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The first National League Championship Series

20+ years before the NLCS became an annual event, St. Louis played in the first-ever tie-breaker series in 1946.

When your best players' numbers spell out the year: Kurowski, Slaughter, Marion, Musial.
When your best players' numbers spell out the year: Kurowski, Slaughter, Marion, Musial.
Sports Then & Now

The National League Championship Series officially began in 1969, when the league was divided into two divisions. The Cardinals have won that series seven times. But all the way back in 1946, the Cardinals played in the first-ever tie-breaker series to determine the National League Champion.

While players had left the league for several seasons to fight in World War II, 1945 was by far the most disrupted season - so much so that the Chicago Cubs actually won the pennant. In St. Louis, as elsewhere in baseball, 1946 was the season to officially get the band back together.

For the Cardinals, that meant piecing back together a squad which had won three straight NL crowns and two World Series between 1942-1944. Back were stars like Stan Musial and Enos Slaughter, but a number of key players were gone because of tight-fisted owner Sam Breadon.

After holding out for more money, brothers Mort and Walker Cooper were traded to the Braves and sold to the Giants, respectively. Meanwhile, Max Lanier, Fred Martin and Lou Klein all bolted for promises of better wages in the upstart Mexican League. Manager Billy Southworth, whose Cardinal teams had averaged 102 wins over the previous five seasons, likewise departed for more money from the Braves.

Stan Musial said after the season that the Cardinals would have run away with the pennant had those players still been on the team. At a banquet near the end of the season, writer Roy Stockton chided the club's owner by saying "it looks, Sam, as if you sliced the baloney too thin this time."

The weakened, reconstituted Cardinals struggled early on to keep pace with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and trailed by five games at the All-Star break. Ironically, even the Dodgers success could be attributed - in part - to Breadon's penny-pinching. The Dodgers club was overseen by longtime Cardinals GM Branch Rickey, whose $50,000 contract Breadon had refused to renew following the 1942 season under the auspices that the club needed to save money with the war on.

And so it was that the 1946 NL Pennant Race shaped up as Branch Rickey vs. Branch Rickey, with his current organization battling a Cardinals Club still anchored by many homegrown players - Musial and Slaughter among them - who Rickey had signed and developed.

The Cardinals improved in the second half of the season, with players who had been away at war clicking back into form. By August 22, the Cardinals overtook the Dodgers for first place. They remained neck-and-neck and came into the final day of the regular season tied.

Both teams had to win to ensure at least a tie. Both teams lost.

The Dodgers were shut-down by the aforementioned Cardinals castoff Mort Cooper, now pitching for the Braves, who tossed a 4-hit shutout. The Cardinals were dispatched by the Cubs 8-3. And thus, both teams backed into the first-ever, three game tiebreaker series to determine the National League Pennant Winner.

From the reporting of the day, it seems clear league officials had to dust off some unseen portions of the rule book to even determine how such a series was to be conducted. Dodgers Manager Leo Durocher was given the opportunity to choose whether he wanted to play the first game at home, then two on the road, or vice-versa. He chose to open the series in St. Louis, then come back to Brooklyn.

The series began Oct. 1, two days after the final game of the regular season - the same time frame we currently see with the Wild Card games. And as we've seen with short playoff series in modern times, which pitchers were available played a big part in the series.

Durocher had used his best, Kirby Higbe, as well as Vic Lombardi, in the final game of the regular season. In a bit of a head-scratcher, he opted to start Ralph Branca, who spent most of the season as a reliever, but who Durocher believed to have a "hot hand" at the time. The Cardinals had their 21-game-winner Howie Pollet lined up to start.

The Cardinals scored one in the first and two in the third, chasing Branca. They would hold on to win the game 4-2, led by Rookie Catcher Joe Garagiola's three hits and two RBI. Pollet pitched a complete game.

The next day, the teams travelled by train from St. Louis to Manhattan. After crossing the East River into Brooklyn, few were on-hand to greet the Dodgers, leading one veteran player to reportedly remark "it looks like the borough has thrown in the towel."

For the final game, the Cardinals turned to Murry Dickson, their #3 starter, who put up a solid 2.88 ERA and 3.02 FIP on the season. Durocher gave the ball to Joe Hatten, whose 2.84 ERA belied a below-average 3.76 FIP.

Brooklyn scored one in the first, but from there the rout was on. St. Louis kept the line moving all day, with 13 hits and 7 walks. St. Louis came into the bottom of the 9th inning with an 8-1 lead.

In the 9th, Brooklyn mounted a rally. A fading Dickson allowed four baserunners and threw a wild pitch before Cards Manager Eddie Dyer brought in his ace, Harry Brecheen, to close out the game. The Cardinals won 8-4.

As St. Louis and Brooklyn were facing-off, the idle Red Sox - winners of the American League - played an exhibition game against AL All-Stars to keep warm. Ted Williams was injured during that game. Sox manager Joe Cronin would point to that injury and rust from the layoff as an unfair hindrance to his team in the World Series, which they dropped to the Cardinals in seven games.

While it was their third World Series win of the decade, it would also be the Cardinals last for almost 20 years. Meanwhile, Branch Rickey's Dodgers were on the ascent, with Jackie Robinson already playing for their minor league affiliate in Montreal, and poised to make his major league debut the next season.