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 the rough and tumble nature of the Gashouse Gang. In 1934, their zaniness led them to a World Series crown. How long could they stay on top?
While we have come to refer to the 1934 season as the beginning of the “gashouse gang,” the term itself was used only once before the 1935 season. It really caught on after the team played a rainy and muddy doubleheader in Boston and then jumped a late train to New York for a second doubleheader. Due to the quick turnaround, there was no time to wash uniforms, so the boys just ran out there in the same dirty things they had been playing in the mud with the day before. New York writers were appalled, firing off every kind of comment from the players had snuck in from the other side of the tracks to mentioning that their grimy and dirty habits had no place on a baseball field.
Dizzy Dean and Pepper Martin were the leaders of the merry band of goofballs, spending most of 1935 getting themselves thrown out of hotels, disrupting meetings and ladies’ luncheons, and invading various establishments dressed as construction workers attempting to redecorate. It seemed like the team was one perfect unit of crazy men playing a kids’ game, and on the field at least, they were. Off the field there was a split. At least two of the players – Leo Durocher and Joe Medwick – were sharp dressers and enjoyed the finer things in life. They wanted nothing to do with the rest of the boys’ antics. But to the casual observer, watching those ragamuffins take the field was seeing a cohesive unit playing ball and winning ballgames.
The 1935 season has been largely forgotten, despite winning 96 games and providing several interesting moments both on and off the field. The Cubs were the big winners, taking in 100 wins in the regular season before losing out to the Detroit Tigers in the World Series. The Cardinals had three Hall of Famers and three more All-Stars in the starting lineup alone (not to mention two more of each in the starting rotation), but that was not enough to push them past their rivals from the Windy City. The only really notable fact from that season was Dizzy Dean’s winning 28 games, which marks the last time a Cardinals’ pitcher has won 25 or more games in a season.
1936 started to show signs that the gang was breaking up. Slick fielding, light hitting and quiet centerfielder Terry Moore was entering his second year, manager Frankie Frisch started giving his second base spot over to Stu Martin, who responded by getting an All-Star nod in his rookie year, and Ripper Collins saw limited playing time at first due to the emergence of Johnny “Big John” Mize. The Dean brothers were finding the less fun side of baseball. After losing favorite catcher Bill DeLancey to tuberculosis, Paul Dean came up with a sore arm that plagued him and led to a measly 5-5 record. This was an incredible disappointment for the still young 23 year old, especially after winning 19 games in each of his first two years in the league.
Dizzy Dean, always protective of his younger brother, was doing his darnedest to run himself into an early baseball grave by how much strain he was putting on his arm. Old Diz started 34 games in 1936, but also made 17 relief appearances and covered 315 innings. Many of those relief appearances came in games that Paul started. Much to Frankie Frisch’s chagrin, every time young Paul would get in trouble late in a game, Dizzy would run out to the bullpen and start warming up, determined to go out there and save his little brother. He could care less that he was supposed to pitch the next day or had pitched the day before; he just wanted to take care of Paul.
Another sign that the good times were coming to an end for the Dean brothers was the noticeable drop in endorsements and fan support for the hurling duo. After repeatedly snubbing fans who came to watch them in exhibition games and failing to show up for public appearances, the fans became weary of their foolishness. The bragging was quieted, especially after Dizzy tried to hold out (again) before the 1936 season and was both fined by Commissioner Landis and lectured by Branch Rickey. Dizzy relented and signed for $24,000, but soon found himself in hot water by calling National League President Ford Frick a crook after a questionable balk call cost him a game. Frick suspended him until he apologized.
The wildness on the basepaths slowed as well. With Joe Medwick, Johnny Mize and Ripper Collins all swinging for the fences, the team was quietly moving from a running speedster of a group to a slugging group of beasts. The team as a whole just could not put things together, and slid down to an 87-67 record, still good enough for second place in the NL, but no one was quite sure how they did it.
If 1935 was a let-down and 1936 a disappointment, 1937 can only be termed a nightmare. Once again, Dizzy Dean seemed to be causing problems. After going 13-7 with a 2.41 ERA in the first half of the season, Earl Averill smashed a line drive off Dizzy’s big toe in the All-Star game, knocking him out of commission for two weeks. Unfortunately this was about four to six weeks too short, and to compensate for the toe Dean changed his pitching motion, which put a strain on his arm. It was the beginning of the end for “the Great Dean,” and he would never fully recover. The public wanted to blame Frisch and Rickey for pushing Dean back into action too soon, but everyone on the team knew that Frisch could not have kept Dizzy from pitching even if he had tied him to the bench!
