Johnny Leonard Roosevelt Martin, known by his teammates as "Pepper" and by the opposition as "The Wild Horse of the Osage" died on this day 46 years ago.
The Cardinals are a team known for their colorful players. And Martin, no offense to his teammate Dizzy Dean, may have been the most colorful of them all. He was a practical joker and an all-round unrefined character, to put it mildly. Maybe that's why he's often overlooked for being the great ballplayer he was.
Baseball historian Lee Allen wrote in the 1961 book The National League Story that Martin was "A chunky, unshaven hobo who ran the bases like a berserk locomotive, slept in the raw and swore at pitchers in his sleep.
Martin was never the biggest star on the Gashouse Gang teams on which he played. But he was the glue. He played anywhere he was needed -- and played there well. Originally called up from the minors to play centerfield, when he was needed at the third base, he pitched in there, too.
Of course, that didn't mean he had to like playing third. Martin was infamous for seeking revenge against batters who dared to bunt while he manned the hot corner. His favorite method was to field a bunt and, instead of throwing the ball to the waiting first baseman, he'd aim between the shoulder blades of the hitter as he ran toward first base.
A .298 hitter who stole 146 bases in a career that spanned from 1928-40, plus a 40-game stretch in 1944 when the Cardinals were desperate for help during World War Two, Martin was best known for his speed, hustle and for playing his best when the games were the most important. He hit .418 in the three World Series in which he played -- the third highest average in history -- including a show-stealing 12-for 24 performance with five stolen bases, a homer, four doubles and five runs batted in during the 1931 Fall Classic.
Asked by a sportswriter during that series how he learned to run so fast, Martin replied "I grew up in Oklahoma. And, once you start running out there, ain't nothing to stop you."
Martin was a four-time All-Star who twice finished in the top 10 in MVP balloting. But he didn't let it go to his head. He used to try to pocket his expense money the club gave him to travel to spring training by jumping trains.
One year he showed up at the team hotel, dressed in ragged clothes and filthy from his chosen from of travel and the manager called the police to have him thrown out of the lobby. It wasn't until Martin convinced the manager to call for the team's traveling secretary to identify him that he was allowed to stay.
After his playing days were over, Martin served as a minor league coach and manager and served one season as a coach for the Cubs. (Does that count as minor league?) Away from the game he was a deputy sheriff, a prison warden and a cattle rancher.
He died in 1965 of a heart attack. Martin's wife, Ruby, whom he married in 1927 lived until 2006 when she died just short of 100 years old.
A tip of the cap to Pepper, one of the all-time great Cardinals who deserves to be in he Hall of Fame.