David Voigt’s History of Baseball, Part 6
This is the sixth installment of David Voigt’s history, as fine a brief telling of the tale as I know. This series commenced at: http://goo.gl/E4adJX.
Austerity Baseball: 1932-1945
In company with most industrialized nations, America during these years suffered the calamitous effects of a lingering economic Depression followed hard after by years of total war. In America the great Depression blighted the 1930s by creating millions of jobless workers, holding wages far below their 1929 level, slowing population growth, and, of course, drastically reducing recreational spending.
Although abetted by federal remedial programs, the national economy languished until 1940, when federal defense-spending programs spurred an economic revival. But the following year the nation faced a second ordeal, when it embarked upon four years of total war against the Axis powers.
Major league baseball felt the effects of the gathering Depression in 1931, when the AL suffered losses while the NL barely broke even.
Once engulfed by the economic storm, both major leagues were hard hit as attendance fell to 8.1 million in 1932 and hit rock bottom with an overall total of 6.3 million in 1933. Thereafter attendance improved, but not until 1940 did annual attendance totals reach 10 million. A similar sickening decline affected the minor leagues. But the minors recovered strongly after 1933 and zoomed to a record total attendance of 18 million in 1940.
Since major league baseball’s fate was at its gates, declining attendance translated into financial losses. In the AL, six previous years of domination by the Yankees and Athletics had the junior circuit trailing the NL in overall revenues. After losing a total of $156,000 in 1931, the AL suffered three desperate years during which overall losses topped $2 million. Slow improvement began with the 1935 season, but as always revenues were unevenly distributed.
Strong clubs like the Yankees and Tigers fared far better than the financially battered Athletics, Browns, and Senators. Nor were conditions much better in the NL, which also lost heavily during the years 1932-1934. In that three-year span every NL team suffered at least two seasons of red ink. A turnabout began with the 1935 season, but over the next six seasons annual profits only twice totaled $500,000. Moreover, like those of the AL, NL revenues were unevenly distributed. The Cubs, Giants, Cardinals, and Reds fared far better than did the woebegone Braves and Phillies.
Under such financial pressures, salaries of major league players were slashed. Annual salary spending in the majors fell from $4 million in 1929 to $3 million in 1933, and as late as 1940 total payrolls still lagged behind the 1929 figure. Such cuts dropped the average player’s salary to $6,000 in 1933, and the 1939 average salary of $7,300 still lagged behind the $7,500 figure of 1929. While such pay was good for those desperate times, job insecurity was rife among big league players of this era. Most players of this era needed no reminders that budget-slashing owners could easily find cheap replacements in the minor leagues. But for the time being, the great stars of the black majors, which also suffered from Depression austerities, posed no competitive threat. However, winds of change were stirring against segregated institutions in America, including major league baseball’s unwritten color bar.
Of course, owners also faced a survival-of-the-fittest struggle in this depressed decade. Better-located clubs like the Yankees, Tigers, Cubs, and Giants adapted far better than did the owners of the financially strapped Athletics, Senators, Browns, Braves, and Phillies. Caught up in a vicious cycle, these poorer owners were forced to sell players to better-heeled clubs, a policy which had the effect of worsening attendance. However, one club, the Cardinals, managed to sell players to much better advantage. Although plagued by poor attendance, including three seasons which produced an aggregate home attendance total of fewer than 900,000, and one of those a world championship season which attracted only 325,000 fans at home, the Cardinals still managed to hold their own financially. Player sales from Rickey’s well-stocked minor league farm system enabled the Cardinals to recoup financially and at the same time field strong teams.
At this time eager purchasers of players included Tom Yawkey, the wealthy new owner of the Red Sox. In this decade Yawkey spent $1 million on players. As a result Red Sox attendance rose while that of his moribund NL rival the Boston Braves worsened. Other bullish owners included the owners of the Cubs, Reds, Tigers, and Dodgers. But the well-financed Yankees emulated Rickey’s example and built an efficient farm system of their own. Directed by the ruthlessly efficient George Weiss, the Yankee farms strengthened the Yankees’ stranglehold on the AL.
