The year was 1944. World War II was in full force as the United States had joined the fight. In the middle of it all, Major League Baseball’s best stars had hopped over from baselines to the front lines in defense of their country. Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams were off in the military. The Yankee Clipper was playing baseball for the armed forces, while the Splendid Splinter was flying air combat missions for the Marines. Those who held their place would not be mistaken for the genuine article.
Baseball went on. For the first time ever, women played professional baseball in the form of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League. There, talented young women from all over the country could be found playing the game just as well as the boys off in Europe and the Pacific and former big league stars like Jimmie Foxx could be spotted coaching (Think Jimmy Dugan, played by Tom Hanks in “A League of Their Own“). Men’s baseball did, however, continue. Though, not many would recognize it. Retired stars like slugger Babe Herman of the Brooklyn Dodgers returned to fill up rosters (1945 was his first season since 1937 and it would be his last). Ancient and ever more aging umpires like the infamous Bill Klem would also suit up again to enrage players once again.
Marvelous players, most of whom would never smell a big league field otherwise, would be recruited to help baseball during the war effort. In 1944, 15-year old Joe Nuxhall went straight from striking out high school kids to throwing on the mound at Crosely Stadium for the Cincinnati Reds making him the youngest player ever to appear in a Major League game. The following year, in 1945, the one armed outfielder (Yup! You read that right!) Pete Gray would play his one and only big league season with the St. Louis Browns.
Ah, the Browns! There lies perhaps the most lovable underdog story during the period of wartime baseball. The Browns had been perennial losers during their entire history. After the Washington Senators finally won a World Series crown in 1924, the Browns became, for lack of a better term, the laughing stock of the American League. While much of the league was drained of their best talent, it was the little sister of St. Louis that finally found some success.
The 1944 Browns were made up of names that hardly anyone would recognize today. The staff ace was 26-year old Jack Kramer, who posted the best season of his twelve-year career. In 33 games (31 starts), Kramer went 17-13, with a 2.49 ERA, and 124 strikeouts. He would go on to pitch for the Boston Red Sox and New York Giants before playing his final season in 1951 for the New York Yankees. He was a two-time All-Star during his big league tenure. The team’s best hitter was 23-year old shortstop Vern Stephens. It was just his third full season in the Majors. In 145 games, Stephens batted .293, with 20 home runs and a league leading 109 RBI. He earned his second All-Star appearance in ’44. He would go on to earn five more, totaling seven over his fifteen-year career, playing for the Red Sox, Chicago White Sox and newly minted Baltimore Orioles before calling it quits after the 1955 campaign.
The Browns won 89 games in 1944, losing only 65. That performance was good enough for an American League pennant, the only one in their history. Their opponent in the World Series was the stunningly successful St. Louis Cardinals. It was the last World Series ever played entirely in one stadium as the two teams both called Sportsman’s Park home. The Cardinals were led by the great Stan “The Man” Musial. Just 23 at the time, he was in only his fourth season and one year away from military service. On the mound, 31-year old 22-game winner Mort Cooper was the Redbird ace.
Despite their fairy tale season, the Browns were clearly over-matched against the crosstown rival Cardinals. Kramer would win his only decision and pitch eleven perfect innings, striking out 12 in two starts. But Stephens’ bat was silenced. In 25 plate appearances, he batted just .227, with no RBI and just one extra base hit. The Browns fell in six games, ending their hour on top. The Browns would never reach the World Series again, and owner Bill Veeck would move the team to Baltimore shortly after purchasing them. They would become the new incarnation of the Orioles after the 1953 season.
Many have called the Browns’ pennant win a fluke, but it stands to reason that, in a time where all teams were watered down, the Browns found a way to make their watered down club shine. It was the best season in their history and I am certain the players held their heads high. Certainly a tremendous accomplishment for a lackluster franchise whose best days would come in another city under another name.