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Lanky lefty loops gems for Deadball era Cardinals

The appropriately nicknamed Slim Sallee was once a star pitcher for some bad teams.

Baseball Card Titled ‘Sallee - St. Louis Nat’l’ Photo by Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Throughout Cardinals history, the Cardinals have been home to a long list of great left-handed pitchers: Steve Carlton, Harry Brecheen, Max Lanier, John Tudor, Harvey Haddix, Howie Pollet. One of the first great lefties of the Cardinals is a little-known name today, however. He spent his career on bad Cardinals teams, playing during an unmemorable period of Cardinals history and thus, his name was quickly forgotten.

Born in 1885 in Higginsport, Ohio, Slim Sallee only pitched by accident. The baseball team for Higginsport needed a pitcher when their regular pitcher went missing (given baseball players during that time, we can probably surmise that he was passed out drunk somewhere), and the coach found Sallee sleeping in a livery stable. He agreed to pitch and he pitched better than anyone expected in his first game. He proved to be a natural and quickly gained a reputation as a great pitcher. After three seasons in the minors, the Cardinals purchased his contract prior to the 1908 season.

Sallee started the year in the bullpen, but he ended up starting 12 games and pitching 128.2 IP in his debut season. His 3.15 ERA was apparently very bad for 1908 (-0.1 bWAR and -1 RA9 WAR), but his 2.51 FIP suggested he was better than that. And as it turns out, that 3.15 ERA was his highest ERA until his final season in the majors. In his second season spent mostly as a starter, he was an average pitcher, and again the offensive environment of 1909 must be understood to see how a 2.42 ERA, 2.77 FIP can be just 1.6 fWAR (and 0.2 bWAR). I don’t know at what decade I’d be able to watch baseball as a fan, but if I had to watch early 1900s baseball, I think I’d spend my time differently.

His 1910 went poorly, but before I explain why I must go backwards. Sallee had a habit of doing two things: drinking and disappearing. Probably related. When practice was too much for him, he would walk across the street to a social club known as the “Grass Eaters” where he “exercised his rights as a member.” During games, he would sometimes lower a bucket over a fence so that a friend could fill the bucket. He once disappeared for ten days, and this is not a joke because I could not make this up if I tried, because he became interested in river navigation and became a deckhand on a boat that traveled between St. Louis and Memphis. In 1909 he disappeared completely for a week and he was only a couple blocks away from the park the whole time.

When he returned, he pitched poorly for the rest of the year and quit the team before the year was through. He was reportedly not mad about the suspensions levied against him, but the fines were a step too far. Despite claiming he would never return to St. Louis, he pitched for them again the next season. He showed up a week late to spring training, twisted his ankle when he got there, and disappeared for over a week right before Opening Day. He went missing two more times during the 1910 season. He was placed on indefinite suspension for his third disappearance. He didn’t seem to care. He made money by playing for local teams around St. Louis and, again not a joke, by helping a huckster sell vegetables from a cart.

And actually, he didn’t pitch that badly in 1910, he just barely pitched, especially given the context of how pitchers were used in 1910. He pitched in just 18 games, including 13 starts, and had a 2.97 ERA, 2.63 FIP. Hall of Fame player-manager Roger Bresnahan tried to trade him, but as you can imagine, teams weren’t really too keen on his antics. Sallee promised to behave for the 1911 season and Breshanan declared that he would be the best left-handed pitcher in the league. Which didn’t happen, but he improved quite a bit.

1911 seems to approach something resembling modern offense, so his 2.76 ERA and 3.33 FIP were much better than they would have been in years prior. He was a 3.3 bWAR pitcher and 3 fWAR pitcher. With Sallee’s help, the Cardinals had their first winning record since 1901. Despite this, he fell off the wagon hard in late August. He couldn’t pitch when his time came, so they suspended him for the rest of the season.

He promised to get his shit together for the 1912 season and this time his promise seemed to stick. He entered a relative state of stability for the next few seasons on Cardinals teams that mostly sucked. The 1912 team went 63-90 and had the second highest error total in the NL. While errors were more common then, Sallee had 37 unearned runs in 1912. The fielding was better in 1913, but the team was much worse. They only won 51 games and were last in the league in hitting and pitching as well last in wins.

Meanwhile Sallee thrived. It’s very easy to understand why and how Sallee was good. Sallee was very tall for the time at 6’3 and very, very thin. His Baseball-Reference page says he only weighed 148 pounds, which cannot possibly be true. Slim was not his real name and it was not an ironic name, to say the least. And he had an extremely deceptive pitching motion, which was known as the “crossfire.”

He placed his left foot on the extreme side of the rubber on the first base side, raised his hands above his head and lifted his right leg to the sky before he became set. He would then deliver the ball at a variety of different arm angles and finish his motion fully on the first base side of the pitching mound. Some hitters said it was as if he was throwing from first base when he threw. A comparison to Andrew Miller seems appropriate given Miller is tall and lanky, and by the time he pitches, the ball might look like it’s from the first base side. Sallee seems like he had a wackier delivery and changed his arm angles to fool hitters, so a comparison to any LOOGY back in the day whose delivery was weird might be a good comp for his delivery.