Still, Depression-imposed austerities challenged all clubs of this era to find new ways to beef up revenues. Perhaps the most drastic of these was the plan of the owner of the St. Louis Browns to move the club to the West Coast, a strategy which was aborted by the outbreak of World War Two. But for the most part promoters tried to find ways of wringing more money from ballpark fans. Among these, expanding concession sales, utilizing promotional schemes, and staging night baseball games were tactics borrowed from minor league promoters and the black majors. But night baseball proved to be the wave of the future for the major leagues. When introduced to the majors in 1935 by Cincinnati general manager Larry MacPhail, the popularity of night baseball had most major league clubs following suit by 1940. Yet another source of profits came from the sale of local radio rights to broadcast accounts of games, a scheme which some owners had tried, but most had stubbornly resisted back in the twenties. By 1939 radio income totaled 7.3 percent of club revenues, up from a negligible 0.3 percent in 1930. Similarly, sales of World Series radio rights, a windfall shared by all major league clubs, now fetched higher prices. And at the close of the decade, the new medium of television showed promise, but the onslaught of World War Two delayed its profitable exploitation.
In the near future such innovations would profoundly alter the major league scene, but for now survival dictated sticking to more conservative measures. Thus in this era no privately financed ballparks were constructed (as, indeed, had been the case in the 1920s with the exception of Yankee Stadium), but Cleveland’s publicly financed Municipal Stadium foreshadowed a future building boom that would replace most of the aging major league parks with modern facilities financed by public monies. When that day dawned, black players at last would be playing alongside whites in organized baseball. But in this era Commissioner Landis and his supporters continued their stubborn resistance in the face of mounting public support for organized baseball’s integration. The breakthrough came, a year after Landis’ death in 1945, as the first black player in this century signed a major league contract. Ironically, the integration of the white majors dealt a death blow to the flourishing black major leagues.
However, such impending changes were only dimly perceived by owners of this era. On the whole the 1930s were conservative years, with no significant rule changes invoked. In these years teams continued to master the big-bang style of play, with annual homer barrages, and pitching ERAs surpassing those of the 1920s. And if Ruth’s departure in 1935 deprived the game of its most colorful hero of all time, new slugging stars like Hank Greenberg, Ted Williams, and Joe DiMaggio proved to be worthy successors. Their accomplishments and those of this era’s teams were lavishly covered by sportswriters and by a new breed of radio sportscasters, whose ranks included some ex-players. Such coverage broadened baseball’s appeal. So did the 1939 opening of the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, New York, and the annual ritual of electing baseball immortals to the select circle. Indeed, the first annual election conducted in January of 1936 selected Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, and Walter Johnson as the five charter members.
Over the years the number of enshrined players swelled to over 200, including stars from the segregated black majors. And so did the numbers of fans who annually made the pilgrimage to the Hall of Fame; from a few thousand a year in this era, the number of visitors now exceeds 250,000 annually.
The Crisis of World War II
The major leagues were recovering from Depression-imposed austerities when the nation’s entry into World War Two posed a second major crisis. From 1942 until the Allied victory in 1945, the nation’s total war effort sapped baseball’s manpower and threatened to curtail the 1945 playing season. Among the 12 million Americans summoned to military service during the war years were some 500 major league players and 3,500 minor leaguers. This talent drain shrank the minor leagues to nine circuits at one point, while only President Roosevelt’s “green light” enabled the major leagues to continue playing throughout the war years.
That the major leagues continued playing the game in the face of wartime austerities owed to the resilience of its promoters and the continuing support of the fans. Although annual attendance fell from 10 million in 1941 to 8.8 million in 1942 and to a low point of 7.7 million in 1943, the numbers rebounded to 9 million in 1944 and then soared to a record 11.1 million in 1945. Indeed, baseball’s continuing popularity won the support of political figures like J. Edgar Hoover and Senator A.B. Chandler, who were convinced that the game was serving the war effort by boosting morale, both on the homefront and among the troops abroad.
Nevertheless, it was no easy task keeping the game of baseball afloat amidst a total war effort. In these years owners were hard-pressed to find ways of coping with a variety of shortages. Among them, a crunching transportation and hotel accommodation shortage forced promoters to cancel spring training programs in the southlands. And in 1945 the same problems forced the cancellation of that year’s All-Star Game. Meanwhile a rubber shortage forced the major leagues to go with a dead “balata” ball (with a hard plastic at the core) in 1943, and all during the war a shortage of wood affected the quality of bats. Early in the war the threat of submarine attacks on coastal shipping also curtailed night games in East Coast centers, but by 1944 the restriction was lifted. Indeed, night games came to be welcomed by government officials, who regarded them as good recreation for defense workers.
