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 end of the Gashouse Gang and the rise of Joe Medwick and Johnny Mize. The team had fallen a long way since their World Series win of 1934, but they were working their way back up with a strong 1939 campaign. Was this the start of a rise to the top, or a red herring?
Ray Blades had taken over the team before 1939 and the team had a strong year. People were hoping that the strong arms of Mort Cooper and Lon Warneke and the powerful bats of Joe Medwick, Johnny Mize and Enos Slaughter would carry them back to the top of the standings. Blades had been a players’ manager, but he was also a teacher – he knew the game and was great at helping young players learn and play up to their potential. However, that teaching did not translate well to managing professionals, and the team grew weary of his babying techniques. After a sluggish 14-24 start to the 1940 season, Blades was shown the door. He bounced around as a coach for several various National League teams, but never found footing in any place for more than a couple years at a time.
In his place, owner Sam Breadon turned to Billy Southworth, who had played with the Cardinals in the 1920’s and even managed half of a season back in 1929. Southworth had been managing the Rochester minor league team for most of the ten years between his two managing stints with the Cardinals. The interesting footnote here is that Breadon made the call, not Branch Rickey. Rickey found out about the hiring when he read it in the morning paper, and was more than frustrated with the owner. It was the beginning of the end of the pairs’ longstanding professional relationship. To make matters worse, Southworth made two conditions of his hiring: no player is added to/taken away from the roster without his approval, and no player could talk to upper management without his knowing beforehand. Rickey felt that his wings had been clipped!
All but lost in all the drama was a young twenty-two year old just breaking in to the majors. Marty Marion had come a long way from the cotton fields of Atlanta, but his agile glove and diving stops in the hole at short showed a smart and savvy ballplayer and person. He could see how little people regarded ballplayers back then. After the rough and tumble ways of the Gashouse Gang, people were wary of ballplayers, especially when it involved doing things like putting them up in hotels or houses or doing any business with them away from the ball field. The boys were perceived as ruffians – callous, rowdy and irresponsible. Sportsman’s Park was often mostly empty during games, as fans stayed away, deciding that the team was not worth coming out to see.
Marion saw the rivalries too. He spoke often about how Mize and Medwick were always competing and really did not care for the other. The front office saw it too. Branch Rickey believed in trading a player at the peak of his career rather than after the parade passed him by. Both Mize and Medwick eventually found themselves on the train out of town, but Medwick went first, finding himself on a train bound to Brooklyn early in the 1940 season. To replace the mighty Medwick, Ernie Koy stepped in and played a solid left to fill in. It was Koy’s only truly solid season, as he only played in the majors for five years and bounced to four different teams in that short time. The fans were sad to see Medwick go, but it did not make that much of a difference in the box office, as the Cardinals were not really drawing that many fans in the first place.
After the trade of Medwick and the manager swap, the Cardinals picked up the pace, and went 69-40 with their new manager in Southworth. It was a strong sign of what was to come in 1941, despite the shift of power from the Reds, who had won the NL pennant in 1939 and 1940, to the Dodgers who were rising to power under manager Leo Durocher. The Cardinals and Dodgers went toe to toe all throughout the season, at one point starting a brawl on three consecutive nights because of all the animosity the two teams held against the other.
The September call ups from the previous year were raring to go for the stretch run in 1941. Stan Musial led the charge, getting twenty hits and batting .426 in twelve games after Enos Slaughter went down with an injury. Harry Walker and Whitey Kurowski were also key call-ups. Stan was the real story. He started the season as a pitcher, but after falling on his shoulder at the end of the previous season, his arm was not what it was before, and the Cardinals decided to make him into an outfielder. He worked his way up from the bottom to the bigs by the end of the season.
Despite the call ups, the Cardinals could not catch up to the Dodgers, and finished the season at 97-56. The team was already preparing for the next season when the horrific bombing of Pearl Harbor occurred, and according to Marty Marion, it felt like everything was going to change. Fortunately for the Cardinals, only one relief pitcher was drafted before spring training, and it was pretty much business as usual for 1942.
