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 the Cardinals played through World War II and Stan Musial’s arrival in St. Louis. In 1944, the Cardinals and Browns squared off in the World Series, and the redbirds won out. Could they keep it going?
While the Cardinals had not been hurt as much by the draft as other teams, the biggest piece of their squad was finally pulled right at the end. Stan Musial was pulled into the service in January of 1945 and sent to Pearl Harbor, where he played baseball every day and worked on ship repairs. He realized that he was fortunate, as many players that went into the service were unable to pick up a ball for months at a time. Max Lanier felt that, as missing just three weeks and then being asked to pitch in a pick-up game on base at Fort Bragg caused him to hurt his elbow.
One player who went undrafted was big pitcher Mort Cooper, who held out at the start of the 1945 season. Owner Sam Breadon tired of his act and eventually just shipped him off to the Boston Braves for fellow pitcher Red Barrett and cash. Barrett and a babyfaced kid named Albert (Red) Schoendienst were the two main additions to the team. Poor Red was so young and green looking that he was unable to get into the visiting clubhouses at a few National League parks because he did not look old enough to be on the team!
Due to the war taking away so many of the stars, the Cardinals were unable to reclaim their place atop the National League. Even team leader Marty Marion thought that the team should have won it all, but just never got in a groove. With six games left in the season the team trailed by just one and a half, but in the end their 95-59 record fell three games short of the pennant winning Chicago Cubs.
The end of the war in 1945 meant that there was a flood of ballplayers (almost 350) that had returned for the start of the 1946 season. Sam Breadon had a fire sale to get rid of all his excess players, but did not expect to also be hiring at the same time. The new ownership trio for the Boston Braves was throwing money everywhere, and set up a nice package for a new manager. They wanted Billy Southworth, and when Breadon refused to match the offer, his manager of five plus years walked out the door. Southworth left with quite possibly the best winning percentage ever for a Cardinal manager, winning over 95 games every season he was there and over 100 in three of them. To replace him, the Cardinals called on Eddie Dyer to take over. Dyer had done some work with the team’s Double A franchise, and came up to see if he could continue Southworth’s work.
One of the players lost in the fire sale was Walker Cooper, the team’s stellar catcher. Cooper was a mainstay of the lineup, and his replacements were adequate, but not compared to what they had before. More losses were sustained to an upstart Mexican league that pulled three more stars away, including pitcher Max Lanier. The Mexican league promised outlandish salaries and glamorous living, neither of which actually happened. All the players that jumped ship from the majors ended up suspended from baseball for several years and were not allowed to receive their pensions upon retirement.
While losing Lanier hurt, it did not keep the team from playing tough in 1946. They were a divided group, one part of the team playing cards as lively as they played baseball, drinking and going out at every opportunity, and the other section labeled “the nice boys” that did as they were told, played ball and went home at the end of the day. Writers labeled the clubhouse divided and decided that they could never come together on the field. Marty Marion was one of the leaders in the clubhouse, and he knew better.
They might be two distinct groups, but they all respected each other, and they all had the same will to win, and win they did. Howie Pollet, the good Catholic boy with the pitches that just glided right by hitters, won 21 games and Harry “the Cat” Brecheen and Murry Dickson both won 15 to lead the pitching staff. On defense, nothing got by the infield of Musial, Schoendienst, Marion and Whitey Kurowski, and at the plate not many pitches got by them either!
It was June when the Cardinals went on a fifteen game road trip. While playing three in Brooklyn, Musial went on an absolute tear, going 8 for 12 and causing Dodger fans to chant “Here comes the man” whenever he would step to the plate. From there the name “Stan the Man” was born, and Musial showed the rest of the league who was the best, winning the MVP with a .365/.434/.587 batting line and slapping out 228 hits, including 50 doubles and 20 triples. The war certainly did not slow down Musial, and his leadership led the Cardinals back to the NL pennant and World Series.
It was a close race, and it certainly did not have to be. The Cardinals actually tied with the Dodgers and had to play a three game playoff before advancing to the World Series. Everyone knew it was Sam Breadon’s fault for selling off or letting go so many players. It could have been a runaway pennant for the Cardinals, but instead it was a dogfight to the end. When everyone stood up and raked Breadon over the coals at an end of the season banquet, only one person stood up and defended him. The young man’s name was Harry Caray, a young announcer just getting into the business. Breadon was so thankful for Caray’s testimony that the next spring he brought on Harry’s team to be the new “Voice of the Cardinals” for radio broadcasts, a position he held for over 40 years.