But the worst shortage of all was in manpower. Indeed, never before nor since did the major leagues face a talent shortage of such proportions as occurred then. As draft boards denuded team rosters of able players, club officials scoured the land for draft rejects and other ineligibles; at this time, overage and underaged players were welcomed along with aliens. In questing after talented alien players, scouts turned up a mother lode in Latin America. Cuba turned out to be especially rich in prospects and at this time some fifty Cuban players were recruited. Indeed, at one point a young minor league promoter Bill Veeck, proposed to buy the sickly NL Phillies franchise and stock it with black players from the Negro Leagues. Landis nixed the proposal.
For their part, owners needed stout hearts and a love of the game to keep going in the face of financial losses. In 1943 the majors lost $240,000, with the Cardinals and Tigers faring better than most other clubs. Hardest hit were the owners of the NL Phillies, who declared bankruptcy. The franchise was sold to the NL for $50,000, and after one abortive sale attempt NL officials sold the club to one of the DuPont Company heirs. Thus in the affluent hands of Bob Carpenter, this chronically weak NL franchise was soon revitalized.
At this time each owner was obliged to do his bit for the war effort. In response, clubs staged war bond sales, admitted servicemen free of charge to games, and allowed radio broadcasts of games to be transmitted free of charge to military bases. Although costly, such gestures paid off by increasing baseball’s popularity. By 1944 the worst of the financial reverses caused by the war ended, and when the 1945 season returned overall profits of $1.2 million, it was apparent that major league baseball was once again on the upswing.
Such was not the case for the players who took a financial beating in each of these years. A government edict of 1943, which was part of a general effort to halt inflation by stabilizing wages, froze player salaries. The salary freezes came at a time when player salaries, which averaged $6,400 in 1942, were already at a low point. When the freeze on salaries continued through 1946, it stirred strong unionist sentiments among grousing players that erupted in the first postwar season.
Other changes unleashed by the war forced far-reaching changes on major league baseball. Fair employment policies adopted by the federal government and by some states now threatened major league baseball’s long- established practice of racial segregation. Sensing the new trend toward racial integration, Branch Rickey in 1945 signed black major leaguer Jackie Robinson to a Dodger farm system contract. Rickey also sent his scouts in search of other promising talent in the black majors. This was a timely move because Judge Landis’ death in 1944 had removed a major stumbling block to the integration of the major leagues.
When the war ended in 1945 with a complete victory over the Axis powers, the prospects for major league baseball looked bright. But that year also brought news of the sale of the Yankees to a triumvirate of owners who paid $2.8 million for the club. And as it turned out, the postwar era would usher in yet another phase of Yankee domination.
Austerity Era Campaigns: AL, 1932-1945
n the Depression era of 1932-1941, the AL extended its domination over the NL by winning seven of ten World Series encounters and six of the first nine All-Star Games. The annual All-Star Game was instituted in 1933 and quickly became a popular spectacle that marked the midpoint of each seasonal campaign. Meanwhile in the seasonal campaigns of this decade, AL batters topped their NL counterparts in batting average, homers, RBI, and stolen bases, while NL hurlers posted lower ERAs than did AL pitchers. But there was an illusory quality to this apparent pattern of mastery. This was because the AL’s dominance owed most to the powerful Yankees, who captured six of the AL’s seven world titles in these years.