As for actual baseball? The Dodgers jumped out in front early. They were leading all the way, and looked to be primed to cruise all the way back to the World Series. In mid-July the team swung down to St. Louis for a doubleheader, and in the first game Enos Slaughter lifted a long fly ball to center. Speedy Pete Reiser ran full-tilt to chase it down, but was not paying attention to where he was going and crashed head first into a concrete wall in right-center. Resier had been hitting .350, but after knocking himself out cold he was never the same, and the Dodgers suddenly found themselves without a key component of the team.
In mid-August, the Cardinals were still about thirteen games back in the standings, but they were also beginning to really gel as a team. Manager Billy Southworth made sure that the team got along, but the boys did not really need him for that. They referred to themselves as ‘a young veteran team,’ and all the rookies were taken in by veteran players and treated well. Pitchers helped each other, and everyone was constantly focused on the game ahead. Catcher Walker Cooper was the jokester of the team, but everyone else took the game very seriously. They were determined to win every day, and were confident that if they lose, so what? They would win again the next day, and that was the case more often than not.
Down the stretch, the Cardinals went 43-9. Johnny Beazley led the team with twenty-one wins, despite being a loner who found himself in an altercation with a porter at a train station who drew a knife and left Beazley bleeding profusely from his pitching hand. Unfortunately this game with two weeks left in the season and the team up only one game on those pesky Dodgers. Somehow, Beazley recovered, and the team went 9-1 in the last ten, while the Dodgers went 10-2. It took a 106-48 record to pull out with the National League crown.
The World Series was waiting, and the New York Yankees were right there ready to derail the Cardinals’ fast track. Just like back in the first Series the Cardinals had played against the Yanks in 1926, there was a fearsome lineup coming at them, led by Joe DiMaggio, Bill Dickey, Phil Rizzuto, Frank Crosetti, and others. The Yankees had won 103 games, as well as their last eight straight World Series appearances, or every appearance since that 1926 Series won by the Cardinals.
The first game was a heartbreaker, losing late to Red Ruffing, but the Cardinals were determined. They won the next game, and the next, and the next, and the next! Who would have imagined that the Cardinals would win four in a row against the mighty Yankees? No one… except the team. They shocked the world, and as a reward, each one got $6,193 as a share. Why were they so excited about this? For many of the players playing for the tight-fisted Breadon and Rickey, that World Series share more than doubled their salary for the season. The Cardinals only reward for the victors came from Sam Breadon’s wife, who bought all the players a drink on the train ride home from New York.
Things were looking to unravel quickly at the end of the year, as on October 19, Branch Rickey turned in his resignation. He was tired of Breadon treating him like he could do better without him there. Rickey went on to Brooklyn to take over the general manager’s position for the Dodgers. His story is far from over as he went on to be the instrumental cog in breaking the color barrier when he signed Jackie Robinson to be the first African-American man to play in Major League Baseball.
In the meantime, players in St. Louis were happy to see him go. They thought that with Rickey gone the salary constraints would be better, and maybe they could get some fair wages. Unfortunately with the war going on, attendance was down across baseball, and everyone was tightening their purse strings. Even Stan Musial himself had to hold out to get a better contract before the 1943 season, eventually getting a raise from $4,200 to $6,250. Considering the fact that both Enos Slaughter and Terry Moore were drafted in the offseason, Musial was the only regular outfielder left!
Rationing for the war meant that rubber for baseballs was not high on the priority list. Commissioner Landis decided that the teams would use what became known as ‘balata balls,’ or dead balls, instead. Home runs were down, power hitters were quieted, but the running ways of the Cardinals were riding high. They jumped out in front and led for all but a few days in July where the Dodgers had managed to tie them.
They got by on the strong arms of Mort Cooper and Max Lanier, the brilliant catching of Mort’s brother Walker, and Stan Musial’s incredible hitting. Mort got the run support, which is how he went 21-8 with a 2.30 ERA, but Max had to work for his wins, going 15-7 with a miniscule 1.90 ERA. In the meantime, Musial won the batting title and MVP, slapping 220 hits and hitting .357. In the end, Musial claimed he had an easier time thanks to being able to move from left to right field, as well as what he said was a decrease in the quality of pitching because of the war taking so many players.
