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The Gashouse Gang
How Dizzy Dean, Leo Durocher, Branch Rickey, Pepper Martin, and Their Colorful, Come-from-Behind Ball Club Won the World Series-and America’s Heart-During the Great Depression
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The year 1934 marked the lowest point of the Great Depression, when the U.S. went off the gold standard, banks collapsed by the score, and millions of Americans were out of work. Epic baseball feats offered welcome relief from the hardships of daily life. The Gashouse Gang, the brilliant culmination of a dream by its general manager, Branch Rickey, the first to envision a farm system that would acquire and “educate” young players in the art of baseball, was adored by the nation, who saw itself — scruffy, proud, and unbeatable — in the Gang.
Based on original research and told in entertaining narrative style, The Gashouse Gang brings a bygone era and a cast full of vivid personalities to life and unearths a treasure trove of baseball lore that will delight any fan of the great American pastime.
Praise for The Gashouse Gang
"The best account I've read of the St. Louis Cardinals' improbable championship season of 1934...."
—Russ Smith, Wall Street Journal
"The 1934 St. Louis Cardinals were not nice guys. But then, a lot of early ballplayers weren't. They tended to be scrappy, not-very-educated kids with tempers who would do about anything to win the game they weren't paid a whole lot of money to play. The 1934 'Gashouse Gang' took this general profile to a higher level, with odd birds like Dizzy Dean, nasty fellows like Leo Durocher and Joe Medwick and fine players like Frankie Frisch and Pepper Martin, who somehow put all their talents together for a great season. Heidenry outlines, with a mix of respect and bemusement, just how they all survived it, while making it clear why it proved so difficult to replicate."
—New York Daily News
"The book places its baseball in the context of the Great Depression, yet any chapter will give readers an upsurge of energy as they relive the season with this gang."
"The Gashouse Gang is ... a nostalgic return to a time and place where ballplayers had names like Heine Meine, and big, rawboned country boys chewed tobacco when they weren't chewing up the basepaths—blue-collar baseball at its best."
—Palm Beach Post
"Heidenry ... carefully researched newspaper accounts, player biographies, and baseball histories for the anecdotes and game accounts that provide the substance for another highly readable slice of baseball history.... A memorable, engaging account of a great baseball team made up of many of the game's most colorful characters."
"Among the annual proliferation of baseball books, this one will stand out for the quality of the writing and the facinating story it tells of the famous Gashouse Gang of St. Louis and their triumph in the 1934 World Series over a very good Tigers team. This is the likes of Dizzy Dean, Pepper Martin, Frankie Frisch and Joe Medwick rollicking through a different era and defeating The Tigers of Hank Greenberg, Charlie Gehringer, Mickey Cochran and Goose Goslin. Good stuff. Good book."
—FAY VINCENT, former commissioner of Major League Baseballl
"The Gashouse Gang is a solidly researched and warmly told account of that team and season, with a special focus on star hurler Dizzy Dean.... Other Cardinals who come alive in Heidenry's well-written text are Leo Durocher, Pepper Martin, Frankie Frisch, Joe Medwick, and Dean's younger brother, Paul."
"Heidenry draws on plenty of sources—including contemporary newspaper reports—to offer a balanced picture of the team, and even discloses that its 'Gashouse Gang' nickname was not pinned on the team until 1935 ... [T]his is certainly a credible look at baseball at the height of the Great Depression."
To my uncle
Lawrence M. Morrison,
a member of the 1934 Knot Hole Gang
Lawrence M. Morrison,
a member of the 1934 Knot Hole Gang
Thank you, Larry, for everything
The year 1934 was among the most extraordinary in U.S. history, and the baseball season that year was among the most storied in the annals of the sport. In that year, a squad of quarreling, slovenly, brilliant misfits known to legend and lore as the Gashouse Gang—and officially as the 1934 St. Louis Cardinals—captured the imagination of a country in the throes of desperate social unrest and turmoil unlike anything it had ever experienced before, outside the battles fought on American soil, or has since.
The same could be said of the Gashouse Gang. They were the unique product of a particular time and place—mostly men who had known extreme poverty and hardship in the South and West, with a few hard-nosed kids from eastern states thrown in for variety. Among their number were a couple of ex-sharecroppers, a pool shark, a handsome dandy who worked as a Hollywood double in the off-season, a grease-stained third baseman who liked to drive his midget auto racer around a track before a game, a surly outfielder who punched any of his own teammates if they looked at him in the wrong way, and even a couple of college kids. Collectively, as the Gashouse Gang, they were the creation of a pious, nonimbibing Methodist who would not even watch them play on a Sunday because his religious principles forbade it.