After a three-year hiatus, the Yankees recaptured the AL heights in 1932, crushing the Athletics by 13 games. Gehrig and Ruth combined for 75 homers and Yankee hitters batted .286. Under Manager Joe McCarthy, who was destined to become one of baseball’s most victorious managers, pitching superiority also became a Yankee hallmark. In 1932, with Lefty Gomez leading the Yankees staff with 24 wins, the Yankee mound corps led the AL in ERA with 3.98. Thus fortified, the versatile Yankees went on to sweep the Cubs in a legendary World Series matchup, highlighted by Ruth’s much-debated “called shot” homerun in the third game. And over the winter George Weiss was hired to build a Yankee farm system, a task which Weiss handled effectively. Within a few years the Yankee farm system laid the foundation for an awesome phase of Yankee domination. Meanwhile, the other AL teams enjoyed a brief respite, as the Yankees fell behind the front-running Senators and Tigers over the next three seasons. As age tolled on Yankee stars like Ruth, the Senators, now skippered by another young player-manager, shortstop Joe Cronin, defeated the Yankees by 7 games to win the 1933 pennant race.
League-leading hitting and sturdy pitching by Al Crowder and Earl Whitehill, who combined for 46 victories, carried the Senators, who went on to lose the World Series in five games to the Giants. Worse yet, in this rock-bottom Depression year, the Senators attracted only 437,000 home fans. Confronted with financial losses, owner Clark Griffith sold outfield star Goose Goslin to the Tigers. Goslin’s loss dashed the Senators’ hopes for 1934, and when the team slipped to the second division that year, Griffith sold Cronin-his son-in-law-to the Red Sox for $250,000.
As the Senators suffered, the Detroit Tigers prospered. In addition to landing Goslin in 1934, the Tigers also purchased catcher Mickey Cochrane from the Athletics. Installed as the Tigers’ player-manager, Cochrane headed a Tiger resurgence that saw the team rise from a fifth-place finish in 1933 to consecutive AL titles in 1934-1935. In 1934 Cochrane and Goslin teamed with Hank Greenberg and Charley Gehringer to spearhead a .300 team batting attack. What’s more, pitchers Schoolboy Rowe and Tommy Bridges combined for 46 wins as the Tigers defeated the Yankees by 7 games. The sprightly effort attracted 919,000 home fans, who watched Detroit land its first AL pennant since 1909. Unhappily for the fans, they also saw the Tigers extend their World Series losing streak to four as the Cardinals prevailed in a seven-game struggle. But in 1935 the Tigers repeated as AL champions, edging the runner-up Yankees by 3 games. Greenberg led the team’s .290 batting offensive by batting in 170 runs, and the purchase of Crowder from the Senators beefed up the team’s pitching staff. Although a late-season injury kept Greenberg out of action in the 1935 World Series, the Tigers downed the Cubs in five games. It was Detroit’s first World Series victory since 1887. But as it turned out, this victory was also the last World Series triumph by any AL team but the Yankees until 1945.
The second phase of Yankee domination over the AL began in 1936. The year before, Ruth’s departure had removed the club’s greatest drawing card, but this year young Joe DiMaggio appeared. Purchasing him from the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League for $25,000 and five other ballplayers, the Yankees were taking a chance that DiMaggio would be able to play effectively in spite of his injured knee. Indeed, he was, although the outfielder did prove to be injury-prone. But in 1936 the highly touted DiMaggio was an immediate sensation. In his freshman year he hit .323 with 29 homers and 125 RBI.
That year Gehrig’s 49 homers led the league and the Yankees batted .300 as a team with 182 homers. The Yankee assault lapped the runner-up Tigers by 19.5; games and in World Series action the Yankees downed the Giants in six games. It was the first of four consecutive World Series titles by the Bronx Bombers. During this record-setting streak, Weiss’ farm system provided a steady flow of talented replacements. Included were pitchers Spud Chandler, Steve Sundra, Marius Russo, and Atley Donald; outfielders Tommy Henrich and Charley Keller; and second baseman Joe Gordon. In 1937 the Yankees repeated by topping the Tigers by 13 games; in 1938 they beat out the beefed-up Red Sox by 9.5; games; and in 1939 the Red Sox trailed the all-conquering Yankees by 17 games. In each of these seasons the Yankees blasted at least 166 homers. And in World Series play their mastery of their NL rivals increased steadily; in 1937 the Giants fell in five games, and in 1938 and 1939 the Yankees swept the Cubs and the Reds. Landing four consecutive world titles was an unprecedented achievement, but such domination also kindled an enduring wave of anti-Yankee hostility among fans and rival teams. Mercifully for the rest of the AL contenders, a year’s respite from Yankee domination came in 1940. The year before, Lou Gehrig’s tragic illness ended the career of the great first baseman, whose “iron man” record of having played in 2,130 consecutive games still stands.
