During the offseason we have been taking a look at the past, giving readers a timeline of St. Louis baseball throughout history. Last time we learned about how Branch Rickey made the jump from the Browns to the Cardinals, and how his sharp work in the front office started to turn around a Cardinals team that had languished in last place since its inception in 1899.
While Branch and Cardinals’ owner Sam Breadon had launched their secret plan to own minor league teams in 1919 when they purchased half of a Class C team in Arkansas, what good would that do them when the players they owned were ready to move up to the next team? Rickey and Breadon put their heads together and kept calling up every contact they could, trying to get in with more minor league clubs.
Some of the contacts were easier than others. Rickey called up one of the owners of the Houston team in the Texas League and said they wanted to buy an 18 percent interest in the team for $15,000, and the owners took him up on his offer, no money down. Rickey had built a reputation for not breaking his word, and people trusted him unwaveringly. Breadon did his part, snaking out a 50 percent interest in the Class A Syracuse team after going out and getting drunk (literally) with the owner of the team during one evening of the winter meetings in Kansas City. Things moved slowly, but by 1925 the Cardinals owned a team at every minor league level, from Class D to Triple A.
Considering the revolutionary nature of this adventure, there were many unique problems. Since the Texas League did not allow higher leagues to own teams in their league, Rickey had to put ownership in the name of a third party. The Houston president tried to sell a budding superstar by the name of Chick Hafey to another team, and when Rickey found out he was forced to match the offer on his own player! Eventually the Texas League challenged his ownership, but Rickey told them that unless they wanted to pay the $500,000 that it would take to buy him out they should be quiet. Not surprisingly they left him alone, and Rickey soon bought out the Houston team, as well as the teams in Little Rock, Syracuse and St. Joseph.
While all this was going on, baseball was obviously still being played. Now that the Cardinals were actually able to afford to pay their players enough to keep them they were also seeing some success in the standings. In 1922 they even made a push for the pennant! Rogers Hornsby was proving Rickey brilliant by picking up his third consecutive batting title. He hit .370 in 1920, .397 in 1921, and blew everyone out of the water by having one of the single greatest seasons in the history of baseball in 1922, picking up the Triple Crown by leading the league in batting average (.401), home runs (42), and RBIs (152). Just for good measure he also led the league with 46 doubles and 141 runs.
Hornsby was a beast of a man, and hit line drives so hard that fielders feared for their lives and appendages. The classic poet Ogden Nash even referenced Hornsby in his poem “Line-up for Yesterday: An ABC of Baseball Immortals”:
H is for Hornsby
When pitching to Rog
The pitcher would pitch,
Then the pitcher would dodge.
Hornsby was the complete package: hitting for power, fielding sharply, enough confidence to fill a whole team, and the one that everyone overlooked: running. His speed was vastly overrated, and he stretched doubles into triples on a regular basis. He was simply the best, and expected everyone else to recognize his greatness as well. It was creating quite a stir in St. Louis, as many fans spent long afternoons and evenings arguing about which St. Louis hitter was better – the slugging Rajah or “Gorgeous George” Sisler of the Browns. In reality the two were apples and oranges. Sisler had some power and slapped hits in bunches, but Hornsby was a one man wrecking crew, and wanted everyone to know about it.
Hornsby was not the only Cardinal making waves in 1922. “Sunny Jim” Bottomley was called up towards the end of the season, and made a quick impression, hitting .325 in 37 games. His kind and inviting spirit caused him to be the idol of the Knothole Gang kids, and his being one of the first solid prospects to come out of Rickey’s farm system meant that all eyes were on him.
It would be one thing if Bottomley had been just another solid hitter. Instead he provided a rather stark contrast to the cold and callous attitude of Hornsby. He was personable, a clubhouse leader by example rather than by spitfire. Although he was just a rookie in 1922, he was pushing his way to being front and center in just a fraction of a season.
But how about that 1922 season? The Cardinals had a shot, finishing up with an 85-69 record after going 87-66 in the 1921 season. Those two records were the best finishes the team had achieved since the 1899 St. Louis Perfectos season. Yet even with a solid finish, the team still finished eight games back of John McGraw and his champion New York Giants. The reason for it was simple – when a team like the Giants (or Yankees in the AL) got to a certain point in the year and couldn’t quite push over the top, they would just buy whoever they wanted, no matter the pricetag.
Obviously, this still happens to a certain extent today, but the problem was back then it did not matter the date in the season, so teams could pick up whoever they wanted right on through the end of September. Rickey and some of the other front office people from around baseball caused a stir, and Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the commissioner of baseball at the time, finally had to put his foot down. He eventually had to issue an edict proclaiming that after June 15, teams could not trade players, except for waiver transactions. The trade deadline was born.
While Rickey was making waves in the front office and building a farm team from the ground up, he was also the manager on the field. While he had formerly thought of himself as a student of the game, Rickey was now in a position where he could be the teacher as well. He loved charts and spreadsheets, keeping track of statistics that were so new and complicated he was the only one who understood most of them. His mostly uneducated players, many of whom were plucked off back lots and out of coal minds, had no idea what Rickey was talking about. Roy Stockton of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch confirmed their confusion when he wrote, “Rickey’s players could not understand his ideas or execute them. The majority either became wanderers in a labyrinth of theories or took to scoffing at it all.”
The Rajah took exception to how Rickey managed. In 1923 Hornsby publically criticized his manager mid-game. When Rickey tried to pull him aside to sort through the issue after the game, Hornsby was not about to settle down, swearing at the manager and almost causing the mild-mannered visionary to throw a punch. The superstar decided to take matters into his own hands afterward, and complained for several days of a skin infection that held him out of the lineup. When Rickey eventually tried to coax the Rajah into returning, he refused.
This could not go on. Rickey went to Sam Breadon and asked him for permission to suspend Hornsby for the rest of the season. To the owner’s credit, he put the team and his manager above his superstar and agreed to the suspension. Things stayed tense between player and manager throughout the entire 1924 season as well, and Breadon, despite his non-confrontational disposition, knew that something had to be done.
During spring training in 1925, Breadon approached Rickey and asked him to consider stepping down as manager. He tried to be logical – Rickey was doing great things in the front office, but he was getting stretched very thin. Would it not be a smart move to focus on one thing wholly instead of trying to be everywhere at once? Rickey agreed and even pretended to name a replacement, but the announcement never came. Rickey did not want to give it up.
After a 13-25 start to the season, Breadon did what he should have done before – he quit asking. He informed Rickey that he would be stepping down immediately and that Rogers Hornsby – the same man that had been a thorn in Rickey’s side for the past two seasons – would be taking over as player/manager. Rickey was dumbfounded, but Breadon was smart. All the great teams had a superstar player manager at the time, from the Tigers with Tris Speaker to the Browns, where George Sisler was leading the charge. The fans responded in droves, and attendance spiked 125,000 above the 1924 season.
Everything looked to be moving along just fine, until Breadon did what no manager likes and entered the clubhouse after a tough loss. Hornsby swore at the owner and ran him out of the clubhouse. Steaming mad, Breadon stormed into Rickey’s office and demanded that the vile superstar be traded immediately to whoever would take him. Now Rickey was in a bind. What would happen to a team and a city that had rallied behind Hornsby and the Cardinals?