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Pepper Martin and the triumph of personality

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The Cardinals Hall of Fame inductee may not have been one of the greatest on the field, but he made an impact when the spotlight was on.

Pepper Martin and his Mudcat Band
historyofcardinals.com

One of the joys of watching the Cardinals this season has been seeing Tommy Pham and Jose Martinez, two players who didn't really break-through into the big leagues until they were almost 30, clearly revel in their (possibly fleeting) moments in the spotlight. That must be what it was like to watch Pepper Martin.

Martin will join Mark McGwire and Tim McCarver as inductees to the Cardinals Hall of Fame this weekend, but Martin was a very different kind of player. McGwire hit 49 home runs as a 23-year-old rookie, a record which still stands. McCarver was good enough to break into the big leagues at the preposterous age of 17.

Pepper Martin began playing unaffiliated ball in his native Oklahoma, was signed by the Cardinals after showing up at an open tryout, then spent the better part of six years in the minor leagues. When he broke camp with the Cardinals in 1931, Martin was already 27-years-old and had all of 17 plate appearances in the major leagues.

While he began the season as more of a bench player, by June 17 Martin had taken on the role of everyday center fielder, and posted a solid .300 / .351 / .467 line. But where Martin really stamped his mark was in the World Series, where he hit a preposterous .500 with a home run, five stolen bases and a 1.330 OPS, as the Cardinals defeated the A's.

That performance was enough of a star turn for Martin to book himself a tour of the Vaudeville circuit, earning $1,500 per week, at a time when his annual salary from the Cardinals was only about $4,000.

The Louisville Courier-Journal complimented him as "a showman" during his run onstage, but Martin would eventually cancel several of the scheduled shows and forego nearly $7,000, reportedly saying "I ain't an actor. I'm a ballplayer."

But Martin would not shun the spotlight, soon after forming the Mudcat Band with several other Cardinal players of the Gashouse Gang era. The band would play before Cardinals games, book gigs at local events, and even played on multiple national radio broadcasts.

So throughout the 1930s, if you picked up a newspaper or listened to the radio, Pepper Martin was likely a character you were familiar with and charmed by. But as persistent as his off-the-field charm was, his performance on the field was a bit less-so.

When Martin the World Series Hero returned to the field in 1932, he struggled through injury and his batting average dipped to .238. His defense - which had always been a bit shaky - let manager Gabby Street to have Martin begin playing some third base, which would become his primary position over the next several seasons.

Martin came back strong in 1933, posting the best season of his career, with a .316 / .387 / .456 line and more than 5 WAR. But already at the age of 29, Martin had hit his peak. Over the next four seasons, he would average out to be about a 2 WAR player... good enough to remain an MLB starter, but far from a star player.

But when the spotlight of the World Series again shined in 1934, Martin was again up for the biggest stage, slashing .355 / .412 / .516. as the Cardinals defeated the Detroit Tigers in seven games.

From 1937 to 1940, Martin would play fewer than 100 games per season, and retired at the age of 36 to manage the Cardinal's Sacramento affiliate in the Pacific Coast League. He would go on to manage in the minors for 13 seasons.

But Martin's big league career as a player wasn't over just yet. In 1944, with big league rosters thinned by World War II, a 40-year-old Pepper Martin again donned the Birds on the Bat and played 40 games in the outfield, batting a credible .279 / .386 / .389.

Pepper Martin was far from one of the greatest players of his generation on the field. His 17.5 career WAR ranks below what fellow Cardinals Hall of Fame inductee Mark McGwire amassed in less than half as many at-bats in St. Louis.

But Pepper Martin was a character, and when the spotlight shone on him, he did not disappoint his fans.