In 1940 Gehrig’s absence was keenly felt, and it enabled the Tigers and Indians to battle the Yankees on even terms. Cleveland’s fireballing pitching ace, Bob Feller, won 27 games to lead his team’s assault, but tensions between the Indian players and manager Oscar Vitt adversely affected the team’s morale. Such tensions enabled the hard-hitting Tigers to close the gap. Batting a league-leading .286, the Tigers were paced by future Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg; the big outfielder batted .340 with a league-leading 41 homers and 150 RBI. First baseman Rudy York weighed in with a .316 batting average, and his 33 homers and 134 RBI complemented Greenberg’s production. Second baseman Charley Gehringer, another destined Hall of Famer, batted .313 and drove in 81 runs, and outfielder Barney McCosky batted .340. To top it off, portly pitcher Bobo Newsom enjoyed a vintage season with a 21-5 record. In the last week of the season the Tigers deadlocked the Indians, and on the last day of the campaign the Tigers defeated the Indians to win the hotly contested race. In the decisive game, won by the Tigers 2-0, rookie Tiger pitcher Floyd Giebell outpitched the great Feller. Ironically it was Giebell’s last major league victory. But in World Series action the Tigers lost to the Cincinnati Reds in seven games.
Hard after that defeat, the gathering storm of World War Two dealt the Tigers a crushing blow. After playing 19 games of the 1941 season, slugger Greenberg was drafted into the Army. As the Tigers slumped, the Yankees rebounded and romped to a runaway 17-game victory over the second-place Red Sox. But this last peacetime AL campaign was fraught with memorable events. For one, by hitting safely in 56 consecutive games, Yankee outfielder Joe DiMaggio sparked the Yankee surge and established an enduring major league record.
For another, by batting .406 over the season, Boston outfielder Ted Williams became the last major league player to this day to top the .400 mark. And in the unforgettable World Series of 1941, by missing a third strike with two out in the ninth inning, thereby opening the floodgates for a game-winning Yankee rally in the fourth game, Dodger catcher Mickey Owen won enduring notoriety as the blamesake for the latest Yankee victory. The 1941 Series victory was the eighth straight by Yankee teams.
In 1942 the Yankees led the league in homers, fielding, and pitching to defeat the bridesmaid Red Sox by nine games. Yankee pitcher Ernie Bonham led all AL hurlers with a 21-5 mark, while Red Sox outfielder Ted Williams followed his brilliant 1941 season by notching a rare Triple Crown effort; Williams batted .356 with 36 homers and 137 RBI. However, Yankee hopes of extending their World Series winning streak came a cropper as the Cardinals downed the New Yorkers in five games.
But the resilient Yankees bounced back in 1943. League-leading slugging and pitching, the latter fronted by Spud Chandler’s 20-4, 1.64 ERA performance, carried the Yankees to a 13.5-game win over the Washington Senators. To top off the victory, in World Series action the Yankees scored an avenging victory over the Cardinals, who were beaten in five games.
In 1944 the military draft finally denuded the Yankees, who fell to third. As the Yankees sagged, the Browns and the Tigers battled for the top position, and the struggle ended with the St. Louis Browns winning their first and only AL pennant. In edging the Tigers by a single game, the Browns’ .252 team batting mark ranked near the bottom of the league. But stout pitching by Jack Kramer, Nelson Potter, and reliever George Caster, and shortstop Vern Stephens’ league-leading 109 RBI made the difference. Matched against their hometown rivals in World Series play, the Browns fell to the Cardinals in six games.
In the last wartime campaign, the 1945 Tigers eked a 1.5;-game victory over the Senators. Although the Tigers were outhit by five other teams, pitcher Hal Newhouser’s 25-9, 1.81 ERA pitching and slugger Greenberg’s timely return from military service sparked the Tigers. After missing four seasons of play, Greenberg returned to play in 78 games, during which he batted .311 and drove in 60 runs. In World Series play Greenberg’s .304 batting and his two homers led the Tigers to victory over the Cubs in seven games, in what has been described as “the worst World Series ever played.”
