Inside Baseball: Recalling the 1942-44 Cards

St. Louis' Stan Musial slides under Brooklyn's Bob Bragan in 1944. The Cardinals' feat is often discounted because it occurred during World War II, when top players were in the military.
St. Louis' Stan Musial slides under Brooklyn's Bob Bragan in 1944. The Cardinals' feat is often discounted because it occurred during World War II, when top players were in the military.
Posted: September 26, 2010

For those of us who endured 1964 and whose Phillies roots reach all the way to beneath 21st and Lehigh, the success this current team has achieved is like a fairy tale.

What have they done with our Phillies?

A World Series win? A likely fourth straight division title? Maybe even a third straight National League pennant? Who besides Sports Jerry could have envisioned that in 1960? 1970? 1990? 2000?

That latter accomplishment, though still a long way from happening, is particularly mind-blowing. Should the Phils get to another Series, they'd become the first NL club to reach three straight since the World War II St. Louis Cardinals of 1942-44.

I mean, think of all the great NL teams between then and now, none of which could manage three straight pennants.

There were Brooklyn's fabled Boys of Summer; the Braves of Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, and Warren Spahn; the Giants of Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, and Juan Marichal; the Dodgers of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale; Bob Gibson's Cardinals; the Pirates of Stargell and Clemente; the formidable and Hall of Fame-studded Big Red Machine; the Phils of the late '70s and early '80s; and all of Bobby Cox's pitching-rich Atlanta clubs.

It's not easy. Those Milwaukee Braves came closest, losing in a three-game playoff to L.A. in 1959 after winning pennants in '57 and '58. And Brooklyn followed up its 1949 title with two heartbreaking setbacks, losing on the final day of the '50 season to the Phillies and again in a playoff with the New York Giants a year later.

All that would seem to imply that the '42-'44 Cardinals must have been one heck of a team, right?

Well, while there's no doubt they were the class of the NL in the era of boogie-woogie bugle boys, there's also no dispute that in at least the last two years their competition was as watered down as a Palestra soda.

That 1944 season came at the peak of World War II, when hundreds of major leaguers had already been drafted or enlisted. Thirty players who had appeared in the 1942 and 1943 All-Star Games were among them.

And most of those who might have been expected to replace them - the minor leaguers - were also wearing military uniforms, 4,000 in all by 1945. In fact, only 12 of the 44 minor leagues that had existed in 1940 survived.

Things were so desperate that the Cincinnati Reds started a 15-year-old pitcher, Joe Nuxhall, and the St. Louis Browns had a one-armed outfielder, Pete Gray.

But the Cardinals were lucky in two respects.

First, their farm system, famously stocked by Branch Rickey, the creator of the concept, was deeper than anyone else's. So while every team lost talent, they had more remaining.

Second, for a variety of reasons involving draft classifications and belated induction notices, the Cardinals' roster remained intact more than their rivals.

While losing regulars like Terry Moore, Enos Slaughter, and Harry Walker by the start of the 1944 season, they still had five starters from their pennant-winning '42 team - outfielders Stan Musial and Johnny Hopp, catcher Walker Cooper, first baseman Ray Sanders, and third baseman Whitey Kurowski, a Reading native.

Pitchers Mort Cooper, Harry Breechen, Ted Wilks, and Max Lanier also remained.

Sixty-six years later, Cardinals fans remain sensitive to suggestions manager Billy Southworth's three wartime pennants were somehow tainted. After all, regardless of the level of competition, they did win 100-plus games for three consecutive years, 316 overall.

"You still had to go out and win the game," said Ray Mileur, a Cardinals fan and historian and publisher of the team's weekly newsletter. "Most players of the era will tell you they didn't notice a big difference on the field. The bottom line is, even if you have the best players, that doesn't guarantee success."

The on-the-field portion of the '44 season was no problem for the Cardinals. They began the season 45-15, were 91-30 by the end of August, and finished with a record of 105-49, 141/2 games ahead of outclassed runner-up Pittsburgh.

But elsewhere, things started to get unpleasant.

Columnists and others began to ask how, with the demand for able-bodied men so severe, so many Cardinals were still playing baseball. Some, like shortstop Marty Marion, had been classified 4-F because of various injuries. Some had legitimate deferments. Others, like Musial, had yet to be drafted.

But that didn't appease the critics. As St. Louis was running away with the pennant, Secretary of State James Byrnes was suggesting the time had come to reexamine all athletes with deferments.

Sen. William Langer of North Dakota went further. Perhaps inspired by Gray, he introduced a bill that mandated all big-league teams to reserve at least 10 percent of their rosters for players who had lost an arm, leg or hand.

The absurd bill went nowhere, and the '44 Cardinals marched on to history, becoming the first NL team since John McGraw's Giants of 1921-24, who won four consecutive pennants, to capture at least three straight league titles.

Though those Cardinals led all of baseball in home runs with the relatively paltry total of 100, their real strength was pitching and defense.

Like the Phillies that are hoping to match them, the Cardinals had several starters with ERAs under 3.00. Cooper went 22-7 with a 2.46 ERA. Lanier was 17-12, 2.65. Breechen was 16-5, 2.85. And Wilks went 17-4, 2.64.

Marion made 21 errors but led all NL shortstops in fielding percentage.

In one of the most inexplicable MVP votes ever, Marion won that award. He hit .267, and his 50 runs were lowest among the Cardinals regulars. His six homers and 63 RBIs were next-to-worst in both categories.

And there appeared to be worthy candidates. Chicago's Bill Nicholson led the league in homers (33), RBIs (122), and runs (116). And if the writers were determined to give it to a Cardinal, Musial topped the NL in hits (197), doubles (51), on-base percentage (.440), and slugging percentage (.549), and batted .347.

The website Baseballevolution.com called Marion's selection the worst MVP pick of all time, correctly noting that he "beat out easily 10 more qualified players on his own team."

The big-league leader in hits that year, by the way, was New York Yankee George "Snuffy" Stirnweiss, which was an indication of the level of play throughout the majors. Against only a slightly better level of competition in 1943, he had hit .219.

Not only would the Cardinals' third straight pennant forever bear a wartime taint, but the team suffered an additional indignity. The Cardinals didn't even get to leave home during the World Series.

The AL title was captured by the team that shared Sportsman's Park with them, the lowly Browns, who had never won a pennant before or, in the decade they had remaining in St. Louis, after.

The Cardinals, who had beaten the Yankees in five games in 1942 and lost in five to New York the next year, defeated the Browns in six games.

Their streak - and the war - ended in 1945, when Musial, Walker Cooper, and Danny Litwiler were inducted into the service (Musial doing part of his tour at the Navy Yard in South Philadelphia.) St. Louis finished second, three games behind the Cubs.

Then, in '46, with all their stars back, the Cardinals made it four pennants in five years, going on to defeat Ted Williams and the Red Sox in the World Series.

And what about the 1944 Phils?

Well, they were last, 431/2 games behind St. Louis. And on March 4 of that year, they officially changed their name to the Blue Jays.

Perhaps because they continued to wear "Phillies" across the fronts of their uniforms, the change never caught on.

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