The Cardinals’ First Publicity Man

This article was written by Gene Karst

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.

 

Sixty years ago there were no millionaire ballplayers in St. Louis. No night baseball, no artificial turf, no exploding scoreboards, no plane travel, no West Coast baseball teams, no television, no helmets, no batting gloves, no blacks in the grandstand, no luxury air-conditioned boxes, no stadium club. No parking problems— most people used a street car or a bus—and oftentimes no crowds!

Sam Breadon owned the Cardinals and Phil Ball was the owner of the Browns. Anheuser-Busch, the brewery which owns the Cardinals nowadays, had nothing to do with baseball back then. In fact, the brewery had nothing to do with Michelob, Budweiser, Bud Light or even Busch beer—it was manufacturing Diesel engines, truck bodies, soft drinks, “near beer,” corn sugar, syrups, whatnot. August A. Busch and son Gussie, just 32, were too busy with the problems of doing business in the days of the Depression and Prohibition.

You could get into the Missouri Theater for 25 cents in the afternoon until 6:30, after which it cost 50 cents to see a double bill like this: Dude Ranch with Jack Oakie, Mitzie Green, Stewart Irwin, June Collier and Gene Pallette; and Too Young to Marry starring Loretta Young, Grant Withers and O. P. Heggie (Who was he? Do any of you remember?)

Hellrung and Grimm was ready to sell a “distinctive” four-piece bedroom suite for $89, reduced from $139. Newspapers featured used car ads for sedans and coupes in fine condition, one or two years old, for $415 and all the way down to $275—or less. Two bars of Lifebuoy soap could be had at Walgreen’s for 11 cents. That’s when a new world opened up for me, not long out of St. Louis University and my days as a cub reporter for the Globe- Democrat helping to pay my college tuition. Branch Rickey, then vice president and general manager of the Cardinals, liked my scheme to do publicity work for the club, the first time any major league team had employed a publicity man. Nowadays all sports organizations have publicity departments, usually with several hands grinding out statistics and information, to say nothing of promotion and marketing specialists.

Rickey sent me to spring training in Florida that year, 1931, and soon I was getting acquainted with the likes of Frankie Frisch, Jimmy Wilson, Chick Hafey, Jim Bottomley, Charlie Gelbert, Jesse Haines, Burleigh Grimes and the rest of that great ball club. By mid-May the Redbirds were on top with a record of 14 wins and four defeats, while the hapless old Browns, who had players like Goose Goslin, Oscar Melillo, Red Kress, Rick Ferrell, George Blaeholder, Sam Gray and Dick Coffman, held title to last place in the American League. The Cardinals, of course, went on to win the pennant by 13 games. The Browns, under Bill Killefer, rose to fifth place before the season ended.

The Cards and the Browns had interlocking schedules which meant that the old ballpark, Sportsman’s Park at Grand and Dodier, was in use almost every day from early April to October, save for an occasional rainy day or a rare time when there was an open date. The infield grass got browner and scragglier as the summer progressed. The outfield wasn’t much better.

Ballparks were more restful, relaxed in those days. The scoreboards were simple affairs which gave the ball and strike count, the number of outs and the line scores from other major league games. No messages about visiting groups from Carbondale, Decatur or Festus. No animated cartoons, no instant replays. No “hit” or “error signs—Sam Breardon believed posting an error on the scoreboard might make a home player unduly nervous.

No canned music blaring out charge between plays. “The Star Spangled Banner” was played before the game only on opening day. We did come up with a Cardinal Boys Band, which played at the ballpark occasionally, but generally you could talk to your friend at the next seat without shouting.

Umpires on the field wore coats and ties as part of their dignity. And everybody, from players in their wool uniforms to spectators in the stands to scribes in the press box, sweltered, sweated, ate peanuts, Eskimo Pies and soft drinks. Prohibition did not end until midnight, April 7, 1933, when Gussie Busch declared, “It was the greatest moment of my life, the greatest, I guess, that I will ever know.” At that moment trucks loaded with Budweiser—real beer— began rolling out of the Anheuser-Busch brewery.

