The No-Place-but-Home Series : In 1944, Baseball’s Spirit Stayed in St. Louis With Cardinals and Browns
In “Going My Way,” the movie that won the Academy Award in 1944, Bing Crosby played a New York priest but appeared in some scenes wearing a St. Louis Browns’ T-shirt.
Although Crosby was a minor stockholder in the Pittsburgh Pirates, the shirt with the Browns’ name on it was more timely. For in 1944, 45 years ago, the Browns not only won their only pennant, but St. Louis became the first city other than New York or Chicago to own a World Series, since the Cardinals, for the third consecutive season, were the champions of the National League.
World War II did strange things to baseball, and perhaps the strangest development was the Browns winning a pennant, then winning two of the first three from the Cardinals before losing the Series in six games.
The war-era lineups included players with only one arm, Pete Gray of the Browns; one eye, Paul O’Dea of the Cleveland Indians; and no hearing, Dick Sipek of the Cincinnati Reds. Whitey Kurowski played third base for the Cardinals with a throwing arm that was six inches shorter than the other.
Sig Jakucki, who had the best baseball name this side of Van Lingle Mungo, became a star rookie pitcher at 35 for the Browns, after a decade of carousing around the minors and semipro ball, threatening umpires whenever they didn’t please him.
Hank Greenberg, who hit 41 home runs in 1941 before going into the Army, estimated that the war had reduced the talent in the big leagues by about 25%.
In 1944, Nick Etten of the New York Yankees led the American League in home runs with 22, the lowest total for a slugging champion in 26 years. The next year, the Yankees’ Snuffy Stirnweiss, who had the best baseball name this side of Sig Jakucki, led the league in batting with .309. Only a few years before, the Boston Red Sox team had batted .299.
Before 1944, the Browns were a standard joke and the sorriest franchise in baseball. Starting in 1930, they had finished in the first division of the eight-team American League only once. In 1939, they lost 111 games and finished 64 1/2 games out of first place. From 1902 through 1943, the Browns had the worst record in the league, and theoretically they would have finished 802 1/2 games behind the Yankees, who had the best record.
During the war years, however, injured players who might have normally been considered liabilities turned into assets, and in 1944 the Browns had more than a dozen players who were classified as 4-F--ineligible for military service.
Nels Potter, the pitcher, twice had cartilage removed from his knee. Al Zarilla, an outfielder, had a broken ankle that never fully mended. Others on the team--George McQuinn, Don Gutteridge, Mike Kreevich, George Caster, Boots Hollingsworth and Jakucki--were well into their 30s and far down on the military priority lists.
Chet Laabs, who sent the Browns into the World Series with two dramatic home runs on the last day of the season, worked in a defense plant and played only part time.
The Cardinals had lost Enos Slaughter and Terry Moore--two-thirds of their outfield--to the service, along with right-hander Johnny Beazley, a 21-game winner in 1942, but thanks to Branch Rickey they still had the deepest talent pool in baseball.
Their 1944 roster--Ray Sanders, Marty Marion and Kurowski on the infield, Stan Musial in the outfield, Walker Cooper catching and a pitching staff that included Mort Cooper, Max Lanier, Harry (the Cat) Brecheen, Red Munger and Ted Wilks--was no makeshift lineup. It would have been good enough to contend for a pennant under normal circumstances.
An Easy Jog
In fact, the Cardinals cantered to the title. They won 73 of their first 100 games and by Sept. 1 they had won 91 times, which was two more than the Browns would win all season. The National Leaguers wound up with 105 victories, the same as the year before and one fewer than they had won in 1942.
Musial, who went into service the next year, batted .347, which was second by 10 points to Brooklyn’s Dixie Walker. But the 23-year-old Cardinal star led the league in hits, doubles and triples. He drove in 94 runs. And he struck out only 28 times and drew 90 walks.
