The St. Louis Cardinals of the 1930s are among the most colorful and well-remembered ball clubs in history. With a lineup chock-full of lively, high-spirited stars, a high proportion of them country boys recruited from the rural hinterlands to the south and west of the team’s Missouri home base, the Cards of that decade presented a rough-and-tumble, plain-folks image; their nickname “The Gas House Gang” vividly conveys the contrast with the coldly efficient gray-pinstriped Yankees of the period.
Those Redbirds were more than just colorful, they were darn good, capturing World Series titles in 1931 and 1934, and finishing second in the National League in ’35, ’36, ’39, and ’41. The success was rooted in their extensive farm system, a Cardinal innovation conceived and executed by their extraordinarily ambitious and capable General Manager, Branch Rickey. The St. Louis farm system was the first and best of its kind, forcing other franchises (including the Yankees) to develop their own systems in response, and ensuring the Cards a steady stream of fresh young talent as the core from their early-’30s editions aged out. When the military draft of World War II depleted the rosters of all major league teams, the Cardinals’ superior depth of system talent allowed them to step forward and dominate: in 1942–43–44 the Cardinals won 106, 105, and 105 games, three straight pennants and two World Championships. After the war’s end in 1946, the Cards won yet another pennant, and captured another World Series trophy as well, in a hard-fought seven-game battle with the powerful Boston Red Sox, a title forever associated with the hustling dash of the Cardinals’ Enos “Country” Slaughter scoring from first with the winning run in the eighth inning of the deciding game.
Alas, that exclamation point would prove to be the end of the run of championships from that particular Cardinal ball club. They would come in second in 1947, ’48, and ’49, and fade from close contention in the seasons following. The next flag wouldn’t fly over Sportsman’s Park until 1964, essentially a generation later, in a very different era. As celebrated as the Gas House Gang Cardinals of the 1930s and the best-in-baseball juggernaut Cardinals of 1942-46 remain, the Cards of the last few years of the 1940s have long since dissolved into historical obscurity.
But it didn’t have to be that way. Indeed we will demonstrate, using the same method we used here and here, that had the Cardinals of that era simply not executed three fateful transactions, that they would have been one of the great dynasties of all time.
First let’s understand what sort of St. Louis ball clubs those were in the late 1940s:
Year W-L Pos OPS+ Pos DefEff Pos ERA+ Pos 1946 98-58 1 106 2 .712 5 115 1 1947 89-65 2 101 5 .702 3T 118 1 1948 85-69 2 99 3T .705 4 104 3 1949 96-58 2 104 3T .713 3 121 1
We see here that the 1949 second-place finisher was essentially as good a team as the 1946 pennant-winner; the former lost a cliffhanger and the latter prevailed in one, indeed tying for first with the Dodgers, and sweeping a best-of-three playoff. We see that the ’47 and ’48 editions weren’t quite so strong.
But here’s what else we see: the Cardinal pitching staffs of that period were spectacular, leading the league in ERA+ in three of the four years. Indeed, Bill James, in his article “Young Pitchers” in the 2006 Hardball Times Baseball Annual, named the Cards of that period as one of the few greatest staffs in history, putting it this way: “The Cardinals of the 1940s had phenomenal depth, with the first great farm system churning out arms like IHOP frying pancakes.” Howie Pollet, Harry Brecheen, Murry Dickson, Al Brazle, Ted Wilks, Red Munger, and Gerry Staley were the headliners of a virtual All-Star cast of pitchers.
But St. Louis was presenting neither great hitting teams nor great fielding teams in those years, putting up average-to-good team OPS+ and Defensive Efficiency figures, and never leading the league in either category. So this much is clear: the Cardinals fell short in 1947-49 not through pitching deficiency, but rather through a lack of championship-caliber performances by their position players.
Just why was that? Shortstop Marty Marion and second baseman Red Schoendienst were both widely regarded as brilliant with the glove; it would seem that the team’s defensive inadequacy wasn’t in the middle infield. And as for hitting, the Cardinals’ lineup in those years featured none other than Stan Musial, an all-time great hitter at the absolute peak of his career. They also, as we know, featured Slaughter, an outstanding hitter, and as well they had Whitey Kurowski, who for a couple of those seasons hit terrifically well.
