The icon before iconography, Dizzy Dean had a sharp tongue and a dashing look to go along with the overwhelming talent that he displayed in his 6-year career with the St. Louis Cardinals in the early 1930’s.
Jay Hanna Dean (Dizzy Dean) was first seen by a bird-dog scout for the St. Louis Cardinals pitching an 11-strikeout shutout with the US Army. His superior officer, Master Sergeant James K. Brought told the scout that Dean was “the dizziest kid [he] ever had in [his] outfit.” He was once again spotted by a Cardinal scout in 1930, not under control of the Army. They quickly moved to sign Dean, and the rest is history.
The majority of Dean’s production came for the Cardinals from 1932-1937, a brief tenure in some minds. However, he left St. Louis with 1737.1 innings and an impressive 2.99 ERA to boot. He was effective despite a high WHIP of 1.21 and a low 5.7 strikeouts per 9 innings, but was much more than that in baseball lore.
He brought a charisma and swagger to the sports scene similar to “Broadway Joe” Namath, only 30 years earlier.
He and his brother Paul “Daffy” Dean lead St. Louis to the 1934 World Series title, a year in which Dizzy won MVP. As his 106th birthday passes, let us remember one of the earliest Cardinal greats.
Armed with a sharp southern accent native to his hometown of Lucas, Arkansas and a carefree attitude that was a bit too much so, Dean did what he wanted, to the awe of his teammates and the chagrin of the Cardinals front office. His teammate recalled how Dean would use rental trucks as his main method of transportation.
“I don’t think he ever paid for that car or even turned it in,” said teammate Peaches Davis (via sabr.org). “When he got tired of it, he’d park it somewhere and go get another one from somebody else, just like they were free. We told him that’s not the way you did things, but he’d say sure, and do what he felt like doing. That’s the way he was.”
Dean quickly racked up a considerable bill on the team’s ledger, and the team was forced to micromanage his spending, but that didn’t stop Dean from being Dean. While his loud mouth and boisterous nature caused many teammates to view him as a pest, media and fans were starstruck by him. It always seemed like Dizzy Dean was the most popular player on the team, no matter the place.
The constant disputes with upper management actually resulted in Dean spending the 1931 season in the minors. There, he racked up 303 strikeouts in 304 innings on his way to a 26-10 record, 11 shut outs, league MVP, and a second half pennant.
It was clear at this point that no matter what you thought about Dean’s attitude, his unquestionable talent made him deserving of a major league roster spot. In addition, Dean got married in 1931, and his wife was an invaluable addition to his life.
Patricia Bond taught Dean the delicacies of life that a hard throwin’ blue collar like himself wasn’t quite versed in. She reeled in Dean’s wild spending habits, and became his banker, his bookkeeper, his business manager, and picked out clothes for him to wear. They had no children, but were married 43 years until Dean’s death in 1974.
Dean rejoined the Cardinals in 1932, but his wife fell ill, and he raised hell to try and return to her side, even claiming that his contract was invalid because he was underage when he signed it, claiming a 1910 birth date instead of 1912. Dean’s wedding certificate proved otherwise.
Despite all this drama, Dean still put up numbers in 1932, putting together an 18-16 record with a 3.30 ERA and a league-leading 191 strikeouts in 286 innings. Just as his attitude was volatile and unpredictable, so was his pitching. He lost four, won three, lost two, won four, lost three, and then won three to end the year. The Cardinals finished the 1932 season with a 72-82 record.
Dean continued to improve in 1933, racking up a career high 199 strikeouts that season. It was also his first season with 20 wins, but the Cardinals struggle somewhat limited that success. Dean was tagged with 18 losses that year, and the Cardinals struggled to move up in the standings.
Dean also recorded a 17-strikeout game on July 30 against the Chicago Cubs. He also went 3-for-4 at the plate, doubling twice, driving in two runs, and scoring once.
Dizzy pulled no punches when talking about the final strikeout:
"“With me havin’ 16 strikeouts already, (Cubs manager) Charlie Grimm sends in Jim Mosolf as a pinch-hitter. As this Mosolf steps up to the plate (catcher Jimmie) Wilson gives him the needle. ‘Jim, you sure are in a tough spot. Ol’ Diz just hates pinch-hitters, and you better look out!’ While Wilson is poundin’ his fist in his big mitt right behind Mosolf’s ear, I just breeze three right across the plate for Strikeout No. 17.”"
