A couple weeks back, I looked at this year's Cardinals staff and asked if they were maybe the greatest of all-time. In terms of ERA-, which adjusts for league and park, they are still the tops. But three other Cardinals teams still rank in the top seven when it comes to that metric, and they came in consecutive years: 1942, '43 and '44.
Those staffs were solid from front to back, but being the era of four-man rotations and not nearly the kind of bullpen usage we see today, their value laid heavily in the two top starters: Mort Cooper and Max Lanier. Despite anchoring a pitching dynasty, when the two men tried to leverage their on-field success into bigger paychecks, they ran into a brick wall.
Cooper was born in Atherton, Missouri. The Cardinals signed both he and his brother Walker, a catcher, for a reported $75. After three solid if unspectacular years in the rotation, it was when Walker became his full-time battery-mate that Mort pushed his game into the stratosphere. In 1942, he posted a ridiculous 1.78 ERA and won the National League MVP - a feat accomplished by only he, Dizzy Dean and Bob Gibson among Cardinals pitchers.
Cooper was excellent again in 1943, but this time it was his teammate Max Lanier, a lefty from North Carolina, who posted the league's best ERA at 1.90. The team had its best year by ERA- in 1944, as Harry Brecheen emerged to join them as a force to be reckoned with.
From 1942 to 1944, Cooper and Lanier started 175 games. Cooper's ERA over that stretch was 2.17. Lanier's was 2.47. The Cardinals were National League champs every year and won two World Series. They won 106, 105 and 105 games over the three years.
To be sure, the Cardinals offense was also solid. **WARNING: STAN MUSIAL PORN AHEAD** These were also Stan Musial's first three full years in the league, and he decimated opposing pitching to the tune of a .447 wOBA and 171 wRC+. And there's a bit of a caveat to those years, given the gradual thinning of the playing ranks as more players went to war (though '45 was the real outlier in terms of the talent pool).
Still, it would be hard to argue Cooper and Lanier were not absolutely integral to the greatest three-year-run in Cardinals history. And yet when El Birdos claimed yet another title in 1946, both of them were gone.
To understand why, it's important to understand a number of factors that were at play. The country was at war, creating a widespread cultural expectation that everyone must tighten their belts, and in 1943 there was even a federal law limiting wage increases, which had some impact on baseball.
But believe it or not, there's also reason to believe that some big businesses like major league baseball clubs used this atmosphere of thriftiness to further reduce labor costs and maximize profits. While some teams did struggle with attendance and lose money, by one estimate the Cardinals still made more than $400,000 of profit during the war years.
Even before the US got into the war, average baseball salaries were plummeting, from $7,300 in 1939 to $6,400 in 1943. For some perspective, that was barely double the average annual salary for all Americans. In 1943, in response to that federal wage limiting act, no player was allowed to make more than the highest paid player on their team had made in 1942.
This came at the worst time possible for Cooper and Lanier, who put up three straight seasons of remarkable numbers, yet found their salaries remaining stagnant against an imposed cap (for the Cardinals) of just $12,000.
In the spring of 1945, Mort and his brother Walker (who had recently been named the team's captain) learned that the Cardinals had signed shortstop Marty Marion to a new contract above the supposed cap, at $13,500. The team offered them matching deals, but the brothers announced on the eve of the 1945 season that they would hold-out unless they were offered $15,000.
"We will not accept less than $15,000 salary," Mort Cooper told the Sporting News, "and we fail to understand why the [Championship] St. Louis club should be in the second division in relation to salary ceilings."
There may have been another reason this was the moment Cooper chose to make a stand for higher wages. Cooper's early career was uneven, due in part to recurring elbow pain. A surgeon removed bone spurs from his elbow before his 1942 MVP season, allowing a pain-free Cooper to throw a lot during those next three years. From '42-'44, Cooper averaged 286 innings per season. In his final start of the '44 regular season, Cooper pitched all 16 innings of a victory over the Phillies.
But in the spring of 1945, Cooper's elbow pain re-emerged. Already 32-years-old, it must've seemed like now or never to get that big paycheck (even if that "big" check was just $1,500 more).
Cards Owner Sam Breadon didn't balk at the Cooper Brothers holdout, and both broke camp with the team. After just four games, Walker was inducted into the US Army. He would not be tendered a contract by the Cardinals upon his return. Mort Cooper made three starts for the Cardinals in 1945, then was traded to the Braves. He bounced around for the final few years of his career, hampered by his elbow injury.
Max Lanier also battled with Breadon over his salary prior to the 1945 season, then after just three starts, he was also inducted into the army. When Lanier returned prior to the 1946 season, he staged a holdout of his own, which likewise failed to move the Cardinals brass. So Lanier went back out to the bump and was sterling as ever, winning all six of his starts with a 1.93 ERA.
And then on May 23, 1946, Lanier and two other Cardinals announced they were leaving the team to join the Mexican League. Lanier was promised a $20,000 salary, nearly double the $10,500 in his Cardinals contract. Red Schoendist told the Sporting News that his roommate Lanier said "I can make more money down there in a few years than I could in a lifetime in St. Louis."
By the time Lanier realized that conditions in the Mexican league were poor and his promised salary was unlikely to be met, Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler had already banned he and the other players who jumped to the Mexican League from returning for five years.
Lanier and a few other players sued Major League Baseball, arguing the Reserve Clause was a violation of antitrust law and seeking damages for their lost wages. Eventually, Chandler agreed to reinstate the players in 1949 and the suits were dropped, with the players receiving no compensation.
Lanier re-signed with the Cardinals for the same $11,500 they had offered him in 1946.