The Cardinals In Time: Pennant Winners And Game Changers
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 talked about Branch Rickey building the minor leagues and how Rogers Hornsby and Jim Bottomley started building the Cardinals into a powerhouse. However, Hornsby was running his mouth and Cardinals owner Sam Breadon demanded Rickey trade the superstar manager. What would Rickey do now?
As easy as it would have been to trade Hornsby, Branch Rickey knew that it was in the best interests of the team to keep the superstar around and continue to build the team around him. While he hoped that the anger that Breadon felt towards Hornsby would dissipate over the winter, it never really went away, Rickey just ignored it.
Coming into spring training of 1926, Hornsby, who was not one for meetings, actually had one. He pulled everyone into the clubhouse and informed them that if they did not think that the Cardinals were going to win the pennant that year, they should grab their paychecks and head on home. No one moved. Everyone was ready to go, and they were in for an uphill battle.
The Cincinnati Reds were fighting the Cardinals every step of the way throughout the entirety of the season. In June, John McGraw made possibly the worst trade of his entire career when he offered Rickey and Hornsby right fielder Billy Southworth in exchange for center fielder Heinie Mueller. Southworth was in the late stages of his career while Mueller was in the middle of an eleven year career. Mueller wound up toiling in three different cities over the next few years while Southworth had found a home, first in the second spot in the batting order, then as the manager a few years later.
The second move Rickey made was to bring in stellar pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander, then nearing the twilight of a Hall of Fame career. All it took from the Cardinals was a $4,000 flyer and a waiver claim to pluck him off of the Cubs, who had tired of his antics. Despite his age (“Old Pete” was 39 when he arrived to the team) Alexander still had a lot left in the tank. However, a long and strange series of events had left him dealing with both epilepsy and alcoholism, a dangerous combination. Whereas Hornsby caused problems with his abominable vocabulary and course manner, Old Pete wore out his welcome by drinking himself under the table, showing up to the park hungover and acting disagreeable towards managers, teammates and anyone else that even looked at him funny.
At the time of the trade the Cardinals were in fourth place and needing a boost. Alexander and Southworth provided it, Alexander going 16-7 with a 2.91 ERA in the last two-thirds of the season and Southworth slapping out a .317/.364/.488 line while driving in 69 over the same time frame. Southworth also hit the home run that clinched the pennant for the Cardinals. He took extra pleasure in the fact that the game was against McGraw’s Giants – the very manager and team that traded him away earlier in the year.
Yes, the Cardinals had clinched their first pennant since their inception in 1899. Their reward for a long season of hard work? Facing the dreaded New York Yankees and their self-proclaimed “Murderer’s Row” of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and company. After somehow managing a split of the first two games in New York, the Cardinals came home to a ticker-tape parade. They spent most of the end of the season on the road, and had not been home in almost four weeks. The city of St. Louis was bursting at the seams to welcome them home with open arms to celebrate winning the pennant, and after all the pomp and circumstance, the team still had to figure out how to take three more games against those dreaded Yankees.
After getting victimized by some mammoth Babe Ruth home runs in game five, the Cardinals headed back to New York down 3-2, and everyone thought the Series was all but over. “Old Pete” took the ball for game six, but he did not have to work very hard to pull out the win, as the rest of the starting nine put up a ten spot against manager Miller Huggins and the rest of the vaunted New York lineup.
Game seven brought about one of the most peculiar endings of a series in baseball’s history. Jesse Haines, who was a stalwart of the rotation for many years, had started the game and pitched well into the seventh inning, but he was running out of gas. The knuckleballer had worn his fingers to the bone, and when his knuckles started bleeding and Haines could only throw meatball fastballs, Hornsby had no choice but to remove his pitcher and look to the bullpen to save the day.
Who did he call for? None other than Old Pete Alexander, who had pitched the previous day and then went out and got rip roaring drunk after the game to celebrate his victory. He was in the bullpen sleeping off his hangover when teammates had to rouse him and inform him that he was going into the game right away, no time for warming up or even stretching. Hornsby could care less, stating that watching Alexander pitch drunk or hungover was better than watching any other pitcher pitch completely sober.
Old Pete struck out Tony Lazzeri to end the bottom of the seventh, then whipped through the eighth inning, only to find himself facing the top of the order in the ninth. After shutting down the first two batters, Alexander came face-to-face with none other than Babe Ruth himself. The Bambino ran the count full, then took a pitch that by all accounts could have gone either way, depending on which team you were pulling for. Old Pete howled at the umpire who dared to call ball four against him, and Ruth trotted down to first base.
