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A DIZZY LEGACY : Museum Dedicated to Colorful Career of Baseball’s Dean

Times Staff Writer

A delightful step into the past is here for the taking with a visit to a museum dedicated to one of baseball’s most colorful characters--Dizzy Dean.

In his will, Dean, the former St. Louis Cardinals pitcher who died in 1976, left all his memorabilia to Jackson, the capital of Mississippi, to be housed in the Dizzy Dean Museum adjacent to Smith-Wills Stadium, home of the Jackson Mets, a New York Mets farm team.

Dean’s widow, Patricia, was curator of the museum for two years before she died.

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Dean’s big league playing career lasted for less than a decade, 1932 to early 1941, but a colorful one it was. He came by his nickname honestly.

In fact, he told so many conflicting stories about himself--in a broad country drawl livened by words of his own coining--that there still is some doubt whether his name was Jay Hanna Dean, as baseball records show, or Jerome Herman Dean, as he claimed; whether he was born in Lucas, Ark., as the records indicate, or somewhere in Texas or Oklahoma, as he sometimes claimed, and whether that momentous occasion occurred in 1911 or some years before that.

Until he was hit on the big toe of his left foot by a line drive off the bat of the Cleveland Indians’ Earl Averill in the 1937 All-Star game, however, he was bigger than life in baseball, and more than willing to talk about it with anyone who would listen. From 1932 through ’36, he averaged 24 victories a season, and led the National League in strikeouts for four of those five seasons.

He led the Cardinals’ famous Gas House Gang--Pepper Martin, Rip Collins, Frankie Frisch, Ducky Medwick, Ernie Orsatti, Jack Rothrock and Virgil Davis--to the pennant in 1934 with 30 wins, then won two more games in the World Series as the Cardinals beat the Detroit Tigers, 4 games to 3. He is one of four National League players to have won 30 games under modern rules.

According to the records, Ol’ Diz was born in Lucas, Ark., to tenant farmers and lived most of his young life in Wiggins, a small Mississippi town. His formal education ended in sixth grade. Asked once why he quit seventh grade, he replied: “Because I didn’t do too well in the sixth.”

The museum is filled with photographs and artifacts from his youth to when he died. There are pictures of him in the Army when he was 16 and pitching for the Third Wagon Company, 2nd Infantry, Ft. Sam Houston; of him pitching with the Houston Buffaloes, a St. Louis farm team, and pitching with his leg high in the air for the Cardinals and later for the Chicago Cubs.

Early in his pro career, while pitching an exhibition game for the Buffaloes against the Chicago White Sox, he struck out 11 batters. Bernie Kelly, a White Sox coach, yelled to his players: “Hit that ball. That kid’s making you guys look dizzy.” He was Dizzy ever after.

Dizzy’s Cardinal uniform is in the museum, as are signed baseballs, gloves and photos of that era. In his rookie season in 1932, he won 18, lost 15 and led the league with 191 strikeouts.

His brother, Paul, nicknamed Daffy, also pitched for the Cardinals. In fact, he had the Cardinals’ other two victories in the 1934 World Series.

In a doubleheader earlier that season, Dizzy blanked the Dodgers, 13-0, on 3 hits, then Paul pitched a no-hitter, winning, 3-0. Afterward, Dizzy declared: “If I’d knowed Paul was gonna pitch a no-hitter, I’d pitched one, too.”

In exhibit cases are Dizzy Dean overalls, kites, baseball gloves, baseball shoes, shaving cream and other items attesting to extra money to be made in those days by ballplayers who lent their names to products. Push a button and you get Dizzy singing “Wabash Cannonball.”

Cartoonists had a field day with Dizzy. One cartoon, done when Diz was voted into the Hall of Fame, shows Dean saying: “Imagine a po’ ol’ cotton picker like me amongst all them thar mortals.”

The broken toe he suffered in that 1937 All-Star game was Dean’s undoing. He continued to pitch but, in favoring the toe, changed his motion and ruined his arm.

He hung on for three more seasons, pitching more with his head than his arm, was released as a player by the Cubs in May of 1941, served briefly as a coach, then went into baseball broadcasting, describing players who “slud into third,” and catchers who “throwed the ball purty good.”

When a group of educators drafted a protest, criticizing his grammar and syntax, he cheerfully replied: “Syntax? Are they taxing that, too?”

An editorial from the St. Louis Globe Democrat hanging in the museum, defends Dizzy: “To listen to the broadcast of a game with Dizzy at the microphone is a pleasant interlude.

“It is a melange of grammatical errors, vaudeville, observations of his hungriness and his yearning for a helping of fried chicken, plus a routine calling of balls and strikes and a scientific analysis of the game as it is being played or should be played. It is fun and information rolled into one!”

Baseball had only one Dizzy Dean.

At the entrance to the museum are plaques and portraits of six of baseball’s immortals, selected by Dean as symbolizing the sport: Leroy (Satchel) Paige, Ted Williams, Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Babe Ruth, Roy Campanella and Lou Gehrig.

Big league and minor league baseball players often drop by the museum, which is run by the city’s Recreation Services Department. Visitors from as far away as Australia, Japan, Germany and New Zealand as well as from all 50 states have signed the register, many commenting on how Diz added pizazz to America’s favorite pastime.


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