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World War II showed how deep the Cards’ pitching depth really was

The Cards kept losing pitchers to World War II.... and it didn’t matter.

Pitchers of Baseball Team Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

“No sir, you never have enough pitching. Just when you think you have it, it is usually the time when you suddenly find yourself with pitchers who can never start a game.”

The more baseball changes, the more it stays the same. Said in 1940 by Bill Synpp in Synpp’s Sports Snacks, it has since become a popular refrain. Don’t worry about that fact that it seems like there are too many pitchers for too little spots, that will soon solve itself. That’s the message of that saying.

The Cardinals certainly tested that message in the 1940s. It is perhaps one of the few times that maybe you can have too much pitching. Not from the Cardinals’ perspective I suppose, but by the many pitchers buried in the minor leagues who either never got a shot or took entirely too long to get a shot. At least until World War II happened.

Part of the reason for that is how baseball used its pitchers. Nowadays, there are five rotation spots, and an additional five or so pitchers who are also expected to make starts, plus seven or eight members of the bullpen PLUS even more pitchers who end up throwing to at least one batter. 31 pitchers threw a pitch for the Cardinals in 2021, and while that may be on the high side for the Cardinals of recent years, the amount of pitchers who get a shot to prove they belong in the MLB is easily over 20 every year for each team.

Back in the 1930s and 1940s, things worked differently. For one thing, there were really only four defined guys in the rotation - although a fifth guy started a lot of games, probably due to doubleheaders. Three members of the bullpen, sometimes four, were used on a regular basis and they also may start some games too. Depending on the health and need at the time, it seems like maybe one to three other pitchers would pitch around 50 innings. And while other pitchers threw, they didn’t throw anything more than a spot start or for a month in the bullpen.

To use an example, let’s see the 1937 Cardinals. The rotation was Bob Weiland (34 GS), Lou Warneke (33 GS), Dizzy Dean (25 GS), and Si Johnson (21 GS). Mike Ryba and Ray Harrell also started 8 games and 15 games. This was a year where things went badly too. Dean threw 315 innings the year before - he was traded after 1937 and never threw 100 after. Paul Dean threw 0 innings in 1937. Johnson probably was not remotely part of the plan. Harrell managed to debut two years prior at 23, but had a 5.87 ERA in 1937. 43-year-old Jesse Haines even started six games. Even with all this, just nine pitchers threw 40 innings or more.

In 1940, the Cardinals had - and this is not a typo - 31 minor league affiliates. They had three AA teams - they collectively went 276-209. That was I believe the highest level next to the majors. They had two A1 teams - one of which won 105 games. They had five B level teams, six C level teams, and 15 D level teams. This is what you had to go through in order to make the majors leagues. For what are effectively nine spots.

In 1940, the Cardinals went 84-69-3, finishing 3rd in the NL. They had Lon Warneke as their staff ace - he was the ace of the Cubs for years before the Cards traded for him, and though he was a disappointment in the three years before as a Cardinal, he briefly regained his previous self in 1940. Mort Cooper wasn’t far behind, who spent five years in the minors before getting his first shot at 25. He finally etched his way into the rotation in 1939 and wouldn’t give up his spot for a while. Bill McGee was signed later, at 23-years-old, debuted at 25, but didn’t throw any more than 16 innings until he was 27. He was coming off two straight 2+ bWAR seasons and would have a third in 1940.

Max Lanier also made some starts. He’s one of the few who managed to create some leverage for himself. He was signed by the Cardinals out of high school in 1934, but balked at the idea of being sent to a low level team. He left the team after just two appearances to pitch in semipro leagues because he made more money. He made a name for himself there, so much so that he caught the attention of Athletics scouts, who asked about him. The Cardinals still owned the rights to Lanier though. So Rickey sent a scout to see him, and managed to convince Lanier to return by sending him to the AA Columbus team. He got called up the next season, but wasn’t impressive. He actually pitched less in 1939, though had a 2.63 ERA in seven starts. By 1940, he was firmly in the majors, but he struggled to get out of the bullpen/swingman role for a few years.

In 1941, Warneke and Cooper returned, and Lanier went from 11 starts to 18 starts. Early in the season, the Cardinals traded for 31-year-old Harry Gumbert, who was coming off a 2.3 bWAR season in 237 innings, but started just five games by early May due to injuries. He ended up making 17 starts. 24-year-old Ernie White, who threw just 21.2 innings in 1940, somehow ended up making 25 starts and throwing 210 innings. The 2.40 ERA may have helped.