Six Cardinal regulars drove in at least 72 runs, with Sanders, the first baseman, leading the league with 102. Sanders also played in all 154 games and, except for Cooper, there wasn’t a regular who played in fewer than 139 games.
Mort Cooper, the catcher’s older brother, led the staff with a 22-7 record. Wilks, a rookie, went 17-4, Brecheen was 16-5, Lanier was 17-12 and Munger 11-3. They completed 74 games in 118 starts.
So who was the National League’s most valuable player? None of those sluggers or pitchers, as it turned out. The award went to the defensive wizard, Marion, by one point over the Chicago Cubs’ slugger, Bill Nicholson. Marion batted .267. They called the long-legged Cardinal shortstop Slats, and when he wasn’t picking and pitching pebbles between pitches, he was catching virtually everything.
In St. Louis and elsewhere, fans weren’t paying that much attention. At Sportsman’s Park, which was owned by the Browns and leased by the Cardinals, the Browns drew half a million people, the Cardinals even fewer. This was the year of the Normandy invasion, the Battle of the Bulge and the occupation of the Philippines, not a time for a nation to be consumed by a couple of pennant races in Middle America. After all, it was war correspondent Ernie Pyle who won a 1944 Pulitzer Prize.
Like the Cardinals, the Browns had a terrific start, winning their first nine games. But they had trouble on the road and by late September, it looked as though the Franchise That Couldn’t was going to lose out to the Detroit Tigers.
Taming the Tigers
The Tigers had more than 20 players in the service, including Greenberg, but in Hal Newhouser and Dizzy Trout, the best baseball name this side of Snuffy Stirnweiss, they had two pitchers who won 56 games, and Dick Wakefield, discharged from the Army in July, batted .355 for 2 1/2 months.
Going into the final weekend of the season, the Tigers led by a game, with the Browns playing four games at home against the third-place Yankees and the Tigers meeting Washington, the last-place team, for four in Detroit.
The Yankees were the most patriotic of teams--almost all of their stars were gone, including Joe DiMaggio, Red Ruffing, Joe Gordon and Phil Rizzuto. Luke Sewell, the former catcher now managing the Browns, passionately despised the Yankees, and had complained earlier to the league office that the umpires were favoring New York.
On Friday night, the Browns swept the Yankees before an intimate gathering of 7,200, and in Detroit the Senators knocked out Trout to get a split of their doubleheader, leaving the Browns and the Tigers even. The Browns won the second game only because of a sensational, over-the-shoulder catch by Kreevich on wet grass near the center-field wall.
Kreevich, 36, led the Browns in hitting in ’44 with a .301 average, in the next-to-last season of a 12-year career. The outfielder reportedly was a heavy drinker. Sewell brought him to St. Louis from Philadelphia, giving him a $2,000 bonus, increasing his salary to $12,000, on the promise that Kreevich would remain sober.
On Saturday, both the Tigers and the Browns won.
Then on the last day of the season, Dutch Leonard, the knuckleball pitcher for the Senators, reported that he had received a phone call that offered him a bribe if he would let up against the Tigers.
Leonard pitched a 4-1 victory.
And in St. Louis, the fans finally woke up. A record Browns’ crowd of almost 38,000 saw the two castoffs--Jakucki, the tall, husky, right-hander, and Laabs, a journeyman outfielder--carry St. Louis to a 5-2 victory over the Yankees.
“Yes, I’d see Jakucki come to the ballpark looking like he had been drinking,” Potter recalled. “But I can’t remember him showing up once that way on a day he was supposed to pitch.”
On Oct. 1, 1944, Jakucki went all the way for his 13th victory. Laabs had played in only 64 games and hit only three homers but on the final day he drove in four runs with two homers. Vern Stephens, the young shortstop, also homered. The Franchise That Couldn’t had gotten a one-year lease on paradise.
No Room in the Room
The championship series between the Cardinals and the Browns was billed as “the Streetcar Series,” which was more than a catch phrase, because gasoline rationing severely limited automobile travel. At the games, the crowds were more polite than partisan, maybe because the city was guaranteed a winner. Browns’ fans were just happy that their team had finally gotten that far, but they seemed to be more emotional. For Cardinal fans, this was the third consecutive season in the Series.