In the 1980s, when Busch hired Whitey Herzog to manage the Cardinals, they won three pennants and one world championship. Busch used to ride that big wagon led by a team of Clydesdales triumphantly around Busch Memorial Stadium, and we believe he did enjoy those moments more than he had the end of Prohibition.

But back to 1931, when Sam Breardon, Cardinal owner, also owned the Pierce-Arrow automobile agency. They were like the Cadillacs and Lincolns of today, and were selling for $2,895 delivered. Gabby Street was field manager of the Cardinals, reportedly earning $7,500 in annual salary. Gabby, as a player, had gained some notoriety as the catcher for Walter Johnson with the old Washington Senators. Gabby also got some passing attention for catching a baseball from the top of the Washington Monument.

Gabby had been a sergeant in the army (he lived on Sergeant Street in Joplin, MO). At one time Branch Rickey, in an off-the- record remark, confided to me the difference between Street’s strategy running a ballclub with that of John McGraw, the master minding the New York Giants. “Gabby was a sergeant—but McGraw would have been at least a major general.”

Gabby had so many good pitchers in 1931 that he didn’t need Dizzy Dean, still in the minors at the Cardinal farm club in Houston. Undoubtedly he could have been a winning pitcher in the majors that year. On May 17 Dizzy experienced a victory and defeat pitching against Dallas. He won his ball game 7 to 1. But during the contest he threw a “purpose pitch” dangerously close to the skull of Al Todd, husky Dallas catcher. Todd promptly dashed to the mound, decked Dizzy with quick blows to the arm, the eye and the mouth, knocking him to the ground. Thus ended any idea Dizzy might have had for a boxing career. From then on, he used his pitching arm and his hyperactive tongue, which earned him good money over the airwaves long after his arm went dead.

In 1931 Paul Dean, Dizzy’s brother, was just getting started at the Cardinal farm club in Springfield, Mo., where Eddie Dyer was getting his first managerial experience in the Class C Western Association. Tex Carlton and Joe Medwick were teammates of Dizzy’s at Houston, then managed by the original Joe Schultz, the St. Louisian who had been a Cardinal outfielder in the 1920s.

It was a colorful, glorious, fun year for an awful lot of people in St. Louis, despite the ominous, growing national economic depression. The Cardinals traded Taylor Douthit, “the ball hawk,” to the Reds in mid-June, paving the way for Pepper Martin to bat .300 for the season, en route to a fabulous World Series against the Philadelphia Athletics.

Thomas Patrick and Bob Thomas (the Convey father and son) regaled radio fans with their enthusiastic boosting of the Cardinals on KWK, headquarters at the Chase Hotel. France Laux did a calmer, more workmanlike job covering baseball for KMOX, whose studios were located on Twelfth Street, about a block south of Market Street. My job included singing the praises of the Cardinals to newspaper editors, sportswriters and announcers in places like Princeton and Terre Haute, Indiana; Cairo, Peoria and Springfield, Illinois; Union City, Tennessee; Paducah, Kentucky; Moberly, Jefferson City and Cape Girardeau, Missouri—and most towns and hamlets in between. It also included writing and editing “The Cardinal News,” the first fan publication.

I dug up statistics, made them available to sportswriters like J. Roy Stockton, John E. “Ed” Wray, Sid Keener, Red Smith, Jim Gould, Dick Farrington, Glen Waller, Martin J. “Mike” Haley, Herman Wecke, Kid Regan and Sam Muchnick, predecessors of guys like Bob Broeg, Bob Burnes, Dick Kaegel, Rick Hummel and other later scribes. J. G. Taylor Spink of The Sporting News used our material occasionally, as did some of the sportswriters for New York and other metropolitan dailies.

