The Wrecking Crew: Baseball, Heroism, and Masculinity

Editor's note: I know it is not Friday, but I really enjoyed this post from the ever delightful DeebeeDub and I thought you all might as well. It is a topic that I find extremely interesting and it seemed particularly relevant in the days following the Super Bowl. Enjoy!

It was 3:30 a.m. on July 11, 1911, and Cardinals’ catcher-manager Roger Bresnahan couldn’t sleep. He sat in his berth aboard the Boston-bound Federal Express smoking and thinking about the season so far. His first two years as a manager had been rough. His "impulsive, peppery" style, which he learned from John McGraw while with the New York Giants, irritated his players. When a pitcher struggled, Bresnahan sometimes stormed the mound, screaming at them to do better. Usually, they didn’t. The Cardinals finished his first managerial campaign at 54-98-2, placing them seventh in the eight-team National League. Last year’s 63-90 record was an improvement, but still resulted in another seventh-place finish.

This year he tried something different. Rather than yell at his players, he encouraged them. With no stars on his team, he had little choice but to coach up a mediocre roster. He and first basemen Ed Konetchy carried the offense, and he had a solid trio of starters in Bob Harmon, Bill Steele, and Slim Sallee, who threw 348, 287, and 245 innings that season, respectively. Besides Bresnahan, the only name familiar to modern fans is second baseman Miller Huggins, who went on to manage the 1920s Murderer’s Row Yankees.

Bresnahan’s more patient approach paid dividends. His Redbirds headed for Boston on a 23-14 tear. The team was in fifth place at 42-32, just three games behind the league-leading Cubs. If a pennant seemed unlikely, the Cardinals were at least poised for their first first-division finish since 1901. The St. Louis Star and Times was calling the team "the Wrecking Crew." Bresnahan had silenced the critics demanding his head.

Detroit Tigers star Ty Cobb was complaining that the baseball was too lively, but Bresnahan was perfectly content with how the season was going. He puffed away while the nine-car Federal Express’s Pacific-style locomotive towed a mail car, a baggage car, and six Pullman sleeper cars through rural Connecticut. Bresnahan was sitting in the eighth car. His players were asleep in berths around him and in the car behind him, the last one on the train.

Professional baseball and railroads grew up together. The Cincinnati Reds played their first game as an all-professional team on May 4, 1869, just six days before Central Pacific Railroad president Leland Stanford drove the Golden Spike that completed the Transcontinental Railroad. Because of railroads, teams could play in other cities rather than limit themselves to local competition. Regular, dependable train service made it possible for the Cardinals to hop to Philadelphia, where they had boarded the Federal Express, or Boston with relative ease. Long, bone-rattling train rides became incubators for team bonding over endless card games and bull sessions. Each team traveled around 25,000 miles by rail in a season, making the percussive chunk-a-chunk, chunk-a-chunk of wheels on steel tracks the rhythm of baseball.

At 3:32 a.m. Bresnahan took another drag on his cigarette. It was suffocatingly hot inside the sleeper. The express was passing through towns where people were dying of heatstroke.

Suddenly a massive shock slammed the car. Bresnahan heard the sickening sounds of glass shattering and metal screeching. Muscles tensed, the manager braced himself. The impact sent a few of his players tumbling from their berths. There was a moment of eerie stillness followed by another crash somewhere up ahead.

Bresnahan sat in stunned silence trying to figure out what had just happened. Then the screams began, high-pitched ones, the sound of women and children in distress. Soundwaves rippling from the front of the train washed over the manager. Then other, lower-pitched screams, closer to him. The sound of terrified men. His men. Wide-eyed ballplayers, bare footed, wearing their pajamas, screaming.

"The Cardinals’ leader displayed great generalship," the Star & Times reported. Exhibiting what the Post-Dispatch called "old-time leadership," the thirty-two year old manager, who was playing in his fourteenth major league season, began calling out in his rich, resonant voice. Be calm, he told his teammates. He organized an decorous exit from the team’s cars, "just as though he were ordering a game." Only about a minute had passed since the initial shock.

Bresnahan’s men saw a scene of unspeakable horror. They were on the outer edge of Bridgeport, Connecticut, more than 100 miles from their destination. The engine and six trailing cars, carrying around 150 people, had careened from the rails and plunged off a twenty-five-foot embankment. Only the last two cars – the Cardinals’ cars – remained on the track. Flames spurted from the wreckage. The screams grew louder.

The wreck occurred because the Federal Express failed to properly align with a crossover (imagine an "X"-shaped section of track) switching it from one line to another. Investigators blamed the engineer – a relief man who was unfamiliar with the road – who hit the crossover at sixty miles per hour instead of the required fifteen. Apparently he was trying to get the train back on schedule from an earlier delay. When his engine lurched he jumped for safety only to be crushed beneath the wheels.