Two pre-Series controversies were unrelated to the outcome. During the season, Billy Southworth, the Cardinal manager, and Sewell split an apartment, because one of them was always on the road. Propriety ruled out their sharing the residence during the Series, of course, and besides, Sewell wanted his mother to stay with him. Before the matter reached the commissioner’s office, another resident in the building left town for the week and Southworth moved in.
There was also a flap over tickets. The Cardinal wives were unhappy with their seats for the games in which the Browns were the home team. Some of the them were behind posts. Donald Barnes, the owner of the Browns, ignored the complaints.
None of the Browns had postseason experience, whereas many of the Cardinals had played in the World Series they split with the Yankees in 1942-43. Against the Browns, oddsmakers had the Cardinals as 1-2 favorites.
“We thought we were just going to walk through them,” Marty Marion said. “You know, ‘Who the hell are the Browns?’ But by the time they beat us in the first game, we realized that they had a pretty good club. We had a good club, but it wasn’t great, and they had quite a bit of pride. If they had won the second game, too, we’d have been in trouble.”
The Browns’ average age was 30, three years older than the Cardinals.
“They had some old guys, but some of them had good years,” Harry Brecheen said.
Brecheen was especially familiar with Bob Muncrief, the Browns’ 13-game winner. Back in the 1930s, they had pitched on the same American Legion team that won the Oklahoma state title.
Nels Potter, the ace of the Browns’ staff with a 19-7 record, was the obvious nominee to open the Series, but Sewell gave the assignment to Denny Galehouse, whose record was only 9-10.
Potter had kept the Browns in the race by shutting out the Red Sox and the Yankees in the last week of the season.
“I wanted to start the opener,” said Potter, 78, who is in his 13th year as the supervisor of a tiny township 100 miles west of Chicago. “But I didn’t say anything, because it was different in those days. You didn’t pop off. And Galehouse pitched good, so it was a good move.
“They opened up the center-field bleachers for the Series, to make room for more fans, and it was tough for the hitters to see the ball being thrown out of those shirts. That’s why there were all those strikeouts. It was even tougher to see the ball coming from a straight overhanded pitcher like Galehouse.”
Mort Cooper of the Cardinals gave up only two hits but both were in the fourth inning, when Gene Moore singled and McQuinn hit a line drive that barely reached the right-field roof for a two-run homer. Galehouse blanked the Cardinals until the ninth, when Marion doubled and scored on a fly ball to make the final score 2-1.
During the regular season, the Browns were as errant as the Cardinals were sure-handed. Just up the middle, the Browns committed 100 errors--70 by the double-play combination of Stephens and Don Gutteridge and 30 by the two catchers, Red Hayworth and Gus Mancuso. Gutteridge had started his career with the Cardinals, but was released because Rickey felt his hands were too small for a second baseman.
In the 11-inning second game, the Browns reverted to type in losing, 3-2. Lanier and Blix Donnelly checked the Browns except for two runs in the seventh. Potter and Muncrief pitched just as well, but the Cardinals were able to force extra innings because of two unearned runs.
Hot Potato, Hot Potato
In the third, the Browns made six misplays on one ball.
With Emil Verban at first, Lanier bunted toward third. Both Potter and Mark Christman hesitated over fielding the ball. It rolled up Potter’s arm before he fired to first. Gutteridge, who had come over to cover, should have come off the bag to handle the wide throw, but the ball got by him, going down the right-field line.
Then Laabs let the ball roll between his legs, dropped the ball trying to pick it up, and finally threw wildly to second base. Incredibly, Verban was still only on third, but he finally scored on a ground ball.
“Six misplays on one ball, that’s pretty hard to do,” said Sewell, who died at 85 in 1986.
