Dizzy Dean, Brownie for a Day

This article was written by Ronnie Joyner

This article was published in the The National Pastime (Volume 26, 2006)


It ain’t braggin’ if you can back it up. That was the reply of one Jay Hanna “Dizzy” Dean when questioned about his lack of humility when it came to discussing his formidable talent as a big league pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals’ Gas House Gang of the 1930s. Ol’ Diz was from a time when superstars were usually quiet, humble men, so his brash confidence was somewhat of a sensation to Depression-era baseball fans-but they ate it up, as Dean almost always made good on his bold predictions of success.

Diz dominated National League batters from the early to mid-’30s, setting countless records while, through his zany antics, further etching himself into American folklore as a truly original character. His meteoric rise finally stalled, however, when the old soupbone he’d ridden to greatness failed him in 1937. On track for another 25-win season, Dean started the ’37 All-Star game only to suffer a broken toe when he was struck by an Earl Averill line drive. He rushed himself back into the Cards’ rotation before he was fully healed, and subsequently altered his pitching motion to favor his injured foot. The results were devastating as the change in his delivery caused him to develop bursitis in his throwing shoulder, a condition that would plague him for the few short years he continued to pitch.

By the spring of 1941, Ol’ Diz wasn’t doing so much bragging anymore, mainly because he could no longer back it up. Nine months after his All-Star mishap of 1937, Dean was dealt to the Cubs, where he struggled to a 16-8 record in 42 games from 1938-40. Following a tough 1941 spring training and a poor showing in his only start of the season on April 25, the Cubs had seen enough. When May 14 arrived, or ”Axe Day” as some called it because it was the day for roster cut-downs, Dean was given his outright release. Diz’s subsequent statement that he “was through” insofar as the Big Show was concerned stamped a sad finality on the playing days of the 31-year-old from Lucas, Arkansas — or so everybody thought.

On September 28, 1947, over six years since he’d thrown his last professional pitch, Dizzy Dean took the mound as the starting pitcher for the St. Louis Browns in their last game of the campaign, a season-closing Sunday afternoon contest against the Chicago White Sox at Sportsman’s Park. The events that led Diz to don the brown and orange of St. Louis’ other big league team, and the events of the game itself, just served to enhance the already colorful legacy he’d crafted for himself.

Following his release from the Cubs back in 1941, Dean flirted with the idea of embarking on a new career as a pitching coach, but that plan was quickly abandoned when Diz was approached about a different opportunity, something that would turn out to be his second true calling — broadcasting. Dean joined KMOX radio, where he worked with partner Johnny O’Hara broadcasting both Cardinals and Browns home games from 1941 to 1946. He was an immediate success, connecting with listeners through his exuberant personality and purely original homespun sense of humor. Fans loved Ol’ Diz’s incorrect use of the English language. A melee was a “melly:’ A conflict became a “confliction:’ A base runner didn’t slide into third, he “slud.”

KMOX listeners also found Dean’s original creations for typical baseball situations amusing. When players and umpires argued, they were “disputers:’ If Diz strongly agreed with something said by his on-air partner, he’d exclaim, “You ain’t just a-woofin; brother!” He coined the phrase “a sluggers’ fest” to describe a game with unusually prolific offensive output. And, to Dean, a bases-loaded, two-out, bottom-of-the-ninth situation meant “there’s a lotta nerve-wrackin’ goin’ on out there.” Diz occasionally stirred things up with his sometimes candid observations, but his down-home demeanor usually allowed the incident to be quickly diffused. One anecdote has it that Dean once observed a young couple “neckin”‘ in the bleachers, to which Diz, while on the air, is reported to have said, “That young feller is kissin’ her on the strikes and she’s kissin’ him on the balls.”

On January 11, 1947, Cardinals owner Sam Breadon announced that he had created a new six-station radio network to broadcast all Cardinals games, home and away. Despite being named by The Sporting News as the best baseball announcer of 1946, Breadon also announced that Dean was out, replaced by Harry Caray and Gabby Street as the Cards looked to create a more “conventional” and “dignified” broadcast.