Who could have thought up such a cast of characters, or the thrilling story of their pennant drive—when, just to make things even more interesting, their star player decided to go on strike and even made a bonfire of his uniform to show how mad he was at the way he was being treated by management?
Yet the 1934 Cardinals were more than just unusually colorful ballplayers. To a man, they were among the finest athletes ever to play the game. The story of their achievement has never been fully chronicled until now.
As occasion warrants, the world outside baseball occasionally intrudes in the course of this narrative. Yet every page lives and breathes the spirit and day-to-day reality of that soul-trying time.
As the 1934 season got under way, the Depression had just reached rock bottom, and a new mood had begun to take hold of the country. In January, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had asked Congress for $10.5 billion to advance recovery programs over the next year and a half. That same month, Congress had passed the Gold Reserve Act, giving the president the power to devalue gold deposits in the United States. The country returned to a modified gold standard, with a devalued dollar. As public confidence increased, the hoarding of gold all but ceased, paper currency and gold flowed back to the banks, and deposits rapidly increased. "We have nothing to fear but fear itself," Roosevelt had told the nation during his inauguration the previous March, and he reiterated that message in his popular Fireside Chats, broadcast over the radio. Finally, people were beginning to believe him.
The year 1934 is also synonymous with massive unemployment, mile-long bread lines, and the westward migration that began when Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, and Arkansas turned into a giant Dust Bowl, and the skies would darken under a cloud of dust half a continent long. John Steinbeck described in his novel The Grapes of Wrath the great Dust Bowl drama that was unfolding while the Gashouse Gang fought its epic battles on baseball fields on the other side of the country: "And then the dispossessed were drawn west—from Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, from Nevada and Arkansas, families, tribes, dusted out, tractored out. Car-loads, caravans, homeless and hungry; twenty thousand and fifty thousand and a hundred thousand and two hundred thousand. They streamed over the mountains, hungry and restless—restless as ants, scurrying to find work to do—to lift, to push, to cut—anything, any burden to bear, for food."
As Charles C. Alexander noted in Breaking the Slump: Baseball in the Depression Era, the 1930s were also the heyday of a small but determined U.S. Communist Party, which as early as March 1930 organized a rally in New York's Union Square that brought out thirty-five thousand demonstrators. "If the smell of revolution (and sometimes tear gas) was in the air for much of the thirties, what was perhaps even scarier for middle-class Americans who had worked hard to accumulate savings was the epidemic of bank failures—4,377 in all—from 1930 to March 1933."
During this era of profound social upheaval, baseball remained the undisputed great American pastime, and it is fair to say that the heroic feats of many of the players in that time offered welcome relief from the hardships of daily life that were the lot of most fans.
Baseball's golden age was also coming to an end, and 1934 would be its last year. The immortals of the game—Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove—were all or mostly gone now, and the 1934 season was also the last hurrah of the greatest of all ballplayers, Babe Ruth. Unable to find a managerial job that suited his personality, talent, and pocketbook, the Babe gracefully exited from the game at the end of the season.
Ruth had been the very personification of the decade before 1934—the Roaring Twenties. He loved New York's nightlife, chorus girls, champagne. Yet his outsize personality and almost superhuman ability had also helped save baseball from itself. In the wake of the so-called 1919 Black Sox scandal, when eight players of the Chicago White Sox were accused of throwing the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds, the game was suffering from declining attendance and a serious credibility problem. Ruth's bat changed all that. His magnificent achievements as a slugger brought renewed interest in the sport, and helped to restore its appeal.
In 1934, the man waiting to take Ruth's place as the most talked-about baseball personality of his time was a brash, twenty-four-year-old upstart brimming with self-confidence and pitching genius who sometimes liked to refer to himself in the third person, in that soft, self-deprecating, semihumble Arkansas twang of his, as Ol' Diz. At other times, when he was feeling a little less humble, he called himself the Great Dean. The world knew him as Dizzy Dean, and he was one of the true originals not only of baseball, but also of American popular culture.
There has never been a personality in the world of sports quite like Dizzy Dean, and the 1934 season was not only the finest showcase of his awesome talent as a pitcher, but also the stage when his instincts and abilities as America's most fascinating and unpredictable public figure were in full flower. We shall not see his like again.
I almost got to see the Gashouse Gang play, but not quite. A little more than a decade later, my father took me for the first time to Sportsman's Park in St. Louis, where I grew up. That dilapidated wooden structure, so different in every way from modern stadiums, remains for me a memory prism for peering into a part of the past.