An error by Christman helped the Cardinals score their second run. In the 11th, Donnelly made the defensive play of the Series, fielding Christman’s good bunt down the third-base line, wheeling and making a blind, bag-high throw to Kurowski at third, where McQuinn slid into the glove and ball on a bang-bang play. But for Donnelly’s play, the Browns would have had runners at first and third with nobody out.
In the last of the 11th, Ken O’Dea, a reserve catcher, came off the bench and singled home Sanders with the winning run off Muncrief.
The next season, Muncrief worked in a steel plant and only pitched for the Browns when they were at home.
“I went to just about every Cardinal home game,” Muncrief said the other day from his home near Dallas. “The book on O’Dea in ’44 was to give him nothing but slow curves, and all during ’45 I watched pitchers get him out that way. And that’s what I threw him in the second game. Only that time, it didn’t work.”
The Browns didn’t have a book on Verban, the Cardinals’ rookie second baseman, because they had spent their pre-Series meetings talking about Musial and the other big bats. Verban had seven hits and led the Cardinals with a .412 average.
A couple of hours after the second game, Sewell returned to his apartment, where his mother, up from Alabama, was rocking away in a chair. She was seeing her first professional games.
“What did you think of the game, Mom?” the manager asked her.
“Oh,” she said, “I was awfully glad when someone won. I was getting mighty tired.”
Despite his hitting, Verban was twice yanked for pinch-hitters. He was blanked in the third game, which went to the Browns, 6-2, behind Jack Kramer, who struck out 10. The Cardinals wouldn’t have even scored except for errors by Gutteridge and Stephens. McQuinn, who hit .438 despite a painful back, went three for three and drove in two runs.
Brecheen, the Cardinal starter for the fourth game, was on the spot, but his teammates bombed Jakucki and two other pitchers for 12 hits in a 5-1 victory to square the Series at two games apiece. Musial had a single, double and home run.
Talent prevailed in the last two games. In Game 6, Sanders and Danny Litwhiler homered and Cooper pitched a 12-strikeout seven-hitter for a 2-0 victory. Cooper struck out the side--all pinch-hitters--to end the game.
Galehouse struck out 10 in defeat and for the Series there were 49 strikeouts for Cardinal pitchers and 43 by the Browns, which set a record for both teams.
The 3-1 sixth game was a rematch of the second game between Potter and Lanier, and faulty fielding--an error by Stephens on a double-play ball--was Potter’s Waterloo again. Verban and Lanier, the bottom two batters in the Cardinal lineup, went five for five and drove in two runs. Wilks, who saved the victory for Lanier with 3 2/3 innings of shutout relief, was pitching despite penicillin treatments for an infection.
“If you compared the teams going in, we didn’t even have the right to win two games,” Bob Muncrief said.
A Fast Slide
The last seven pinch-hitters used by Sewell struck out. The Browns batted .183 as a team, and errors gave the Cardinals nine of their 16 runs. The Browns made 10 errors, the Cardinals one.
The players played for the lowest Series shares in 24 years, with the Cardinals earning $4,626 and the Browns getting $2,744 apiece. Jakucki’s teammates said that he owed at least that much to St. Louis bartenders by the time the Series ended.
The Browns finished third in 1945, then they were sixth or lower--losing 100 or more games three more times--before the franchise was moved to Baltimore in 1954. Today, the Browns are more remembered for Bill Veeck’s midget--Eddie Gaedel, who drew a walk in 1951--than the 1944 pennant.
As for Emil Verban, he retired in 1950, never to play in another World Series and never to hit .400 again.
While the rest of the Cardinals raced to the third-base dugout--the only way to the clubhouses at Sportsman’s Park--after the Browns had made their last out, Verban ran directly to the box seat where Donald Barnes was sitting on the first-base side. The peppery second baseman hadn’t forgotten the bad seats the Browns’ owner had given the Cardinal wives.
“Now, Mr. Barnes,” Verban sputtered. “Now you’re the one behind the post.”