Every year when spring training is about to start, I think about one of the most Cardinalsesque St. Louis Cardinals in the history of the franchise.
Johnny Leonard Roosevelt “Pepper” Martin was a guy who would run through a brick wall to make a play. It’s hard to find a photo of him playing in which his uniform isn’t dirty, contributing to the nickname of the 1930s-era Redbirds clubs he played for, the “Gas House Gang.”
Why does he remind me of spring training? It has more to do with his passion for saving a buck or two than it does his zest for the game.
My favorite Pepper Martin story deals with his annual travels from his offseason home in Oklahoma than it does with his exploits on the field. According to legend, Martin, who seemed to fancy himself a sort of wannabe hobo, used to pocket his travel stipend every February, opting to catch a ride in an empty boxcar of a southbound freight train as opposed to coughing up the bucks necessary to ride in a Pullman car on a passenger locomotive.
When he arrived in Florida after his lengthy journey, Martin was filthy. In 1931 he showed up at the team hotel, demanding to be admitted. Hotel management was in the process of having the St. Louis spark plug removed from the premises when team officials vouched for him and he was allowed to stay.
Martin is the subject of one of my all-time favorite baseball quotes. Probably meant as an insult, I find it to be oddly complimentary, even if it is in a back-handed sort of way.
Author Lee Allen wrote in his 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.” Sounds like my kind of ballplayer. I wish there were more like him today. Well, except for the sleeping in the raw part.
Speaking of Martin’s dressing habits, teammate Leo Durocher said the third baseman and outfielder refused to wear a protective cup — and other undergarments when he played — which made Martin one of the luckiest human beings ever to grace a baseball diamond.
Durocher said he saw Martin get hit by the baseball in every part of his body — except the area where he’d left himself the most vulnerable — defying the law of probability despite inviting disaster over the course of his decade-long career.
When he wasn’t busy being a character, the Wild Horse of the Osage was one of the greatest ballplayers of his era. He was a career .298 hitter who sported a .386 on-base percentage. He played in three World Series and amassed a .418 batting average in the process with seven doubles, a triple and a home run. He stole seven bases in the Fall Classic and was caught only twice attempting to steal.
Martin, sadly, is one of the most underrated players in franchise history. He was a gamer who played every position the team asked him to handle, sacrificed his body at every turn and hustled every second of his career. He made the majors as a 27-year-old rookie and never took a moment for granted.