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The No-Place-but-Home Series : In 1944, Baseball's Spirit Stayed in St. Louis With Cardinals and Browns

October 11, 1989|BILL CHRISTINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In "Going My Way," the movie that won the Academy Award in 1944, Bing Crosby played a New York priest but appeared in some scenes wearing a St. Louis Browns' T-shirt.

Although Crosby was a minor stockholder in the Pittsburgh Pirates, the shirt with the Browns' name on it was more timely. For in 1944, 45 years ago, the Browns not only won their only pennant, but St. Louis became the first city other than New York or Chicago to own a World Series, since the Cardinals, for the third consecutive season, were the champions of the National League.

World War II did strange things to baseball, and perhaps the strangest development was the Browns winning a pennant, then winning two of the first three from the Cardinals before losing the Series in six games.

The war-era lineups included players with only one arm, Pete Gray of the Browns; one eye, Paul O'Dea of the Cleveland Indians; and no hearing, Dick Sipek of the Cincinnati Reds. Whitey Kurowski played third base for the Cardinals with a throwing arm that was six inches shorter than the other.

Sig Jakucki, who had the best baseball name this side of Van Lingle Mungo, became a star rookie pitcher at 35 for the Browns, after a decade of carousing around the minors and semipro ball, threatening umpires whenever they didn't please him.

Hank Greenberg, who hit 41 home runs in 1941 before going into the Army, estimated that the war had reduced the talent in the big leagues by about 25%.

In 1944, Nick Etten of the New York Yankees led the American League in home runs with 22, the lowest total for a slugging champion in 26 years. The next year, the Yankees' Snuffy Stirnweiss, who had the best baseball name this side of Sig Jakucki, led the league in batting with .309. Only a few years before, the Boston Red Sox team had batted .299.

Before 1944, the Browns were a standard joke and the sorriest franchise in baseball. Starting in 1930, they had finished in the first division of the eight-team American League only once. In 1939, they lost 111 games and finished 64 1/2 games out of first place. From 1902 through 1943, the Browns had the worst record in the league, and theoretically they would have finished 802 1/2 games behind the Yankees, who had the best record.

During the war years, however, injured players who might have normally been considered liabilities turned into assets, and in 1944 the Browns had more than a dozen players who were classified as 4-F--ineligible for military service.

Nels Potter, the pitcher, twice had cartilage removed from his knee. Al Zarilla, an outfielder, had a broken ankle that never fully mended. Others on the team--George McQuinn, Don Gutteridge, Mike Kreevich, George Caster, Boots Hollingsworth and Jakucki--were well into their 30s and far down on the military priority lists.

Chet Laabs, who sent the Browns into the World Series with two dramatic home runs on the last day of the season, worked in a defense plant and played only part time.

The Cardinals had lost Enos Slaughter and Terry Moore--two-thirds of their outfield--to the service, along with right-hander Johnny Beazley, a 21-game winner in 1942, but thanks to Branch Rickey they still had the deepest talent pool in baseball.

Their 1944 roster--Ray Sanders, Marty Marion and Kurowski on the infield, Stan Musial in the outfield, Walker Cooper catching and a pitching staff that included Mort Cooper, Max Lanier, Harry (the Cat) Brecheen, Red Munger and Ted Wilks--was no makeshift lineup. It would have been good enough to contend for a pennant under normal circumstances.

An Easy Jog

In fact, the Cardinals cantered to the title. They won 73 of their first 100 games and by Sept. 1 they had won 91 times, which was two more than the Browns would win all season. The National Leaguers wound up with 105 victories, the same as the year before and one fewer than they had won in 1942.

Musial, who went into service the next year, batted .347, which was second by 10 points to Brooklyn's Dixie Walker. But the 23-year-old Cardinal star led the league in hits, doubles and triples. He drove in 94 runs. And he struck out only 28 times and drew 90 walks.

Six Cardinal regulars drove in at least 72 runs, with Sanders, the first baseman, leading the league with 102. Sanders also played in all 154 games and, except for Cooper, there wasn't a regular who played in fewer than 139 games.

Mort Cooper, the catcher's older brother, led the staff with a 22-7 record. Wilks, a rookie, went 17-4, Brecheen was 16-5, Lanier was 17-12 and Munger 11-3. They completed 74 games in 118 starts.

So who was the National League's most valuable player? None of those sluggers or pitchers, as it turned out. The award went to the defensive wizard, Marion, by one point over the Chicago Cubs' slugger, Bill Nicholson. Marion batted .267. They called the long-legged Cardinal shortstop Slats, and when he wasn't picking and pitching pebbles between pitches, he was catching virtually everything.

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