Monday, October 21, 2013

Cardinals - (Red Sox) : 1946 Pivot Year -- Capstone of a St. Louis Dynasty

This is the fourth time the St. Louis Cardinals representing the National League and the Boston Red Sox the American League have met in the Fall Classic.  The first time was in 1946, which proved to be a pivot year in the longer-term fortunes of both teams.  Although both remained competitive for the remainder of the decade, neither returned to the World Series until the mid-1960s--the Cardinals, for the first time in 18 years in 1964, and the Red Sox, for the first time in 21 years in 1967, when they once again faced off against St. Louis.  This first of two Insights looks at the St. Louis Cardinals, whose 1946 World Series triumph capped a six-year span in which they won 606 games.

Cardinals - (Red Sox):  1946 Pivot Year--Capstone of a St. Louis Dynasty

The St. Louis Cardinals and Brooklyn Dodgers squared off in a fierce competitive rivalry in the 1940s that played out in four close pennant races.  After the two teams jockeyed between second and third place the previous two years, they were the class of the National League in 1941, leaving the Cincinnati Reds--who were defending back-to-back pennants--in the dust.  With Johnny Mize and Country Slaughter solidifying their line-up, the Cardinals won 97 games that year, but fell short by 2-1/2 games to the 100-win Dodgers. Brooklyn looked certain to repeat in 1942 when they held a 10-game lead over St. Louis as late as August 5.  The Cardinals were handicapped by having traded away Mize for virtually nothing before the start of the season--a miscalculation by the Cardinals' normally astute General Manager, Branch Rickey, who generally liked the leverage of trading away good players on the cusp of their declining years (Mize would remain one of baseball's best players for the rest of the decade)--but had a secret weapon in a kid who would become known as The Man, one Mr. Stan Musial.  Although the Dodgers went on to win 104, they were trumped by the Cardinals winning 44 of their last 53 games--a phenomenal .830 winning percentage--to end up with 106 victories and the pennant, and then, for good measure, St. Louis upended the New York Yankees in the only World Series they would lose when Joe McCarthy was their manager.  The Cardinals blew out the rest of the league with back-to-back 105-win seasons the next two years, fell three games short of the Cubs in 1945, and in 1946 dueled through the month of September to a tie that required a three-game playoff format favored by the National League to decide such things, St. Louis needing only two games to advance to a Fall Classic date with the Red Sox, made famous by Harry Brecheen's three wins, Ted Williams' slump, and Country Slaughter's romp while Johnny Pesky held the ball.  This was the high point of the Cardinals' dynasty, but in 1949 they fought another close race with the Dodgers, their 96 wins being one fewer than needed to force another playoff series with Brooklyn.

In a recent post on "Cardinal Pennant Clusters,", I noted that despite winning four pennants and three World Series in five years between 1942 and 1946, the Cardinals may not get the respect they deserve as one of the best teams in history because their 1943 and 1944 blowout pennants were when many of the best players in baseball were serving in the US armed forces during World War II.  In particular, it appeared at the time, and historically in retrospect, that the Cardinals' principal rival before the war years--the Brooklyn Dodgers--were hurt more by player losses than St. Louis. The Dodgers indisputably lost a greater number of important players to the war effort--third baseman Cookie Lavagetto for four years; shortstop Pee Wee Reese, center fielder Pete Reiser, and ace reliever Hugh Casey for three; and second baseman Billy Herman and starting pitcher Kirby Higbe for two.  The Cardinals'  fared better in keeping their core regulars, with their most significant wartime player losses being outfielders Country Slaughter and Terry Moore for three years and Musial for a single season in 1945 (when, not coincidentally, the Cardinals failed to win a fourth straight pennant).

The wartime impact on the Cardinals-Dodgers rivalry, however, was more apparent than real because the teams--by far the best in the National League--were likely on different trajectories even had the Second World War not intervened.  Specifically, the 1942 Dodgers were an older team and possibly on a plateau, while the 1942 Cardinals were a young team getting better, and it seems unlikely their aging veterans would have kept pace with the younger Cardinals even if there hadn't been a world at war to deplete big league rosters.  Five of Brooklyn's position players and two of their pitchers with 20 or more starts that year were 30 years or older, compared to only one core regular that age on the St. Louis roster--30 year-old Terry Moore.  While spared the loss of key players like ace starter Mort Cooper and his brother, catcher Walker Cooper, shortstop Marty Marion, third baseman Whitey Kurowski, and Musial (until 1945), St. Louis did have wartime holes to fill.  The Cardinals' pitching staff was particularly hard hit by war:  Johnny Beazley, who won 21 games in 1942, wore Uncle Sam's uniform the next three years; Ernie White, who won 17 games in 1941, missed much of the next two seasons with arm problems and was in the military the two after that; and Al Brazle and Howie Pollet both served two years just as they were on the verge of becoming established as major league pitchers.

Given their core of young players, especially Musial, it seems highly plausible, if not likely, that the Cardinals achievements in 1941 and 1942 would have given them momentum into the years ahead even if the war had not depleted major league rosters and Brooklyn been able to keep its core intact.  Once the war was over and major league players-turned-soldiers returned to being players, the Brooklyn team that challenged St. Louis for the 1946 pennant had Reese, Reiser, Higbe, and Casey back in uniform, but of the seven players 30 years or older who were core regulars on the 1942 Dodgers, only right fielder Dixie Walker--who was not called into service during the war--was a regular on the 1946 Dodgers.  Beginning in 1947, the Dodgers began the transition to one of the most memorable--and best--teams in National League history that would win six of the next 10 NL pennants featuring Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, Gil Hodges, Don Newcombe, Preacher Roe, Carl Furillo and Pee Wee Reese, who was the only significant player remaining from the 1941-46 Dodgers. The Cardinals stayed competitive--finishing second each of the next three years after 1946--but could not match that level of talent.  The only outstanding new player the Cardinals were able to add to their mix was (future) Hall of Fame second baseman Red Schoendienst.  The Cardinals' last great run for a pennant before they fell into a fifteen-year malaise was in 1949, when losing four in a row to the sixth-place Pirates and last-place Cubs cost them the game-and-a-half lead they held over Brooklyn with only five games remaining.  They finished one behind.

Next Up:  The Red Sox had their own 1946 pivot.

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