Doug Feldmann (2002), Fleeter Than Birds: The 1985 St. Louis Cardinals and Small Ball’s Last Hurrah, McFarland Publishing, Pages 44-45.

[3] John Sonderegger, “ConVincing,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 28, 1985.

[4] Doug Feldmann (2002), Fleeter Than Birds: The 1985 St. Louis Cardinals and Small Ball’s Last Hurrah, McFarland Publishing, Page 156.

[5] Ozzie Smith and Rob Rains (1988), Wizard, Contemporary Books, Page 128.

[6] Rick Hummel, “Close Call,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 14, 1985.

[7] Rick Hummel, “Nobody At Fault Except Himself, Coleman Says,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 15, 1985.

[8] Doug Feldmann (2002), Fleeter Than Birds: The 1985 St. Louis Cardinals and Small Ball’s Last Hurrah, McFarland Publishing, Page 160.

[9] Rick Hummel, “Close Call,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 14, 1985.

[10] “Coleman Ready To Play In World Series Opener,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 18, 1985.

[11] Rick Hummel, “Coleman Sidelined For Series,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 22, 1985.

[12] Doug Feldmann (2002), Fleeter Than Birds: The 1985 St. Louis Cardinals and Small Ball’s Last Hurrah, McFarland Publishing, Page 177.

[13] Mike Smith, “Royals’ Pitching Stifles Cards’ Bats,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 26, 1985.

[14] Mike Smith, “Royals’ Pitching Stifles Cards’ Bats,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 26, 1985.

[15] Cathie Burnes, “Herzog At Dinner: No Excuses,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 5, 1986.

[16] Whitey Herzog and Kevin Horrigan (1987), White Rat: A Life in Baseball, NY H&R, Page 182.

[17] Rick Hummel, “Coleman On Injured Leg: ‘It Feels Like Brand New,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 25, 1986.