Illuminations, Epiphanies, & Reflections
Following a horrendous, but thankfully short, professional career as a catcher with the St. Louis Browns of the American League, Branch Rickey left baseball to earn a law degree. He subsequently returned to the Browns as a manager in 1912, but after two marginal season, he was fired when new management took over the club. He returned to baseball in 1919 following his World War I service and became the President and Manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. When Sam Breadon bought the team in 1920, Rickey relinquished the presidency but retained the field and business manager duties for himself. Rickey and Breadon convinced the American League St. Louis Browns to lease space at their Sportsman's Park on Grand Avenue, the same field vacated by Von der Ahe years before. Then, they then sold the Cardinals' Vandeventer Avenue park to the city, and without much fanfare Rickey used the proceeds to begin purchasing controlling interest in several minor league clubs; a move that set the stage for Cardinal success throughout the 1930s and 1940.
Rickey led the Cardinals to mediocre records during the early 1920s until Breadon replaced him as the field manager with Rogers Hornsby in 1926. Rickey, however, stayed on to manage the team's business operations including player development. Hornsby had been a popular Cardinal star for years and routinely led the league in hitting, winning the Triple Crown in 1922 and 1925 and batting .424 in 1924. Hornsby continued to play second base while managing the team. Although a fan favorite, Hornsby's attitude chaffed most of his team members. He was abrasive, rude, and inconsiderate. If you've seen A League of Their Own, you probably remember the scene when Jimmy Dugan tells Doris Murphy, "Rogers Hornsby was my manager, and he called me a talking pile of pigshit. And that was when my parents drove all the way down from Michigan to see me play the game. And did I cry? . . . No! No! And do you know why? . . . Because there's no crying in baseball. There's no crying baseball. No crying!" Despite Hornsby's less than stellar social skills, it was clearly his drive and determination that led the Cardinals to their first National League pennant in 1926.
St. Louis faced Babe Ruth and the Yankees in the 1926 series, and few thought the Cardinals had much of a chance against Murderers' Row. To everyone's surprise, the series came down to Game Seven. With bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning, and leading by only one run, Hornsby brought in old Grover Cleveland "Pete" Alexander to try and save the game.
Alexander had been sold to the Cardinals in mid-season by the Chicago Cubs, who had decided to no longer put up with his bouts of sullen drunkenness. Alexander had already pitched two complete game wins in the series, holding the Yankees to two runs apiece in Games Two and Six. As reported by Time Magazine, following Alexander's Game Six win, Hornsby relaxed his strict control over Pete's drinking and allowed him to spend the night on the town. As a result, Alexander was sleeping it off in the bullpen when Hornsby called on him to pitch in the seventh. As Alexander approached Hornsby near the mound after walking in from the bullpen, Rogers said, "Well, we're up 3-2, Pete, bases loaded, two out. Whatta ya think?" Alexander responded, "Guess there's no place to put him, eh Rog?" He then struck out the Yankee slugger, Tony Lazzeri, to end the inning and pitched two more scoreless innings to save the game and win the Series for St. Louis.
Later, when asked about facing Lazerri, Alexander spoke of his second pitch to the slugger, which Lazzeri lined just foul into the outfield stands down the third-base line, "A foot made the difference between being a hero or a bum." (In 1952, Alexander's triumph of 1926 was made into a movie starring Ronald Regan titled, The Winning Team, which was, in-turn, was referenced in the lyrics of Terry Cashman's 1982 hit song during the early years of Regan's presidency, Talkin' Baseball: "And the great Alexander is pitchin' again in Washington.")
Interestingly, Rogers Hornsby made the final putout of the series when he tagged out a sliding Babe Ruth at second; Ruth, who was never very fleet afoot, had for some inexplicable reason attempted to steal the base with Bob Meusel at the plate.
Alexander continued to pitch well for St. Louis for several more years until his alcoholism finally got the better of him. Hornsby on the other hand was traded by Breadon and Rickey at the height of his career to the New York Giants for a younger second baseman, Frankie Frisch.