Miraculously, the Cardinals were uninjured except for a few scratches. Their survival was a mere trick of fate. When they had boarded following their 3-1 series win over Philadelphia, their cars were up near the front of the train. In New York, workers disassembled the Express into three-car sections so a ferry could carry it around Manhattan Island. When the train was reassembled, the Cardinals’ sleepers were in the rear, the only cars that hadn’t tumbled down the embankment.

Bresnahan divided the players into rescue squads. Cardinals, some wielding axes, many of them still barefoot and wearing pajamas, scoured the wreckage. Bresnahan and twenty-year-old catcher Ivey Wingo pulled a woman from the debris moments before the fire reached her. Infielder Wally Smith lifted two infants from the twisted metal. Unable to locate their mothers, he handed the babies to a doctor. "I saw enough horrors to last me all though my life," he said.

New horrors awaited in every smashed car. Rescuers entering the third Pullman car, where many of the Cardinals had been before the reshuffle, found a pile of six bodies: four men, one woman, and a child. An uninjured child lay atop the heap, bawling. A woman who lost an eye in the accident shrieked in pain. She died within minutes.

Firemen soon arrived, followed by hundreds of gawkers bearing lanterns and torches so they could watch the proceedings. Authorities summoned Bridgeport’s entire reserve police force to, as the New Haven Union explained, "keep the hordes of morbid and curious from seriously hampering the rescue work." Doctors erected a temporary morgue in a yard across the street, covering the bodies with sheets taken from the train’s sleeper cars. Many corpses were too mutilated to immediately identify.

The Cardinals toiled until dawn with sooty and scorched faces, their bedclothes soaked with sweat and stained with other people’s blood. Although no one can be certain, they were credited with saving about a dozen lives that morning. "The ball players were the heroes of the wreck," proclaimed the St. Louis Star and Times. When the last survivor was carried away, authorities counted fourteen dead and dozens needing hospitalization.

With nothing more to do, the team boarded a relief train and continued their road trip. Arriving at Boston’s Back Bay Station at noon, caked with sweat, grime, and blood, Bresnahan addressed reporters before retreating to the Copley Square Hotel for some much-needed rest. "We were lucky," he said, "but we won’t get over that experience for a while. I can stand a lot, but the groans and screams of those mothers and babies was too much for me." He announced that that afternoon’s game against the Boston Rustlers was postponed because his team had lost its gear in the crash.

The following day, July 12, the Cardinals and Rustlers played a makeup doubleheader. Bresnahan’s club took game one 13-6. Game two ended in a 6-6 tie. Commenting on the first game, the Journal of Meriden, Connecticut observed, with staggering insensitivity, "Benefitting by their experience in that Bridgeport affair, the St. Louis Cardinals proceeded yesterday to show Boston something in the wrecking line."

The Cardinals split their final two games with Boston before boarding a train for New York. Four games with the Dodgers, three games with the Giants, then another train for a one-game series against the Reds before riding the rails to St. Louis. At Union Station, a crowd of 1,000 fans greeted them with a cheer that shook the building. They surged forward when the players disembarked, patting each man on the back with a hero’s welcome.

The Star and Times, in another show of bad taste, used the "Wrecking Crew" nickname for the rest of the season.

In 1911 the National League had no clear plan in case a team suffered mass fatalities in a travel accident. Had the Cardinals’ cars not been moved to the rear, it would have fallen on league president Thomas Lynch to figure out something on the fly.

Major League Baseball instituted its first catastrophic accident plan in 1965. By then train travel was becoming a thing of the past as teams regularly flew to California to play the relocated Dodgers and Giants. Today the Cardinals travel in a chartered Boeing 757 (operated by Delta). By my rough estimate, they will fly around forty-three times during the regular season. Multiplied by thirty MLB teams, that’s 1,290 flights. Should one of those flights go down – heaven forbid, and highly unlikely – the stricken team will restock its roster by drafting players from other teams. Details are fuzzy. MLB doesn’t like discussing the plan.

The Cardinals performed heroically during the 1911 Bridgeport disaster. And it’s a good story now that more than a century has passed. But running through the coverage of that horrible accident lies another story, one about baseball, and what it meant to be a man, 1911-style. In other words, we’re coming to the "history" (as opposed to "story") part of this post.

Baseball was still a shady venture. The day before the wreck, the Cardinals watched Phillies outfielder Sherry McGee punch an umpire following a disputed third-strike call. Three days after the wreck, following the final game of the Cardinals-Rustlers series, a crowd of 1,000 angry Bostonians gathered outside the South End Grounds waiting for the umpires, who had blown a fair/foul call that cost their team the game, allegedly because gamblers had bet heavily on the Redbirds. The two men escaped under police escort.

