One Month Late?

Besides being one of baseball’s all-time greats, Stan Musial has the distinction of being one of the best September call-ups in the history of the game. At the age of 20, he debuted with the Cardinals in the heat of the 1941 pennant race, on Sept. 17. In a dozen games to close out the season, Musial went 20-for-47 (.426) with five extra-base hits. Despite this, the Cardinals finished 2.5 games behind the pennant-winning Brooklyn Dodgers. Years after the fact, Johnny Mize made the following complaint (to Donald Honig in the book Baseball When the Grass Was Real):

In ‘41 [Enos] Slaughter collided with Terry Moore, and Slaughter broke his shoulder. Here we’re fighting the Dodgers for a pennant. Rickey said we didn’t have anybody in the minor leagues to help us. Then in September he brings up Musial. Why didn’t he bring Musial up earlier? That’s what all the players wanted to know. We might have gone ahead and won the pennant. I’ll tell you what the talk used to be about Rickey: Stay in the pennant race until the last week of the season, and then get beat. I heard some talk to the effect that that was what he preferred. That way he drew the crowds all year, and then later on the players couldn’t come in for the big raise for winning the pennant and maybe the World Series. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but that was the talk.

It should be noted that Mize’s memory is far from infallible: Enos Slaughter didn’t actually collide with Terry Moore–he ran into the right field wall while avoiding a collision with Moore. And he broke his collarbone, not his shoulder. But it is certainly true that Slaughter suffered a major injury on Aug. 10 and barely played the rest of the season. It’s also true that 20-year-old Stan Musial was more than ready for a major league promotion. After dismantling the Class C Western Association, he was promoted to the Double-A International League in July and hit .326 in 54 games. When he did get a chance to play for the Cardinals at the end of September, he was spectacular.

Now, I find it hard to believe that Rickey was actually trying not to win the pennant, but it’s true that Musial was an obvious replacement for the injured Slaughter. The question is, would his presence have made up the 2.5 games that St. Louis finished the year behind first-place Brooklyn? Let’s take a look.

As I said, Slaughter was injured on Aug. 10. On the morning of Aug. 11, the Cardinals were in a dead heat with the Dodgers, trailing by mere percentage points. On Sept. 2, the Cards actually held a half-game lead. By the time Musial debuted on September 17, the Dodgers had pulled ahead by 1.5 games, and they went on to win the pennant.

In the 34 games between Slaughter’s injury and Musial’s debut, the Cardinals won 20 games, lost 13 and tied one, good for a .606 winning percentage. The rival Dodgers played 39 games during that stretch and posted a record of 24-14-1 (.632). The two clubs met seven times in that span, with the Dodgers winning four and the Cardinals three.

The point is, the Cardinals weren’t exactly slumping during their Slaughter/Musial vacuum. Slaughter’s replacements in right field were pretty lousy, though—Cardinals starters in right field batted just .210 with no home runs and a paltry .258 slugging percentage. Making matters worse, center fielder Terry Moore was out for much of that time with an injury of his own, creating an uninspiring outfield rotation of Johnny Hopp, Don Padgett, Coaker Triplett and Estel Crabtree—hardly a World Champion outfield. In those 34 games, Cardinals left fielders were barely better than their right field counterparts, combining to hit .257 with no homers and a .316 slugging percentage. In the 14 games that the Cardinals either lost or tied, their starting corner outfielders combined for a .226 batting average.

What about Musial? He hit at Double-A, he hit in his 12-game major league debut, and he hit the next year, batting .315 in 1942. Taking all that into account, Musial would have been worth roughly 10 more runs to the Cardinals than were Slaughter’s actual replacements in those 34 games.

Would 10 runs have made up 2.5 games in the standings? Normally the answer would be no. It is worth noting, however, that nine of the Cardinals’ 13 losses in the aforementioned stretch were by two runs or less (and that’s not including the 1-1 tie on Sept. 16, the day before Musial’s debut). Presumably, Musial could have made the difference in a few of these games.

The verdict? Well, in hindsight Branch Rickey definitely should have called up Stan Musial earlier than he actually did, but it is debatable that this lack of action cost St. Louis the pennant. However, the notion that Rickey was actively attempting to lose the pennant race is absurd. In the final analysis, this is one of those “what ifs” that just can’t be answered with any degree of certainty.

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