BROWNS WIN THE PENNANT – SKY FALLS IN SAINT LOUIS
By Max Blue
If you were seven years old in 1936 and lived close enough to St. Louis to hear the St. Louis Browns’ games on the radio, you grew up knowing that the Browns would lose. For the four years beginning in 1936 the Browns were 209 games below .500, losing 411 times.
If you were seven years old in 1936 and lived close enough to New York to hear the New York Yankees’ games on the radio, you grew up knowing that the Yankees would win. For the four years beginning in 1936 the Yankees were 208 games above .500, winning 409 games. In 1939 the Yankees won 106 games, the Browns lost 111 games, 18 to the Yankees.
In the eight years from 1936 to 1943 the New York Yankees won seven pennants and six World’s Series. They won 799 regular season games and lost 427. In the World’s Series they won 25 and lost 9, including a string of 11 straight wins between 1937 and 1941.
My Grandpa Gus was a deep shaft coal miner just across the river from St. Louis in southern Illinois; he saw deep moral lessons in all this Browns’ losing and Yankees’ winning; he tried to explain it to me.
“Max, my boy,” he said more than once, “the first thing you have to understand
is that baseball is not just a game, it is a metaphor for life.”
My Grandpa Gus had a lot of time to think about metaphors and such when he was up against those coal seams four hundred feet under the ground.
“Look at me,” he said. “You can’t get much lower than me, Maxie, and you know what? I am like the St. Louis Browns —down—almost buried.”
Then he began to chuckle, then laughed right out loud, his bright eyes, etched with coal dust that could never be entirely scrubbed away, were shining. You couldn’t help feeling good when Grandpa Gus laughed like that.
Then the smile faded and he said with great sincerity, “Down, Maxie, but not out: just like the Browns.”
“Can the Browns do it, Grandpa? Can they beat the Yankees?” I asked the question even though I knew the answer. I was hoping that Grandpa Gus could somehow make it happen. I knew what the Yankees had done to the Browns over the years.
Before he answered, Grandpa Gus took out his pipe and worn leather tobacco
pouch. I always liked the smell of Grandpa Gus’s tobacco and looked forward to
the day when I would be old enough to try it. As he worked slowly and carefully
to load and light his pipe you could tell that he was considering carefully how
to answer the question.
After a long draw on the pipe and the release of a stream of smoke, he was ready to answer. He began by repeating the question. “Can the Browns beat the Yankees? First let’s review the situation, Maxie. Four games left in the season. Detroit is one game ahead of the Browns and three games ahead of the Yankees. Detroit plays four games at home against last place Washington who they have beaten fifteen out of eighteen times. The Browns play four games at home against the Yankees who have won ten of the eighteen games played between the two clubs. The Yankees know that winning is their birthright; they still think they can win the whole thing, especially since all they have to do is beat the Browns, and hope Washington can salvage some pride by beating the Tigers. Detroit has two pitchers, Dizzy Trout and Hal Newhouser, who between them have won almost sixty games. These are not very good odds, Maxie.”
“Grandpa, do you think it would help if we went to the games?”
Grandpa Gus nodded his head. “This a very good question, Maxie. I have often wondered about such things myself. If we are there can we will the Browns to win by the force of our desire? Are such things possible in life?”
Grandpa Gus puffed on his pipe. Then, through a cloud of smoke he looked at me and said, “Why don’t we give it a try?”
Thursday’s games were rained out both in St. Louis and Detroit; doubleheaders were scheduled for Friday. Grandpa and me caught the bus in Belleville and headed for Sportsmans Park, 30 miles across the Mississippi River on the north side of St. Louis.
The bus terminal was close to Grand and Olive in downtown St. Louis where we boarded a streetcar headed for the ballpark. After we crossed Easton Avenue the light towers of Sportsmans Park soon came into view. “Look, Grandpa, there it is.” The thrill of that sight would stay with me for a lifetime.
So there we were, Grandpa Gus and me, along with about 6,000 other fans on a cool, cloudy day in St. Louis. And there was the Yankees’ leadoff man Snuffy Stirnweiss scoring on a hit by Johnny Lindell that bounced over the head of Browns’ pitcher Jack Kramer and into centerfield. It was the only run the Yankees would score for the next two days. Kramer shut them down for the rest of game one, and the Browns scored four off Tiny Bonham, two on a homerun by George McQuinn. In game two Hank Borowy, the Yankees 17-game winner allowed only two hits, but one of them was a leadoff double by Don Gutterridge who scored the games’ only run after a wild pitch and an infield out. Nelson Potter pitched the shutout.
Detroit handled Washington 5-2 in game one, but fell into a flatfooted tie with the Browns when 27-game winner Dizzy Trout gave up a three-run homer to Stan Spence and lost to 15-game loser Mickey Haeffner in game two.
On Saturday, with the Browns tied for the lead, along with Grandpa Gus and me, just under 13,000 people showed up to watch Denny Galehouse outpitch Monk Dubiel in a 2-0 Browns win. In Detroit, Hal Newhouser beat Washington for his 29th win.
