The eighth greatest Cardinal: Dizzy Dean
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. 8: RHP Dizzy Dean
The Detroit Tigers held a 4-2 lead heading into the bottom of the fourth, hoping to even the series with a victory. But Ernie Orsatti led off the Cardinals’ half with a single, then advanced on an error and scored on a one-out hit by catcher Spud Davis, who was slow as molasses on a winter’s day.
St. Louis manager Frankie Frisch had platooned Davis liberally throughout the season with Bill DeLancey and saw an opportunity to pull a double switch, using a pinch runner as the go-ahead tally. Outfielder Chick Fullis, who had stolen 18 bases for the Phillies just the season before, was available, as was spry young infielder Burgess Whitehead.
But Dean, 24 years old with no shortage of confidence, hopped off the bench and sprinted to first base before Frisch could call on anybody else.
The next St. Louis batter, Pepper Martin, grounded a double-play ball toward Tigers’ second baseman Charlie Gehringer who flipped to the shortstop to force out at second. Dean, who barreled into the bag standing up, took Billy Rogell’s throw to first flush in the middle of the forehead.
The ball “bounced high and far into right field, while Dean plunged headlong over second base, out as cold as a mackerel,” the New York Times reported.
As a concerned umpire and curious Detroit players gathered around to check on the injured St. Louis pitcher, Leo Durocher scored the tying run. Thus, it was with his noggin, not his legs, that Dean would help his team.
The Times led its sports section the next day using Dizzy’s own words in the now-famous headline: “They X-rayed my head and found nothing.”
The Cardinals ended up losing the game, but Ol’ Diz was back on the mound for Game 5, asking batters “what kind of pitch would you like to miss?”
This, of course, was quintessential Dizzy Dean, who played the part of an Arkansas hayseed to the hilt with an ironic mix of self-effacing humor, colorful misuse of the English language and a country-boy bravado. He’d grown up in rural Arkansas and quit school in the second grade to pick cotton — “I didn’t do so good in the first grade, either,” he would crack.
That was mostly just for laughs, though. Dean was as clever and calculating as he was uneducated. Mel Allen, his broadcast partner on the NBC Game of the Week, confirmed Dean was no poet, but his verbal missteps — “he slud into third base” — were purposeful.
“He wanted to goof up,” Allen said. “It was a part of the vaudeville.”
With KMOX-AM and its 50,000 watts boosting his exploits with St. Louis’ Gas House Gang into the sticks of Arkansas, Alabama, Oklahoma and other points south and west, Dean became a depression-era folk hero.
“When Ol’ Diz was out there pitching it was more than just another ballgame,” said teammate Pepper Martin. “It was a regular three-ring circus and everybody was wide awake and enjoying being alive.”
He was discovered in 1930 on a sandlot field at Lackland Air Force Base, near San Antonio — where a master sergeant gave him his nickname — having never played an inning of organized baseball. He nevertheless made his major-league debut on the final day of that same season, defeating the Pittsburgh Pirates with a complete-game three-hitter. Dean didn’t join the Cardinals full time until 1932, though, winning 18 games with a 3.30 ERA in a league-high 286 innings.
But it was his 20 wins in 1933, which included a 17-strikeout victory over the Chicago Cubs, that emboldened the assertion he’d draw more fans to Sportsman’s Park than Babe Ruth. He furthermore predicted he and his younger-brother, Paul, a rookie right-hander, would win 45 games between them in 1934.
It was a bold promise, but as the elder Dean would say at season’s end, “it ain’t braggin’ if you dun it.”
Not counting their four wins in the World Series, the Arkansas brothers posted 49 victories. Paul — who the team’s publicity folks insisted go by “Daffy” — won 19. Dizzy — who was just plain “Jay” or “Jerome” back home — won 30, the last National League pitcher to reach that milestone. He also was the National League MVP that year.
The Dean boys did it again in 1935, even as the Cardinals slipped into second place, four games behind Chicago — Diz again led the league with 28 wins while Paul won another 19. But their success was fleeting. Injuries limited Paul to just 12 more wins over seven more seasons.
Dizzy went 24-13 for the second-place Cardinals in 1936 then won 12 games in the first half of the following season. On May 5, 1937, he bet the Boston Bees’ Vince DiMaggio that he’d strike out four times against him. After whiffing in his first three at bats, Joltin’ Joe’s kid brother hit a pop-up behind the plate. Diz hollered at his catcher, Bruce Ogrodowski, to “Drop it!” which he did. He then struck DiMaggio out on the next pitch.
But in the All-Star Game, Cleveland’s Earl Averill hit a line drive up the middle and off Dean’s big toe. His premature return to the mound two weeks later was agonizing.
“I was unable to pivot my left foot because my toe hurt too much,” he said.
The change in his throwing mechanics forced by the tender toe ended up putting strain on his arm. He won only one more game, finishing 13-10 with a 2.69 ERA. It would be his last with the Cardinals.
St. Louis traded him to the Cubs for three players and $18,500 just before Opening Day of 1938. Though he’d help Chicago to a rare World Series appearance in 1938, Dean would never pitch more than 96 innings or win more than seven games again.
Dean became a popular play-by-play man both in St. Louis and on the NBC Game of the Week, though his chronic use of the word “ain’t” and other grammatical offenses drew Federal Communications Commission complaints from the nation’s teachers. After declaring himself a better pitcher than anyone on their staff, St. Louis Browns owner Bill DeWitt coaxed Dean out of the broadcast booth for a final start six years after he’d retired. Dean, at 37, shut out the White Sox through four innings. He even got a hit.
“The Good Lord was good to me,” he said at his induction. “He gave me a strong body, a good right arm and a weak mind.”
SEASONS IN ST. LOUIS: 1930, 1932-1937
134-75 (.641) in St. Louis | 4x All-Star | WS rings | MVP’34 | 39.7 WAR | HoF’53
TOP 100 SCORE: 5.83