25-year-old Howie Krist threw 114 innings, mostly in the bullpen. He had been signed at 19, and spent three years in the minors. He threw 27 okay innings at 21-years-old in 1937, but 1941 was the next time he saw the majors aside from 1.1 inning in 1938. 20-year-old Howie Pollet made eight starts and had a 1.93 ERA. 24-year-old Johnny Grodzicki threw 13.1 IP with just two earned runs and 23-year-old Johnny Beazley had one earned run in 9 innings.

In 1942, the Cardinals took a different approach. Just two pitchers threw 200+ innings. Eight pitchers threw at least 100 innings. Warneke, at this point 33-years-old, was traded to the Cubs midseason after 12 starts. Ernie White meanwhile missed about half the season to injury, only making 19 starts and throwing 128.1 IP. Beazley was one of the two who threw 200+ IP, mostly by having a 2.13 ERA. Cooper meanwhile had his best season of his career, winning MVP and winning the ERA title with a 1.78 ERA. Pollett made some starts and had a 2.88 ERA in 109.1 IP. Krist had a 2.51 ERA in 118.1 IP. And Murry Dickson, who pitched in two combined games in the past two years, had at 25 finally managed to get a real shot, with a 2.91 ERA in 120.2 IP.

It is no surprise the 1942 Cardinals went 106-48-2 when only Warneke and Gumbert had an ERA above 3.00 who threw more than 100 IP. And both had ERAs in the 3.20s. Not only did they have eight pitchers throw at least 100 innings, nobody else threw more than 15. Just 13 pitchers stepped on the mound all year.

The Cardinals pitching staff took their first hit from World War II when Johnny Beazley got drafted. He was named the Rookie of the Year by the Sporting News, a few years before the award officially existed. He would go on a morale boosting unit and the morale boosting was pitching. He pitched a lot. So much so and at such irregular schedules that he injured himself and while he returned in 1946 to the Cardinals, he was a shell of his former self.

Cooper had another fantastic year in 1943, getting 5th in MVP voting. Lanier inched his way towards more starts with 25. Gumbert made 19 starts. Krist threw 164.1 IP with 17 starts under his belt. Each of these players had under a 3.00 ERA. Howie Pollett, the 21-year-old, had a 1.75 ERA and made the All-Star team. On the day of the All-Star game, he was drafted and his season ended. Dickson had a 3.58 ERA through 115.2 IP. White struggled through just 10 starts and 78.2 IP.

There were three newcomers. The first got completely screwed over by this system. Harry Breechen, near as I can tell, never actually signed with the Cardinals. He in fact rejected an offer from them and called them “a chain gang.” He struggled through a few seasons in semipro leagues before discovering a screwball in 1937. The Cardinals “drafted” him before 1938. It wasn’t until 1942 that he actually managed to make the majors. He debuted at 28-years-old. He had a 2.26 ERA in 135.1 IP in his first season.

Also debuting were Red Munger, at 24-years-old and in the Cards farm system since 1937, who had a 3.95 ERA in 93.1 IP. Lastly, Al Brazle, making his first MLB appearance at 29-years-old. This one isn’t on the Cards though. He spent five years in the minors for the Red Sox before the Cards traded for him. Still he spent 1941 and 1942 in the minors for the Cards and it looked like 1943 would be the same, but Pollett was drafted and Brazle was essentially his replacement. He had a 1.53 ERA in 88 innings. Truly absurd stuff here. The Cardinals went 105-49-3.

World War II took more players in 1944. Four pitchers from the 1943 squad got drafted and didn’t pitch an inning in 1943. They lost Ernie White, who to be fair wasn’t an essential member at this point, Howie Krist, who threw the third most innings of the team in 1943, Murry Dickson, and Al Brazle of the 1.35 ERA. Imagine making the majors for the first time at 29, pitching that well and then immediately have to go to war. So the farm system at this point is really being tested. They were up to the task.

Cooper continues his great run, and Lanier is now fully entrenched into the rotation. Breechen and Munger also have increased roles. Gumbert, despite all the losses in the rotation and having a 2.49 ERA in 7 starts, was traded early in the season. 30-year-old Blix Donnely had been in the Cards farm since 1937 when he was 23-years-old. Throwing mostly in the bullpen, he pitched 78.1 IP of 2.12 ERA ball. 28-year-old Freddy Schmidt had also been in the system since 1937 and had a 3.15 ERA in 114.1 IP. Al Jurisch had been in the system since only 1940 and he was also 22-years-old, so not quite the same. He threw 130 innings of 3.39 ERA.