Faced with scandals like this, baseball fans seized on the Cardinals’ "daring and heroic work" as evidence that their sport benefitted society. "You may think that [baseball] is an idle waste of time and effort that does nobody any good," the Kansas City Post jeered, but "the average man engaged in sedentary pursuits would have been dumbfounded mentally by the physical shock [of the trainwreck]. Then his first thought would have been of his personal belongings and his personal appearance." Rather than save others, he would have watched the Cardinals – the real men – at work. "It’s different with baseball players," the paper explained. "They are trained to fight danger, to meet it half way, and to combat it with every ounce of nervous strength they possess…. The team work was as perfect as on a ball field."

As the Post’s perspective suggests, there’s something happening beneath the surface here. In the early 1900s many men, particularly white, middle- and upper-class men, questioned whether traditional conceptions of American masculinity were compatible with modern life. Raised on stories of brave Civil War soldiers and of such rugged pioneers as Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, they wondered whether middle managers in comfortable offices could ever be "real men." With the western frontier settled, what wilderness was left for American men to tame? Would American men become "over-feminized" in this new world of department stores and domesticated homes? Such fears still exist today.

This perceived crisis of masculinity drove college students to play the new and brutal sport of football. It inspired a renewed interest in hunting as city types journeyed west to don buckskin jerseys and shoot whatever large animal blundered across their path. Those disinclined to actually wield a gun could imagine themselves being the Virginian (1903) or another hero from a new literary genre: the Western. Theodore Roosevelt, the manliest man who ever manned, worried so much about feminization that he declared: "I should welcome almost any war, for I think this country needs one."

As professional athletes, the Cardinals were unwitting participants in this social debate. The Post asserted a masculinity bound up in physical prowess and manly teamwork. Newspaper writers consistently praised Bresnahan as an old-school leader of men, cool in a crisis and salty enough that he’d never belong behind a desk. Baseball, as presented in their pages, was a substitute for war.

Any sign of physical or emotional weakness scarred the face of masculinity. Bresnahan assured the public that his men were, in fact, men. "The boys seem to have recovered from their nervousness," he announced a few days after the wreck. Real men shook off traumatic incidents.

The Cardinals nevertheless displayed troubling signs of creeping feminization. During the Boston series the manager took some of his players to see Harvard professor Dudley Allen Sargent, who was sort of a 1911 sports psychologist/mad scientist. Sargent examined the men’s brains using "seismothatric instruments," then declared that the more "high strung" players were still "greatly agitated" from the crash. He singled out Huggins, Sallee, and a few others as "merely bundles of nerves."

For 1911 audiences, "bundles of nerves" was a polite way of saying that the curse of civilization had stripped those men of their old-fashioned American masculinity. They had gone lady. Countless women from this era were diagnosed with neurasthenia, a mysterious ailment that supposedly caused everything from fainting and headaches to exhaustion and heart troubles. According to doctors, the primary cause of neurasthenia was weak nerves. Being agitated or high strung was womanly.

Winning baseball games became a way to prove that the Cardinals could control their nerves and retain their manliness. After the wreck, however, the team’s performance sagged. They posted winning records in May, June, and July, then slumped to 9-14 in August, 12-15 in September, and 2-4 in October on their way to finishing 22 games behind the league champion Giants.

Each loss escalated public doubts about their resilience. Bresnahan admitted that the team couldn’t sleep on overnight trains. The wreck, the Post-Dispatch speculated in its postseason wrap-up, "preyed on their minds for weeks afterwards and affected their playing."

Several years later the generation that survived World War I began using the phrase "shell shocked" to describe trauma victims. A century later that label has morphed into "Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder." Today we might recognize the 1911 Cardinals as suffering from PTSD (although I must emphasize that we cannot diagnose people from the past with psychological disorders). They would receive counseling or, at the very least, empathy from fans who recognized that they had suffered through a terrible ordeal.

In 1911, however, people lacked the language and understanding necessary for such thinking. Men with weak nerves were men who lost baseball games. Teams lacking grit deserved mockery (something the "petroletariat" might agree with today). In late August club treasurer H. D. Seekamp confessed that "since that wreck the St. Louis players have obtained less sleep than any other team in the business," adding that "the slightest jar awakens us." Since Bridgeport the team insisted on traveling in a heavyweight sleeper car positioned at the rear of the train.

"These St. Louis Cardinals certainly have become the fussy athletes," the Post-Dispatch laughed.

If you'd like to read my other Fanposts, see:

A Historian with Heat Maps

The Worst of the Worst

The Opening, Opening Day

Phenom...or Flash in the Pan?