In 1939 — the year Lou Gehrig ended his consecutive-game streak at 2,130 — something amazing happened in baseball.
And there’s proof.
“ANNISTON, ALA., April 5. — After harvesting 59 runs on 57 hits in four preceding games, the Cardinals were held to four scattered safeties here this cloudy, windy afternoon, but even so they registered their eighteenth victory in 23 exhibitions, Bob Bowman and Clyde Shoun pitching a 4-to-0 shutout.”
I didn’t write it; the St. Louis Globe-Democrat’s Martin J. Haley did — and, no, I’m not comparing Haley’s prose to the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” of Grantland Rice in the New York Herald-Tribune 15 years before. “Outlined against a blue, gray October sky the Four Horsemen rode again … ” this isn’t.
But it does document a tantalizing tale of the interplay between Major League teams and their minor league servants in the prewar years. And the best part, as Haley explains later in his story, is that the Cardinals of Enos Slaughter, Ducky Medwick, Pepper Martin and Johnny Mize managed only four hits against the Anniston Rams, a Class B Southeastern League team affiliated that year with the Chicago White Sox.
The Rams epitomized the constant ignominy of small-town baseball of the Thirties and Forties: older players playing out the string; younger players beginning the long slog through the minors; and longtime players who had no chance of reaching The Show but played ball each summer because, despite the pay, it beat working at the pipe shop.
I’ve written about the Rams for years and noted the Rams’ assorted spring exhibitions against Major League clubs heading north after spring training. But the Rams-Cardinals game on Wednesday, April 5, 1939, before 1,038 at Anniston’s Johnston Field is compelling for two reasons.
First, the Cardinals played most of their regulars.
Second, the Rams’ pitchers deserved an MLB win that day.
The 1939 Cardinals didn’t feature Stan Musial; he wouldn’t break in until September 1941. But after a losing season in 1938, the Cardinals — under new manager Ray Blades — were building a National League power that would rival Brooklyn as the National League’s dominant team of the 1940s. With Musial in the lineup, the Cardinals won the World Series in 1942, 1944 and 1946 and claimed NL pennants four times that decade, including three straight from 1942-44.
As Haley mentioned, the Cardinals were galloping through their spring schedule in 1939 — a precursor to their 92-61 record and second-place finish that season. To face them the Rams manager, Pee Wee Wanninger, selected two left-handers, Gordon Bradshaw and Frank Papish. In his playing days Wanninger, a Birmingham, Ala., native, was a journeyman backup infielder who had played for the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Cincinnati Reds.
Bradshaw never made the Major Leagues, though while in the Marines during World War II he pitched for a Quantico Marine Base team against Bob Feller — yes, that Bob Feller — who was pitching for a Navy team from Norfolk, Va.
Papish flips that script. He pitched in the minors before the war and made his MLB debut in May 1945 with the White Sox, throwing a scoreless inning in relief. He would go on to play five seasons — four with Chicago, one with Cleveland — before trying to hang on in the National League with Pittsburgh in 1950. It didn’t go well. Called up from Indianapolis, Papish’s first start with the Pirates imploded in the first inning; he was pulled after the first five batters reached base and and appeared in only four NL games. He toiled around the minors, in Indianapolis, Chattanooga and Memphis, through 1953.
Nevertheless, Bradshaw and Papish presented the Cardinals with a respectable test that April afternoon in 1939. Papish won 10 games or more in each of his three seasons in Anniston. Bradshaw would win 10 games that season, too.
Bradshaw, the starter, allowed no runs and only one hit, a double to Mickey Owen in the third, in five innings. Papish wasn’t that splendid — he walked five and allowed four runs and three hits in four innings. But Papish pitched around his wildness enough and could have allowed the Rams to keep the deficit at 2-0 heading into their final at-bats had Anniston’s defense not faltered in the eighth. Left fielder Clarence Tregere, a career minor-leaguer from New Orleans, mishandled Terry Moore’s fly ball, the error allowing Medwick and Don Gutteridge to score two unearned runs.
The Cardinals “fled the autograph hunters,” according to the Anniston Star newspaper, and left town the following morning on the train for Atlanta, where they were scheduled to play another exhibition. The season they opened April 18 in Pittsburgh ended with them in second place, 4 1/2 games behind the pennant-winning Cincinnati Reds.
And the Rams? They finished as they normally did — mired in the middle. At least Anniston posted a winning record (71-70), though it still ended up 22 games behind first-place Pensacola. Interestingly, the Southeastern League’s top four teams made the playoffs, and the Rams missed out on that, too, because they finished 3 1/2 games behind fourth-place Selma. The Rams majored in mediocrity.
My favorite part of Haley’s coverage in the St. Louis paper was this sentence tagged on at the end: “The Anniston ball park is located near the base of the lower end of the Appalachian Mountains.”
Which, as baseball fans in Anniston know, it is.