The 1934 St. Louis Cardinals’ fitful journey to baseball immortality.
“Who could have thought up such a cast of characters?” asks journalist Heidenry (What Wild Ecstasy, 1997, etc.), himself a St. Louis native. “Motley crew” is far too weak a phrase for the players assembled that year by business manager Branch Rickey. As the author documents, drawing liberally on the many biographies they subsequently inspired in addition to his own research, these colorful individuals wore one uniform but were hardly of one mind or mission—at least at first. Nonpareil pitcher Dizzy Dean was the most irrepressible and, in his view, the most underpaid; his hillbilly antics masked a Machiavellian streak, and he actually went on strike in midseason. Razor-tongued bench jockey and slick fielder Leo Durocher was derided by teammates as “the All-American Out” for being a patsy at the plate. A mismatched team was the almost inevitable result of Rickey’s novel approach: develop players in a captive farm system, pay ’em peanuts and trade ’em for new resources at the height of their powers. Generally credited with making modern major-league ball what it is, Rickey served as the Cardinals’ principal strategist, while the appropriate tactics were figured out by field manager/second baseman Frank Frisch, the former New York Giant known as “the Fordham Flash.” Picked to finish fourth, maybe third, in the National League, the Cards rallied at season’s end to squeak by the favored Giants, and fans at the depth of the Depression went nuts. The World Series with the Detroit Tigers went to seven. Best piece of trivia: “Gashouse Gang,” an enduring nickname of obscure origin, was applied to the bunch only in retrospect, never during the ’34 season.
Unstoppable underdogs, not a steroid in sight: What fan could resist?