When Grandpa Gus and me got to the park on Sunday morning we couldn’t get in. I never saw so many people in one place in my whole life. On Friday and Saturday we walked up to the centerfield ticket office on the corner of Grand and Dodier, bought our fifty cents bleacher seats, and went on in. Today the ticket line stretched around the block and by the time we got close enough to see the window the game had already started and the window was slammed shut. The game was a sellout; me and Grandpa Gus were left out.
“What are gonna do, Grandpa? If we don’t get in, the Browns will lose. Sig Jakucki can’t beat the Yankees without our help.”
Grandpa Gus had had his share of disappointments in a long life; for me it was the first, and I was taking it hard. I would have cried except now that I’m 15-years-old I can’t do that anymore, and besides, in baseball it isn’t allowed.
“Hang on, Maxie, maybe we can find a scalper.” Grandpa Gus was willing to shell out extra bucks if we could locate somebody in the crowd who had tickets for sale.
No such luck, it looked like we were out of it. We heard what sounded like a 35,000 voice groan rolling over the outfield wall to our spot on Grand Avenue where we stood with necks stretched looking up at the light towers perched on top of the rightfield pavilion. “Something bad has happened, Grandpa, what are we gonna do?”
“Come on, Maxie, there has to be a way to get in there.” Grandpa Gus grabbed my hand and started to drag me along Grand Avenue looking for a way into Sportsmans Park We turned the corner onto Sullivan Avenue when I saw a sign hanging over a ticket window – STANDING ROOM ONLY. “Grandpa, look!” It’s too good to be true.
But it is true, and there is no line. Grandpa Gus dug deep for ten dollars, and we were into the park and running up the ramp leading to the seats behind the first base dugout. The crowd was buzzing when we got our first glimpse of the field. Mel Queen, the Yankee pitcher was going into his stretch. Mike Kreevich was taking a short lead off first after delivering the Browns first hit. It was the bottom of the fourth and a glance at the mammoth scoreboard backing up the left field bleachers told me what I feared: Yankees -2, Browns -0. Queen delivered and so did the fireplug-sized hitter. Chet Laabs turned on a fast ball and drilled it high into the leftfield bleachers to tie the score at two.
“Just in time, Maxie.” Grandpa gave me a four bagger whack on the back.
The crowd was on their feet and yelling for the runty Laabs, now turning third in his Cadillac trot.
“Come on, Maxie, let’s get closer.” Grandpa Gus seemed to know what he was doing. He was heading for a couple of seats on the steps close to the Browns dugout. In all the big-game excitement, nobody objected to an old man and his teen-age grandson grabbing seats close enough to hear Browns manager Luke Sewell give home plate umpire Bill Summers a small piece of his mind over a called strike that looked low to Sewell.
“Get it right, Blue,” Sewell yelled.
“All umpires are called Blue,” Grandpa Gus explained.
“Look, Grandpa,” I pointed to the leftfield scoreboard. The final score in Detroit was posted: Washington – 4, Detroit – 1.
Grandpa Gus doesn’t get excited very often; maybe never. But now he rose with 35,000 unbelieving St. Louisans for a rousing cheer. “Dutch Leonard,” he yelled. The 35-year-old Washington knuckleballer has doused the Tigers hopes in a stunning turn of events that leaves Tiger ace Trout feeling dizzier than his name.
Here in the St. Louis fifth Queen puts down the first two Browns with no trouble but then Mike Kreevich delivers another single. Chet Laabs strolls to the plate to an ear-splitting roar from the juiced up crowd. What are they thinking? That a little guy like Laabs who hit three homeruns all year in 200 at bats can hit two here in back-to-back innings in what might be the biggest game ever of the losingest team in American league history? Against the lordly Yankees, easily the winningest team in American league history? Is that what they think?
Yankee Manager Joe McCarthy goes to the top step of the dugout, puts one foot on the field, but then seems to reconsider and steps back into the dugout. Catcher Mike Garbark knows that Laabs hit a fast ball the last time; this time will be different. Garbark hangs down two fingers for a curve. Queen nods and goes into his stretch. The crowd is on their feet. Grandpa Gus squeezes my shoulder. Chet Laabs’ eyes light up when Queen’s curveball hangs there in front of him like a peach about to be picked.
Gone! Out of sight over the leftfield bleachers onto Dodier Street.
It takes five minutes for the field to be cleared after fans rush to escort Laabs on his trip around the bases.
Sig Jakucki does the rest. Slugging from a mysterious bottle in a brown paper bag between innings, he puts the Yankees down and down and down until with two out in the ninth, Oscar Grimes lifts a high pop fly about ten feet outside of first base that George McQuinn snares in his big mitt to end the game and the season.
The Browns win the pennant! The Browns win the pennant! The Browns win the pennant! And they’re going crazy! The sky is falling in St. Louis.
When I turn to look at Grandpa Gus he can’t talk. He doesn’t have to. The tears running down his cheeks tell the whole story. Who says there’s no crying in baseball?
And then a funny thing happens. Joe McCarthy takes the field and threads his way through the mob of celebrating players and fans.
“Look, Grandpa. The Yankee manager is shaking hands with Luke Sewell. Why is he doing that”
“It’s called class, Maxie. In baseball you show respect for your opponent, even if he beats you. Life is like that, too.”