SABR

Ray Blades

This article was written by Russell Wolinsky.

On April 9, 1947, the New York Post’s back-page headline screamed, “Durocher Suspended for Season: Blades Likely to Take Over Job.”1 That Ray Blades, recently hired to replace Charlie Dressen as Durocher’s first lieutenant, would succeed the recently suspended Brooklyn manager seemed a reasonable supposition. After all, he had assumed the managerial reins when Durocher left the club’s spring training site for a few days in mid-March. A week later, Branch Rickey chose his old friend Burt Shotton as Durocher’s successor.

Blades too had a relationship with Rickey, one that dated back to 1919, when the Rickey-managed St. Louis Cardinals traveled to Mount Vernon, Illinois for an exhibition game against the local semipro Carbuilders. Blades, a Mount Vernon native, was at second base for the home team. Francis Raymond Blades had been born there on August 6, 1896, one of eight children of Francis Marion and Mary Magdalene Blades. 

The Cardinals, with Rogers Hornsby in the lineup, were beaten by the scrappy locals, 2–1. Impressed by the Carbuilders’ high-quality play and hustle, Rickey immediately signed three of their players, including Blades, who was twenty-three years old and a veteran of the World War.

The switch-hitting Blades made his professional debut with Memphis of the Southern Association in 1920, and then moved to Houston of the Texas League the following year. He remained with the Buffaloes for two seasons, where at the urging of Rickey he abandoned switch-hitting, and became a right-handed batter exclusively.

Blades was batting a league-leading .330 with Houston when the Cardinals called him up on August 18, 1922. He made his major-league debut the following afternoon at Sportsman’s Park, playing left field and batting sixth. He stroked a single in four at-bats in an 8–7 Cardinals loss to Philadelphia. Playing thirty-seven games in his rookie season, the five-feet-seven, 163-pound Blades batted an even .300. 

Primarily a second baseman, Ray had committed 142 errors in three minor-league campaigns. His uneven fielding at second base and the presence of Rogers Hornsby at the keystone position for St. Louis necessitated a switch. 

Either Rickey or Cardinals coach Burt Shotton suggested to Ray that his best chance to remain with the Cardinals was either at third base or in the outfield. Blades tried the hot corner first: “[Shotton] hit ten balls to me. I missed nine of them, picked up the tenth, and threw it into the stands.”2 After that final muff at third, the Cardinals decided that Blades was best suited for the outfield.3

The tragic death of twenty-seven-year-old Cardinals left fielder Austin McHenry in November 1922 created a void at the position for Blades to fill. “No one ever worked longer or harder to stick in the majors [and master outfield play],” wrote Chicago sportswriter Edgar Munzel. “Finally he earned the accolade as one of the finest defensive gardeners in the NL.”4 His fielding in left improved to the point where Hornsby would opine in a syndicated column, “I always figured Ray Blades and Ross Youngs . . . as two of the greatest outfielders in the game.”5

Blades, who had a career on-base percentage of .395, never changed his hitting philosophy: “Just deaden the ball a little.” After a terrific 1925 season, he was recognized as one of the best leadoff batters in the game. Appearing in 122 games, he batted .342, with a .423 on-base percentage, and a .535 slugging average. During one stretch, he reached base in fifty-four consecutive games. Blades marked another milestone in 1925; in October, he married Ruth Bennett.

On August 17, 1926, a gray, drizzly afternoon in St. Louis, Blades raced toward the left-field wall in an attempt to snare a drive hit by Brooklyn’s Gus Felix. He climbed a recently erected chicken-wire fence strung along the outfield wall and got a spike caught in the mesh fence. Ray had to be helped off the field suffering what was originally reported as a badly bruised kneecap. 

His leg set in a plaster cast, Blades returned home to Illinois. Aside from a pinch-hitting appearance on August 27, he was unable to play again in 1926. That December Blades had surgery on the knee for a series of badly torn ligaments. The operation was a success, though Blades walked with a slight limp for the remainder of his life. 

