Q. As a youngster in Lincoln, Neb., during the 1930s, I was a St. Louis Cardinals fan. During the recent playoffs, I told my wife that when I was a boy I thought Dizzy Dean was the greatest player ever. Ergo, the Cardinals were the best team. I also recall that the Cardinals were referred to, fondly I assume, as "The Gas House Gang." I have no idea why. Do you?
-- Don Gillen, of Belleville
A. We know legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice called the Notre Dame backfield "the Four Horsemen" after the Irish beat Army 13-7 on Oct. 18, 1924. We can trace "Murderers' Row" to 1918 newspaper accounts of the pre-Babe Ruth New York Yankees.
So how is it that the origin of one of the best-loved nicknames in St. Louis sports history seems lost in the sands of time? Yes, theories are as numerous as Dizzy Dean strikeouts in the early '30s, yet the only one that seems to make sense involves a bit of New York slang that was long out of date by the time it was hung on the Redbirds.
At least, that's the theory of John Heidenry, who offers an exhaustive look into the term's origin in his 2007 book, "The Gashouse Gang." He argues that the colorful name applies only to the 1934 Cardinals, yet it may have been uttered only once during that season when the Birds whipped Detroit for their third world championship. Instead, he says, sportswriters tried to apply the moniker on the 1935 Cards, but by that time Branch Rickey was starting to trade key players and some of the glory was fading.
Yet today, nearly 80 years later, the Cardinal faithful speak of the Gashouse Gang with near reverence even though nobody truly knows how the nickname came to be. Here are a few of the legendary stories:
Not surprisingly, Leo "The Lip" Durocher gets in on the fun. In his autobiography, "Nice Guys Finish Last," Durocher wrote how the Cardinal uniforms were invariably soiled because of their rough-and-tumble play. One day when the Cardinals were in New York, he saw a cartoon in the New York World-Telegram.
"It showed two big gas tanks on the wrong side of the railroad track," Durocher wrote, "and some ballplayers crossing over to the good part of town carrying clubs over their shoulders instead of bats. And the title read: 'The Gas House Gang.'"
However, there's no explanation whether the cartoon had anything to do with the Cardinals or why "gas tank" became "gas house."
Some speculate the term may have arisen after Dizzy Dean bought a gas station in Bradenton, Fla., because he loved the spring training site so much. Perhaps, wrote John Devaney in "The Greatest Cardinals of Them All," that's how the Gashouse Gang nickname arose: "For they looked like mechanics who had just left the grease shop of a gas house (or what we now call a gas station)."
The trouble, Heidenry argues, a "gas station" was never commonly called a "gashouse." By definition, a gashouse was a plant for manufacturing gas -- particularly the kind used to power lights in homes and businesses before electricity came along. (Remember the classic movie "Gaslight"?) These plants gave off noxious fumes and were typically placed in the poorest sections of town.
By combining that definition with the small grains of truth in the other stories, you find the true origin, maintains Mike Eisenbath in his "The Cardinals Encyclopedia":
"The Gashouse District was a section of the lower East Side of Manhattan, an area that once had housed several large gas tanks. Historians have described the general area there as a rough neighborhood. ... The neighborhood came to be known best for its wandering group of particularly cruel thugs: The Gashouse Gang."
Numerous articles in New York newspapers throughout the late 1800s refer to the "gas house district," including this from Nov. 15, 1894: "Six boys were arraigned ... yesterday on charges of burglary. All belong to the 'Gas House Gang,' many members of which have been sent to the State prison and the penitentiaries."
Because of their blue-collar, Pete-Rose style of play that left their uniforms often torn and soiled, the Birds probably became linked to the tough neighborhood by some imaginative sportswriters. Even though the term was long out of date by the 1930s, veteran New York scribes -- as well as Big Apple natives like Frankie Frisch -- probably remembered the city's history well.
That's why the term's first reference may have come in a New York City newspaper on Oct. 4, 1934, during the World Series, according to Robert Gregory in "Diz," his autobiography of Dizzy Dean: "Already on the stands in New York were early editions of the World-Telegram, and fans would read in Joe Williams' piece for October 4, 'I picked the Tigers but the Cardinals have got me worried. They looked like a bunch of guys from the gas house district who had crossed the railroad tracks for a game of ball with the nice kids.' That was the origin of the Cards' famous nickname."
How many "Gone With the Wind" cast members are still living?
Answer to Saturday's trivia: Yes, Virginia, there was a Granny Smith. In 1868, Maria Ann Smith found an apple-tree seedling growing in her backyard garden in New South Wales, Australia. She nurtured it, and it eventually produced the green fruit with the distinctive taste we love today. A real grandmother, too, she died in 1870.
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