Austerity Era Campaigns: NL, 1932-1945
Although offensively outclassed by the AL, the NL boasted the best pitching in these years. Indeed, pitching decided eight of the first ten NL campaigns of this era while also contributing to the senior circuit’s better competitive balance. Over the years 1932-1941 the NL campaigns featured nine close races with five different pennant winners. Thus the longest reign of any would-be dynasty was two years, a feat achieved by the New York Giants and the Cincinnati Reds.
In 1932 the Chicago Cubs rose to the top of the NL and continued a quirky pattern, dating back to 1929, of winning a pennant every three years. In August the embattled Cubs replaced manager Rogers Hornsby with first baseman Charlie Grimm, a timely move that rallied the Cubs. Player-manager Grimm, in company with infielder Billy Herman and outfielders Riggs Stephenson and Johnny Moore, led the .278 team batting attack, while pitcher Lon Warneke (22-6) fronted the team’s league-leading pitching staff. The Cubs went on to defeat the Pirates by four games, but were swept by the Yankees in the World Series.
As the Cubs swooned in 1933, another player-manager, first baseman Bill Terry, led the Giants to their first NL pennant since 1924. They did it by scoring a five-game victory over the Pirates. Terry batted .322, and outfielder Mel Ott’s 23 homers keyed the Giants’ league-leading homer assault. The pitching staff, fronted by lefty Carl Hubbell’s 23 victories, was the league’s best. And in World Series action the Giants beat the Senators in five games.
The following year the Giants again boasted league-leading pitching, but the hard-hitting Cardinals overtook the New Yorkers in the final week to win by 2 games. Dubbed the “Gas House Gang,” these Cardinals symbolized the Depression austerities that affected the nation in this worst year of the economic hard times. The Cardinals drew only 325,000 home fans, but player-manager Frank Frisch, in company with Rip Collins, Ernie Orsatti, Joe Medwick, and Spud Davis, topped the .300 mark in batting to pace the team’s league-leading .288 batting effort. But the brightest star was pitcher Dizzy Dean, who won 30 games to become the last major league hurler to crack the 30-game barrier for over thirty years; moreover, Dean’s brother Paul won 19. In World Series play, the Cardinals rebounded from a 3-2 deficit in games to beat the Tigers.
The folksy Arkansas country boy Dizzy Dean won 28 games in 1935, but the Cubs trumped the Cardinal ace with their league-leading pitching staff. At the close of the campaign, the Cubs led the Cardinals by four games. Heading the Cub hurlers were Lon Warneke and Bill Lee, each a 20-game winner. Five Cub regulars topped the .300 mark, including infielders Stan Hack and Billy Herman, outfielders Frank Demaree and Augie Galan, and catcher Gabby Hartnett, to pace the team’s .288 batting offensive. And outfielder Chuck Klein, a timely acquisition from the moribund Phillies, powered 21 homers. But the Cubs were no match for the Tigers in World Series play; the Tigers defeated the Chicagoans in six games. Over the next two seasons, Cub hitters topped all NL teams in batting, but each time the team finished second behind the Giants.
Dominant pitching, paced by Carl Hubbell’s 26 wins and Ott’s league-leading 33 homers, led the 1936 Giants to a five-game win over the Cubs and Cardinals. In the second half of the campaign, many eyes were on lefty Hubbell, as the Giant hurler finished the season with 16 consecutive victories to threaten the record seasonal streak of 19 owned by Rube Marquard of the old Giants. Hubbell won the opener of the 1936 World Series, but the Yankees beat the lefty in the fourth game and went on to down the Giants in six games.
But postseasonal play was discounted, and Hubbell went on to add another eight victories in 1937. When the ace finally lost one on Memorial Day, his record (over two seasons) of 24 consecutive victories stood as the best by a major league pitcher. But more important to the Giants’ cause in 1937, Hubbell went on to win 22 games and rookie Cliff Melton won 20 as the Giants hung on to beat the runner-up Cubs by 3 games. It was the second straight conquest for the Giants, but in World Series action they again fell to the Yankees, this time losing in five games.
