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.
NO. 49: ED KONETCHY
The St. Louis Cardinals got their first look at the Philadelphia Phillies’ rookie right-hander, Grover Cleveland Alexander, on July 10, 1911, a Monday afternoon in the middle of a historic heat wave.
Alexander struck out nine batters and beat the Cardinals 4-2. Big Ed Konetchy, a 25-year-old first baseman The Sporting News described as “the only competent player” during an otherwise miserable stretch in franchise history, got two of the Cardinals’ eight hits that day. He was on his way to another solid season in which he would lead the Cardinals with a .289 average, .384 on-base percentage, 90 runs scored and a National League-best 38 doubles.
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At 6-foot-2, 200-pounds, Konetchy was a big man for his day — or any other — but had earned a reputation as a great base runner and as a defensive magician at first base. He stole 20 or more bases six times during his career. By modern metrics, he was one of the best first basemen of the era, leading NL first basemen in defensive Wins Above Average five times in his seven seasons with the Cardinals.
But the “Bohemian Candy Dropper” also was the remarkably consistent at the plate. His .283 average over seven years is even better than it seems — it was the dead ball era, after all. It wasn’t unusual for a single baseball to be kept in play for 100 pitches or more, making them dirty and soft from overuse, and difficult to hit. Konetchy nonetheless finished among the top 10 in batting six times and once got hits in 10 consecutive at bats.
The Cardinals, meanwhile, were a second-division team for much of the early 20th century. Only once during his seven seasons did Konechty and the Cardinals win more than 63 games.
That one season was 1911.
St. Louis arrived in Philadelphia on July 6 having won four of their previous six games. With three straight wins at Philadelphia’s Baker Bowl, the Cardinals improved to 11 games over .500 and just three games out of first place. It was the kid, Alexander, who finally cooled off the Cardinals with the his league-leading 17th victory (he finished with 28). He’d become a World Series hero in St. Louis 15 years later.
As games were not permitted on Sundays in Philadelphia, the Cardinals had a welcomed day off and plenty of time to reach Boston in time for the start of their four-game series against the Rustlers (who changed their name the next season to the Braves).
At about 3:30 on the morning of July 11, the Cardinals steamed through Bridgeport, Connecticut, aboard the Pennsylvania-New Haven Railroad. Railroad rules of the day prescribed 15 mph as the safest speed for navigating crossovers, but a brakeman said the “Federal Express” passed by his tower chugging along at about 60 mph as it approached the new crossover at Fairfield Road.
The locomotive hopped the rails and crumpled into the empty street 20 feet below, taking several of the passenger coaches along with it.
Those members of the team who could stand the summer heat slept in a Pullman car at the back of the train, which was spared the plunge off the side by a telegraph poll. Konetchy and player-manager Roger Bresnahan had both been sitting awake in bed and were startled by the crash.
The two immediately assumed control of the scene, directing the other players in a rescue effort. Many were barefooted and dressed in pajamas as they cut through the railroad cars with axes and pulled other passengers from the wreckage, some of them already dead.
“The first men to rush to the assistance of the passengers in the wrecked coaches were the men of the St. Louis ball team,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. “The ballplayers were worth a thousand ordinary helpers in an affair of this sort. When the firemen and police and the first squad of physicians arrived, they found the ballplayers working like Trojans and many lives were undoubtedly saved by them.”
Fourteen were killed, either under the weight of the train or in the fire near the engine. An additional 47 were injured and taken to an area hospital.
Konetchy and Bresnahan were hailed as heroes, but neither particularly welcomed the notoriety. The Cardinals won six of their next eight, but went just 27-40 in the season’s final two months to finish at 75-74 and in a distant fifth place. Bresnahan said he and other players were still haunted by the screams for help they heard that awful night.
The New York Giants legendary manager John McGraw made attempts to trade for Konetchy, as did the Pittsburgh Pirates who reportedly offered their aging superstar, Honus Wagner.
But Bresnahan called his first baseman to a hotel bar one evening after the season ended to discuss a new contract. The “negotiations” lasted through the night and into the following afternoon before Konetchy, surrounded by empty beer bottles, finally agreed to terms.
He went on to bat .314 with 86 RBIs in 1912, but the Redbirds faded back into sixth place at 63-90. Bresnahan, was fired and his successor, Miller Huggins, traded Konetchy to Pirates for five players not named Wagner.
SEASONS IN ST. LOUIS: 1907-1913
.283/.362/.409 with St. Louis | 27.4 WAR
TOP 100 SCORE: 3.11