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Cardinals of Yore: Pepper Martin

December 29, 2008

Cardinals of yore: Pepper Martin

Martinpepper2Johnny "Pepper" Martin has to be one of the most under-rated players in the history of the St. Louis Cardinals.

He's not mentioned in the same breath as Stan Musial, Rogers Hornsby, Bob Gibson or even Dizzy Dean, one of his team mates on the legendary Gas House Gang clubs of the 1930s. But Martin not only had one of the best World Series in the history of the game in 1931, he also embodied all it should forever mean to be a Cardinal: He hustled all the time. He was all about the team over self. And he was a natural born winner.

Martin didn't stick with the major league club until he was 27 years old. But in 1931 he made his mark by hitting .300 with 16 stolen bases and 75 RBIs in 123 games. But that was just the warm up.

He hit .500 in the Fall Classic that season (12-24) with a homer, four doubles, five runs scored and five RBIs to lead the Cardinals to victory over the Philadelphia Athletics. He also stole five bases in six tries.

Martin stuck in the big leagues for 13 seasons, hitting .298 and playing where ever he was needed. He played all three outfield spots early in his career but switched to third base in the second half where he was known to be irritated by batters who had the audacity to bunt while he was on watch. Martin, legend has it, would hustle to the ball and then use his cannon of an arm to drill the batter between the shoulder blades as he ran down to first base.

Obviously, Martin was as much as a character off the field as he was a star on it. In 1928 he was invited to spring training by Cardinals GM Branch Rickey who sent him train fare to get there. Martin, who grew up poor in Oklahoma and learned to do what he had to do to survive, pocketed the cash and hopped a freight train hobo style to get to camp.

When he got to the hotel in Florida, Martin looked the part of a vagabond and management of the hotel at first refused to let him check in. The team's traveling secretary had to be called to verify that the "tramp" in question was in fact a major league baseball player.

Martin again starred in the 1934 World Series in which he hit .355 with a triple, three doubles, eight runs scored and four RBIs in the Cardinals' 4-3 win over Detroit.

"He was a fun guy, full of pranks," Gas House Gang manager Frank Frisch remembered in Martin's 1965 Obituary printed in the New York Times, specifically mentioning that Martin's favorite stunt was dropping paper sacks full of water out of his hotel window onto unsuspecting players below. Martin, who Frisch said hated the "Pepper" nickname and preferred to be called "Johnny" also liked to fake fistfights with Dizzy Dean in hotel lobbies. After throwing a few convincing punches, the Gas Housers would spit out pieces of popcorn as if they lost teeth in the battle.

Martin tried his hand at managing in the minors after his playing days were over. But he quit after being booed during a game.

They hurt my feelings," Martin explained at the time. "I'm not a good manager. I'm too thin skinned and tender hearted."

After that, he tried to be a sheriff's deputy in Oklahoma. But, after arresting an Army deserter and taking him to jail, Martin felt so sorry for the kid that he sobbed right along with the young man's parents at the jail house. He quit shortly thereafter.

Martin died at 61 from a heart attack.