St. Louis Cardinals: Marty Marion, the original Cardinal short-stopper

1950's: Portrait of American baseball player shortstop Marty Marion of the St. Louis Cardinals as he kneels on the grass in uniform with a bat, circa 1950. Marion played for the Cards from 1940-50. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
1950's: Portrait of American baseball player shortstop Marty Marion of the St. Louis Cardinals as he kneels on the grass in uniform with a bat, circa 1950. Marion played for the Cards from 1940-50. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images) /

Marty Marion was a St. Louis Cardinals legend who is touted by some as the greatest defensive shortstop that the league has ever seen. He is forgotten on occasion in favor of his similarly inclined Cards shortstop successor Ozzie Smith, but Marion was a legendary Cardinal in his own right.

Before the charm of the Wizard of Oz, the face of the St. Louis Cardinals defense was Mr. Shortstop, Marty Marion. For 11 of the 94+ years that Marion was on this Earth, he donned a St. Louis Cardinals jersey, and was considered one of the best shortstops of all time. Marion, who passed away in 2011, would have been 102 today, though baseball always believed him to be a year younger.

Marion’s numbers are by no means robust, but that doesn’t mean his impact on the St. Louis Cardinals wasn’t felt. In his St. Louis Cardinals tenure, Marion slashed .264/.323/.346 and drove in 624 runs, but only managed 36 home runs and 35 stolen bases in his career. While he carved out a niche as a doubles hitter, his line is certainly not one that sticks out on the Hall of Fame ballots.

Marion’s career is worthy of consideration and most well known for a very unique feat for a position player in baseball. In 1944, Marion’s fifth season, he won the NL MVP with a rather peculiar stat line. He slashed .267/.324/.362, hit just 6 homers with 63 RBI’s and a single stolen base. Bill Nicholson, the man who finished second that season, slashed .287/.391./.545 and hit 33 home runs with 122 RBI’s.

Putting two and two together, the verdict is clear. Marion’s claim to the MVP was solely based on his defensive abilities that season, and he is the only player in baseball history that has won an MVP award solely based on defense.

This is even more impressive when considering that originally, Marion was brought up as a power hitting third baseman, but made the switch to shortstop upon arriving to St. Louis Cardinals spring training in 1936 and discovering that there were 11 third basemen there with 0 shortstops.

While the 3.6 dWAR he finished with in his 1944 MVP season is an impressive mark, it is only tied for 47th in single season marks, it doesn’t sound like something that should propel a player to MVP levels. There’s just one important thing to remember.

dWAR wasn’t a thing in the 40’s.

Besides the basic stats putouts, assists, double plays, and errors, there were no stats that existed at the time to quantify a player’s value defensively. From his range to his arm strength to his play making ability in the field, only the eye test really applies, and Marion seemed to pass these tests with flying colors.

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Even when seen alongside Hall of Fame shortstops such as Pee Wee Reese, Phil Rizzuto and Lou Boudreau, Marion was talked about as possibly being the greatest defensive shortstop ever at the time. In his prime, he was also compared to the legendary Honus Wagner for his elite defensive prowess.

Bill Klem, who is considered to be one of the greatest pre-integration umpires, actually believed that Marion was Wagner’s equal as a shortstop in general. Bob Coleman, who was the manager of the Boston Braves from 1943-1945 said that, “It seems humanly impossible to be better than Marion defensively.”

His influence still reaches as far as the present day in St. Louis on a personal level. John Mozeliak, a man who was born 16 years after Marion played his last professional game, said, “I never met the man, but I’ve met scores of Martys in my time in St. Louis and they all told me they were named after Marty Marion.”

He also was an excellent playoff performer for the St. Louis Cardinals. An excerpt from his biography explains how remarkable the follow up to his MVP campaign was, with the Cardinals facing the St. Louis Browns, who are now the Baltimore Orioles.

"Marion was sick the whole time with flu symptoms and a fever that reached 104, subsisting on orange juice, but he played every inning. There was no Series MVP award then, but National League president Ford Frick and several sportswriters said Marion was the best player on the field. An Associated Press writer credited him with “seemingly impossible stops.” In Game Two, he charged in to scoop up Mike Kreevich’s slow bouncer and record a forceout. When the Browns threatened in Game Four, Marion turned a scorching ground ball up the middle into a rally-killing double play."

The two teams played on the same field in Sportsman’s Park and the ability to care for the field’s quality and texture were nowhere near what they are today. This made the infield that Marion played on the worst in the league, making his achievements as a defender even more remarkable.

Marion’s contributions go far beyond the infield, and the baseball field in general. On top of being a stand-up citizen, he along with Harrison “Doc” Weaver, the St. Louis Cardinals trainer at the time, were the fathers and the driving force behind the players’ pension plan that still exists in today’s league.

It is for this impact that, despite the poor offensive numbers, I believe that Marty Marion has earned a spot on the Eras Committee ballot scheduled for 2020. He is already a member of the St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame, won and MVP, was an eight time All Star, and won 3 World Series rings.

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His offensive stats are not the most appealing, but those who were lucky enough to witness Marion play lauded the miraculous, groundbreaking nature of his defense time and time again. He has a slew of incredibly unique and impressive achievements, and in my eyes is deserving of Cooperstown consideration. Happy birthday Mr. Marion, your legacy will live in St. Louis Cardinals lore for all time.