Then, the unbelievable happened: Ruth tried to steal second. Now, don’t get me wrong, Babe Ruth had stolen bases all throughout his career. Not a lot of them, but enough. In 1926 alone he stole 11 bases, and he was determined to pick up one more in this deciding game. The Babe said he wanted to get into scoring position in the off-chance that Bob Muesel was actually able to sneak a hit out of the infield. The plan backfired as catcher Bob O’Farrell shot a bullet of a throw to Hornsby down at second, who stood on the bag with the ball waiting for Ruth to arrive so he could lay down the tag. When Ruth arrived and the final out was recorded, the Cardinals had their first World Series championship and the team mobbed Old Pete, who could only smile and shrug his shoulders, almost as if to say, “No big deal, just doing my job.”
The Cardinals returned to St. Louis as world champions, and spirits were high. However, things were about to come crashing down in a big way. Sam Breadon could not resolve his differences with Rogers Hornsby, so just two months after bringing home the first championship for the city of St. Louis since Charlie Comisky and the Browns back in 1888, the superstar second baseman/manager was sent packing to the New York Giants in exchange for second baseman Frankie Frisch and pitcher Jimmy Ring.
The city was horrified, the team was stunned, and Rickey was vilified. Everyone assumed that Rickey was to blame for the trade, when in reality he felt sick about the trade to the point where he forced Breadon to do it if he was so intent upon trading Hornsby. It looked like a horrible swap – Frisch appeared to be a so-so infielder and Ring had only managed to win eleven games the previous year for the Giants. The trade actually caused Hornsby’s career began to take a sharp turn south. He had a good first year with the Giants, then jumped to the Boston Braves for a season before heading to the Chicago Cubs and winning an MVP there his first year in town (1929). A bone spur slowed down his playing career after that point, but that was the least of his troubles. Gambling kept him broke despite the fact that he was one of the highest paid players in the game. Although he hung around in the majors for another eleven seasons, by his last season he was a broken and humbled man, despite his steadfast anger towards Sam Breadon.
The Cardinals were still a strong team in 1927, despite feeling rather stony in the beginning towards their new second baseman Frisch. Frisch thought St. Louis was great after the cold atmosphere created by the aging and unwavering John McGraw, who had been merciless in his constant ridicule with Frisch. He liked playing for a team that liked playing baseball instead of just going through the motions, miserable because of the manager they were playing for.
“The Fordham Flash” fit in well in St. Louis, doing all the little things that would endear him with the fans, whether it was flashing the leather in the field and setting assist records that still stand to this day, racing around the bases picking up steals, or slapping hits all over the diamond. He could never replace the power of Hornsby, but what he lacked in brawn he made up for in literally every other category. By the end of the 1927 season, the Cardinals found themselves just a game or two out of first in the National League, but they had won over the fans again after what could have been a disastrous break-up when Hornsby left.
Unfortunately the manager position became somewhat of a revolving door after Hornsby left. Catcher Bob O’Farrell got the spot by default for 1927, but he passed it off to Bill McKechnie in 1928, who lost the spot one third of the way through 1929 to Billy Southworth and then Gabby Street, who finally stepped up and took the reins until midway through 1933.
1928 put the Cardinals back on top in the National League. Led by Rickey’s pride and joy of the farm system in Jim Bottomley and Chick Hafey and anchored on the infield by Frisch, the team wrapped up the pennant on the second to last day of the season, and found themselves face to face with nearly the same Yankees team that they had miraculously beat out two years previous.
This year the Series went in favor of the Bronx Bombers, as Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig put on a two man show, with Ruth playing the lead as he hit .625 and blasted 3 home runs to Gehrig’s .545 with 4 such shots. Breadon was furious at the dreadful four game beating the Cardinals were handed, and demoted manager McKechnie to the minors, bringing up Rochester manager Billy Southworth. The team was pleased with the idea of Southworth being the player/manager, as he had always been a strong clubhouse presence before agreeing to playing and managing in Rochester during the 1928 season.
Southworth knew how Breadon worked. He wanted a winner, and Billy thought he knew just how to do that – by making sure that the team was in line and under his thumb constantly. He became known as ‘Billy the Heel,’ and the players all knew he was trying way too hard to be the boss, when all he needed to do was keep things on an even keel and treat them like the adults that they were. After stumbling into July with a 43-45 record, Breadon realized his mistake and dropped Southworth back down to the minors, replacing him with the man who had just been ousted in McKechnie. It did not matter. The team finished at 78-74, well off the pace.
Thankfully, help was on the way, and his name was Gabby Street. Who is he? Check in next week!