Indeed they did, but the Cardinals in those years also presented chronic offensive holes at multiple positions. Whatever manner of defensive contribution they made, lackluster offensive production prevailed from the positions of first base, catcher, and center field:
Year Player Pos PA OPS+ 1946 Harry Walker CF 385 78 1946 Erv Dusak LF 313 95 1946 Terry Moore CF 303 85 1946 Dick Sisler 1B-LF 260 86 1946 Joe Garagiola C 235 73 1947 Terry Moore CF 508 85 1947 Del Rice C 301 87 1948 Nippy Jones 1B 523 85 1948 Erv Dusak CF-2B 365 66 1948 Del Rice C 338 53 1948 Terry Moore CF 240 75 1949 Chuck Diering CF 409 87 1949 Nippy Jones 1B 402 97 1949 Del Rice C 325 74 1949 Rocky Nelson 1B 260 55
So despite the sustained great performances of Musial and Slaughter, and of Kurowski for part of the time, the supporting cast dragged team-wide offensive production down to a level not sufficient to yield championships, even with a world-class pitching staff.
How might those Cardinal teams have gotten better performance from first base, catcher, and center field?
What Might Have Been: Element One
From 1936 through 1941, the Cards had received stupendous offensive production from first base, delivered by Johnny Mize, one of the elite hitters of his generation. Yet following the 1941 season, with Mize not yet 29 years old, Rickey traded him to the Giants for three mediocrities and $50,000—more accurately, Rickey sold Mize for $50,000 and window dressing.
It may be the case that this transaction made excellent financial sense for the Cardinals’ franchise; I don’t know. It’s likely the case that it made excellent financial sense for Rickey personally, given that his contract paid him a share of franchise profits, and he may have had his eye on going elsewhere soon, as he would leave the team a year later. But very clearly, the deal didn’t make on-field competitive sense for the Cardinals: Mize had a lot of great performance left to deliver, and the team had no one remotely comparable to replace him at first base. The guy who took over as the regular, Ray Sanders, did okay, and obviously the Cards won plenty of games with him in the lineup, but they’d have won significantly more with Mize. Then the Cardinals dumped Sanders, and in 1946 and 1947 they mostly used their fleet-footed young superstar outfielder Musial at first base, which made little sense: Musial was a fine defensive first baseman, but moving him to first simply transferred the hole to the outfield.
In 1948 and 1949 the Cards mostly deployed Nippy Jones and Rocky Nelson at first base, and as we see above (and as we explored here), neither provided anything close to the kind of offense a good team expects from its first baseman.
All of this could have been avoided, had the franchise simply declined to auction off its superstar first baseman back in 1941. Let’s suppose they kept The Big Cat.
What Might Have Been: Element Two
Following his playing days, Joe Garagiola forged a long and highly successful career as a baseball broadcaster, gaining such fame that he even scored a TV game-show-host gig or two. One of the keys to the popularity of Garagiola’s non-threatening, aw-shucks on-air persona was the manner in which he adroitly worked in self-deprecating humor; a typical Garagiola gag was, “Every spring the clubhouse man would go around to each of the players taking orders for that season’s supply of bats. To most of the guys, he’d ask, ‘What model?’ To me, he’d ask, ‘What for?'” It was a savvy performance by Garagiola, expertly mining the oh-what-a-bad-ballplayer-I-was vein that Bob Uecker would later exploit to similar successful effect.
The truth, however, is that Garagiola wasn’t such a bad ballplayer. He was a pretty decent left-handed hitter (following, anyway, his 1946 struggling-as-a-20-year-old-rookie performance we see above), with excellent strike zone judgment and some pop in his bat: his career OPS+ of 96 is good for a catcher. He wasn’t much defensively, though, so despite his nice bat Garagiola never became a true first-stringer. In the 1946-49 period, the Cardinals alternated him with Del Rice, who was pretty much Garagiola’s mirror image: a right-handed batter, a poor hitter (lifetime OPS+ of 78), but strong defensively. Their skillsets complemented each other, and so as a platoon duo Garagiola and Rice were better collectively than separately. But still, through this period they combined to provide the Cardinals with far less than a strength at catcher.
