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Books | Sports

June 26, 2007

'A Poor Team With a Truly Brilliant Visionary'

Author John Heidenry on how Branch Rickey turned his cast of exploited, colorful ballplayers into a juggernaut.

Michael Myser

John Heidenry grew up in St. Louis in the shadow of Sportsman's Park and the great Cardinals and Browns baseball teams of the 1930s and 1940s. Though he wasn't born in time to see the Gashouse Gang play, he was drawn to the colorful characters and the reportedly amazing talent of the 1934 World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals. His assiduously-researched book focuses on the stories and clashes of the team's star pitcher Dizzy Dean, and star front-office genius Branch Rickey, but never leaves the minor players uncovered.

John Heidenry/photo courtesy Public Affairs
"Dizzy Dean was a real entertainer. He'd build little bonfires outside the dugout and do rain-dances on days when the temperature was over 100 degrees on the field."

John Heidenry/photo courtesy Public Affairs

The Gashouse Gang: How Dizzy Dean, Leo Durocher, Branch Rickey, Pepper Martin, and Their Colorful, Come-from-Behind Ball Club Won the World Series—and America's Heart—During the Great Depression, takes readers back into the heart of Depression-era baseball and shows how Rickey built a phenomenal team from a disparate band of players, who came together despite being underpaid and underappreciated by the very management that built the team. Heidenry talked to Gelf Magazine recently about a chance meeting with Yogi Berra that has served as his muse; the mystery of how the '34 champs got their name; and Dizzy Dean, the Ali of baseball. (The following interview has been edited for clarity. Also, you can hear Heidenry and other sports-book authors read from and talk about their works at the free Varsity Letters event presented by Gelf on Wednesday, July 5, in New York's Lower East Side.)

Gelf Magazine: You write that you just missed seeing the Gashouse Gang play live. Why did you decide to write about these guys?

John Heidenry: I was born in 1939 and grew up in St. Louis. I spent a lot of time going to Sportsman's Park, watching Enos Slaughter, Stan Musial and others. I just really love that era of the past. In moseying around the Internet, I happened upon a story by a Los Angeles sportswriter Bob Oates, who had a list of the top professional teams—not just baseball teams—of all time. He listed the Gashouse Gang as one of those teams. That really piqued my interest. I began researching, and realized a definitive history had never been written. Soon enough, I'd assembled pretty much everything I could find written about that team, and it really took me back to my childhood. I kind of pretended to be a member of the Knothole Gang. [Editor's note: The Knothole Gang was a bleacher section set aside in St. Louis' Sportsman's Park by city businessmen to allow the city's youth to attend games for free. Heidenry's uncle was a member of the Gang.]

GM: Any lingering memories of attending baseball games during your childhood?

JH: My first baseball memory is kind of unusual: I lived right next to Forest Park, the big public park in St. Louis. When I was 11 or 12 years old, I wandered into the park one very hot July day. I had nothing to do, so I took a walk through, went to the zoo, and stopped by the museum for some water. While I'm walking along the park, I pass by this handball court, and these two men are really going at it. Standing there watching them, I recognize one of them as Joe Garagiola. It had to be 100 degrees that day, and when they were done playing, and sweating profusely, I ask "Mr. Garagiola" for an autograph. He goes to his bag and tears off a piece of paper for me and signs it. Afterwards, he points to his playing partner and asks if I recognize him. I tell him no, and he says, "This is Lawrence P. Berra." I say "Wow, are you related to Yogi?" Garagiola tells me he's Yogi's brother, and I get his autograph as well. I wander off, thrilled that I had Joe Garagiola's, and disappointed I had Yogi's brother's autograph. It was years later that I realized it was actually Yogi, and I had no idea where the autograph had gotten to. That memory became a bit of a muse for me.

GM: Who, or what, were your sources?

JH: Unfortunately, there were no players still around to interview. But there was so much far-flung material written about those games; I was relying on the great talents of a truly wonderful crop of sportswriters. Whatever good qualities my book has is dependent on the work of these talented sportswriters. When you're peering into the past like that, trying to re-create a game and an atmosphere and get a value judgment out of what's occurring, you rely on a writer's breadth of vision. Some writers deliver more than others.
Roy Stockton was a great source and talented writer as the primary sports reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, but he was a bit of a hometown guy. So I'd have to look for what other people were saying about the same thing to try to come to a decision and figure out what was the objective reality. There were a good dozen other sportswriters I'm forever indebted to.