What a season! It came to a climax October 10 when the Redbirds vanquished the Philadelphia Athletics by a score of 4 to 2. The Cardinals had overcome a powerful team which included Lefty Grove, Al Simmons. Jimmy Foxx, Mickey Cochrane, Rube Walberg, Jimmy Dykes, George Earnshaw and managed by Connie Mack.

Pepper Martin, alias the Wild Horse of the Osage, was the superstar of that series, earning a salary of $4,500. All he did was bat .500, stole a lot of bases and completely discombobulated Mickey Cochrane and the Philadelphia pitchers. Old Burleigh Grimes, the last of the legal spitballers, pitched most of that final game of the 1931 series. He was on the mound despite an inflamed appendix and finally had to be taken out of the game in the ninth inning. Bill Hallahan relieved him, got the final out when Martin squeezed a fly ball in center. By that time Martin had captured the imagination of the American people through his stellar World Series play and was besieged with offers for stage appearances, requests for endorsements, business propositions, to say nothing of those who merely wanted his autograph.

Pepper accepted an offer to go on stage for $1,500 a week. After a few weeks the call of the great outdoors overcame any latent ideas he might have had about acting. “Hell, I ain’t no actor,” said Pepper, “I’m a ballplayer.” So he turned down a chance for additional weeks and returned to St. Louis.

They gave me the job of handling Pepper’s mail. Every day brought letters and telegrams by the basketful. We sorted out offers of contracts and business propositions, and turned them over to Bill DeWitt, Cardinal treasurer who was acting as Martin’s business manager. We tried to answer all other letters with form letters. Most of the mail was filled with superlatives, congratulating Martin on his exploits, his modesty in the face of national adulation, with a sprinkling of mash notes, requests for handouts, invitations to turkey dinners, hunting trips and requests to speak at service club luncheons, church suppers and boys’ clubs.

We packaged the fan mail in several large bales and presented it to Pepper when he was ready to drive back to Oklahoma. He loaded it onto his trailer and took off for the winter. Soon he was out quail hunting, duck hunting and tramping through the wilder sections of Oklahoma.

Next spring when Pepper appeared at the Cardinal training camp in Bradenton, Florida, I asked him what he thought of all those flattering congratulatory letters he had taken home with him. “You know, Gene,” he said, “I never got around to opening those bales of mail all winter long. Maybe I will someday.” I doubt that he ever did.

In 1932 the world champion Cardinals fell on evil days. Pepper came up with an insect bite which led to infection. He broke a bone in his hand. He tried too hard, slumped, and couldn’t get out of the doldrums. The rest of the team also faltered badly and finished a poor sixth. When the 1933 season rolled around it looked like Martin might not even make the club. The Cardinals had problems at many positions, among them third base. Sparky Adams had faded as Redbird hot corner man, and in desperation Gabby Street gave Martin a chance at the job. After all, he had started out as an infielder in the minors and still had a powerful throwing arm. Pepper was an incredibly horrible third baseman. He couldn’t field cleanly. When he did pick up the ball after it hit his chest, his great arm often sent the ball miles above the first baseman’s head or into the dirt. He wasn’t hitting, either.

Then came a Sunday game when he was particularly futile, fumbling grounders, making wild throws and striking out two or three times. After his last strikeout he threw his bat toward the dugout. His head down and mumbling imprecations, when he reached the bat rack he kicked at the collection of bats. One of them uncannily bounced into the box seats and landed in the lap of Mrs. Sam Breadon, wife of the Cardinal owner. When the crowd saw this they roared their disapproval with resounding boos. It was a tragic moment for the fallen star—the hero of 1931. Probably no hometown player had ever suffered such ignominy in St. Louis.

The Cardinals fortunately went on the road that night. Gabby Street kept Pepper in the lineup. If he made errors or struck out on the road it wasn’t the same as suffering before the home fans. Martin couldn’t get worse than he had been on that fateful Sunday. He bounced back. By the time the team returned home he had settled down and become a pretty fair third baseman.

