The summer of 1934 was the worst of times. One in four Americans was unemployed. Bread lines and hobo camps scarred the nation. Onscreen, the Marx Brothers drew laughs, but when the flickering light faded, the gloom returned. Was this America, this gray nation of gray men, gray skies darkened with dust, grim faces etched in fear? Better times were ahead, but in the summer of 1934, no one was having fun. Except for one baseball team.
On paper they were the St. Louis Cardinals but in legend they are The Gashouse Gang. “They don’t look like a major league ball club,” the New York Sun observed. “Their uniforms are stained and dirty and patched and ill fitting. . . They spit out of the sides of their mouths and then wipe the backs of their hands across their shirt fronts.” But, the Sun noted, “they are not afraid of anybody.”
Other teams featured The Sultan of Swat, The Iron Horse, Big Poison. . . But at rickety old Sportsmen’s Park, grown men called each other Dizzy, Daffy, and Ducky. Other squads played as a unit – bunting, talking strategy, “taking one for the team.” But the Cardinals were less a team than a collection of egos. Players brawled in the clubhouse. Star pitchers staged a walkout — in August. The shortstop was Leo the Lip, and being a weak hitter, “The All-American Out.”
The Gashouse Gang won only one pennant, but stories of the team linger. Stories of Arkansas farm boy Dizzy Dean in spring training. “I don’t see how anybody can beat us now with two Deans on the ball club. Me and Paul, we’ll win forty-five games between us.” (They won 49.) Stories of how “Pepper” Martin hopped a freight to spring training. Stories of Diz and Pepper staging fights in hotel lobbies, spraying popcorn like broken teeth. Stories of players making a campfire on the field, then hopping around it like Indians. They were fun, this Gashouse Gang, but could they play ball?
For much of the 1934 season, the gang preferred clowning to winning. By mid-July, they were in third place. Then in late August, seven games out of first, the team caught fire. The spark was a walkout. Fined for missing an exhibition game, Diz tore up his uniform, then tore up another for the benefit of photographers. Diz and his brother (aka Daffy) claimed they’d go fishing in Florida if the fines weren’t lifted. They stuck around to get paychecks, then left, suspended. Suddenly the Cardinals won six of seven. When the repentant Deans returned in September, a good team became a legendary team.
Pepper Martin ran the bases with the abandon that made him the “Wild Horse of the Osage.” Manager Frank Frisch rolled the dice with late inning moves. Diz threw a black cat into the Giants’ dugout. The gang swept two double headers, closing the gap to three games. Then on September 21, another double-header pitted the Deans against the Dodgers.
In the opener, Diz shut out Brooklyn on three hits. In the second game, his brother threw a no-hitter. “If I’d of knowed Paul was going to pitch a no-hitter,” Diz said, “I’d of pitched one, too.” By the final weekend, the Giants and the Cardinals were in a dead heat.
On Friday, Diz shutout the Reds. The next day, the day reporters discovered Diz had given them three separate birthdates so each would have a scoop, Paul held the Reds to one run. In the season finale, pitching on one day of rest, Diz threw another shutout for his 30th win. And the team that didn’t “look like a major league ball club” was in the World Series.
The Detroit Tigers were heavily favored, but Diz won the opener and Paul won the third, a game that saw Diz, as pinch runner, carried off the field when clobbered by a throw. The next day, a headline read: “X-rays of Dean’s Head Show Nothing.” But the Tigers came home needing one more win. There they faced — the Deans. Paul won the sixth game and Diz shutout the Tigers in the seventh, but not before Detroit fans, angry at a hard slide by leftfielder Ducky Medwick, pelted him with garbage. Medwick and the Cards centerfielder played catch with apples and grapefruit.
And the Gashouse Gang went into legend. They lost the pennant the next year when the Cubs, their games called on radio by Ronald “Dutch” Reagan, won their last 21 games. Diz won 28, 25 the next year, then was injured and never pitched well again. But his motto summed up the 1934 season and the gang that won it. “It ain’t braggin’ if you go out and do it.”