A St. Louis Harbinger: The 1942 Browns

This article was written by William A. Borst

This article was published in the Road Trips: SABR Convention Journal Articles


This article was originally published in “St. Louis’s Favorite Sport,” the 1992 SABR convention journal.

 

“They’re making me feel famous and I love it!” — Chet Laabs in July

After suffering through one of the most dismal decades in baseball history in the 1930s, the St. Louis Browns began to turn things around in the early 1940s. In 1940 they bounced back from their worst year ever to finish in sixth place, and in 1941 they improved to their best won-lost record since the 1920s. But it was the 1942 season that brought the real breakthrough: the club’s first over-.500, first division season since 1929 and its best winning percentage since 1922. Although the team fell back to sixth place in 1943, the seeds had been sown for the Browns’ one surpassing triumph, the 1944 pennant. For St. Louis Browns fans, 1942 was a harbinger of better things ahead.

Unfortunately for the Browns, Branch Rickey’s St. Louis Cardinals grabbed all the headlines in St. Louis in the summer of 1942. The Cardinals experienced a bumper crop as their farm system paid off handsome dividends. A 21-year-old former pitcher named Stan Musial made his impact felt with a .426 average in the waning days of the 1941 season. In ’42 he gave evidence of a Hall of Fame career in the making by hitting .315. The cash register rang with a melody that was sweet music to Rickey’s ears as fans poured into Sportsman’s Park when the National League teams came to town to play the “St. Louis Swifties.” Though they lost a dogfight with Brooklyn in 1941, nearly 650,000 laid down their money to see the Cardinals, and when they overcame a big Dodger lead to win the pennant in ’42, Red Bird attendance was over 550,000. The Browns, on the other hand, usually played before family and a few loyal diehards who showed up to cheer their team on no matter how poorly they played.

Crowds of 500 were not unusual, while crowds of 4,000 to 6,000 were more the exception than the rule. Despite an improvement on the field, the Browns’ bottom line had been disappointing in 1941, as only 176,000 had paid to see the Browns play. The team ran a $100,000 deficit, miniscule by 1992 standards but enough to put a team in severe trouble just before the nation entered World War II. To save money, the club dropped five of its minor league franchises. And the American League, which had contributed to the deficit by limiting the Browns to just seven night games in 1941, was forced to chip in with $25,000 to get them over the hump. The constant losing had taken its toll on owner Donald Barnes’ bank account, and Brownie stock that fans had purchased for $5 a share dropped to a mere $2. Furthermore, under the terms of their leases, the Browns and Cardinals split the ushering and cleanup costs at Sportsman’s Park, in effect making the Browns underwrite part of the Cardinals’ success.

Barnes had planned to move the team to Los Angeles, but America’s entrance into World War II stopped the move. In February of 1942 a white knight rode in to save the day for the Browns. Richard D. Muckerman, an ice magnate and owner of the St. Louis Ice and Fuel Company, had purchased $300,000 worth of new stock and was named Vice President of the club. Muckerman’s money gave Donald Barnes, the DeWitts, Bill and Charley, and manager Luke Sewell enough financial backing to maintain their policy of keeping their most promising players and acquiring others to fill their key needs, albeit at bargain basement prices. For the St. Louis Browns, 1942 was thought to be a rebuilding year. Since coming over to the team in June of 1941, Sewell had generated a new spirit of optimism long absent from the franchise. Under his leadership the team had played .500 ball to finish with its best record in a dozen years.

Sewell was unhappy with his keystone combination. The 1941 incumbents, the ever-popular Johnny Berardino and Don Heffher, were not Sewell’s kind of ballplayers. To replace them, Sewell had to buck the advice of the Brownie brain trust Fred Haney, who had become the Toledo Mud Hen’s manager after Sewell replaced him in St. Louis, was not impressed with the abilities of his slugging shortstop Vem Stephens, who had impressive statistics as a Mud Hen. According to Haney, “Stephens will never play shortstop in the major leagues as long as he’s got a hole in his ass.” Sewell figured that even without radical reconstructive surgery Stephens would be an improvement As the pride of Akron put it, “It doesn’t take too much to be better than the man we got at shortstop.” Stephens was brought up and quickly became a key player.