Under the radar of all the hoopla and drama off the field, the sluggers made their mark. Johnny Mize and Joe Medwick put up some offensive numbers that were so astounding that I am starting to wonder what other slugging duo put up a season like those two. Medwick got all the glitz, fame and fortune due to the fact that he won the Triple Crown, but consider the categories that the two men were in the top four in the league for that year: batting average, on base percentage, slugging percentage, wins above replacement, hits, total bases, doubles, home runs, runs batted in, runs created, and extra base hits! Medwick’s Triple Crown also represents the last batting Triple Crown won in the National League (there have been five more in the AL since then).
At the end of the season Branch Rickey made an unfortunate trade when he had to send away Leo Durocher to the Dodgers for five players, none of whom ever helped the team in any significant way. Leo had been grating on Frisch’s nerves for years, and in reality Frisch was concerned that Durocher was gunning for his job. Now, Leo had a poor season in 1937, but after leaving the team he rebounded and had a few more nice years to round out his playing career.
The beginning of 1938 brought even more new faces, as Dizzy Dean’s days in St. Louis came to an end on the eve of Opening Day. His arm was nearing the end of the line, despite being only 27 years old. After the bad toe led to the changed motion, Ol’ Diz was not the same player. The team was not the same team either, tumbling even further in the standings. The Cardinals slid in at 71-80, under .500 for the first time in six years. Pepper Martin was the lone survivor of the Gashouse Gang, and he had slipped into more of a utility role after a new young outfielder by the name of Enos Slaughter was called up and installed as the right fielder of the future.
Frankie Frisch himself did not survive the season’s end, as owner Sam Breadon tearfully sent the Fordham Flash packing with just sixteen games left in the season. The losing team was losing money, and a condition of bringing the skipper back for a seventh season would be receiving a pay cut to help balance the books, which the proud manager refused. Frisch bounced back quickly, springing up as the Pittsburgh manager from 1940-1946 and the Chicago Cubs’ skipper from 1949-1951. Cardinal fans were grateful for the years of service, but some inwardly wondered if it should have been Frisch to leave after 1937 instead of Durocher, who went on to become a three time pennant and one time Series winner spread over twenty-six seasons of managing.
What was wrong with the Cardinals? They had great players, yet were failing to live up to potential, sliding lower and lower in the standings every year since their most recent championship year in 1934. Most of the blame eventually went the way of Branch Rickey, for a myriad of reasons. The fans blamed the salaries. The players moaned constantly about how tight-fisted Rickey and Breadon were. It was the end of the Depression, yet those two were still living in nice houses and driving nice cars while their players were pinching pennies and being treated like bush leaguers, riding in buses and being forced to sit up all night on trains instead of getting to sleep in Pullman cars. The fans were convinced that perhaps if the players were treated better they would play better.
The players, while not arguing that sentiment, also knew the truth – help was available, but Rickey refused to make the call. The Cardinals had far and away the strongest and most potent minor league system in all of baseball, loaded down with so many players they needed multiple teams at each level to hold them all. Help was available, but in order to not disrupt the minor league clubs and keep the majority owners of said clubs happy, Ricky would not bring up great players in the high minors midway through the season. He did not want to destroy the hopes of making the playoffs for those teams, because playoffs meant revenue, and revenue meant more money in the pocket for the minors and the big league club, even if it did mean not filling an open roster spot that desperately needed to be filled.
For the 1939 season, Rickey turned to Ray Blades, who had been managing the Houston minor league team down in the Texas League. The team was starting to cycle in some new players, with Mort Cooper starting to make a statement on the mound, Enos Slaughter proving his worth in his second season in the outfield, and stalwarts Johnny Mize, Joe Medwick and Terry Moore continuing to tear the cover off the ball. Solid seasons on the mound by Cooper, Curt Davis and Lon Warneke also helped push the Cardinals back towards the top of the pile in the National League. Unfortunately, the Cincinnati Reds were better, besting the Cardinals 92-61 finish by four and a half games.
There were more young guns waiting in the wings towards the end of 1939, and after a strong finish to the season, St. Louis was excited to see what was coming in 1940. There were new names being whispered. Marty Marion. Max Lanier. Some kid named Stanley Musial. Change was coming for the Cardinals, and after a rough few years, change was just what they needed.