The 100 Greatest Cardinals: 41-50
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 38: HOWIE POLLET
The best hitter in the American League, Boston’s Ted Williams, served tours of duty as a Marines fighter pilot in both WWII and Korea; Cleveland Indians’ pitcher Bob Feller walked away from a six-figure contract to enlist in the Navy the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor; St. Louis’ own Yogi Berra, the New York Yankees great catcher, served as a gunner’s mate during the Invasion of Normandy; and Atlanta Braves pitcher Warren Spahn fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
Two big leaguers -- Elmer Gedeon of the Washington Senators and Harry O’Neill of the Philadelphia Athleteics -- made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of freedom.
Like many of his Cardinals teammates, Howie Pollet did his part, too, though he had a wife and was helping to support his widowed mother. Just 23 years old, the skinny 6-2 left-hander had won eight games, including three straight shutouts, and boasted a league-best 1.75 ERA when the draft board came calling. The day after representing the National League at the 1943 All-Star Game, he departed for Miami and gunnery school.
St. Louis went on to win the NL pennant even without Pollet, who would give two of his prime years to service with the Air Force in the Pacific Theater. He sacrificed a little more once he returned to full-time baseball.
Pollet was one of 10 pitchers to rejoin the Cardinals after the war, but the only one with a healthy arm. What’s more, starter Max Lanier, who had won at least 15 games each of the previous two seasons, was lured to the Mexican League by executive Jorge Pasqual and the promise of a richer payday.
St. Louis still had ace Harry Brecheen while Murry Dickson, Al Brazle and Ted Wilks contributed key spot starts for the Cardinals along the way, but Pollet proved to be the rotation’s work horse. He not only started 32 games, he went the full nine innings in 22 of them and appeared eight more times in relief.
By year’s end, Pollet had a 21-10 record and 2.10 ERA, including a 4-2 victory a best-of-three series against Brooklyn to settle a first-place tie for the National League pennant.
“That boy’s heart is bigger and better than his arm and has been all season,” Dyer told The New York Times. “He sure is a game pitcher.”
The Cardinals went on to defeat the Boston Red Sox in a seven-game World Series, their third championship of the decade. The 266 innings Pollet assumed to cover for a short-staffed pitching rotation had taken a toll. He took the loss in Game 1, then got knocked out of Game 5 with just one out in the first inning. That left arm was still sore in 1947, when he fell to 9-11 with a 4.34 ERA. The next season was marginally better at 13-8, but his ERA was still high.
Shoulder therapy and surgery to remove bone spurs from his elbow seemed to do the trick. St. Louis won 96 games and came up a just game shy of the Dodgers for the pennant, but Pollet rebounded with a 20-9 record and 2.77 ERA in 233 innings. His five shutouts led the league.
“I think I was too cautious about my arm last year,” Pollet told The Times. “I didn’t dare try to break off my curve sharp until July. Now I throw hard and give it the full snap of my wrist without thinking. Most important, though, is that I have my control.”
After a 9-5 start in 1950, the arm started to bark again and he won just five more games the rest of the season. A 0-3 start the following year prompted the Cardinals to send Pollet to Pittsburgh as part of a seven-player trade. He’d spend part of five years with three different teams, never again posting a winning record as a starting pitcher.
New manager Solly Hemus put Pollet back into a Cardinals’ uniform in 1959 as the pitching coach. He was still at it under Johnny Keene in 1964 when he helped a staff that included Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton to another World Series title in 1964. According to biographer Warren Corbett, Pollet also deserves the credit for a “unique idea” for preserving pitching arms — pitch counts.
SEASONS IN ST. LOUIS: 1941-43, 1946-1951
97-65 (.600), 3.06 ERA in St. Louis | 3x AS | 2 WS rings | 25.9 WAR
TOP 100 SCORE: 3.44