Ray returned to action in May 1927, but he was never the same player. The surgery had robbed him of much of his speed. Whatever power he had at the plate was gone as well. After a 1928 season, in which he had a mere eighty-five at-bats and hit a career-low .235, Blades spent 1929 back in the minors playing for St. Louis farm clubs in Rochester and Houston. 

The Cardinals signed him as a player-coach for the 1930 season, but there was really nowhere for him to coach; manager Gabby Street was at third and Buzzy Wares was at first. He batted only 101 times during the season, compiling a surprising .396 average. An errant pitch by teammate Wild Bill Hallahan during spring training had shattered the bone in his left foot, necessitating more surgery that December. 

By 1932 Blades knew his days as a big-league player were over. On May 8, there was another collision with the wall at Sportsman’s Park, this time in right field. He played eighty games for St. Louis, more than in any season since 1926, but hit just .229. In 1933 Blades, now thirty-six, took over as manager of the Columbus Redbirds, the Cardinals affiliate in the American Association. As a player-manager, he led the club to Junior World Series championships in 1933 and ’34. 

By 1934 the American Association had suspended Blades three times and fined him even more often, usually for infractions concerning abusive language to umpires. He was suspended again in 1935, this time for encouraging his players to stall in a game against Minneapolis.

After Columbus, Blades managed Rochester in the International League for three years with mixed results. He led the Red Wings to a second-place finish in 1936, a disappointing sixth-place finish in 1937, and a third-place finish in 1938. Then, on November 6, 1938, the Cardinals named Blades to succeed manager Frankie Frisch.

Blades immediately began shaping an unsettled club in his own image. If the rookie pilot had one advantage stepping into the St. Louis managerial reins, it was that at either Columbus or Rochester he had led sixteen members of the current big-league squad. 

Blades’s pitching philosophy, in an era in which pitchers were expected to complete, or nearly complete, their starts, became the most controversial aspect of his managerial style. “[M]y idea is never to save anybody for tomorrow. …. Let’s win today’s game today. . . . Save a man for tomorrow and you may lose two games. I’ll relieve with anyone who can relieve. . . . There won’t be any regular rotation necessarily. . . . In a short series I believe in trying to beat the other club’s best pitcher with my best pitcher. And with all my pitchers if necessary.”6 St. Louis’ forty-five complete games were the lowest in the major leagues in 1939. 

The Cardinals won ninety-two games and finished just two games behind Cincinnati. Blades summed up the season philosophically: “We gave ‘em a good fight, didn’t we?”7 On November 14, Breadon rewarded him with another one-year pact. 

In 1940 Johnny Mize, Joe Medwick, shortstop Jimmy Brown and his replacement, Marty Marion, and center fielder Terry Moore all suffered injuries. The pitching collapsed and Blades panicked. Going into June, neither Curt Davis nor Mort Cooper had won a single game. The manager began yanking hurlers with abandon: He used eighty-six pitchers in the first thirty games with only six going the distance. St. Louis finished in sixth place, thirteen and a half games behind Cincinnati. 

With the drop in the standings came an expected decrease at the gate. A paid crowd of 7,661 for the June 2 doubleheader against Philadelphia “was one of the smallest Sunday doubleheader crowds in years.”8 Sam Breadon took note. The hammer fell on June 7. Breadon made the change without even consulting Rickey, replacing Blades with Billy Southworth, who had succeeded Blades as the manager at Rochester. 

Ray returned home to McLeansboro, Illinois, where he had his first summer vacation in twenty years. Wishing to remain in baseball, he returned to the Southern Association, where his professional baseball career had begun in 1920. In December, he accepted a position as skipper of the league’s New Orleans club, a Dodgers affiliate.

Blades led the Pelicans to a surprising third-place finish in 1941, and then spent 1942 as a coach with the Cincinnati Reds. He resigned after the season and returned to New Orleans, where in 1943 the Pelicans finished first in the season’s second half. After three controversial seasons managing the American Association’s St. Paul Saints, which culminated in his abrupt resignation during the 1946 playoffs, the Dodgers chose him to replace the departed Dressen. 