Third baseman Don Gutteridge had been demoted to the minor leagues at age 30 after five mediocre seasons with the Cardinals and had hit .309 and scored 113 runs with the Sacramento Solons in 1941. His 46 stolen bases had led the league, yet he was passed over in the major league draft Frustrated at the demotion and lack of interest by the big leagues, Gutteridge said he would quit baseball rather than spend another year in the minors. So the Cardinals offered him for sale to the Browns for $7,500 on a contingency basis, Rickey offering the opinion that Gutteridge could not make the switch to second base. The ever-realistic Sewell saw an opportunity since, “the man we’ve got can’t play second.” Gutteridge turned out to be an excellent second sacker and a good leadoff man.

The Browns also picked up another National League discard from the 1941 Sacramento team, pitcher Al “Boots” Hollingsworth, who had been battered around the National League for a 33-67 record in five years. Sewell was cleaning house to get rid of those players who did not share his aggressive passion for winning or his distaste for losing. In June, Roy Cullenbine was dispatched to Washington for pitcher Steve Sundra and outfielder-first baseman Mike Chartak.

Cullenbine was a great statistical hitter, but DeWitt recalled that the rap on him was that “Cullenbine wouldn’t swing the bat! Sewell would give him the hit sign and he’s take, trying to get a base on balls. Laziest human being you ever saw!” In his ten-year major league career, Cullenbine amassed 1072 hits and 852 walks, an amazing ratio for a player who did not lead off or hit for great power.

Most teams still had their major stars in 1942. The perennial favorite Yankees were as strong as ever. Joe DiMaggio, Charlie Keller, Tommy Henrich, Phil Rizzuto, Bill Dickey, Red Ruffing, and Ernie Bonham all suited up to start the season. The Red Sox had Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, Dom DiMaggio, Jim Tabor, and Tex Hughson. The only big-name stars in the military were Hank Greenberg of the Tigers and the Indians’ Bob Feller. Sewell realized he had his work cut out for him if he wanted the Browns to rise in the standings. Yet the patchwork performed well enough to rank one of the best in Browns’ history. Its 82-69 mark (.543) ranked it in a tie with the 1928 team for the third best win total in franchise history behind the 1908 team and the 1922 team. In many ways the 1942 season served as a prelude to the ’44 club which would win the pennant.

The Browns started out on the right foot, winning their first four contests. After slumping badly in the spring, they advanced in the summer, jumping into the first division in July and nosing ahead of Cleveland, their highest standing since 1928. They wound up 192 games behind the Yankees and nine games in back of the Red Sox.

The high point of the season was an eight-game winning streak in July that vaulted the Browns into fourth place. A tall, dark Venezuelan, Alejandro Aparicio Elroy Carrasquel of the Senators, stopped the streak with a 3–0 shutout. Chet Laabs powered the offense with a Ruthian display of punch that had too often been absent from Brownie box scores. He went 16-for-29 during the heart of the streak, personally producing 25 of the team’s 46 runs during the skein. In a four-game series in Philadelphia, Laabs poled five homers, including a grand slam. There was talk that the slugger, who had come to the Browns with Mark Christman and others for Bobo Newsom, Red Kress, and Beau Bell in 1939, would be the first Brownie to win the home run title since Kenny Williams had unseated Babe Ruth in 1922. After six seasons of mediocrity, he got hot in July, and Chesty Chet was suddenly mobbed by reporters. He loved all the attention.

When the Browns came home in late July, there was some genuine fan interest. Their largest crowd of the year and second- largest in a dozen years, 20,812 paid, came out for a twi-night doubleheader against the second-place Red Sox. The Sox won the opener, but Laabs’ homer in the 11th inning gave pitcher Johnny Niggeling a 3–1 win in the nightcap. It was Chet’s 19th of the season, tying him with Williams temporarily. Niggeling would wind up beating Boston six times in seven decisions, seriously dampening the Red Sox’ ability to catch the Yankees.

The Browns suffered a great loss of momentum during a doubleheader loss to the Detroit Tigers on August 9th. The team, which fielded well all season long, fell apart defensively and committed 11 errors in losing 9–3 and 3–1. A total of eight unearned runs crossed the plate for Detroit that day. Seven different players contributed to the fielding breakdown, with the regular infielders (George McQuinn, Don Gutteridge, Vern Stephens, and Harlond Clift) making two miscues each. Johnny Berardino, Frankie Hayes, and Mike Chartak chipped in with one apiece. This display did not come close to the league record of 16 errors set by Cleveland against Washington in a doubleheader in 1901.