Despite the struggles of the team that season, there was another key moment that occurred in 1933 that helped spark Dean’s career: second baseman Frankie Frisch was named manager of the team.
While the change didn’t have immediate impact that season, the St. Louis Cardinals were two and a half games back with five games to go in the 1934 season.
“I’ll pitch today, and if I get in trouble, Paul will relieve me. And he’ll pitch tomorrow, and if he gets in trouble I’ll relieve him. And I’ll pitch the next day and Paul will pitch the day after that and I’ll pitch the last one. Don’t worry, we’ll win five games straight.”
Dean said the above before the stretch run. He turned out to be prophetic, as the Cardinals won their last five, while the first place Giants dropping their final five, giving the Cardinals the NL’s bid into the World Series.
In the final week of the season, Dean pitched three complete game shutouts to finish the season 30-7. Those 30 wins in a season would be the highest win mark in MLB for 80 years. He also finished with a remarkable 2.66 ERA in 311 innings, and was named the NL MVP.
Dean also started three games in the World Series, going 2-1 with a 1.73 ERA to help lead the St. Louis Cardinals to a 7-game World Series win over the Detroit Tigers.
After the 1934 season, the team picked up an endearing and now legendary nickname in Cardinals lore: “The Gas House Gang.” Suddenly, the Cardinals were respected and dangerous. Dean’s ERA went up a bit, but so did his innings. He finished the 1935 season with a 28-12 record, 3.04 ERA, and 3.27 FIP in 325.1 innings, despite giving up 324 hits.
Dean was still as talkative as ever. After he was pulled after a Spring Training outing, he strolled by the Giants dugout, asking if any of them could cash a check for $5,300. That just so happened to be the winner’s share from the 1934 World Series. Rubbing it in just a bit more, Dean remarked, “I wanna thank you fellas for collapsin’ so we could make all that dough.”
His ego got a bit out of control one game midway through the 1935 season though. Upset at the defense for playing their part in allowing four unearned runs, Dean yelled and cursed at his teammates, and began to lob the ball to the plate, allowing Pirate hitters to tee off like batting practice. Eventually, Dean got into a a heated argument with Rip Collins and Joe Medwick.
After the game, Dean told the media “The best thing the Cardinals can do is trade me. I’m not goin’ to stand for this stuff. As for Medwick, I’ll crack him on his Hungarian beezer.”
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Despite this, Dean was on the roster at the start of the 1936 season, his transcendent talent overruling any protests or ego problems anyone might have. He had proven that throughout his career, showing an ability to block out noise that one could argue is the greatest of any athlete ever. Obviously we don’t have the social media to proliferate information back in Dean’s time, so the comparison is somewhat different.
However, it doesn’t take away from the fact that Dean didn’t let anything and I mean ANYTHING take him off his game besides his own streakiness and temper. He had another great season in 1936, going 24-13 with a 3.36 ERA, and was able to keep the story lines to a minimum.
In 1937, public attention came back to him in a way that it never had seen him before: under the light of injury scrutiny.
At the All-Star break he was 12-7 and was given the starting assignment for the National League in the midsummer classic. In the third inning, Cleveland’s Earl Averill knocked one right back towards the pitcher mound. It hit Dean on the left foot and ricocheted all the way to second base. Dean would be out with a broken toe for 2 weeks.
Dean insisted to Frisch that he was able to pitch on July 21, exactly two weeks after he had broken his tow, and Frisch let him go. However, Dean said after the game that he couldn’t pivot on the toe and overworked his arm as a result. He was soon diagnosed with bursitis. He made a few sporadic starts to end the season, which turned out to be his last for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Dizzy Dean was traded to the Chicago Cubs prior to the 1938 season, where he played sporadically for three seasons before World War 2 effectively ended his career. While that fact may leave a sour taste in some mouths, Dizzy Dean is nothing short of a St. Louis Cardinals legend.
Dizzy Dean was one of the most charismatic players in early to mid 1900’s sports, and his incredible talent paired with unwavering ego made Dean one of the most polarizing, yet popular players of his time. His place among the Cardinal greats in both talent and personality (depending on your taste) is cemented, and he will forever be remembered in St. Louis.