For a last time in 1938, the Cubs used their magical three-year formula to land the NL pennant. In an epic campaign that saw Cincinnati Reds’ pitcher Johnny Vander Meer pitch two consecutive no-hit games, and the front-running Pirates blow a big lead, the Cubs mounted a remarkable September surge to overhaul and topple the Pirates by 2 games. In a decisive game played in late September’s gathering darkness at Wrigley Field, player-manager Gabby Hartnett hit his legendary “homer in the gloaming” as part of a three-game Cub sweep of the Pirates. Although the Cubs batted only .269 that year, the team’s pitching staff was the best in the league. Nevertheless, the well-armed Cubs were swept by the Yankees in the 1938 World Series.
As the punchless Cubs sank to fourth place in 1939, manager Bill McKechnie drove the Cincinnati Reds to their first NL pennant since 1919. Since that victory, the Reds had been remembered primarily for pioneering night baseball and for Johnny Vander Meer’s double no-hit feat. But recently the club had come under the ownership of radio tycoon Powel Crosley, whose player purchases were strengthening the team. Included were a prize pair of pitchers: Paul Derringer, who was purchased from the Cardinals, and Bucky Walters, who came via the Phillies. In 1939 this duo combined for 52 victories and headed the league’s best pitching staff. Supported by sturdy hitting from outfielder Ival Goodman, first baseman Frank McCormick, and catcher Ernie Lombardi, the Reds held off the Cardinals to win by 4.5; games. However, the Reds suffered the same fate as did the 1938 Cubs when the Yankees swept them in World Series.
Regrouping after this defeat, the Reds repeated in 1940 as they downed the rebuilt Dodgers by 12 games. For the winning Reds, mediocre hitting was overcome by league-leading pitching and fielding. And in the 1940 World Series it was the Reds who outlasted the Tigers in a seven-game struggle.
In the NL’s last peacetime campaign before the outbreak of the Second World War, the Reds fell behind the rising Dodgers and the perennially contending Cardinals. In a close race the Dodgers held on to win by 2.5 games over the Cardinals. In rebuilding the Dodgers, general manager Larry MacPhail persuaded the club’s banker trustees to bankroll the purchases of players from the Phillies and Cardinals.
From the Cardinals came pitcher Curt Davis, and outfielders Medwick and young Pete Reiser. Snagging Reiser from the Cardinals’ farm system was a real coup as he led the league in batting with a .34m/dark. From the Phillies, MacPhail obtained pitcher Kirby Higbe and first baseman Dolph Camilli; and in 1941 Camilli’s 34 homers and 120 RBI led the league. With additional acquisitions, the 1941 Dodgers fielded few home-grown players. Indeed, player-manager Leo Durocher was a former Cardinal hand. But the Dodger assemblage of mercenaries led the NL in pitching and homers and tied with the Cardinals in hitting. During the frenzied campaign, the Dodgers attracted a million home fans, most of whom mourned their “Bums” heart-breaking loss to the Yankees in the 1941 World Series.
As wartime exigencies riddled NL teams of playing talent, the Cardinals retained enough players to land three consecutive pennants over the years 1942-1944. Although Rickey left the Cardinals in 1942 to join the Dodgers as that team’s general manager, his efficient farm system fueled the Cardinals. In dominating the NL, the Cardinals won 316 games in these years, each time leading the league in hitting and pitching. Managed by Billy Southworth, the 1942 Cardinals needed 106 wins to edge the Dodgers by 2 games. The following year 105 victories enabled the Cardinals to romp to an 18-game win over the runner-up Reds. And in 1944 another 105 victories easily carried the Redbirds to a 14.5-game win over the second-place Pirates. In World Series play the Cardinals split with the Yankees, winning in five games in 1942 and losing by the same count in 1943. And in 1944 the Cardinals thrashed the Browns in six games. In these years young outfielder Stan Musial emerged as a superstar with the Cardinals, winning the first of what would be seven NL batting titles with a .357 mark in 1943.
It was the loss of Musial to military service in 1945 which helped the Cubs end the Cardinals’ pennant monopoly. League-leading batting, fronted by first baseman Phil Cavarretta’s major-league-leading .355 batting, and league-leading pitching carried the Cubs to a 3-game victory over the Cardinals. But the victory was soured by defeat at the hands of the Tigers in the 1945 World Series. Worse still, Cub fans to this day are still looking for another NL pennant.
Part 7 tomorrow.