Sallee also had impeccable control for the time. His manager for his first few seasons, Breshanan, said he “had the best control of any southpaw who curved a ball over the plate.” For his career, he had a 1.83 BB/9, but it seems like control didn’t only extend to not walking people. He could put the ball where he wanted it. As an extreme case, after he left the Cardinals, he had a season where he had 24 strikeouts and 20 walks in 227.2 IP. Yeah he also didn’t strike anybody out, which didn’t matter as much then if you didn’t walk anybody. But even for the time, he didn’t strike anybody out. In his 1913 season, when he had a career high 3.46 K/9, he placed 43rd among 66 qualified starters. Which is probably what prevented him being on the next tier of pitchers if we’re being honest.

With his funky delivery, precise control, and a commitment to the team firmly in place, Sallee thrived from 1912-1915. He pitched an average of 282 innings per season with a 2.56 ERA and 4.7 bWAR and and 3.4 fWAR per season. He was also a favorite to finish games that he didn’t start. Nobody knew what a save was at the time, but he led the league in saves in two seasons with 6 and had another season with 5 saves. Which wouldn’t be particularly impressive except he also started 30+ games all three of those seasons.

By 1914, Breshanan was replaced by player-manager Miller Huggins and the Cardinals went 81-72, and finished in 3rd place, largely off the backs of the pitching staff. Along with Sallee, they also had Bill Doak (5.1 bWAR), Pol Perritt (3 bWAR), and Dan Griner (2.5 bWAR). The 22-year-old Perritt was traded for a past-his-prime Bob Bescher and Griner was a below average pitcher the next season, so they declined to a 72-81 team in 1915.

On June 16, 1916, the Cardinals were 21-31 and 1-5 in their last five games. Sallee was tired of losing, so he tore up his $6,000 check and said to Huggins that he was retiring from baseball. He was suspended and fined, and then returned home to Higginsport. The Cardinals spent the next few weeks turning down several trades, refusing to be forced into a trade. Until John McGraw visited him and convinced him to unretire, and then sent the Cardinals $10,000 for Sallee. It was widely believed that the Giants tampered with Sallee, probably before his “retirement,” but no wrongdoing was found. Sallee’s action caused there to be an official rule in place to prevent a retirement from forcing a team to trade that player.

Previous to the trade, Sallee was having a down year with a 3.47 ERA and 0.3 fWAR in 70 IP. After the Giants signed him, he had a 1.37 ERA in 111.2 IP. The Giants finished 86-66 and actually set a record for longest streak of games without a loss at 27 games (with one tie in there) The Cardinals ended up collapsing completely, going 60-93 in 1916. It’s actually hilarious looking at the Cardinals leaderboard that year, because Rogers Hornsby played in his first full season that year and was one of two players with 2+ bWAR, with the other guy having 2.2 bWAR. This was basically the story of Hornsby’s career as a Card until the 1920s.

In one of the less favorable things Sallee did, Sallee made more waves prior to the 1917 season. The Player’s Fraternity had asked the players to hold off on signing before the owners made certain concessions, but Sallee signed first and pretty much opened the floodgates that led to everyone else signing. He was expelled from the Player’s Fraternity for this.

Sallee developed a bad back and retired midway through the 1918 season. McGraw couldn’t convince him to return to the team. Sallee told him he wasn’t playing again unless he could play for the hometown Reds, so McGraw reluctantly sold him to the Reds. After a couple down seasons, Sallee had his best season in years in 1919. He didn’t begin his season until May and still pitched 227.2 IP with 3.9 bWAR. He pitched in the infamous Black Sox World Series, winning against the team that threw the series. He went 1-1 with a 1.35 ERA.

I didn’t plan to keep writing about Sallee after he left the Cardinals, but well he kept making things interesting. In 1920, there were newly instituted rules about putting substances on balls. Sallee expressed his objections to those rules in a lengthy interview and two days after that interview was ejected for using rosin on a ball and suspended for 10 games. He ended up being released by the Reds before the season was over, and was again signed by old friend John McGraw. He pitched entirely in the bullpen for the 1921 season, his last, and did not pitch in the World Series that the Giants had won.

This is not a perfect comparison by any means, but I’m not sure any modern day player would be given how different baseball and life in general is from the 1910s, but he kind of reminds me of an old school Manny Ramirez. Again, this is not a direct comparison. I more refer to the fact that Manny and Slim did some things that could rub people the wrong way, but it ended up being more lovable somehow? Slim was well liked for his time. I mean read that biography. It’s very easy to imagine that not being the case. And yet he kept getting chances. And this was a time when that wasn’t a guarantee. I swear I thought of Manny before I looked this up, but Manny also retired when he was suspended (100 games for steroids) and then unretired later. Manny just never was able to get another job (because he was 39 partially) while Sallee was. Feel free to tell me I’m way off here.

There is no earthly reason I should like Sallee, but I find the stories of him just abandoning ship charming. Players had no power then, and he seemed one of the few who managed to turn his non-power into power and go where he wanted to. Which makes his decision to break rank in solidarity with fellow players and sign first all the more heartbreaking, but given the time... it probably would have been someone else if not him.

Sallee made the Cardinals watchable, briefly, for a few seasons during a time when the Cardinals were rarely watchable. He was the best player on the Cards until the torch passed to Rogers Hornsby. I’m not sure I would make the case for him to make the Cards Hall, but he does have a case.

I hope you guys are interested in these type of articles, because I enjoy writing them. I like to learn more about Cardinals history and these articles give me an excuse to do that.

(Most of this was was written based on the article by Paul Sallee and Eric Sallee on Sabr, who are surely related to Slim in some way. I left out his life after baseball, which may interest you.)