10/21/1987: The Tom Lawless bat flip

Decades later, Cardinals fans who find video of Tom Lawless’s go-ahead, three-run home run off Frank Viola in Game 4 of the 1987 World Series can be excused for coming away with several misperceptions.

Without the benefit of high definition, the 5-foot-11, 170-pound native of Erie, Pennsylvania, looks like a practiced slugger, pulling the ball to deep left field and then standing at home plate to admire his towering shot. As the ball sails into the night air at Busch Stadium II, Lawless takes only a step or two, admiring the arc of the ball.

The camera operator behind home plate quickly zooms out, giving the impression that this ball could be headed to the second deck. When it finally lands, Lawless gives the bat toss against which all subsequent bat tosses must be measured, a mighty heave that sends his bat high flying over his shoulder.

Any fan who didn’t realize this was just the second home run of the 30-year-old utility player’s career could certainly be forgiven, and if they didn’t quite catch that the ball cleared the left-field wall by just a few feet, well, that too is understandable.

After all, even today, most Cardinals fans have never seen a bat flip like the one Lawless unleashed upon the baseball world that evening.

A 17th-round selection by the Reds in the 1978 draft, Lawless’s primary claim to fame heading into the 1987 World Series was that the Reds had traded him to the Expos three years earlier for Pete Rose. In March 1985, the Expos sent him to St. Louis to complete a February trade that sent Mickey Mahler to Montreal.

In St. Louis, the light-hitting Lawless was a seldom-used reserve whose primary value lay in his ability to play the infield, outfield, and even catch. In three seasons with the Cardinals heading into the ’87 World Series, Lawless had never played more than 47 games in a season and had just 25 total hits, including just two during the most recent regular season. As Rick Hummel wrote in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “Lawless always seems to be the No. 3 player at a position where only two players play.”[1]

Nonetheless, Lawless’s ability to play all over the field made him valuable to Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog.

“Lawless makes it possible for me to do everything else I do,” Herzog said. “I can make all the double switches (and) pinch-hit and pinch-run for the catchers because Tommy can play anywhere.”[2]

Nonetheless, an injury to Terry Pendleton and Herzog’s desire for a righthanded bat against Minnesota southpaw Frank Viola meant that Lawless was in the lineup for Game 4 as the Cardinals sought to even the series at two games apiece. Viola had gone 17-10 with a 2.90 ERA during the regular season, while the Cardinals countered with Greg Mathews, a 25-year-old lefthander from California who had gone 11-11 with a 3.73 ERA in his second big-league season.

Both teams traded runs in the third inning as Twins shortstop Greg Gagne homered to left and Jim Lindeman – playing first base in place of the injured Jack Clark – hit an RBI single to tie the game.

In the fourth, Lawless broke the game open. Pena led off the inning with a walk before Jose Oquendo singled to right. After Viola greeted Lawless with a strike, his second pitch was a belt-high fastball. Lawless didn’t miss his opportunity to hit his second career home run, or to admire his shot like a man much more accustomed to hitting homers.

Lawless’s wife Cheryl was at the game and recalled one of the fans seated near her shouting, “Run! Run! You didn’t hit it that hard.”[3]

For his part, Lawless was oblivious to it all.

“I saw the TV replay, where I flipped my bat, but I don’t remember doing it,” he said. “I kind of went blank. I’d never been in that position before.”[4]

“When he hit it I thought he must have hit it in the upper deck, the way he was standing there watching it, but it was about a foot over the fence,” Herzog said. “He said he hit as hard as he can and I said, ‘Man, you better hit it when you watch it like that.’”[5]

Even Twins third baseman Gary Gaetti, who hit 31 homers and drove in 109 runs for Minnesota during the regular season, was impressed.

“I saw it on the replay,” Gaetti said. “He was styling. God, he was styling. He’s done that a lot of times, right? Why not milk it? That’s one of the better ones I’ve seen.”[6]

Lawless’s feat marked just the 11th time in World Series history that a player who didn’t hit a home run during the regular season hit one in the Fall Classic, joining Bob Gibson, who did in 1967 and 1968. Lawless was just the fourth non-pitcher to do it.[7]

“I may sleep in my uniform tonight,” Lawless said.[8]

With a 4-1 lead, the Cardinals continued to add on. After Viola walked Vince Coleman with one out, he was replaced with Dan Schatzeder, who allowed Lindeman’s second RBI single of the game before Willie McGee drove two runs home with a double into the left-field gap.

With the lead now 7-1, the Cardinals relied on their bullpen, as Mathews left the game with a thigh injury. Bob Forsch threw 2 2/3 innings to earn the win and Ken Dayley earned his third save of the postseason with 2 2/3 scoreless innings.

It was a big evening for Dayley, who not only notched the save but was finally off the hook as the only major-league pitcher to allow Lawless to homer off him. Lawless’s only other big-league blast had come against Dayley in 1984 when the lefthanded reliever was with the Braves.

“He has the ball,” Dayley explained. “He wants to bring the ball in and have me sign it. He’s been threatening to, but he hasn’t done it yet.”[9]

The Cardinals carried their momentum into Game 5, beating Minnesota 4-2 to pull within one win of the World Series championship. However, the Twins reversed their fortunes with wins in Games 6 and 7, with Viola throwing eight innings to earn the win in Game 7.

Lawless played one more season in St. Louis, collecting 10 hits – including a home run – in 54 games. That December, the Cardinals released the 31-year-old. He signed with Toronto for the 1989 and 1990 seasons, then retired to begin his coaching career.

Over the course of an eight-year major-league career, Lawless finished with three total home runs.

Enjoy this post? Sign up below and get Cardinals history delivered directly to your inbox!

[1] Rick Hummel, “7-2 Win Pulls Cards Even,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 22, 1987.

[2] Kevin Horrigan, “The Lawman Wore Badge – Of Honor,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 22, 1987.

[3] Tom Wheatley, “Lawless HR: ‘Amazing, Hilarious,’” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 22, 1987.

[4] Kevin Horrigan, “The Lawman Wore Badge – Of Honor,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 22, 1987.

[5] Paul McEnroe, “A flawless night from Lawless proves to be a big difference,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, October 22, 1987.

[6] Jim Thomas, “Whiteyball, Lawless’ Homer Leave Minnesota Speechless,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 22, 1987.

[7] “Lawless Joins Select Group,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 22, 1987.

[8] Kevin Horrigan, “The Lawman Wore Badge – Of Honor,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 22, 1987.

[9] Tom Wheatley, “Lawless HR: ‘Amazing, Hilarious,’” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 22, 1987.