In The Gashouse Gang, I have gone back in time to a year when my parents, uncles, and aunts were young and still single, and a visit to Sportsman's Park was a special treat. Like those of millions of other Americans, their lives were a struggle for survival. Yet they had something that we today do not have: They had the privilege of watching the Gashouse Gang, one of the greatest ball clubs of all time, play baseball. I almost saw it all as a boy, sitting in the grandstand and enjoying a Cardinals game in Sportsman's Park a few years later. This book is my time machine, enabling me to roll back the years and see the Gashouse Gang play for myself.
THE IMPOSSIBLE DREAM
Branch Rickey was the most brilliant strategist in the history of baseball. A military metaphor perhaps best describes him, for this otherwise genial, convivial, devoutly religious Sunday school teacher was ruthlessly competitive and, like a field commander in the heat of battle, cold-bloodedly analytical. In 1919, he had been given the charge of a small, ragtag band of men whose mission was to defeat a foe with much greater resources both in manpower and wealth. As the new general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, he had to find a way to send his squad onto the battlegrounds of baseball—Ebbets Field, Wrigley Field, Baker Bowl, the Polo Grounds—and make sure, first of all, that they were not quickly annihilated. That had been the fate of past Cardinals teams all too often. Season after season stretched out like an eternity as the lowly St. Louis squad loitered among the damned in the bottom tier of the second division.
A Methodist so pious he would not even attend a baseball game on a Sunday, Rickey wanted his team of chronic losers not merely to prevail over their National League opponents. He dreamed a dream that was even more impossible. The law of averages said that the Cardinals, like most other teams, might theoretically someday win a pennant. Yet in the hard world of professional baseball, it was a simple fact that most championships—and the biggest profits—were mostly garnered by teams in New York, Philadelphia, or Chicago, because they had the money, swagger, population, and muscle to acquire the best talent year after year.
Rickey, like the Napoleon of baseball that he was, aspired to something much bigger than an occasional championship season. He wanted an empire, and a long row of pennant flags fluttering above the stadium that was to serve as his court. He wanted players who were not mere foot soldiers in the baseball wars, but immortals whose names would be remembered for as long as the game was played.
Meanwhile, though, in the summer of 1919, he had a serious and seemingly insoluble problem on his hands. His St. Louis team was not merely in debt. It was poverty-stricken and spiraling down into the lower depths of do-or-die desperation. Ever since assuming his post that January, he had worked several conjuring tricks just to field a squad of nine able-bodied and reasonably talented men. Not having even enough money to buy new uniforms, he had scoured the city's sporting goods stores, purchasing exactly enough uniforms for home and away games to give each player only one more-or-less matching set. He also made sure that, while on the road, the Cardinals always roomed in the cheapest hotels.
Moreover, only about a dozen of the players from the 1918 season even looked good enough to patch up and repair. The rest he simply refused to re-sign, or traded away.
Rickey's plight, which was only exacerbated by the team's precarious finances, was the Cardinals' simple lack of genuinely competitive talent. In some respects, the two dilemmas were interchangeable. A little cost cutting here and careful budgeting there might enable him to acquire an exceptional player now and then, especially since he also had a reputation as having one of the best eyes in the game for spotting ability and aptitude in a young athlete before he had fully developed his skills. (Sportswriter Jim Murray was later to remark of Rickey, "He could recognize a great player from the window of a moving train.") But one or two good men were simply not enough to build an empire. St. Louis was just too small a baseball market to provide the buckets of black ink necessary to acquire the abundance of talent that the clubs in the big cities could afford.
As a result, the man who would be Napoleon had been put in charge of some of the worst foot soldiers and inept officers currently impersonating professional ballplayers. All the evidence suggested that he was going to meet his Waterloo before his campaign had even begun.
Then one day in the summer of 1919, the thirty-eight-year-old Rickey sat down to dinner with three fellow baseball executives at a restaurant on 110th Street and Broadway in New York. Their conversation sowed the seeds for a vision gradually dawning on Rickey over the course of the next few days that not only saved his career, and the St. Louis Cardinals franchise, but also profoundly changed the way Major League baseball was played.
In fact, during Rickey's career, the game of baseball was to undergo several radical innovations, and some of the most revolutionary were proposed by Rickey. If Babe Ruth, the archetypal soldier on the field, dominated the sport in the twenties with his masterful displays of great power, Rickey was to succeed him in the following decade, though mostly behind the scenes, as baseball's most indomitable and revolutionary figure. His acumen and foresight regarding baseball, viewed both as a business and as a season-long strategic enterprise, were without rival. In one of the most amazing stories in the annals of all sports, Rickey did build his empire, and the most extraordinary team he created was the 1934 St. Louis Cardinals. Perhaps ultimately this is his story.