The nation’s fans voted for players to be on the National League All-Star team—the first time ever—and apparently they remembered Martin’s 1931 World Series, as he was one of those selected. So was Pie Traynor, at that time the greatest third baseman anywhere. John McGraw, managing the National League team, used Martin as his third baseman throughout the contest. Traynor rode the bench. Quite a compliment for the comeback of a man who had been on the verge of being relegated to the minors a few weeks earlier.

Locally, that 1933 season wasn’t much of an improvement over 1932. Rogers Hornsby, after managing the Cardinals to their first pennant and World Series ever in 1926, came back to the team contrite and penitent. He and Breadon had come to a parting of the ways late in 1926 after Rogers demanded a three-year contract at $50,000 a season. Breadon countered with a one-year contract at $50,000 or a three-year pact at $40,000 a year.

St. Louis fans at the time thought of Hornsby as a demigod and a miracle worker, and the Rajah fully expected Breadon to capitulate. Instead, Breadon grabbed the phone and traded Hornsby to New York for Frankie Frisch and a mediocre pitcher, Jimmy Ring.

St. Louis fans were furious at the Cardinal owner, and wanted to lynch him or run him out of town. They talked about court action to nullify the trade. But it stood. During that period between 1926 and 1933 Hornsby had become playing manager at Boston and again for the Chicago Cubs. In the field he had slowed down considerably, but still could hit. Though he made big money for those days, he frittered it away at race tracks and elsewhere. So when the Cubs fired him well into the 1932 season he was unemployed and broke. The Cardinals signed him to a 1933 contract. He hit .325 as a sub and pinch hitter, but the team continued to flounder. Frisch was also slowing down. Changes were in order, so in mid-season Hornsby was released so he could become manager of the Browns, and Frisch replaced Gabby Street as boss of the Cardinals. The Redbirds finished above the .500 mark but still ended up in fifth place.

When the 1934 spring training season rolled around, the Cardinals had the nucleus of the team which later would become “The Gas House Gang”: Dizzy Dean, Rip Collins, Joe Medwick, Lippy Leo Durocher, Pepper Martin, Virgil Davis, and three rookies of considerable promise, Paul Dean, a pitcher, catcher Bill Delancey, and Burgess Whitehead, an infielder. Rickey took me to spring training camp in Bradenton, Florida. I helped him drive, took care of his voluminous correspondence—mostly telegrams in those days—and roomed with him in the old Dixie Grande Hotel.

After watching the team workouts a few days, Rickey told me he had spotted two glaring weaknesses in the Cardinal lineup— catching and second base. “We can’t win the pennant with Davis catching and Frisch playing second base,” he said. “What I really ought to do is try to trade for a catcher and put Whitehead at second base. I’m sure I could trade Frisch to Boston for catcher Al Spohrer. What I should do would be to catch a plane and sell the idea to Sam Breadon.”

Rickey toyed with the idea quite a while, swearing me to secrecy. “Mike Gonzalez could manage the team and we could win,” he ruminated. But he soon realized that Breadon probably would not go along with the idea of trading Frisch, so Rickey gave up the idea completely.

Still the 1934 Cardinals weren’t going to win the pennant without a struggle. They were headed nowhere in particular as the pennant race went along into August. Dizzy and Paul were the starting pitchers in a Sunday doubleheader. Both of them lost. Unhappy about their fate. Dizzy stayed in St. Louis that night when he should have been on a train headed for Detroit, where the club was scheduled to play an exhibition game the next day. Frisch, with Breadon’s approval, plastered a modest fine on Dizzy, who was making $6,500 that year. In the argument which ensued, Dizzy tore up his uniform, complained to the press that Paul also was underpaid, and both of the Deans walked out of the clubhouse. Suspensions followed and both were off the payroll. Paul’s 1934 salary was $3,000.