“They can’t do that to me;’ said an outraged Dean. But as he came to the realization that they could and, in fact, did, he accepted his new exclusive position with the Brownies and said, “Well, now I’m a fella with two home teams. I can root for them Cards and support the good ol’ Brownies, too. And that’s what I’m gonna do. You know, these Browns have a great organization and it’ll be fun doin’ their games again.” Dizzy quickly learned that watching the Browns lose game after game was a little more difficult than he had imagined. “Boy, you earn your dough watchin’ these fellas,” he once said.

The Cardinals, a perennial pennant contender, had previously acted as a buffer for Dean, but without their games to counter the losing of the Brownies, Dean eventually grew weary. He became increasingly more critical of the Browns as the summer of ’47 wore on. Dizzy, referring to Al Zarilla (.224) and Les Moss (.157), posed the on-air question, “What’re they doin’ up in the big leagues if they can’t swing a bat no better than that?”

Brownie pitchers weren’t exempt from Ol’ Diz’s scrutiny, either. He wondered on-air how Jack Kramer (11-16), Sam Zoldak (9-10), Bob Muncrief (8-14), and Ellis Kinder (8-15) — guys with losing records — had the gall to ask for their paychecks.

By September, with just a few weeks left in the campaign and the Browns looking at a possible 100-loss season, Dean began intensifying his criticism. “Gosh, folks,” he told his listeners, “I haven’t pitched since 1941, but I feel sure I could go out there today and do better than a lot of these throwers who are drawin’ big salaries as major league pitchers.” Diz repeated his theory on a number of occasions over the course of the next week, then took the whole subject to a new level when he volunteered to pitch “for nothin”‘ in the last week of the season to convince the public that he was serious. The idea quickly caught fire with fans, who besieged Browns management with requests to “let Diz make good on his boast.”

This was still the pre-Veeck era of the Browns, so the full-out circus atmosphere had yet to evolve, but even Bill De Witt, the Browns general manager at that time, knew a good attendance-drawing gimmick when he saw one. When the Browns returned from their last road trip of the season on Monday, September 22, DeWitt signed Dean to a 1947 contract for a salary of $1, the minimum salary required to make the document binding. They then agreed to pencil Dizzy in as the starter in the season finale, to be played six days later.

The buzz created by the news of Dean’s upcoming appearance generated speculation of a big turnout at Sportsman’s Park for the game. Rumors were swirling that the $1 contract was a mere formality and that Dean was actually paid $1,000 for his impending one-game gig. He played it close to the vest, however, refusing to divulge any details and saying, “This is the first baseball contract I signed without first turnin’ it back for more money. Everybody was satisfied with the contract the Browns offered me.”

There’s no question that the Browns brass were hoping that Dizzy would provide their lowly franchise with one last chance to make the turnstiles click in 1947. The Browns’ futility on the field up to that point in the season had a devastating effect on their attendance, and with only four games left on the schedule they had yet to draw 300,000 — less than half of what they drew in 1946. Then things got worse. Only an embarrassing 315 paid to see the Browns lose a 9-1 contest to the Indians on September 24, a league low for 1947. That dubious achievement only served to increase the hopes that Diz would be the Browns’ temporary deliverance from their attendance woes.

At the age of 37 in 1947, Ol’ Diz wasn’t exactly the picture of physical fitness. A skinny 6-foot 2-inches back in his glory days with the Cardinals, Dean now had the “gait and gut of somebody 10 years older,” — that according to Robert Gregory’s 1992 book, Diz: The Story of Dizzy Dean and Baseball During the Great Depression, which was very helpful in the writing of this article.

That wasn’t about to discourage Dean, though. Even in his prime, Dean wasn’t known for his conditioning. He had always relied on his God-given ability, and on was quite often reported to have let fly with a hard one without sufficiently warming up his famous right arm. So, in keeping with that tradition, Diz’s preparation for his return to the mound was minimal — he threw a round of batting practice to the Brownies and then declared, “I’m ready!”

