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. 35: P MAX LANIER
It was Curt Flood who famously won the right to free agency for himself and every professional baseball player who followed. But he wasn’t the first big leaguer, or even the first Cardinal to take his case against the reserve clause to court.
Max Lanier, a hard-throwing left hander, was part of a deep, farm-raised pitching staff produced by the Cardinals’ extensive minor league system. The core of that group — which included Lanier, Mort Cooper, Howie Pollet and Harry Brecheen — set a big-league record for the lowest team ERA (2.55) and led St. Louis to consecutive pennants in 1942, ‘43 and ‘44.
Lanier, who taught himself to throw left-handed after a series of serious breaks to his dominant right arm, made his St. Louis debut in 1938, but came into his own along with the rest of the young “Swifties” of 1942. That team won a franchise-record 106 games by reeling off an incredible 48 wins in 51 games.
It took until a Sept. 12 game at Ebbets Field for the Cardinals to catch the Brooklyn Dodgers, who had held onto first place since May. The stoutly-built Lanier earned that 2-1 win, allowing just five Dodgers hits and kick-starting a pennant-clinching home stretch in which the Cardinals won 12 of their last 14 games. It was his fifth win over Brooklyn in a breakout season that included 13 victories with a 2.96 ERA. St. Louis then whipped the New York Yankees in a five-game World Series.
St. Louis ran away with the pennant the following year, too, with Lanier posting a league-best 1.90 ERA to go with 15 wins. The Yankees, however, got their revenge in another five-game Fall Classic.
In 1944, Lanier threw complete-game wins in six of his first seven starts and had a personal 10-game winning streak that spanned July and August, including a 14-inning win over the Dodgers. His 17 wins established a career high and his 5.7 strikeouts per nine innings led the league.
The postseason brought out the best in Lanier, who went 2-1 in seven career World Series games (four of them starts) with a 1.71 ERA and 25 strikeouts in 31 ⅔ innings. He and Ted Wilks combined on a three-hitter of the St. Louis Browns in in Game 6 of 1944 Streetcar Series, the last World Series played entirely in one ballpark.
Elbow trouble and a variety of other maladies, including acute appendicitis, limited Lanier to just four games in 1945. Though he came back healthy the next season, he and other Cardinals players had been feuding with notoriously frugal Cardinals’ owner Sam Breadon over salary.
Meanwhile, Jorge Pasquel and his brothers, who had successfully raided the Negro Leagues of some of their best talent, were offering generous player contracts with the intent of building the Mexican League into a competitor to MLB’s baseball monopoly. Despite starting the 1946 season with six complete-game wins, Lanier joined 17 other big league players to breach their contracts and make the leap to Mexico.
Most of them didn’t last a season.
Field conditions were poor, lights were too dim, and Pasquel’s teams weren’t making enough at the ticket gate to support the big salaries he had promised. Unfortunately, the so-called “Mexican Jumpers” had no American teams to go back to since Commissioner Happy Chandler had suspended them all for five full seasons.
Lanier and two others sued, claiming as Flood would 25 years later that baseball’s reserve clause violated U.S. antitrust laws and denied baseball players a fundamental right to negotiate their own terms of employment with other teams. Rather than funding a protracted legal battle, Chandler relented and lifted the suspensions. Lanier similarly kowtowed, sharing with The Sporting News in September of 1949 his sudden revelation that baseball “needs a reserve clause” because it “preserves order and aids competition.”
Fred Saigh, the Cardinals’ new owner, welcomed Lanier back to town with an $11,000 contract — the same money he had left behind three years earlier. By that point, though, Lanier had already missed two full seasons and the majority of two others in the prime of his career. He posted 11-9 records with sub-3.30 ERAs in 1950 and ‘51.
At age 36, the Cardinals traded him to the New York Giants for aging All-Star Eddie Stanky. And the fight for free agency was left for another day and another Cardinals player.
SEASONS IN ST. LOUIS: 1938-46, 1949-51
101-69 (.594) in St. Louis | 2.84 ERA with Cardinals | 2x All-Star | 2 WS ring | 30.1 WAR
TOP 100 SCORE: 3.50