NOTE: The BND has endeavored to identify an objective list of the top 100 St. Louis Cardinals players of all time, based on statistical formulas developed through sabermetrics. We’ll count down the list daily, player by player, until April 4, the day of the Cardinals’ 2019 home opener. The running list and player bios can be found at bnd.com.
Even in a clubhouse brimming with characters like “Dizzy,” “The Lip,” and “Ducky,” there was no personality on St. Louis’ famous Gas House Gang larger than that of Johnny Leonard Roosevelt “Pepper” Martin.
Team captain Leo Durocher enjoyed retelling the tales of Martin’s hijinks, like the time he cleared a high-society luncheon at a posh Philadelphia hotel by lighting a ration of smoke bombs, then appearing dressed as a fireman to rescue the panicked ladies. Or how he didn’t bother with an athletic supporter and protective cup (or even underwear) under his uniform. Should a batter dare challenge his shaky defense at third base by laying down a bunt, Durocher recalled, Martin would aim his throw between his shoulder blades (though he probably would have missed).
That kind of daring earned Martin the additional nickname “Wild Horse of the Osage.”
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The Cardinals signed Martin in 1924 and promoted him to the majors in time for their 1928 pennant run. His role was limited mostly to pinch running, though, because manager Bill McKechnie couldn’t find a place to hide his sub-standard glove. But when Martin batted .363 with 304 total bases in double-A Rochester two summers into his minor league exile, the Cardinals determined to find him a position.
When he took over center field in 1931, Martin lit an instant spark in the Cardinals’ lineup by batting .300 with 75 RBIs. But the 27-year-old rookie wasn’t a household name in St. Louis until October.
In a seven-game rematch of the previous year’s World Series against Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics, Martin collected a then-record 12 hits in 24 at bats, stole five bases, scored five runs and drove in five more to lead St. Louis to the championship. In Game 5 alone, he had three hits and knocked in four of the Cardinals’ five runs.
In 1933, new manager Frankie Frisch moved Martin from the outfield to third base, where he finished second in the league with 25 errors. But a career-high .316 batting average and league-leading 122 runs earned Martin his spot on the National League’s first All-Star team. He was, in fact, the first batter ever in what became an annual exhibition game.
The following year, 1934, the Gas House Gang trailed the New York Giants in the NL standings by seven games on Sept. 6, but rallied to win the pennant and another seven-game World Series victory, this time over the Detroit Tigers. Injuries limited Martin to 110 games in the regular season, but he was the postseason hero once again, reaching base 13 times and scoring eight runs.
Moved back into the outfield, Martin blew out a knee 98 games into the 1937 season and never played 100 games again. He retired in 1940 to manage in the Cardinals’ minor league system, though he made a 40-game cameo in 1944 when the US Army depleted the Redbirds’ roster with the draft.
Along the way, Martin maintained a clubhouse country band, the Mississippi Mudcats, which entertained with southern folk favorites such as “Possum Up a Gum Tree.” They were good enough to play on national radio broadcasts and Martin became so noted for his talent and personality that he was paid $1,500 per week to join a vaudeville circuit in the offseason.
Despite the generous salary, he quit less than a month into the tour, saying famously “I ain’t no actor, I’m a ballplayer.”
Still ever popular, Martin was posthumously inducted into the St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame in 2018.
SEASONS IN ST. LOUIS: 1928, 1930-’40, 1944
Led NL in stolen bases 3x | .298 career avg.| 4x NL All-Star | 3 WS rings
TOP 100 SCORE: 2.32