The Cardinals In Time: The Gas House Gang Takes Over

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 the Cardinals’ first World Series Pennant in 1926 and how things eventually turned south after the trade of Rogers Hornsby. Who would step up and lead this team back to the top?

Gabby Street

After the disappointing 1929 season in which the team finished just four games over .500 and in fourth place in the National League, change had to happen. Brand Rickey called up Gabby Street and installed him as manager of the team. He had been on the coaching staff in 1929, even managing the last game of the season after Bill McKechnie decided to move on and become the manager of the Boston Braves.

Street, or “Old Sarge,” wasted no time in trying to turn the team around. Outfielder Chick Hafey and second baseman Frankie Frisch were leading the lineup, but in reality the entire lineup seemed formidable. Every member of the starting eight had slash lines over .300/.350/.400! Street also had pitchers like “Wild Bill” Hallahan and Jesse “Pop” Haines.

It was tough for all of baseball at the time trying to make ends meet with the stock market crash and the onset of the Great Depression. Most teams were struggling to make ends meet, and the Cardinals were no different. However, that didn’t keep Sam Breadon from running the team the way he always had: by the seat of his pants.

After placing a drunken bet with three of the Cardinals’ beat writers, Breadon made a trade for Burleigh Grimes, the last of the legal spitball pitchers in the majors (Spitballs had been deemed illegal in 1920, but those that were currently using the pitch were allowed to do so until their retirement). The writers were convinced that the Cardinals were just one or two moves away from being on top, and one writer said, “I’ll be you ten dollars if you get Grimes, you’ll win the pennant.” Breadon left the room, and when he re-entered a few minutes later, he had made the trade, but in return he had to be given ten-to-one odds.

Burleigh Grimes

At the time of the trade, the Cardinals were floundering at .500 at 53-52. The team was twelve games behind the Brooklyn Dodgers for the top spot in the National League. They played well during August, but caught on fire towards the end of September. They went into Brooklyn for a pivotal three game set, and despite the fact that Hallahan had smashed his non-pitching hand in a cab just a couple days before the series, he insisted on taking the ball, where he proceeded to through a no-hitter until the eighth inning. The Cardinals won the series against Brooklyn, won 39 of their last 49 games, and proceeded to win the pennant by two games.

In the World Series, the team was derailed by the mighty Philadelphia Athletics. The A’s were on their last hurrah, as Connie Mack had lost all his money in the stock market crash and was nearing the point where he would have to sell all of his vaunted sluggers to the highest bidders as soon as possible. Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, George Haas, and Mickey Cochrane anchored a fearsome group of sluggers in the lineup, while Lefty Grove, George Earnshaw, and Rube Walberg.

The Cardinals battled, but lost a hard fought Series. Burleigh Grimes himself lost two of the four games after being victimized by Simmons, Cochrane, and Foxx for home runs over the course of the two games. The A’s jumped out to an early lead, winning the first two games in Philadelphia without any real trouble with the Cards’ lineup. The Cardinals recovered to take the next two in similar fashion thanks to masterful pitching performances by Bill Hallahan and Jesse Haines. However, game five was a heartbreaker.

The score in game five was tied at zero in the top of the ninth, when Grimes lost Cochrane to a walk, then served up a curveball to Foxx that was hit so hard that – in Grimes’ words, “He knocked the concrete loose in the center field bleachers. He hit it so hard, I couldn’t feel sorry for myself.” That was the crushing blow, as the Cardinals lost that game and game six without really finding their footing.

The A’s had won their second consecutive Series, and many said that they would continue their winning ways for years to come. That is, until they ran into the 1931 Cardinals.

Baseball was different in 1931. The ball itself had been deadened so as to create a tougher hitting environment, and batting averages dropped around the league. Well, everywhere except St. Louis. The batting race was the closest in baseball history. Outfielder Chick Hafey led the league with a .2489 average. Second was Bill Terry of the Giants, who finished with .3486. If that was not enough, Sunny Jim Bottomley rounded out the top three with a .3482 average!

Frankie Frisch

Manager Gabby Street was convinced from day one that the Cardinals would win the pennant, and win it they did. The team won 101 games, the first team in eighteen years that won 100 games or more. They jumped out in front at the very beginning of the season and never looked back, winning the National League by thirteen games. Frankie Frisch won the MVP, and declared the team the greatest group he ever played with.

Frisch, along with Hafey and Bottomley, were known as “The Three Musketeers.” They were joined in their happy band of brothers by Johnny “Pepper” Martin, who was tired of hitting .300 from the bench and demanded to get into the lineup. Branch Rickey agreed, and traded away centerfielder Taylor Douthit so that “The Wild Horse of the Osage” could get regular playing time. Pepper was literally a crazy man, wearing no underwear during the game, wildly throwing the ball all over the field, constantly flinging his bat when swinging through a pitch and fielding like an awkward, just learning how to walk toddler. He was nuts, but he was good. He proved that in the 1931 World Series.

The A’s were back, and all signs pointed to a three-peat championship. They did not expect Pepper to go crazy on them, hitting .500/.538/.792, slapping 12 hits, swiping 5 bases and picking up 5 RBI’s. Burleigh Grimes and Bill Hallahan picked up two wins apiece, yet both pointed to Martin as the one who brought the Series crown home to St. Louis. The A’s could not solve Martin, with pitcher George Earnshaw, when asked what Pepper was hitting, exclaimed exasperatedly, “Everything we throw!”