Yet it has many beginnings and a roster-full of other larger-than-life characters competing for attention. And so, before the tale of Rickey's empire building can be resumed, and his predicament fully appreciated, it is necessary to begin at the beginning, and then weave together all of the other strands in this singularly stirring and quintessentially American epic.
Rickey's great-grandfather was David Brown. After he married a young Pennsylvania woman named Hannah Hubbard, she was disowned by her family because Brown drank whiskey. Taking his wife and child, and a cart with a yoke of oxen, he journeyed by raft down the Ohio River to Sciotoville, near Portsmouth, Ohio, in 1819, and built a log cabin there. The couple had eight children. The house was in a settlement called Duck Run.
Jacob Franklin Rickey, called Frank, who preferred temperance to whiskey, was Branch Rickey's father. He married Emily Brown, a descendant of David and Hannah Brown, in 1874. A bull of a man who liked to wrestle as a pastime, Frank Rickey also helped to build the Duck Run Free-Will Baptist Church. Frank and Emily were originally Baptists but gravitated to Methodism. Their second child, Wesley Branch, was born on December 20, 1881, and named in honor of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Emily, the oldest, was born in 1875, and Frank came later, in 1888.
The Rickey family lived in a small wood-frame farmhouse just a few feet from a creek called Duck Run, which had given the settlement its name. The farm was five miles distant from Lucasville, the nearest town, with a population of only 150. On Sundays, the family traveled to Lucasville for church, singing hymns along the way. During the school year, the Rickey children walked to and from school in Lucasville each day. Branch and his brother, Frank, also frequently accompanied their father on hunting expeditions, shooting rabbits, squirrels, and quail. When Branch was twelve, the family moved to Lucasville and attended the Flat Woods Methodist Protestant Church, but kept the farm as their source of income.
Rickey first learned the basics of baseball when the children from Duck Run got together four or five times a summer to compete with children from other communities, including Dry Run, its bitter rival. They used rocks for bases, and each team was responsible for bringing a baseball.
A solidly built boy who eventually grew to five feet nine inches, Rickey batted left-handed with fair power. His running speed was about average. As a player, he was also merely average. What he excelled in was enthusiasm for and love of the game, and a keen appreciation of its multiple challenges.
After Rickey finished high school, he was unsure what to do next. The family had no money to send him to college, nor would he have qualified anyway because the Lucasville school was not even certified to grant a high school diploma. Encouraged by his family and friends, he took an examination to become a grammar school teacher, readily passed it, and later found a position in Turkey Creek. Each day he rode his bicycle eighteen miles from home to school, and then back again. In Lucasville, he also began dating a young woman named Jane Moulton, the only woman he ever courted, whose father owned the local general store.
A few years later, Rickey took the entrance examination at Ohio Wesleyan University just outside Columbus, and passed.
Friends helped him to prepare for the test by loaning him books and tutoring him. Like a young Abe Lincoln, he studied all night by kerosene light, after teaching all day. One of the texts he studied was a Latin text, since Latin was a requirement at Ohio Wesleyan. Meanwhile, his courtship of Jane Moulton was not faring well; her family was considered well-to-do, whereas the Rickeys were poor. Other young men courting her had not only money, but an education. Rickey, though, had set his sights on college and on Moulton, and he was not to be deterred. He repeatedly asked her to marry him, and just as often she declined.
In the spring of 1901, after the end of the school term, young Rickey packed his bags and left for Delaware, Ohio, where he took the entrance examination and was accepted into Ohio Wesleyan's preparatory school. He had saved sixty-two dollars from his teacher's salary. Stuffed into his canvas bag were a catcher's mitt and baseball shoes. When not attending classes, he waited on tables at a restaurant to pay for his keep. He also tried out for the school baseball team and qualified as its first-string catcher. Diligent in his studies, he was admitted that fall into the university proper.
As passionate about football as he was about baseball, Rickey also earned a spot that first semester on the football team. He proved to be such an exceptional player that, by season's end, he had become something of a campus hero and was even named to an all-star team representing all Ohio colleges.
As a scholar, though, the backwoods freshman got off to a somewhat uncertain start. As he later told St. Louis sportswriter J. Roy Stockton:
I thought I was some stuff when the Latin teacher called on me the first day. We were starting Virgil, and I sang of arms and the man, and went on singing, undaunted by snickers from classmates. Finally, the professor stopped me. "Mr. Rickey," he challenged, "where in the world did you learn that brand of Latin?"