Frisch had starred at second base for the Giants since 1919, but became expendable after an ugly and public falling out with John McGraw. Upon his trade to the Cardinals, Frisch immediately began to pay big dividends, and fans soon forgot about the loss of Rogers Hornsby. Although, Bill McKechnie, Billy Southworth, and eventually Gabby Street became managers of the team, Frisch was the heart and soul of Cardinal baseball in the 1930s and led what was to become known as the Gas House Gang, consisting of numerous home-grown, Branch Rickey minor leaguers including Ripper Collins, the Dean brothers, Pepper Martin, and Joe Medwick, to four National League championships in 1928, 1930, 1931, and 1934 with World Series Titles in 1931 and 1934.
The World Championship title in 1931 was a surprise once more even though Gabby Street's Redbirds had won 101 games during the season and left the second place New York Giants in their dust and thirteen games behind. They were give little chance against the American League Champion, Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics. However, as often has been the case in Cardinal history, the players didn't seem to realize that they had no chance. Cardinal pitching, led by Burleigh Grimes and Wild Bill Hallahan overwhelmed the As, and Johnny Leonard Roosevelt "Pepper" Martin, "the Wild Horse of the Osage," went crazy at the plate. Martin--one of the most colorful characters ever to wear a Cardinal uniform and informal leader of the famed Gas House Gang, which included a number of other "ruffians," most notably, Leo "the Lip" Durocher, Joe "Ducky" Mediwick, and Jerome "Dizzy" Dean--batted .500 during the series with twelve hits, five stolen bases, and five rbi's. Martin also led the Cardinals' hillbilly jug band, the Mississippi Mudcats, which performed locally in St. Louis, appeared on at least one national radio broadcast, and even gave a few performances while the team was on the road until management stepped in and suggested the athletes concentrate on their on-field performance. Nothing is more indicative of Martin's fiery temperament than an incident that happened following his major league career while he was managing one of the Cardinals' farm teams. In a rage after an umpire blew a call, Martin grabbed the man by the throat and began to throttle him until he was restrained by teammates. Later, he was called before the Commissioner, who rhetorically asked, "Pepper, what in the world could you have been thinking when you grabbed that umpire by the throat?" "What was I thinking?" Martin replied, "I was thinking I was going to choke that SOB to death."
While the origin of the Gas House Gang nickname is somewhat unclear, and baseball historians are even in disagreement as to which of the Cardinal teams it was first applied, there is no doubt that it was a direct reference to an especially violent 19th century gang from the Gashouse neighborhood of New York City (Think Gangs of New York if you've seen that movie.) Legend has it that a New York sportswriter coined the nickname by writing that the players looked like "the gang from around the gashouse" when the team did not have time to launder its uniforms during one of its road trips and arrived at the Polo Grounds looking dirty and shabby. Leo Durocher related the incident in his autobiography, remembering that "the next day, I saw a cartoon in the World-Telegram. It showed two big gas tanks on the wrong side of the railroad track, and some ballplayers crossing over to the good part of town carrying clubs over their shoulders instead of bats. And the title read: 'the Gashouse Gang.'" That cartoon, was drawn by Willard Mullin, the dean of American sports cartoons, and once it was published, the team would never loose its nickname.
Without doubt, the best of the Gas House Gang's years was 1934. Prior to the start of the season, Jerome "Dizzy" Dean predicted that he and his brother, Paul "Daffy" Dean, would win 45 games for the Cardinals. Amazingly, they combined for a total of 49 wins; 30 for Dizzy and 19 for Daffy. That was over half of the Cardinals regular season wins, and the team needed each of them as it didn't clinch the pennant until the final day of the season. The brothers kept up their pace against the Detroit Tigers, combining for the Cardinals' four wins and recording 28 strikeouts and a joint ERA of 1.34. "Ole Diz's" story was made into a very funny movie starring Dan Dailey, Pride of St Louis, just before he was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1953.
The most memorable moment of the 1934 Series occurred in the sixth inning of Game 7. The Cardinals were already blowing out the Tigers with a 9-0 lead, when Joe "Ducky" "Muscles" Medwick, who had led the team's offense during series hitting .379 with a homerun and five RBIs, slid hard into the Tiger third basemen incurring the wrath of the frustrated Tiger fans. In the bottom half of the inning, when Medwick took his position in left field, the Tiger fans began to bombard him with bottles, fruit, vegetables, and other debris. Baseball Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis, who was watching from the stands decided to order the removal of Medwick from the game for his own protection rather than cause the Tigers to forfeit. That decision, of course, did not sit well with the Cardinals, but it didn't matter. The final score was 11-0 as the Cardinals won another World Series.
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