Alas, after his heroics in the 1931 Series, 1932 was not kind to Pepper Martin. The nature boy, who refused to wear pajamas and liked to sleep outside in the nude, picked up a bug bite which turned into a rash which turned into an infection, and that, combined with a broken finger, sidelined the Wild Horse for much of the season. The whole team was in bad shape in ’32, going from first to almost worst and ending up ten games under .500 and eighteen games back of the pennant winning Chicago Cubs.

Perhaps the brightest spot on the team that year came from one Jay Hanna Dean. Or, if you prefer, Jerome Herman Dean. Most people, however, just called him Dizzy.

Dizzy Dean was as wild of a man as he was excellent of a pitcher. Despite not having anything more than a third grade education,

Dizzy Dean

when Dizzy realized that he was winning more games (18 in his rookie year of 1932), striking out more men (191, the first of four consecutive years he won the strikeout title), and attracting more fans than any other player on the team, he became convinced that his $3,000 a year salary was not enough. It was the depths of the Depression, but Dean had champagne tastes and wanted to make his mark in the world.

Thankfully the Cardinals even had “Old Diz’” out there making his mark in 1932, or the team would have lost more than the $75,000 they did. Manager Gabby Street was hoping to turn things around in 1933, but he was up against the wall. Shortstop Charlie Gelbert shot himself in the leg in a hunting accident shortly before the season began, and the infield was crumbling. Branch Rickey was desperate for a new shortstop, and he eventually swing a six player trade with Cincinnati, the centerpiece of which was shortstop Leo “the Lip” Durocher.

Durocher came to the Cardinals as a “no hit, great field” player. On the field he was sharp and quick. Off the field he was a thief and brawler. He had no respect for the game’s greats, once calling Ty Cobb “an old man,” and shortly after was accused of stealing Babe Ruth’s watch. When Durocher came to the Cardinals, Rickey discovered that he had roughly 30 different creditors breathing down his neck for various debts and bad checks. Now, with so many rough and crazy personalities running around the clubhouse, Gabby Street was quickly losing control.

The fans loved the rough and tumble, take no prisoners look of the Cardinals. Rickey himself, the straight-laced, Bible thumping man that he was, seemed to enjoy the fact that his team was insane, filling reporters notebooks with amusing anecdotes and creating many colorful nicknames for each player. He was the one who told the story of the little girl who thought that a young outfielder by the name of Joe Medwick kind of waddled like a duck when he was playing the outfielder. When the little girl called him “Ducky Wucky,” Rickey was so bemused by the name that he spread it all over town, and before poor Medwick even made it to St. Louis he was well known as “Ducky Wucky” Medwick (in case you were wondering – Joe absolutely loathed the name).

Joe Medwick

Medwick was a tough player, who once during his rookie season punched teammate and pitcher Tex Carleton in the face for taunting him during batting practice. He was not a man to be messed with, but he hit so well no one wanted to mess with him anyway.

Despite all the talent on the team with Martin, Medwick, Dean, Hallahan, and others, Gabby Street could not motivate the team to win. For several years he had worked with a ‘board of directors,’ a group of veterans who helped him make decisions. When the press picked up on it, Street became convinced that he was not being given credit for all of his hard work, and disbanded the board. Street suddenly became known as “Old Sarge,” and the veterans started a mutiny. When Rickey saw what was happening he quickly removed Street from his position and inserted veteran second baseman Frankie Frisch as the new manager. Under Frisch, the Cardinals finished out the season eleven games over .500.

1934 brought in the era of “the Gas House Gang.” With Frisch as the manager, Rickey had found a man actually able to corral all the craziness of the various members of the team and channel their energy into winning ball games. Dizzy Dean (who by that time went by two different names, three different hometowns, and four different birthdays just to make sure everyone got a good scoop when they interviewed him) declared that he and his brother Paul were going to win 40 games between them. Despite threatening to walk out over a salary dispute midway through the season and going AWOL more than once, the boys put together 49 wins, with Dizzy picking up 30 and Paul the other 19.

On September 21, the brothers pitched both games of a doubleheader against the Giants. Dizzy went out and won the first with a three-hitter, then Paul won the second with a no-hitter. When Dizzy was quoted after the game, he declared that if he had known what Paul was going to do, he would have done the same!

With two games left in the season, the Cardinals were tied with Bill Terry’s Giants. Earlier in the season, Terry had made a dig against the Dodgers, jokingly ask, “Are the Dodgers still in the league?” Yes, the Dodgers were still in the league, and they were angry about those comments. They came in and stomped all over the Giants, leaving the Cardinals all alone with two games to get one win. Well, the won them both, and the team stamped their tickets to the World Series.

Pepper Martin

Guess who ran their mouth before the start of the World Series? That’s right – Dizzy Dean. He told one beat writer that he and Paul would take care of the Detroit Tigers all on their own. The brothers’ teammates were irritated almost as much as the opposition! What’s more is that Dizzy turned out to be right.

Over the next seven games, Dizzy and Paul started five of them and won four. The antics were widespread. Dizzy served up a meatball to Hank Greenburg just to see if he was as good as people said he was, he tried to throw a screwball for the first time ever in the 7th game of the World Series, and Joe Medwick came in cleats up on a triple and started a brawl in the middle of game 7.

Tiger fans took the defeat so hard that they were chucking stuff onto the field by the end of the last game. The Cardinals had to have police escorts to get out of the stadium, and some hotels refused to put them up for the night before they could get home. But the gas house gang returned home, victorious and ready to take on the world. But could they keep it going in 1935? Where could they go from here?

Angela Weinhold covers the Cardinals for i70baseball.com and writes at Cardinal Diamond Diaries. You may follow her on Twitter here or follow Cardinal Diamond Diaries here.

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