During their absence the Cardinals had just 19 men on their roster. The player limit at the time was 23 but the Cardinals were carrying just 21 players. Short-handed, the remaining 19 players “came together” as a team and seemed to be showing what they could do without Dizzy and Paul. Pepper Martin volunteered to pitch—and did. When the Cards began to win consistently, first Paul, and later Dizzy, decided to get back on the payroll. Both promised to be good boys, and they were for the rest of the season. Paul won 19 games and Dizzy came up with 30 victories despite missing at least two or three starts during the strike.

Rickey believed the strike of the Dean brothers was a blessing in disguise. He felt the rest of the team had resented the Deans hogging the limelight and that during the strike they proved they could win a lot of games without Dizzy and Paul. When the Deans repented, a spirit of togetherness bolstered the unity of the club. Manager Frisch, slowed down by aching legs, was stimulated by the chase, and proved himself still a great “money player.” Leo Durocher, who had been called “the All-American Out,” found romance with a classy St. Louis fashion designer, Grace Dozier. At first Rickey tried to discourage Leo from marrying Miss Dozier until after the season. But the couple was married anyway and matrimony seemed to result in great play in the field for Leo. He fielded in top form and got numerous timely hits.

Frisch, like Rickey, wasn’t too happy with Virgil Davis as a catcher, and gave rookie Bill Delancey more and more time behind the bat. By the season’s close. Bill was definitely the Cardinals’ first-string catcher—and he hit a healthy .316 in 93 games. The Cardinals went 33-12 after the Deans’ walkout, and when the Giants collapsed at the wire, St. Louis had a surprise pennant.

No need to repeat the stories about the 1934 World Series against the Detroit Tigers, a formidable club with stars like Hank Greenberg, Goose Goslin, Charlie Gehringer, Bill Rogell, Schoolboy Rowe, Eldon Auker, Tommy Bridges and Fred Marberry. Mickey Cochrane managed the team and was still a fine catcher and a good hitter. But we who were rooting for the Cardinals suffered a terrible shock during the fourth game of the series, played in St. Louis on Saturday, October 6. The Redbirds were leading at the time, two games to one. But in that fourth game after three-and-a-half innings the Tigers were ahead, 4 to 2. In the last of the fourth inning the Cardinals were trying to get back in the game. Pinch-hitter Virgil Davis got a single and Frisch sent Dizzy Dean in to run for him. Dizzy was much faster than Davis, of course. But, trying to break up a double-play moment later, Dizzy tried to go into second base standing up. Shortstop Billy Rogell’s throw hit Dizzy in the noggin and he dropped to the ground like he was shot. He was carried from the field with his lanky arms and legs flopping over the makeshift stretcher.

Cardinal fans feared the worst. Would he be out of the picture for the rest of the World Series? Had he suffered a fractured skull? Would he ever pitch again? After play resumed the Tigers continued to bash Redbird pitchers and won the game, 10-4.

Fortunately Dizzy must have had an awfully hard head. X-rays showed no fracture and Dizzy was ready for the seventh and crucial game the following Tuesday. All he did was hold the Tigers to six scattered hits, got a single and a double and won the game, 11 to 0. The rejuvenated Frankie Frisch held his own, driving the first three runs of the game with a double with the bases loaded. The Cardinals made 17 hits in all. Pepper Martin, Jack Rothrock, Leo Durocher and Dizzy had two hits each. Fun- loving first baseman Rip Collins came up with four hits. That also was the game when Judge Landis removed Joe Medwick from the premises when Detroit fans took out their frustrations by pelting him with all kinds of garbage and debris, threatening to stop the game.

Thus ended my four eventful years as publicity man for the Cardinals—two pennants, two world championships in four seasons. As they say, I didn’t make much money, but I certainly had a lot of fun. Before the pennant had been decided, Larry MacPhail, general manager of the Cincinnati Reds, came to town and offered me a 50 salary increase and a contract for the 1935 season. I accepted Larry’s offer, spent a couple of years with the Reds and later did publicity work for the Hollywood Stars in the Pacific Coast League, and spent three wonderful years in Montreal with the Royals in the Brooklyn Dodger organization.

© SABR. All Rights Reserved