The team as a whole never played for the big inning. They were a running group, and took the extra base wherever possible, but rarely stole the bases. They played tough, going in spikes up, sliding their way around tags, and slapping the ball out of players’ gloves so as to avoid the out. They won 105 games and marched right back to the Series and right up to those same Yankees that they had beaten the year before.
This year, the Yankees were in bad shape, having lost most of their stars to the draft in the offseason. The Cardinals, however, had lost something worse – their fire. They were confident, but without the desire to win, it was all for naught. The team suffered a few loses throughout the Series outside of the diamond. Mort and Walker Cooper’s father died after game one, and Mort went out and won game two. Whitey Kurowski collided with a Yankees player in the second game so badly it caused him to pass a kidney stone. No one could hit. The Cardinals should have won, but they fell apart, and lost the Series 4-1. They went home with their tails between their legs.
1944 looked to be the Cardinals’ year right from the start. While most teams had been decimated by that point by the draft, the Cardinals had not been hit particularly hard, due to old injuries, odd circumstances like being an only child or supporting parents, etc. Stan Musial was one who was still supporting his parents, but to help out he even went to a war factory and worked there in the offseason to support the troops that way (and probably because he could use the money!).
The main nemesis over the last few years in the Dodgers had been decimated over the offseason, losing most of their prominent players. The Cardinals felt like they would never lose. On September 1, the team had already built up 91 wins, and were not about to quit there. By season’s end, the Pittsburgh Pirates were fighting to stay in second place, and finished with 90 wins exactly. The Cardinals had 105, and led the league in just about every way possible.
Marty Marion won the MVP in 1944, and when they called him to announce the award, his response was, “What’s the MVP?” His leadership led the team, his defense led the team, and he let the team speak for themselves with the bats and from the mound. As a whole, the Cardinals had just 112 errors. They led the league in hits, runs, batting average, doubles and home runs. Four different players led the team in various offensive categories (talk about spreading the wealth)! From the mound, there were four different pitchers with sixteen or more wins, and they led the league in winning percentage, shutouts and earned run average. The team ERA was a miniscule 2.67. They coasted through the regular season and marched on to the Series.
As a surprise to everyone, the Browns pull out the American League pennant! It would be the only Series in the history of baseball where every game was played inside the same stadium, as the two teams had been sharing Sportsman’s Park for many years. Despite sharing clubhouses, the two teams actually knew very little about each other, but they were excited for the opportunity to play against each other on the grandest of stages in the Fall Classic. The fans were excited too, although many were unsure who they were excited for. Cardinal players assumed that St. Louis was a Browns town, but the Browns saw how more people showed up for Cardinals games. When great plays happened, the batters were often unsure if the fans were cheering for a home run for them or an amazing catch from the opponent! Talk about confusing!
The NL St. Louis team thought that they had the upper hand. They had been to the Series the previous two years, and knew the pressure. The Browns did fight tough, and took the Series to six games. In the end, the Cardinals won 4-2, but both Stan Musial and Max Lanier thought that it was the toughest Series they had ever played in. The top player for the Cardinals in that six game set? None other than infielder Emil Verban.
Emil Verban was a light hitting infielder who had played the majority of the year at second base for the Cardinals. He was the weakest hitting player on the team, and he was so small that in today’s vernacular he would surely be labeled with the “scrappy” title. Verban had a bone to pick with Don Barnes, the owner of the Browns. Barnes had placed Verban’s wife behind a pole for every game of the Series! When he asked politely for his wife to be moved so she could see the field, Barnes laughed and said he didn’t play well enough to even try to make demands like that. Verban was so furious that he went out and hit .412 for the Series, including three hits alone in the final game to put the nail in the Brownies’ coffin. After the last out was recorded Verban stomped over to Barnes’ owners’ box and pointed at him, reminding him that maybe next time he would not be so rude to a polite request. Who would imagine on a team with Stan Musial, Walker Cooper and Marty Marion that little Emil Verban would be such a hero?
The Cardinals were riding high, winning three straight pennants and two of three Series crowns. How long could they stay on top?