Entering the ’46 World Series against the Boston Red Sox, the Cardinals were up against the mighty bats of Ted Williams and company. The two teams went blow for blow for six games, trading wins and leading to a game seven for the ages. The game was tied 3-3 into the eighth inning, when Enos Slaughter led off with a little single up the middle. Two quick outs later Slaughter was still dancing around first when Harry Walker blooped a single into left-center. It was a hit-and-run, and Slaughter was off before the crack of the bat, racing around second and third, blowing past the third base coach’s stop sign, and sliding home. It was an unremarkable play at the time, but it proved to be the winning run of the series, and “Slaughter’s Mad Dash” came to be the defining moment of the outfielder’s distinguished nineteen year Hall of Fame career.
Yes, the Cardinals were back on top, but it would be the last time the team would even sniff a World Series for eighteen long years. 1947 brought about a big change for baseball when the Cardinals’ old friend in Branch Rickey decided to bring up Jackie Robinson to the Dodgers, breaking the color barrier and changing the face of baseball forever. That, along with Rickey’s many other maneuvers and signings since arriving in Brooklyn pushed the Dodgers to the top of the pile, and the Cardinals found themselves looking up from second.
Breaking the color line had a huge impact on the Cardinals, as they eventually became branded as the most racist team in baseball. Sam Breadon was concerned that fans in St. Louis would be unwilling to come out to the games if a black man was playing on the field. Reporters in New York and elsewhere misconstrued the statement to the point where most of the country was convinced that the Cardinals were going to boycott games against the Dodgers, when in fact that story broke after the two teams had just finished a three game set in Brooklyn!
Later in the season, when the Dodgers were in St. Louis, not only did the Cardinals not strike, but Robinson himself felt comfortable enough with being there that he walked through the Cardinals clubhouse to get to the field rather than walking with his cleats through the underbelly of the stadium. Manager Eddie Dyer even greeted him as he made it to the dugout. Sounds like a team on the edge to me. Things never were quieted. Enos Slaughter spiked Robinson on a hard slide into second base, and while Slaughter himself barely remembers it happening, it so enraged the baseball world that it kept Slaughter out of the HoF for many years and Hank Aaron still recalled the incident in his 1992 autobiography. Musial was accused of getting in a fight with Slaughter about it, to the point where Slaughter beat Musial up and sent him to the hospital. In reality? Musial had appendicitis and had to fly back to St. Louis to have his appendix taken out before it burst on him. There wasn’t a scratch on his body except for the cut for the surgery!
The unfortunate thing is that even Ford Frick said in his autobiography that the Cardinals accepted Robinson better than most teams, yet to this day people are still convinced that they were the worst team in baseball around the time. Breadon’s fears were unfounded, as the Cardinals had a higher attendance that year than in any year previous to that. Lost in the shuffle was the absolute cat fight that was occurring on the field and in the standings. The two teams went back and forth all year long. The Cardinals might have finished five games back of the Dodgers, but it was not for lack of trying.
Sam Breadon was tired and sick. Cancer had left him weak, and rather than leave everything to his wife of a then shaky marriage, Breadon wanted to choose the new owners of the Cardinals. He coerced Fred Saigh to buy the team, and the six years Saigh owned the teams were the best years of his life. Unfortunately the Cardinals were still behind the times, and the teams that had been bringing in stars from the Negro Leagues were rising to power. The Dodgers were first obviously, bringing in Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe after Robinson, but right behind them were the mighty Giants, bringing in Willie Mayes, Henry Tomphson, and Monte Irvin.
In 1948, the Cardinals again found themselves just shy of the top of the pile, finishing in second to the Boston Braves. The real story here is Stan Musial, who was at the peak of his career, and finished just one home run shy of winning the Triple Crown! Even more astounding is the whole story of the “lost” home run that he hit, that would have put him over the top. Derrick Goold over at the Post-Dispatch has been on a search for it for a couple of years now, so I will let him explain the story here. Needless to say, Musial was definitely the brightest point of the 1948 team.
1949 was a different story. The Cardinals were again fighting neck and neck with the Dodgers, from day 1 to day 154. The reemergence of Max Lanier was a push the team needed, and Howie Pollet again won 20 games. Slaughter and Musial went toe to toe all season long battling for the team batting title, and the two finished second (Musial) and third (Slaughter) in the MVP race that year. The Cardinals were up one and a half games with five left to play in the regular season, when Slaughter whipped a ball into Red Schoendiesnst at second base that took a bad hop and broke the second baseman’s thumb, effectively ending his season. That loss gave the team whiplash, and before they knew it they needed a win and a Dodger loss to end the season tied. The Cardinals did their share, but the Dodgers won out and ended one game up on the disappointed Cardinals.
The team got used to disappointment though. It was about to get even more ugly for the Cardinals…