The ninth greatest Cardinal: Enos Slaughter
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. 9: OF ENOS SLAUGHTER
Enos Slaughter liked to spin an old yarn about how he once was reprimanded by a minor league manager for not always running hard and how those words changed the course of his career.
He told it, however, with the following qualifying disclaimer for the benefit of the young players: At no time, he would assure, did he ever fail to give his all when the ball was in play.
But that’s just details. The full story goes like this:
Slaughter loved to play baseball so much that he bypassed the offer of a college scholarship to take a job at a textile mill 30 miles away from his hometown of Roxboro, North Carolina. Why? Because the company had a semipro team.
Thanks to some glowing mentions in the Durham Morning Herald, the then-second baseman drew a look by the St. Louis Cardinals, who invited him to a tryout and eventually signed him. In 1936, Slaughter was assigned to the class B Columbus (Georgia) Red Birds of the South Atlantic League. The manager there was Eddie Dyer, who would one day be Slaughter’s manager in St. Louis.
At the end of a half-inning, the kid they called “Country” because of his tobacco farm upbringing, jogged in from his position in the outfield, slowed to a trot once he reached the infield dirt, then a leisurely stroll when he crossed the chalk line.
“Son,” Dyer told him. “If you’re too tired to run all the way, we’ll find some help for you.”
From then forward, coming or going, Slaughter never failed to hit the top step of the dugout in a full sprint. Further inspired by Joe Medwick, Terry Moore, Frankie Frisch and the other hard-nosed members of the Gas House Gang, Slaughter made hustling his trademark..
“He would do anything to beat you,” Casey Stengel once said of Slaughter.
That reputation has since been amplified in the defining moment of Slaughter’s Hall-of-Fame career. It also was central to a controversy that involved one of baseball’s greatest heroes and which followed him to his grave.
As the Gas House Gang aged out of the lineup, a new core of speedy young Redbirds emerged with their own run of pennants in the 1940s. Though each would sacrifice seasons to military service during the war, Slaughter, Moore and a young Stan Musial comprised an outfield that’s still widely regarded as one of the best ever.
The “Swifties” won a franchise record 106 games and a World Series in 1942, followed by championships in 1944 and 1946. They captured an additional National League flag in 1943 and otherwise didn’t finish any worse than second place over 10 seasons.
Their primary rivals during those years were the Brooklyn Dodgers. Competition between the teams was fierce, especially in 1946 when they finished the regular season in a first-place tie. The Cardinals swept a best-of-three series to win the pennant … again.
Slaughter finished third in balloting for MVP that year, batting .300/.374/.465 with a career-best 18 home runs and a National League-leading 130 RBIs. In a thrilling World Series against Ted Williams and the Boston Red Sox, he went 8-for-25 and scored one of the most famous runs in postseason history.
With two out in the top of the eighth, Boston’s Dom DiMaggio doubled home George Metkovich and Rip Russell to tie the game, 3-3. Slaughter led off the Cardinals’ half with a single to center field, but was frozen on first with the go-ahead run after Whitey Kurowski and Del Rice popped out. With two out, left fielder Harry Walker lined a hit into the gap in right-center field, which Leon Culberson cut off before it reached the wall.
Culberson threw a strike to shortstop Johnny Pesky, who was stunned to see Slaughter steam around third base, despite a frantic arm-waving stop sign by coach Mike Gonzalez. Pesky’s weak throw home was too late and hustling Slaughter completed his “Mad Dash” all the way from first base with the championship-clinching run.
“He must have sprung wings,” Pesky said after the game.
To Slaughter, it was all in a day’s work. But while his aggressiveness made him a hero in St. Louis, to the Dodgers, his rough-and-tumble daring sometimes crossed the line into dirty play.
Slaughter reveled in the rivalry with Brooklyn, joking that he could tell when the Dodgers were in town by how many batters had been beaned. He may have lost his sense of humor in 1947, though, when Brooklyn finally surpassed the Cardinals to win the National League.
A major catalyst for the Dodgers that season was rookie first baseman, Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier in the face of stark racism. Some opposing players threatened to boycott games against Brooklyn, rather than share a major league field with a black man. Commissioner Ford Frick headed off the insurrection with the promise of fines and suspensions to those who participated.
Racial tension, however, persisted.
On August 20, the second-place Cardinals visited Ebbet’s Field, trailing the Dodgers in the standings by five games. Tied 2-2 with one on and one out in the 11th, Slaughter hit a ground ball to the right side of the infield. Robinson fielded the ball cleanly, looked Musial back to second base, then raced to first for an unassisted force out. Running hard as always, Slaughter clipped Robinson above the ankle with his spikes, leaving a gash that would require stitches.
Robinson was angry, but complained only that Slaughter had plenty of room to avoid the collision. Others went the extra step in claiming that the incident was racially-motivated. Slaughter took offense to the accusation, asserting that injuries are an indiscriminate part of the game when it’s played hard and fast, as was his reputed style. He had similarly spiked at least three other players that season, denying that any of them were purposeful.
“I asked no quarter, and gave none,” he would often say.
Nevertheless, he’d spend the rest of his life fending off insinuations about his racial attitudes. In 1990, he and Moore sought legal remedy against a book publisher that charged the pair with lobbying Cardinals teammates to boycott games in protest of the game’s desegregation.
“Long before Jackie Robinson ever came into baseball, the Cardinals and Dodgers went at each other like cats and dogs. Then it was said that I intentionally spiked Jackie Robinson ... “ he said in a 1985 interview with UPI. “Somehow that kept following me wherever I went, but that was untrue. It was completely untrue. That hurt me. ... Jackie was my friend.”
Despite three seasons in his prime lost to service in the Army Air Corps, Slaughter played 13 years with the Cardinals during which he batted .305/.384/.463, while averaging 89 RBIs and 85 runs scored per year.
The Cardinals traded him to the New York Yankees in 1953 to make room in the outfield for eventual Rookie of the Year, Wally Moon. Slaughter spent six more seasons in the majors and earned two more championships.
In 1985, the Cardinals retired his No. 9 to the left field wall at Busch Stadium and the Veterans Committee elected him to the Baseball Hall of Fame, a stage he shared with another great Cardinals outfielder, Lou Brock.
He blamed the delay in his induction on the unfounded controversy that had haunted him since 1947. True to form, he “gave no quarter” when he told the induction-day crowd in Cooperstown that the day had been a long time coming.
“Well this is it,” he said. “Of course it came a long time too late, I thought. But that’s life.”
SEASONS IN ST. LOUIS: 1938-1953
.305/.298/.384/.463 in St. Louis | 10x All-Star | 2 WS rings | 50.5 WAR | HoF’85
TOP 100 SCORE: 5.26