Missouri Waltz: the 1944 Cardinals

Johnny Hopp and Stan Musial

Johnny Hopp and Stan Musial

The 1944 season was completely different. Many quality players were off to war. A lot of diamond geezers were suddenly young again. A whole bunch of never-was types were playing in the Major Leagues. And the World Series came to St. Louis and stayed. For the only time prior to 1974, both pennant winners were from west of the Mississippi River. To top it off, Senator Harry S Truman of Missouri was nominated and later elected Vice President of the United States. It was quite a year for Missouri.

The Cardinals were returning National League champions having won pennants in both 1942 and 1943 (and picking up the win in the 1942 World Series). So they were expected to contend for a third consecutive pennant. Manager Billy Southworth’s team was much the same team that had swept to victory the two previous seasons. But there were changes that impacted the team. On the staff, Mort Cooper was still the ace and Max Lanier remained the number two man, but the remainder of the staff underwent significant overhaul. Harry Breechen went from 13 to 22 starts and settled in as the second lefty (behind Lanier) while rookie Ted Wilks led the NL in winning percentage.

Mort Cooper’s brother Walker was the regular catcher. His batting average dropped a couple of points, and his RBIs dropped by 10, but he went from nine to thirteen homers and saw his OPS+ jump to 136 (third on the team). In the field he managed to cut down on both his errors and passed balls. He was never going to be the best catcher of his era, but he was improving.

The infield was much the same. Ray Sanders held down first both seasons, Whitey Kurowski was at third, and Marty Marion (who would win the 1944 National League MVP) was at short. Both Sanders and Kurowski had double figure home runs (12 and 20) with Kurowski leading the team. There was a new second baseman. Second was a problem for the Cards through the entire first half of the 1940s with only Creepy Crespi spending more than one season (he got two) as the primary second sacker. The 1944 version featured Emil Verban. he managed to hit in the .270s for his career but had only one homer ever (and it wasn’t in 1944). He was a decent middle infielder but hit eighth for a  reason. The Cards would finally solve the problem when they brought up Red Schoendienst in 1945 and installed him at second the next year.

The outfield, unlike the infield, had seen great turnover. Gone to war were veteran center fielder (and one of the great undervalued Cardinals) Terry Moore and Hall of Fame right fielder Enos Slaughter. In their place were Danny Litwhiler in right. He’d replaced Slaughter in 1943 and hung around the next season. He was second on the team with 15 home runs. The new center fielder was Johnny Hopp. Hopp had been around St. Louis since 1939 splitting time between first and the outfield. He was fast (leading the team with 15 stolen bases) and a capable fielder. So although both were relatively new as starters, they’d been around the team for a while. Of course the other outfielder was Stan Musial. He hit .347, had an OPS of .990 (OPS+ of 174–the team high), and had 12 home runs to go with 14 triples and 197 hits.

During the war years, benches tended to suffer. The Cardinals bench was, at best, indifferent. Backup catcher Ken O’Dea was 31 and hit .249. Debs Garms was 37, did much of the backup work in the outfield and at third and hit all of .201. Pepper Martin, out of retirement, was even older. At 40 he got into 40 games and hit .279 and ended up with an OPS+ of 118 one point higher than the other backup outfielder, Augie Bergamo.

The Cards won 105 games, the same as the year before, finishing 14.5 games ahead of Pittsburgh. As mentioned above, Marion brought home the MVP with Musial finishing fourth and the Cooper brothers finishing eighth (Walker) and ninth (Mort). Sanders, Hopp, Wilks, and Kurowski also picked up a handful of MVP votes.

They would go into the World Series heavily favored. Not only were they defending NL champions, but their opponent had never won a pennant before. They were going to face their crosstown rival Browns.

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