Missouri Waltz: the 1944 Browns

Don Gutteridge, Browns second baseman

Don Gutteridge, Browns second baseman

If the National League race was predictable with the Cardinals triumphant, the American League race was absolutely wild. To start with the St. Louis Browns won it. They’d never won anything, ever. The 1944 pennant was their first.

All-time underachievers, the Browns won 89 games, besting Detroit by one game. Manager Luke Sewell’s team was next to last in batting average, but was second (to Boston) in runs per game. They were second in RBIs, doubles, and home runs. The staff was second (to Detroit) in runs given up per game and led the AL in strikeouts.

The catchers were Gus Mancuso and Red Hayworth. Hayworth played in two more games than Mancuso, but both were right-handed hitters. Apparently it wasn’t a platoon situation, but I can’t determine the exact rationale for using each player. Manager Sewell was an ex-catcher so perhaps he was merely keeping his catcher fresh. Both hit under .225 and had a homer apiece.

The infield was the same as in 1943 with George McQuinn at first, Don Gutteridge at second, Vern Stephens holding down short, and Mark Christman at third. Christman had replace long time third sacker Harland Clift midway through 1943, but the other had been Browns starters for both seasons. McQuinn and Stephens were the only Browns with double figure home runs (McQuinn had 11, Stephens 20). Stephens also led the team with 109 RBIs and was the only infielder to hit over .275. Gutteridge led the team with 20 stolen bases.

The outfield was unsettled. Gene Moore, Mike Kreevich, and Milt Byrnes did most of the outfield work, but that was because longtime left fielder Chet Laabs lost part of the season to the war (he was back by the World Series). Kreevich was the only starter to hit .300 (.301). He was also 36 years old. He replaced Mike Chartak as the primary center fielder prior to opening day. So only Byrnes had been a starter in 1943.

The bench was a strong point for the Browns, which helped propel them to the title. Laabs, in 66 games had five home runs and scored 28 times. Al Zarilla, a backup outfielder (and primarily known today for Dizzy Dean’s call of “Zarilla slud into third.”) hit .299, had six homers, six triples, and an OPS of .823. The rest of the bench was made up of decent fielders who didn’t hit a lot.

It was the pitching staff that changed the fortunes of the Browns. Gone were Steve Sundra, Steve Niggeling, and Al Hollingsworth as starters (Hollingsworth was a reliever, Sundra pitched three games). In their place were new ace Jack Kramer, Sig Jakucki, and Nels Potter. Both Potter and Kramer had better ERAs than any of the three departed starters. Returning starters were Bob Muncrief and Denny Galehouse. Their ERA+ ran from Kramer’s 146 to Jakucki’s 103. The starters faced one problem, all were right-handed. All the southpaws were in the bullpen. The bullpen had George Caster with 12 saves in 34 appearances, all in relief.

My wife’s grandfather was a diehard Browns fan. He told me stories, on more than one occasion, about the 1944 Browns. They won the pennant on the final day of the season and according to my wife’s grandfather, the entire town of St. Louis celebrated, even Cardinals fans. They knew they were seeing something they’d never seen before and , considering the Browns historical record, were likely never to see again, an all St. Louis World Series.

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2 Responses to “Missouri Waltz: the 1944 Browns”

  1. William Miller Says:

    Wow, very few of those players ever became what could be called household names, at least certainly not out of the St. Louis metro area. Vern Stephens was probably the best player of the bunch.
    Sig Jakucki?

    • verdun2 Says:

      Jakucki had a bad year with the Browns in ’36 and didn’t make it back to the big leagues until 1944. His last year was ’45. He’s something of a classic “war year” player.
      Thanks for reading.
      v

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