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Mike Shannon's brush with death

Did you know about the illness that ended his playing career?
Credit: KSDK

Editor's note: This is the second in our three-part focus on Cardinals legend Mike Shannon, who turned 80 on July 15. 5 On Your Side will air an hour-long look back at Mike’s seven decades of a Cardinal life on Wednesday, July 17 at 7 p.m.

READ MORE: Part one | St. Louis legend Mike Shannon turns 80 years old

Did you know Mike Shannon’s career was cut short by a disease that nearly killed him?

Spring Training of 1970 began like any other for the St. Louis Cardinals and their third baseman, Mike Shannon; Physical exams, test, calisthenics and drills. 

All part of the routine of a major leaguer.

The Cardinals were a year removed from back-to-back trips to the World Series, and after a disappointing 1969 that saw them finish thirteen games behind the Miracle Mets there was an extra drive to turn the team around.  Linchpin veterans Tim McCarver and Curt Flood had been traded in the offseason, along with outfielder Vada Pinson after his one-year stop in St. Louis.  Shannon had also been the subject of trade rumors, but nothing happened to keep him from reporting to the Cardinals’ spring training home at Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg, Florida.  Opening Day was set for April 8th, and everything was going according to plan.

Until March 18, that is.

“It was just a routine exam,” Shannon recalled to our Frank Cusumano.  The test showed that Shannon had contracted a kidney disease and would miss “most of the season.”

“The disease is called glomurelonephritis,”, former Cardinals team doctor Stan London remembered. At 93 years old, his memory is still sharp to speak to the treatment he and other doctors gave to Shannon that spring. 

“The kidney is a remarkable organ; it is a filtering mechanism, and what it does, in filtering the blood as it goes through it, it keeps hold of the things that he wants it to keep and gets rid of the things the body doesn’t and needs to get rid of in its normal function. When the function goes down the drain it progresses to kidney failure,” London said.

Which is what happened in Shannon’s case. The disease attacked the filters in Shannon’s kidneys and caused toxins to remain in his system while discarding substances key to good health. Mike was immediately shut down from physical activity and sent back to St. Louis for examination by a kidney specialist.  Before he left, he told KSD-TV’s Jay Randolph, “It’s a problem and I’ve got to face it.”

Back in St. Louis, Shannon waited while doctors figured out a treatment plan. What they came up with was, in London’s words, something that “the steroid era ballplayers wouldn’t have dreamed of.”

“He was given cortisone – massive, massive doses of cortisone.”  Cortisone, which normally is secreted by the adrenal glands, was frequently given to pitchers with sore arms to relieve inflammation; in Shannon’s case it was hoped that the heavy doses would reverse the effects of the nephritis.  It became a waiting game to see if Shannon’s kidneys would respond. The wait was long enough that the 195-pound Shannon gained another 60 pounds and still no sign of relief.

“He was told he had six months to live,” longtime Shannon friend Mike Claiborne said.  London was asked, “Was he ever close to death?”   London said, “During the days where we were still waiting for that kidney to turn, those kidneys, and that wasn’t happening right away – that took time.”

“Yeah, we had concerns.”

Shannon’s worries extended to his first wife, Judy, and their five children.  Yet London credits Judy with having as much to do with Mike’s eventual recovery as the medical team. “She was at the hospital every day, all day. Every day, when some of us had our daubers down and we were worried that we were going to go into extra innings here, she bolstered things up and had a smile.”

The kidneys eventually responded, so much so that by late April Shannon was able to get close to a return to the Cardinals’ lineup. Red Schoendienst’s club needed one at that point, falling below the .500 mark after a promising start.  Mike appeared in a game on May 14, and then started the next day.  While he had a few moments, like four RBI’s against the Reds on July 27, he worsened the struggle he went through in 1969.  His average after that night’s 2-for-4 outing actually raised his average to .188, and it took him until August 2 before he got it over .200.  He failed to hit a homer and only had 11 extra base hits in 193 plate appearances. The Cardinals were struggling along with their third baseman, continuing to play sub-.500 baseball.

On August 14 the news broke that the illness had flared up again. Shannon was shut down for the season at that point, but in actuality he never played again.

“I tried to come back but I put on about 20 pounds because of the steroids. It just didn’t work out.” Shannon said.

After a few years of medication, Shannon’s condition normalized and he hasn’t had another recurrence of the nephritis. By all accounts Mike has made the most of his second chance; “I think he’s saving all his sleep for the afterlife,” Claiborne jokes. 

But now Shannon had to figure out what to do without a baseball career.