What I’m Reading: “The Gashouse Gang” by John Heidenry

gashouse-gangDespite its title, John Heidenry’s “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” is mostly a book about the 1934 St. Louis Cardinals’ star pitcher – Dizzy Dean.

Of course, the book touches on the other personalities that drove the team, including Frankie Frisch, Paul Dean, Pepper Martin, Ducky Medwick, and Leo Durocher, and even includes an early chapter on Branch Rickey, though he disappears for most of the book. However, most of these characters only discussed in the broadest biographical terms; this is mostly a book about the Deans and the way in which Dizzy took the baseball world by storm in the summer of 1934.

Heidenry covers Dizzy Dean’s path to the Major Leagues, the brothers’ confrontation with Cardinals owner Sam Breadon and Rickey over salary in the midst of a pennant race, and the variety of crazy things Dean said and did over the course of the season.

Interestingly, Heidenry admits that while the team’s famous nickname did not arrive until 1935, he doesn’t have an explanation for why the 1934 Cardinals were dubbed “the Gashouse Gang,” though he offers a number of suggestions that have been proposed elsewhere. In fact, he spends a not insignificant amount of time describing why the name makes little sense, as the term “gashouse” had been out of vogue for decades, and while New York had a “gashouse district” a generation previous, St. Louis did not.

Nonetheless, while Heidenry does not dive into great deal into any of the personalities on display outside of Dizzy Dean, he does provide a sense of how the Gashouse Gang fit into the culture of 1930s America, and the way that baseball was in many respects an entirely different atmosphere in those days.

Heidenry provides a steady stream of entertaining anecdotes – most centered on Dean, but a few that don’t. He includes the day that Dean famously provided interviews to three different journalists from New York City and helpfully gave them each a different birth date so they each would have a scoop for their readers.

Among my favorites:

  • When player-manager Frisch went to the mound to pull Tex Carleton from the game and the pitcher objected. “Well, you may feel all right, but I feel terrible,” Frisch responded. “Please go away from here.”
  • After striking Dizzy Dean in the head with a thrown ball in the 1934 World Series, knocking the young superstar unconscious, Detroit Tigers shortstop told reporters, “If I’d known his head was there, I would have thrown the ball harder.”
  • After Dizzy Dean’s playing days ended prematurely due to injury, he began a successful broadcasting career and was paired with Pee Wee Reese on CBS’s game of the week. “Look-a-there, Pee Wee,” Dean reportedly said once. “Those young folks are smooching after every pitch. He’s kissing her on the strikes and she’s kissing him on the balls.”

Though it wasn’t directly related to the Cardinals, I also appreciated this quote from Casey Stengel, whose Brooklyn Dodgers defeated the New York Giants on the final day of the season to help cement New York’s fall from the top of the National League and the Cardinals to capture the pennant:

“Farewell, my bonny men,” he told his players now that the season was over. “Some of you are off to maim the gentle rabbit. Some of you will shoot the carefree deer. I bid you Godspeed, my lamby-pambies, my brave young soldiers. Go with Casey’s blessing on your sweet heads.”

That, my friends, is poetry far superior to most anything I was forced to read in my English literature classes.

As for “The Gashouse Gang,” it’s a book that recounts a time in baseball history when the personalities were bigger and the game was far less polished. For fans of the St. Louis Cardinals, it’s a comprehensive look at the 1934 season and a team that will forever be remembered in Redbirds lore.

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