One other pitcher debuted for the first time and he threw 207.2 IP. That was Ted Wilks, the 28-year-old who had been in the Cards minor league system since 1938. He went 17-4, had a 2.64 ERA, and led the league in WHIP. Just ridiculous how much it does not matter who is actually pitching at this point. The Cardinals go 105-49-3 and win the World Series.

In 1945, the losses finally affect them. Munger and Schmidt both get drafted. After just 4 starts, Lanier also got drafted. Mort Cooper’s run as a Cardinal ended when they traded him after 3 starts. It proved to be a good move, since they traded him for 30-year-old Red Barrett, who ended up leading the league in innings pitched and had a 5.5 bWAR season. Cooper threw just 101 innings that season. Wilks had arm problems and threw just 98.1 IP and ended up having to move to the bullpen by 1946.

Enter: another 28-year-old rookie. Ken Burkhardt, who had been in the minors since 1938, ended up throwing 217.1 IP of 2.90 ERA. Like I realize, these pitchers are benefiting from the talent drain, but this is comically absurd. Burkhardt had a 2.88 ERA in 1946 too. Just how many freaking pitchers did they have in their system who could be decent or better in the MLB during this time? Minor leaguers got drafted too! 28-year-old George Dockins, in the system since 1939, pitched 3.21 ERA ball in 126.1 iP.

But for the first time, not everyone pitched well. Al Jurisch, in his sophomore campaign, had a 5.15 ERA. Bud Byerly, who had nothing more than a cup of coffee the previous year, had a 4.74 ERA. And 29-year-old rookie Jack Creel had a 4.14 ERA. All threw over 70 innings. The 1945 Cardinals won “only” 95 games.

1946 comes around, the war is over and... all these pitchers are suddenly back. What the hell do you do? They sold Al Jurisch to the Pirates in February of 1946. Early in 1946, George Dockins was put on waivers and selected by the Brooklyn Dodgers. They released Ernie White in May. Blix Donnely was sold in July. Aside from that, the emerging Mexican League took a couple players as well.

Lanier was unsatisfied with his contract and held out at the start of spring training and reported late. But he threw six complete games in his first six starts. In May, him and Fred Schmidt jumped to the Mexican League over promises of higher salaries. They were promptly banned from baseball to discourage this behavior. Lanier was not promised what he was told in the Mexican League either and quite the league in 1947. In 1949, he filed lawsuits against MLB, saying the reserve clause was illegal. Instead of testing this in court, they received amnesty and could return to baseball. So the lawsuits were dropped.

Howie Krist was an odd man out. From 1941 to 1943, he pitched 396.2 IP with a 3.11 ERA. After missing two seasons and now 30-years-old, he only pitched 18.2 IP and was bad in those innings. He played one more year in the minors and wasn’t great then, so that was the end of his career. Red Munger wasn’t discharged until August of 1946, but managed to start 7 games and put himself back in the rotation in 1947. Beazley, as mentioned before, had a 4.46 ERA in 103 IP. He was sold in April of 1947. Red Barrett only made 9 starts and was traded in 1947.

Who emerged the victors? Howie Pollett, still just 25-years-old, had a 2.10 ERA in 266 IP. Breechen had a 2.49 ERA in 231.1 IP. Along with Munger, they were part of the Cardinals rotation for years after 1946. Dickson threw 184.1 IP with a 2.88 ERA. He remained in the rotation for a few seasons before being traded to the Pirates. Burkhardt went from throwing 217 innings to 100 innings to 95. He was traded after 1947. And the now 32-year-old Al Brazle threw 153.1 IP with a 3.29 ERA. He ended pitching for the Cards until he was 40.

I’d like to think that anybody who deserved a chance at the MLB got it, and while it would have only been because of World War II, at least they got a chance. But there were definitely some minor leaguers drafted in 1943 or 1944, who, by the time they returned, just stood absolutely zero shot of cracking the team with how many proven MLB pitchers were returning. But alas, a decent number of pitchers did get their shot during those years and some even managed to stick around. So there’s that.

The 1942-1946 was a perfect storm for the Cardinals. They had accumulate ridiculous minor league depth for years and years and they could not have been more prepared to dominate baseball when the war took a lot of the players away. We will never see anything like this again. That’s a good thing though.