Blades was “given credit for much of the smart playing by the Dodgers” in 1947.9 His baseball experience and acumen added new dimensions to a Brooklyn club devoid of its spiritual leader, Durocher. Regardless of his baseball “smarts,” Blades’ coaching was sometimes criticized while he was with Brooklyn. “Ray Blades unaccountably sent Carl Furillo home [on a ground ball to Yankees shortstop Phil Rizzuto] where he was a dead pigeon all the way,” wrote Arthur Daley in his game account of 1947 World Series Game Seven, which Brooklyn lost. “[A] sepulchral voice in the press box asked, ‘Is Charlie Dressen still coaching at third?’ It was the nastiest crack of the series.”10

In August 1948 Blades traded coaching assignments with Jake Pitler; Ray switched to the first base box while Pitler moved to third. In October, Rickey took him off the playing field altogether and named him troubleshooter for the Dodgers’ minor-league system.

Ray remained with Brooklyn, chiefly as a scout, for two more seasons. In November 1950 Marty Marion was named to manage the Cardinals. One of Marion’s first personnel decisions was to hire the fifty-four-year-old Blades, his first major-league manager, as “supervisor” and third-base coach. 

Blades was released from the St. Louis organization for the final time in October 1951, for what owner Fred Saigh described as “economic reasons.” Ray was believed to have been the highest paid of the four Cardinals coaches, a number the owner believed was too many. 

Another round of knee surgery kept Ray out of baseball entirely in 1952, but an old baseball acquaintance was there to bring him back. Wid Matthews, who worked with Blades in New Orleans in 1943, was now personnel director of the Chicago Cubs. Matthews hired Blades to serve as a “coach-scout . . . a sort of personal handyman.” (The “coach-scout” contract would be voided by the commissioner’s office—scouts did not receive pension benefits—and eventually was changed to call for coach’s duties alone.) 

He performed both duties for Chicago, regardless of the wording of his contract, and became the first-ever advance scout for the franchise.11 Ray was among the Chicago brain trust to scout, and highly rate, future Hall of Fame shortstop Ernie Banks. On October 11, 1956 Ray Blades retired from professional baseball at the age of sixty. 

Washington Post columnist Shirley Povich caught up with Blades at the Laurel Park racetrack in Maryland in 1962. Ray was “chauffeuring” the spread-eagle starting gate. “All I do is steer,” the sixty-five-year-old baseball retiree said of his new career. 

Blades remained a visible member of the St. Louis Cardinals family. He was on hand for the thirtieth anniversary of the 1931 champions on the weekend of August 5-6, 1961. In March 1976 the 1926 world champion team was given a golden-anniversary salute by St. Louis writers. Blades, who neither smoked nor drank, and catcher Bob O’Farrell, both seventy-nine years old, were the oldest of the ten surviving team members. Two years later, his high-school baseball uniform was retired. “The greatest baseball man to ever play at McLeansboro High School,” read a plaque in front of Blades’ glass-encased jersey.

Ruth Bennett Blades, Ray’s wife, died on January 30, 1968, in Mount Vernon. They had no children. In 1970, Ray married Ruth Daley Wright. He died on May 18, 1979, at Abraham Lincoln Hospital in Lincoln, Illinois. He was eighty-three years old. In addition to his wife, he was survived by a stepdaughter.

 

Notes

1. New York Post, April 9, 1947, p. 60.

2. Baseball Digest, December 1966, p. 74.

3. Washington Post, June 12, 1962, p. 18.

4. Sporting News, November 18, 1953, p. 23.

5. Los Angeles Times, May 15, 1927, page A6.

6. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 2, 1939, p. 5A

7. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 29, 1939, p. 1E.

8. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 3, 1940, p. 1B.

9. Sporting News, October 22, 1947, p.15.

10. New York Times, October 7, 1947, p. 47.

11. Sporting News, November 5, 1952, p. 15.

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