St. Louis Cardinals

Greatest Cardinals No. 34: RHP Grover Cleveland Alexander

The 100 Greatest Cardinals: 41-50

Counting down the top 100 Cardinals of all-time, this video features numbers 41-50 on the list.
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Counting down the top 100 Cardinals of all-time, this video features numbers 41-50 on the list.

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. 34: GROVER CLEVELAND “PETE” ALEXANDER

Rogers Hornsby had no expectation that the Grover Cleveland Alexander he’d brought to St. Louis for the 1926 pennant drive would be the same pitcher that had his way with National League lineups in the previous decade.

That version of “Alex the Great” had won 30 or more games in consecutive seasons from 1915-1917, was a five-time league ERA champion and six-time strikeout king. But Hornsby’s new bullpen hand showed the wear of years and miles beyond even the 4,400 innings and 318 career wins he’d already logged.

The constant assault of exploding ordnance during World War I left him deaf in one ear and mangled by shrapnel on the other. The epilepsy and shell shock he brought back from France was doused in alcohol.

“Old Pete” was nearing 40 years old, but his wrinkled face and swollen eyes made him look every bit of 60.

All Hornsby expected — or even had the right to expect — was for Alexander to keep the booze away from the ballpark and be ready to take the ball. What he got, instead, was four more seasons and the resilient Alexander’s last hurrah.

The Cardinals won 92 games in 1927, their most since joining the National League in 1892, and finished just a 1 ½ games behind Pittsburgh in the pennant race. Old Pete won 21 games with a staff-best 2.52 ERA in 268 innings. He won 16 the next season as part of a deep pitching staff that led St. Louis to 95 victories and the league championship.

Even so, the gamble Hornsby placed on Alexander had already paid off over a single week in October 1926.

When Old Pete joined the pitching staff on June 22, the Cardinals were in third place, but just 2 ½ behind Cincinnati for the lead. The pennant drive was tight the rest of the way, but St. Louis seized the lead with a 22-8 stretch from August into early September. Alexander, who went 9-7 with a 2.91 ERA in that abbreviated season, won six games during the team’s rally toward its first pennant since 1888.

The New York Yankees won the first game of the World Series, but Alexander evened things up in Game 2, holding Murderer’s Row to just four hits in a 6-2 win. He took the ball again in Game 6, this time with St. Louis facing elimination at Yankee Stadium.

The Cardinals gave Old Pete a 3-0 lead in the first, then rallied for five more in the top of the seventh on RBI hits by Hornsby and Billy Southworth and a three-run homer by Les Bell. Alexander went the distance, again keeping the Yankee sluggers in check with just two runs on six hits.

In the decisive seventh game, St. Louis starter held a 3-2 lead but got himself in deep in the bottom of the seventh. Earle Combs singled and Haines walked Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig to load the bases. With two out, Hornsby turned to Alexander on less than 24 hours or rest.

Legend has it that Old Pete was in the bullpen, sleeping off a hangover, when he got the call. But New York’s rookie second baseman, Tony Lazzeri, who had driven in 117 runs in the regular season, was mowed down on strikes to end the threat.

Old Pete was perfect until the ninth when he issued a two-out walk to Ruth, who inexplicably got himself thrown out trying to steal second base to end the game and the series.

It was St. Louis’ first World Series victory of the 20th century and would be the only championship of Alexander’s storied career. Ruth and Gehrig went a combined 1-for-15 against him in the series.

In “Babe Ruth’s Own Book of Baseball,” a memoir published in 1928, Ruth recalled Alexander’s performance that fall.

“Just to see old Pete out there on the mound, with that cocky little undersize cap pulled down over one ear, chewing away at his tobacco and pitching baseballs as easy as pitching hay is enough to take the heart out of a fellow,” he wrote.

In December 1929, the Cardinals traded Alexander to Philadelphia, where he began his career 18 years earlier. He lasted three games, all of them losses, before being given his release to end his career.

Ronald Reagan took on the role of Alexander opposite Doris Day in the 1952 biopic “The Winning Team,” making Old Pete the only player to be named after one president and portrayed in film for another. But, while Hollywood gave his life a happy ending, Alexander’s remaining days were tortured. He once made ends meet by reliving his strikeout of Lazzeri to fans in a carnival sideshow.

In 1938, Old Pete joined Alexander Cartwright and Henry Chadwick in the third induction class of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

SEASONS IN ST. LOUIS: 1926-29

KEY STATS

55-34 (.618) in St. Louis | 3.08 ERA with Cardinals | WS ring | 15.0 WAR | HoF ‘38

TOP 100 SCORE: 3.65

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BND Sports & Local News Editor Todd Eschman has won numerous state and regional awards for his columns, feature stories and news reporting. He was born and raised in Belleville, attended SIU-Carbondale, and is a member of the BBWAA, SABR and St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame.


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