"From Grove's Elementary Latin, sir," I answered. The snickers turned into roars of laughter. How was I to know that the Grove who wrote that book and the Professor Grove in the classroom were one and the same?
Although he had mastered Latin vocabulary and grammar, Rickey had no idea how to pronounce the august sentences in the Aeneid.
In the spring of 1902, Rickey was playing his second season with the Ohio Wesleyan baseball team when he and several of his teammates caught the eye of the manager of the Portsmouth Navies, a semipro team that was closely monitored by professional scouts. The college did not prohibit students from playing semipro ball for money, and Rickey accepted the offer to play for the Navies for twenty-five dollars a week. In the fall, he was back in school, and once again playing halfback for the football team.
Then disaster struck. A faculty adviser for student athletes informed them that Ohio Wesleyan had joined the Ohio Conference of Colleges. All student athletes were required to sign a form attesting that they had never dishonored their amateur standing by playing for money. Rickey, unable to sign the form in good conscience, resigned from the team. Yet the story of his honesty soon swept the campus and earned him even more accolades. Semipro and even professional football teams heard the tale and came calling. Rickey's exclusion from college athletics seemed to be working in his favor. A team from Shelby, Ohio, a pioneer pro football franchise and one of the forebears of the National Football League, signed him up at a salary of a hundred dollars a game.
Yet misfortune continued to plague him. After only a few games, Rickey suffered a broken leg. In fact, though, the setback turned out to be yet another instance of good luck following upon bad. The management had become so impressed by the young athlete's analytical skills that he was immediately invited to become the team's coach. Not only did he accept, but that spring he was also asked to coach Ohio Wesleyan's baseball team. With the salaries he earned from his two coaching jobs, he was able to finish the school year.
A decisive moment in Rickey's life, and a foreshadowing of his decision in 1947 to integrate Major League baseball by signing the young Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers, occurred during the college baseball team's first practice session that spring. Charles Thomas, a young black student, showed up during tryouts. Some of the players murmured in protest, but Rickey was adamant that he be given a chance. Thomas not only made the team but also was eventually accepted by his teammates. All went well until the Ohio Wesleyan team traveled to South Bend, Indiana, for a baseball game with Notre Dame. Though the other players were allowed to register, the hotel desk clerk told Thomas, "We don't allow Negroes here." Notre Dame University itself did not object to Thomas's presence on the ball field.
Rickey consulted with the hotel manager and asked whether Thomas could stay with him in his own room. Reluctantly, the manager agreed. Up in the room, Thomas tearfully rubbed his hands furiously, saying, "If they were only white. If they were only white."
In the early years of the twentieth century, many ballplayers lived an almost nonstop itinerant existence, and Branch Rickey was no exception. In the summer of 1903, he signed on as a catcher with a minor league team in Dallas. The following year, he graduated from Ohio Wesleyan. In 1905, the St. Louis Browns signed him up, and he caught for them that year and the next. Then, in the fall of 1906, Rickey returned to Ohio Wesleyan University to coach the football team. That same year, he finally succeeded in marrying Jane Moulton, the woman of his dreams. In the summer of 1907, he was crouching behind the plate for the New York Highlanders, who later became the New York Yankees. In a game against the Washington Nationals—later the Senators—he set a dubious record by allowing the Nationals to steal thirteen bases against him in a nine-inning game.
One May evening in 1908, Rickey happened upon a speaker standing in front of a railroad depot in Delaware, Ohio, who was giving an antitemperance speech. As a devout Methodist, Rickey was profoundly affected by two issues that would continue to play a major part in his life: the evils of alcohol and racial intolerance. Already, the Methodist lecture circuit featured speakers, strongly influenced by the evangelical fervor of British Methodism, who were denouncing the mistreatment of black Americans. Other injustices that weighed heavily on the Methodist conscience were child labor and the lack of a living wage for working people.
After listening to the speaker at the depot for a few minutes, Rickey gathered a small crowd around him and spontaneously launched into a harangue about the menace posed by liquor. The response was enthusiastic. A few days later, he received an invitation from the Anti-Saloon League to give a lecture in Chillicothe, Ohio, for ten dollars plus expenses. He accepted, and again met with a rousing reception; and for the rest of the summer, he and Jane roamed the state, stopping regularly at small towns, where Rickey preached against alcohol and polished his ability to parry hecklers. In the fall, he worked on the
- On Sale
- Apr 29, 2008
- Page Count
- 352 pages