Book Review: Gashouse Gang

Of all baseball’s great and well-remembered franchises, the Gashouse Gang is one of the more unusual. Most of the game’s storied clubs are remembered for their total dominance of the league—the Murderers’ Row Yanks, the Bad Guys Mets or the Big Red Machine. Others are remembered for their consistent brilliance over a period of years, such as the Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance Cubs or the Mustache Gang. The Gashouse Gang? That bunch spent less than two weeks in first and much of its core never won another pennant with the club.

They’re remembered not for their play, but for their collection of characters. Everything you’ve ever read about them emphasizes their personality more than their play. They had a September pennant push for the ages, and played in a controversial World Series, but unless you really pay a lot of attention to baseball history, you might not know that.

Realizing the importance of his cast of characters, in the new book The Gashouse Gang author John Heidenry focuses on the men who made the team rather than the game that became their record. There’s the unlikable but savvy New York sharpster Leo Durocher at short. Next to him at third was the Wild Horse of Osage, hard charging Pepper Martin. Sullen tough guy Joe Medwick provided their big bat, and forceful veteran Frankie Frisch was an inmate running the asylum. Watching over this band of brawlers was the church-going and pious Branch Rickey.

Heidenry gives a portrait of all these men, but they are merely the supporting cast. The real star of the show is ol’ Diz, Jay Hanna Dean. He dominates the proceedings with his enormous self-confidence mixed with enough hayseed charm so that his arrogance becomes more endearing than off-putting. He spends the first third of the book giving the background to the people who made the Gashouse Gang so famous.

Well, to the reader it’s charming. To Frankie Frisch and some of hits teammates, it was downright aggravating, especially when the former migrant farm laborer raised Cain over the business end of baseball. He believed, with justification, that the Cards paid neither him nor his brother Paul (the team’s star rookie pitcher who was as quiet as his brother was colorful) what they were due. He also disliked how the club treated his mentally deficient brother Earl when he worked as a vendor in Sportsman’s Park. All this culminated in a suspension and hearing before the commissioner, Judge Landis, where the Cards prevailed over Dean.

By focusing on the men instead of the games, Heidenry avoids a common pitfall in books that tell the story of a season. This work never becomes a drearily dull rehashing of an endless series of groundouts, strikes and doubles. If nothing else, this book is a fun read. The games are only a backdrop to the human dramas. He finally gets into greater detail during the World Series, where he goes on too long. The Series account lasts almost as long as the season.

While enjoyable, it’s also rather frustrating. Marring the book is a litany of botched facts and obvious errors that really make you question the book’s overall quality. Among the glitches, Heidenry:

– Twice states that Babe Ruth retired in 1934 (preface and page 283)

– Says that the early 1930s were a golden age for pitchers (page 64)

– Claims that Paul Dean threw the NL’s first no-hitter since 1920 (page 189)

– Has the Cards playing the Phillies in the 1931 World Series. Well, they did play Philadelphia . . .. (page 59)

– Mentions that the Cards were the last team to integrate (page 291). He says “to fully integrate” but any way you slice it, that ain’t true.

– He thinks the fighting in World War I ended in November 1919, not 1918 (pages 19-20). It’s not just a typo, either; he’s got a multi-paragraph section that deals with this issue.

These aren’t just small missteps. Even worse, these howlers form a larger pattern. One gets the sense that while Heidenry is a genuinely passionate Cards fan who did some fine research for this volume, he really isn’t too knowledgeable about the game’s history.

To be fair, almost all his mishaps come when he’s discussing the surrounding context. When it comes to the ’34 Birds, he apparently knows his stuff. I had only one problem with his book in that regard. Just before writing about Game 6 in the Series, he mentions that umpire Brick Owens would become the center of controversy. He quotes Tigers manager Mickey Cochrane saying after the game, “We were beaten by umpires.” During the game . . . he forgets to mention what Owens did that was so controversial. That oversight aside, his account of the Cards’ experience is generally solid.

Aside from the obvious mistakes, this book stumbles into another pet peeve of mine. He engages in what I call Disneyland/ESPN history. This is when you take some conventional storyline and you run with it without checking to see how true it is and when and where it ceases to be true.

For example, when discussing Rickey’s background with the club, he says the Cards were in the black by 1922 while the Browns provided “little competition for the hearts of the St. Louis fans.” Well, actually, the Browns were one game away from the World Series that year. They actually outdrew the Cards—often heavily—in the first half of the decade. They became an afterthought after Rickey built the Cards, and had been bad before, but St. Louis was a baseball city up for grabs for a quarter-century. However enjoyable Heidenry’s narrative, it’s frustrating that he’s often in the dark about events surrounding 1934.

By going on for so long about the book’s problems, I run the risk of making it sound like a bad one. I enjoyed it and am glad I read it. Heidenry will give a presentation on the Gashouse Gang at this summer’s SABR convention in St. Louis and I wouldn’t mind seeing it. The Gashouse Gang is a decent read, but unless you’re a big Cardinals fan there’s no reason to put it at the top of your summer baseball reading list.

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