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. 33: SS MARTY MARION
Marty Marion wore a couple of nicknames throughout his professional baseball career, but the one that stuck came from Burt Shotton, the Cardinals minor league manager in Rochester, New York.
Shotton called the spindly young infielder “Slats,” which he said referenced the muscular, red-headed character from the popular comic strip of the day, “Abbie an’ Slats.” Marion looked nothing like that, though. It’s more likely that Shotton was making sport of Marion’s physique — or, rather, his lack thereof.
Marion stood 6-foot-2, but at a comparatively slight 170 pounds, was built like the slats on a set of venetian blinds. His legs were so skinny, in fact, that he’d pull on an extra pair of socks just to make them look a little thicker.
By outward appearances, Marion was nothing like a shortstop the Cardinals might have ordered in from central casting. Ironically, though, subsequent nicknames reflected the defensive skill that many claimed was the best they had ever seen. That included Honus Wagner, the dead ball era Pittsburgh Pirates Hall of Famer, whose name remains on the short list of all-time great shortstops.
National League newspaper reporters, taking note of Marion’s long arms and sticky, tentacle-like hands, sometimes referred to Marion as “The Octopus.” And it was his big-league manager from his rookie year of 1940 through three straight pennant-winning seasons, Billy Southworth, who called him “Mr. Shortstop.”
“Maybe I’m prejudiced because I see him every day, but he’s the best ever,” Southworth would say. “Yes, he’s Mr. Shortstop in person. He anticipates plays perfectly, can go to his right or left equally well and has a truly great arm. Some of the things he does have to be seen to be believed.”
Those members of the Baseball Writers who cast a vote for National League MVP in 1944 apparently agreed with the St. Louis manager, even though other players had superior seasons at the plate.
Brooklyn outfielder Dixie Walker was the NL batting champion with a .357 average. Bill Nicholson of the Chicago Cubs led the Senior Circuit with 33 home runs, 122 RBIs and 116 runs scored. Marion’s own teammate Stan Musial, led the league in hits (197), on-base percentage (.440), slugging (.549), and doubles (51); and was second in batting (.347) and total bases (312).
Marion, meanwhile, had a thoroughly average year at the dish for the World Series champions — .267/.324/.362, 6 home runs, 63 RBIs. But such was his reputation as the finest fielder in baseball that the writers voted him the National League’s Most Valuable Player.
It almost certainly helped his cause that the Cardinals had won their third straight pennant and second World Series championship during that stretch. Marion was a likeable guy, too, both to the sports writers and teammates. But the statistics — both those used in his day and the advanced metrics developed after the fact — testify on behalf of his prowess with the glove.
Marion led National League shortstops in fielding percentage four times in his 11 seasons with the Cardinals, including his MVP year, and was routinely in the top three in assists and putouts. His defensive Wins Above Replacement (dWAR) in 1944 was 3.9, best in the big leagues at any position.
The Cardinals won their third championship of the decade in 1946, defeating the Boston Red Sox in seven games. The series was supposed to showcase Musial and Boston’s Ted Williams, the two best left-handed hitters of their era. But St. Louis held Williams to just five singles in the series due, in part, to Marion’s strategy of playing to the right of second base whenever the Splendid Splinter came to the plate. The so-called “Williams Shift” is widely connected to Cleveland’s Lou Boudreau, but it gained a measure of legitimacy by its use in the Fall Classic.
Marion was not a one-dimensional player by any means. He hit only 36 home runs in his career, but averaged 28 doubles per season, including a league-leading 38 in the championship year of 1942 and his .263 career batting mark was better than the average shortstop’s.
Still, Marion’s career 25.0 dWAR ranks 20th all-time among all position players. At shortstop, he ranks seventh all time.
Marion was released as a player in 1950, but hired by the Cardinals to replace Eddie Dyer as manager. Though he led St. Louis to 78 wins and a third-place finish, disagreements with owner, Fred Saigh, led to his ouster after a single season.
But Bill Veeck, the theatrical owner of St. Louis’ other team, the Browns, was trying to rescue his fading franchise by stocking its roster with big names like Satchel Paige, Don Larsen, and former Cardinals’ hero Harry Brecheen. He added Mr. Shortstop to the list as both player and manager, though chronic back pain limited his time on the field.
Marion would be the last manager the St. Louis Browns ever had. Veeck sold out at the end of the 1953 season and the team moved to Baltimore. Marion stayed behind in St. Louis, where he worked for the Cardinals in various jobs from spring training coach to manager of the Stadium Club restaurant, a job he held for 18 years until his retirement.
He was inducted to the Cardinals Hall of Fame in 2014.
SEASONS IN ST. LOUIS: 1940-50
.263/.323/.345 with Cardinals | 7x All-Star | MVP ‘44 | 3 WS rings | 31.6 WAR | Cardinals HoF ‘14
TOP 100 SCORE: 3.69