On September 28, 1947, 15,916 — many of them holdovers from the Gas House Gang days of the mid-1930s — paid to see if Diz was, in fact, ready. When asked before the game how he would manage to juggle his broadcasting and pitching duties, Dean casually replied, “Well, I sorta figure my partner Johnny could handle the first three innings while I’m
doin’ the pitchin’. If I ain’t doin’ so well after that, I’ll come up and broadcast the rest of it.” Dizzy then followed with a statement of amazing foresightedness considering the popularity of today’s reality television. “But I’ll stay in as long as I can,” he said, “and if Johnny wants me to spell him a while I guess I could put a walkie-talkie on my back and do my broadcastin’ between pitches.” Needless to say, if that had happened the audio would have been priceless.

Dizzy had hinted that he would most likely only pitch three innings, but Browns manager Muddy Ruel made it clear that while he didn’t approve of the whole Dean stunt, Diz would be allowed to go as long as he wanted to. After the top of the first inning was completed, Diz looked good enough to make some folks wonder whether he could go a full nine, and at the end of his work that day he even made a believer of Ruel. White Sox leadoff man Don Kolloway opened the game with a ground ball behind second base that Browns second baseman Johnny Berardino stopped, but not in time to make a throw to first. The threat was quickly snuffed, however, when Dizzy got Sox right fielder Bob Kennedy to hit into a 6-4-3 double- play — Vern Stephens to Berardino to Walt Judnich. Chicago left fielder Dave Philley then rolled out to Berardino to end the inning.

Dizzy’s broadcast booth complaints about the Browns’ inability to hit came back to roost as St. Louis failed to score in the home half of the first against White Sox starter Eddie Lopat, but he seemed unfazed as he strolled back out to the mound for his second inning of work. Sox first baseman Rudy York, a dangerous hitter with 21 home runs, opened the second with a flyout to Browns center fielder Paul Lehner. Ol’ Diz appeared to be in some trouble when he allowed a single to Chicago center fielder Thurman Tucker, followed by a base on balls to shortstop Jack Wallaesa, but he again got out of the jam courtesy of another double-play ball when he induced Sox third baseman Cass Michaels to hit into another 6-4-3 job. 

Dean’s new teammates again failed to score any runs in the bottom of the second, but not to worry — Diz appeared to be getting stronger in the top of the third. He set down the Pale Hose in order as catcher Mike Tresh flied to Browns right fielder Rny Coleman, followed by center field flyouts off the bats of Lopat and Kolloway. Seemingly determined to validate Dean’s statements about their anemic offense, the Browns did not score in their half of the third inning.

Dizzy’s pitching performance alone through three innings would have been enough to send the Browns’ third-largest crowd of the season home happy, but leave it to Ol’ Diz to give them something extra. As he walked to the plate to open the bottom of the third for his lone at-bat of the game, here’s how The Sporting News described the scene:

Always one to give the customers some kind of show while doing his pitching chores, Dean didn’t miss this opportunity to get a laugh out of his public. When he went to bat, he carried a black-striped bludgeon to the plate, only to have it ruled out as “illegal” by Umpire Cal Hubbard. Diz walked back to the rack, pulled out a gaudier red- colored stick and took his place at the plate. The bludgeon had been sent to Dean by the Southwest MFG. Co., makers of bats, as a gag. He swung at the first pitch and singled. Later, trying to reach second on a teammate’s infield grounder, Diz was forced, but slid into the bag as in days of old, and came off the diamond limping.

Despite a pulled leg muscle, Dean hobbled to the mound for the top of the fourth for what would prove to be the last time in his storied career. If Dean’s wife, Pat, had got her way, however, Ol’ Diz may never have gone back out to the hill. While her husband was still limping off the field following his slide into second, Pat leaned over the dugout rail and hollered to Ruel, “He’s proved his point — now get him out of there before he kills himself!”

Kennedy opened the frame with a single to left, but was stranded as the “Great One” got Philley and York on long flies to center. Diz then closed the inning by retiring Tucker on a drive to Brownie left fielder Jeff Heath. As Dean limped off the mound, he must have known that he was through. He flashed a warm smile and good-naturedly waved his cap as he made his way to the dugout, obviously happy with the fact that he had, as Pat had said, proved his point. The fans at the park knew they were witnessing something special, and they bade farewell to the old Cardinal great with resounding cheers. His Brownie teammates greeted him in the dugout with smiles and congratulations, to which Dean grinned and said, “I’m goin’ back to my retirement!” He then called on trainer Doc Bauman for one final rubdown.