"When you're peering into the past, trying to re-create a game and an atmosphere, you rely on a writer's breadth of vision. Some writers deliver more than others."
GM: You tell a really interesting story about how Branch Rickey basically created the minor-league system as it's known today. Why did he do that?

JH: St. Louis at the time was the Western-most and Southern-most professional sports city. And they had by far the least drawing power—less than two million, compared to the five or six million towns like New York had.
Rickey knew he would never have the money that would allow him to compete if he continued to play by the rules of those New York teams. The only way he'd be able to compete with the real top-of-the-league teams was to develop homegrown talent. He started with buying a share in one farm team, and kept investing in minor-league teams. While the commissioner and other owners looked at it as a form of communism, Rickey soon had a huge farm system in place.
The 1934 Gashouse Gang was truly the full flowering of that system for the first time, and every player except one played for less than $10,000. It was a poor team with a truly brilliant visionary.

GM: Branch Rickey kept his job for a long time and through some tough losing seasons. Why was he given that much leeway, and able to hold onto his job for so long?

JH: Partly it was because Sam Breadon [the Cardinal's owner] was an automotive dealer and it took him awhile to become comfortable with the business of baseball. And Rickey had a formidable reputation as a baseball mind, even though he wasn't a great field manager. He was "Mr. Statistics," and was bumped upstairs as the general manager. As GM, he consolidated his authority, and for the first seven or eight years, that basically made him a co-president of the team with Breadon. Rickey could do a lot of what he wanted, especially early on, as Breadon was getting comfortable with his ownership.
Rickey would become infamous in baseball circles as a guy who traded almost every single one of his players at the top of their prime. And he almost never made any mistakes.

"Every player except one played for less than $10,000. It was a poor team with a truly brilliant visionary."
GM: Not to play pop-psychologist, but was Dizzy Dean insane? You have a dozen or more bizarre Dizzy stories in this book.

JH: Branch Rickey should've known what he was in for, when Dean was a rookie and introduced himself to Rickey and told him he was going to win him a ton of games, and not to bother sending him to the minors. He was an uneducated, poor sharecropper, but he had absolutely no fear of a man like Rickey or any other owner. He felt entitled to what he thought his talents should earn him. In Bradenton, Florida, during spring training, Dean would go to the soda counter and buy a round of Cokes for everyone, billing it to Rickey. He was a real entertainer. He'd build little bonfires outside the dugout and do rain-dances on days when the temperature was over 100 degrees on the field.
His manager, Frank Frisch, believed that if Dizzy truly took pitching seriously, he could've won 45 games that season. But Dizzy Dean would get bored on the mound—so just to amuse or test himself, he'd often pitch to batters' strengths: throw fastball hitters only fastballs, just for a challenge. He'd go into a dugout and tell the opposing player what his strengths and weaknesses were, and tell that player how he would pitch him. Instead of winning 45 games, he won a mere 30. He was pitching on alternate days pretty much from August until the end of the season. When he didn't start, he was relieving for his brother, Paul.
I think Rickey and Frisch, in a slightly different way, liked Dizzy Dean. Dizzy was kind of their problem child, and these guys were his father figures.

GM: Who was your favorite person in the book to research and write about?

JH: I would say Dean, because he was larger than life. It was impossible not to be thrilled to come across all of his stories.
But the guy my heart went out to was Pepper Martin. He grew up in really tough circumstances. He wasn't powerful, he was short, and he failed on numerous earlier occasions to make it into baseball.
In one of the most touching moments in the book, Martin was going from town to town, basically as an itinerant ballplayer looking for teams to play with. He had an old car, one pair of pants and a fishing rod with him. He'd wash his clothes in the creek, fish for food and sleep in the woods. When a team finally took him, he'd go out early and help the groundskeeper take care of the field; he'd ride around on a horse and wagon with a sign advertising the games.
Pepper was a perennial 12-year-old: He could never get enough baseball. He'd be out there from sunrise to sunset. He gave a lot of personality to the Gashouse Gang. That kind of love for the game of baseball you just don't see very often.

GM: This team's players had some, shall we say, interesting pastimes. What was the most entertaining for you to find out and write about?