The twin disaster dropped the Browns’ record to 56-56, but they played at a .667 (26-13) clip down the stretch to finish at 82-69. But disappointing attendance and sluggish cash flow continued to be vexing problems. The league allowed 14 night games, and the Browns averaged 9,000 per date under the lights. Sunday doubleheaders did even better, but Monday-thru-Saturday games averaged less than 1,200. The twin disaster against the Tigers drew only 4,842 on a Sunday, while that same day over 48,000 fans filled Comiskey Park in Chicago to watch Satchel Paige lose the Negro East-West All-Star Game. With the Cardinals’ late pennant drive diverting the fans, St. Louis fans ignored the Browns in September. When they drew over 8,000 fans for an exhibition game against the Pirates in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on September 23rd, it was more than any of the games on the homestand they had just finished. Even the Yankees could attract just 2,200 per game. And when the Browns clinched third place with a thrilling 5-4, 16-inning win over the A’s on September 14th, the paying crowd was a paltry 732. Total home attendance was 256,000, an increase of 45% from 1941 and the club’s highest since 1929, but it was still far-and-away the worst in the American League.

The most magnificent individual performance was turned in by Laabs, who finished second in the league with 27 homers and drove in 99 runs. Stephens proved that Haney knew as little about baseball as about anatomy, hitting 14 homers and batting .294 to begin a string of several seasons as the league’s premier slugging shortstop. Though there was no official recognition of rookies in 1942, the consensus among American League beat writers was that Stephens was second only to Boston’s Johnny Pesky, who hit .331. Center fielder Walter Judnich batted .313 and hit 17 homers. He was one of the team’s quiet heroes. An outstanding defensive player as well, his .991 fielding average led the league, yet he failed to attract much newspaper attention. The city belonged to Terry Moore, who made one more error than Judnich in four fewer games and handled fewer chances, 284 to Judnich’s 337. Even when the Browns were playing solid ball down the stretch, Enos Slaughter’s marital problems drew more ink than the Browns’ box scores.

The Sporting News called Sewell a sorcerer. “His pitching staff is haunted!” wrote J.G. Taylor Spink. “Graybeards like Al Hollingsworth, Eldon Auker, Johnny Niggeling, Denny Galehouse, and George Caster live in a bygone day, but pitch decidedly in the present.” Niggeling was 15-11, submariner Auker was 14-13, Hollingsworth 10-6, Galehouse 12-12, Sundra 8-3, and Caster, pitching in relief, 8-2. Fritz Ostermueller chipped in with a 3-1 mark after his recall from Toledo. He would later make a career out of beating the Cardinals as a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was a very old pitching staff. Of the 16 pitchers who appeared in 1942,11 of them were over 30 years of age. Niggeling turned 39 in July, and Ostermueller, Caster, and Hollingsworth, heart of the relief corps, were all 34.

Leadoff hitter Gutteridge hit .255 and led the league’s second basemen in putouts and assists. Veterans McQuinn and Gift manned the comers well. Laabs and Judnich anchored a productive outfield. The weakest link in the Browns’ armament was definitely behind the plate. At age 36 future Hall of Famer Rick Ferrell could muster just a .223 batting mark in 99 games. His backup Frankie Hayes hit .252 in 56 games.

Sewell did a marvelous job in getting his players to play over their heads. A harbinger of the scrapping ’44 Browns appeared on August 1st in a game with the Yankees. Manager Sewell was behind the plate in a rare start. In the first inning. Tommy Henrich attempted to score from second on a hit to right. Chartak came up firing and gunned a strike to Sewell. Henrich elected not to slide, and he bumped the 42-year-old general less than lovingly as the tag was being made, causing Sewell to react with fighting words. The play fired up the Browns, who won easily, 7-3. Sewell also got his only hit of the season in the game. Although the team was only 7-15 against New York in ’42, they would sweep the Yankees in a four-game set at the end of the ’44 season to get into the only World Series in their history.

Along with Mel Ott’s New York Giants, the Browns were the real Cinderella stories of baseball in 1942. They had moved up three positions in the standings and increased their win total by 12. Despite this big improvement, it was difficult for fans and players alike to get too excited about the progress that the Browns had made. The game’s future seemed in jeopardy, despite President Roosevelt’s “green light letter” about the importance of baseball as a morale booster. Most owners, players, and fans were resigned to the belief that the total number of regular season games would have to be greatly reduced, maybe even as far as to just 100 games, because of increasing demands in manpower that the World War would inevitably put on baseball. Some pessimists envisioned the game being shut down altogether. The real tragedy for St. Louis was that just when the Browns were becoming competitive and had a chance to make some money, the war put baseball’s future in doubt.

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