Dean’s work on the hill that day was impressive. He wasn’t as fast as he’d been back in the days when he was “foggin’ ’em through” for the Cardinals, but he kept the White Sox off balance with near-perfect control. In four complete innings, Dizzy threw but 39 pitches, facing just 14 batters and allowing no runs. Les Moss, Dean’s catcher that day, said that Diz simply set the Sox hitters down with his “good control and that big ol’ flat curve:’ The rest of the game was played out of mere formality — the crowd had already seen what they’d come to see. For the record, though, Glen Moulder relieved Dizzy and went the rest of the way. He pitched well for four frames, but Chicago roughed him up for five runs in the ninth inning, sending the Browns to defeat, 5-2-their 95th loss of the season and good enough for another last-place finish.

Dizzy left immediately after the game for his home in Texas, but not before reporters got one last statement from him. “I still believe I can pitch good enough to win games today;’ Diz said, full of his old swagger, “but I don’t intend to try it,” he added hastily. “I have a contract as a radio announcer and I’m gonna stick to that job:’ Before Dean could resume his broadcasting career, however, there were some loose ends that needed to be tied. In an article entitled DIZZY GOES  BACK TO MINORS—TO GET FREE AGENCY, this is how The Sporting News explained the details involved in closing out Dean’s career:

Dizzy Dean, who swore he never would become a minor leaguer after his major league career was over, unwittingly found himself one for a few days, during the time it took to unwind some baseball red tape. Under the rules, Jerome Herman, who signed a $1-a-year contract and pitched four scoreless innings for the Browns against the White Sox the last day of the season, could not be given his unconditional release, since there is a lid on waivers for that purpose after September 25, three days before Dizzy went to the pitchers’ mound. It was necessary for the Browns to release him outright to their Toledo American Association farm after getting waivers. The Mud Hens, in turn, obtained the necessary Association waivers to make him a free agent.

The iconic status Dean had achieved during his heyday with the Cardinals still had a hold on baseball fans across America, so there was always a great deal of interest in anything relating to him. As the newspapers and radio spread word around the country of Dean’s success on the mound for the Brownies, fans were amazed. As for the $1-a-year contract — people weren’t buying it. They knew that Ol’ Diz was just too smart to let management make off with all the dough.

Dizzy stuck by the story that he did it “for nothin’,” but statements from players left people wondering. Vern Stephens, for one, was sure that Dean had cleaned up from his performance with the Brownies, and upon his return home to Long Beach, California, he told Long Beach Press-Telegram reporter Frank Blair that Dizzy “undoubtedly received a percentage of the gate for his part in luring fans through the turnstiles.”

When the 1948 season began, Diz was back in his familiar seat in front of the KMOX microphone broadcasting Browns games. He remained there through 1949, but in 1950 he joined the New York Yankees television broadcast team of Mel Allen and Curt Gowdy because he was fed up with the “humpty-dumpty” Browns. Television was the future, and Dizzy knew it. “Well, folks,” Dean said, bidding farewell to his radio public, “I’m through talkin’ about things you ain’t seein’.” And with that, the old country boy left for the bright lights of New York City.

Dean remained in broadcasting through the mid-1960s, a run which included a particularly successful ll-year stint as the star of the Game of the Week telecast. St. Louis baseball fans were ecstatic when Dizzy was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1953, but the happy group wasn’t limited to Cardinals fans. Because Dizzy once bragged — and then backed it up — while wearing brown and orange flannels, Ol’ Diz was already a Hall of Famer in the hearts of Brownie fans.

RONNIE JOYNER is a graphic artist living in Charlotte Hall, Maryland. Joyner’s baseball illustrations can be seen regularly in Sports Collector’s Digest, as well as in publications of the Philadelphia Athletics, St. Louis Browns (where a version of this article first appeared), and Washington Senators historical societies. He has co-authored recent autobiographies by Don Gutteridge, Virgil Trucks, and original Met Frank Thomas.

 

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