JH: Pepper Martin was also a midget auto racer, so he'd race every morning before the games. Ernie Orsatti was a real ladies' man and a Hollywood double, as his brother owned a production company.
But if I wanted to hang out with any of the Gashouse Gang, the guy I would probably be most comfortable with was the manager Frank Frisch. Maybe because my wife graduated from Fordham, like Frisch. But he was a man who liked his good wine and art, but had a gruff, fatherly personality. I could relate to him a bit. I think Dizzy Dean would've been a bit of a handful.

Pepper Martin was a perennial 12-year-old: He could never get enough baseball. He'd be out there from sunrise to sunset.
GM: Like you said, Dean ended up with 30 wins. Is there a modern athletic personality you can compare him to?

JH: I compare Dizzy Dean to Muhammad Ali. I cannot think of any athletes besides Dizzy and Ali comparable to these two. They both called themselves "The Greatest." They were both utterly fearless. They knew they could whup 'em and they did. They were self-promoters, almost at a genius level. They were controversial: Dean went on strike, Ali refused to join the Armed Forces. And finally, they dominated their sport unlike anyone before or since. Who really dominated baseball to the extent that Dizzy did in 1934? He was pitching every other day in the heat of the summer, winning 30 games. Who dominated boxing like Ali? And certainly no one had the personality these two had.

GM: Dizzy and his brother Paul went on strike for a week during that 1934 season protesting their low salaries. Do you agree they were being underpaid?

JH: Branch Rickey knew that one of the most talented players he'd ever seen was Dizzy Dean. He'd never come across a player that good. While there were some constraints because of the Depression, when you realize you have a player of that caliber, why try to pay him $7,500 when he was playing others nearly twice that? Why not cut back on profits and give these guys a kind of a break? I just don't understand it. Meanwhile, Rickey was enriching himself: He had a chauffeur-driven Buick and a private railroad car for road trips. There's just no way I can reconcile that with exploiting ballplayers by trying to pay them as little as you can. Dizzy and the others were not well treated. I think the Gashouse Gang won in spite of a management who didn't give a damn about their welfare.

GM: Did you ever figure out what "Gashouse Gang" even meant?

JH: No. Believe me, I spent a long time trying to figure that out. I read every single explanation there was—memoirs, encyclopedias, newspapers. I probably looked at 30 or 40 different interpretations, most of them citing one another. I'm pretty confident that it probably originated with some New York sportswriters, as there was a Gashouse district in New York, and they probably just decided to do it. It was a 50-year-old obsolete term, even before they decided to apply it to the St. Louis team. And it's probably the only sobriquet applied retroactively. [Editor's note: The team wasn't referred to as the Gashouse Gang until the name appeared in 1935.]

GM: In a related question, why such a lengthy subtitle to your book ("How Dizzy Dean, Leo Durocher, Branch Rickey, Pepper Martin and Their Colorful Come-from-Behind…:)?

JH: Subtitles, I've noticed, are becoming longer. And when I submitted it, it was shorter. Mine was "the 1934 St. Louis Cardinals," which I thought said it all, but apparently it didn't. Still, I approved this subtitle, I think it's shrewd marketing and goes after a national readership. It's a competitive world; they need to have the cover lines that will grab the impulse buyer.

Michael Myser

Michael Myser is a freelance writer in Morristown, New Jersey. His writing can be found at

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- Sports
- posted on Jun 28, 07
Leo Jackson

St. Louis may have had the least drawing power of all the teams but the poor people of southern Missouri, Arkansas, northern Mississippi and west Tennessee worshiped the Cardinals, thanks to the KMOX radio station. Next to attending church on Sundays was a family gathered around radio to listen to a "Red Birds" vrs a "Cubs" game. I had a friend in Arkansas who told me his family had one of the first battery operated radios in the 1930's and his dad only let them turn it on to listen to "Red Bird" games. Neighbors would come from miles around in rural Arkansas to listen to the games at his dad's farm house. Great Q & A.

- Sports
- posted on Apr 30, 08
Jeff Klein

I am trying to find any information on my grandfather who played in the St. Louis Caridnals farm system in the mid to late 30's. His name is Frank "Honey" Jackson. He is Pompton Lakes, NJ

Article by Michael Myser

Michael Myser is a freelance writer in Morristown, New Jersey. His writing can be found at

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