The team had no better alternatives on the roster in 1946-49, yet before 1946 they’d boasted the best catcher in the league: the heavy-hitting Walker Cooper, an All-Star in 1942, ’43, and ’44, and the MVP runner-up in ’43. Cooper spent most of the 1945 season in the Navy, but following his discharge in January of 1946 the Cardinals sold Cooper to the Giants, for $175,000.
That was a princely sum in 1946, and one has to presume the transaction was a boffo success from the standpoint of the franchise’s balance sheet, at least in the short run. But as with the Mize deal, on the field it was a different story: while the Cardinals were making do with the Garagiola-Rice patchwork, Cooper would be an All-Star again in 1946, as well as ’47, ’48, and ’49, and for good measure, 1950. He wasn’t a defensive star, but Cooper was a terrific hitter, the best-hitting catcher in the major leagues over the decade of the 1940s, and such a good hitter that he would hang on as a backup catcher and pinch-hitting specialist in the big leagues through the age of 42. There’s no question that the Cardinals’ offense through the late 1940s would have substantially benefitted from the continued presence of Walker Cooper.
Let’s suppose they’d turned away Horace Stoneham’s Brinks truck, and hung on to Cooper.
What Might Have Been: Element Three
The Cardinals simply could not figure out what they wanted to do in center field in the late ’40s; indeed the position would remain a chronic issue for the franchise until they finally installed Curt Flood as the regular in the second half of 1961. Terry Moore had been an outstanding center fielder at one time (rather similar to Flood, actually); a terrific defender (who would have been a Gold Glover had the award existed) and a good hitter. But he was 34 in 1946, suffering from knee trouble, and no longer the fielder or hitter he’d once been.
In ’46 the Cards had Moore sharing center field with Harry Walker and Buster Adams, and none of them performed well. For 1947 both Walker and Adams were discarded, but the 35-year-old Moore was deployed as the regular; as we see above he didn’t hit much, and his defensive ability is indicated by the fact he was frequently replaced in the late innings by Chuck Diering (which we examined here). So then in ’48 Moore’s role was reduced to a backup, and Erv Dusak was given a shot at the center field job. But Dusak flopped, and so Stan Musial wound up playing a lot of center field in both that season and 1949, when they also used the light-hitting Diering out there a great deal.
All in all it was a directionless muddle, yet the team had contained a young player capable of high-quality center field work. Unfortunately they’d sold Johnny Wyrostek to the Phillies in February of 1946.
Perhaps you’ve never heard of Wyrostek. He wasn’t a star (he made two All-Star teams, but that was a function of the every-team-must-have-a-representative rule), but he was a solid, sound all-around player, an outfielder with the range to handle center and the arm to handle right, and a useful left-handed hitter with a little bit of power. Comparable modern players would be guys like Randy Winn or Mark Kotsay.
Wyrostek had been acquired by the St. Louis organization from an independent minor league team in 1939, at the age of 19, and he nicely progressed in their system, reaching the AAA level within two years. However, the Cards then decided to sell him to the Pirates, with whom Wyrostek reached the majors. Deployed in a limited backup role by Pittsburgh in 1943, the rookie Wyrostek hit poorly. Nevertheless the Cardinals thought better of having let him go, as in September of ’43 they surrendered the promising southpaw Preacher Roe in trade to get Wyrostek back. In 1944, for the Cards’ AAA Columbus affiliate the 24-year-old Wyrostek had a brilliant season, leading the American Association with a .358 batting average and 50 doubles in just 110 games before being drafted into the Army, where he would remain for the duration of the war.
The Cardinals’ subsequent decision was baffling: to unload Wyrostek before spring training even began in 1946, and instead allow Walker and Adams—decent ballplayers, but essentially just wartime replacement regulars, neither with Wyrostek’s youth or upside—to compete with Moore for the center field job, without even giving Wyrostek a chance. Let’s suppose they’d given Wyrostek an opportunity in 1946 to show them what he was ready to do at the major league level.
We’ll put it all together.
References & Resources
The rules for this game are the same as we followed in our examinations of the 1930 Giants and the 1954 Indians: we re-tool an historical team’s roster, not by invoking any acquisitions they didn’t actually make, but instead by simply erasing a few transactions they did make.