It is often said that Major League Baseball is a child’s game where grown men get to live out childhood dreams with passion and pride. If there were ever to be a player who took that pride and passion from childhood and into adulthood, it was the one and only Dizzy Dean. A member of the 1934 “Gashouse Gang,” Dean will go down as one of the influential men to wear the St. Louis Cardinals’ uniform.
Born on January 16, 1910 in Lucas, Ark., Dean only attended school through second grade. While this might come as a shock to many, a young man quitting school after second grade was a harsh reality of the times back then.
While in the Army, the 18-year-old Dean earned the nickname “Dizzy,” during a game between the Fort Sam Houston baseball team and Major League Baseball’s Chicago White Sox in 1929. Working his way through the Sox lineup, the manager cried out, “Knock that dizzy kid out the box!”
The nickname stuck with him for the rest of his life.
He would make his professional debut in 1930, one year after being nicknamed Dizzy. During the 1930 season, he worked his way to the majors with the St. Louis Cardinals — throwing a complete game three-hitter on the last day of the season.
By 1932, Dean had became a regular starter for the Cardinals — leading the league in shutouts and innings pitched. That season would also be the first of four straight seasons where he led the league in strikeouts.
In 1934, Dean and his iconic team known as the “Gashouse Gang” took the St. Louis Cardinals to the World Series. Dean went 30-7 and led the league with an ERA of 2.66 which helped him earn the 1934 National League MVP Award. His brother Paul or “Daffy” would also be a prominent member of the team with a record of 19-11.
Americans saw the St. Louis Cardinals as a spirit of hard work and perseverance during the Great Depression. The Dean brothers along with their teammates became folk heroes for southern states and were looked at as “America’s Team.”
During the 1934 season, Dean predicted, “Me an’ Paul are gonna win 45 games,” and on September 21, Dizzy pitched a three-hit shutout in the first game of a doubleheader that earned his 27th win of the season. In the second game, Paul threw a no-hitter and earned his 18th win.
In 1937, Dean placed a bet that he would be able to strikeout Vince DiMaggio (yeah, you know his brother) four times in the game. He struck him out his first three at-bats, but when DiMaggio hit a popup behind the plate at his fourth, Dean screamed at his catcher, “Drop it!, Drop it!” The catcher did and Dean struck out DiMaggio, winning the bet.
To say Dean had a giant personality would sell him short, his on-field antics kept fans enthused throughout the entire game. In Game 4 of the 1934 World Series against the Detroit Tigers, Dean was sent to first base as a pinch runner and what happened next will forever be a part of Cardinals history. Intent on avoiding a double play, Dean threw himself in front of the throw to first. The ball struck him on the head, and Dean was knocked unconscious and taken to a hospital. The sports-section headline the next day said, “X-ray of Dean’s head reveals nothing.”
Although the Tigers went on to win the game 10–4, Dean recovered in time to pitch in Game 5, which he lost. After the Cardinals won Game 6, Dean pitched a complete game shutout in Game 7 to win the Series for the Cardinals. During the World Series, the Dean brothers accounted for all, with two each, of the Cardinals’ wins.
In the 1937 All-Star Game, Dean faced Earl Averill of the Cleveland Indians. Averill hit a line drive back at the mound, hitting Dean on the foot. When told that his big toe had been fractured, Dean responded, “Fractured, hell, the damn thing’s broken!”
Unfortunately, he returned too soon from the injury, which changed his pitching motion to avoid landing as hard on his sore toe enough to affect his mechanics. As a result, he injured his arm and lost his great fastball.
By 1938, Dean’s arm was long gone but that did not stop Chicago Cubs from investing in the right-handed pitcher. Scout Clarence “Pants” Rowland was given the job by P.K. Wrigley to buy the washed-up Dean’s contract at any cost. Rowland signed the ragged righty for $185,000, one of the most expensive loss-leader contacts in baseball history.
He would help the Cubs win the pennant in 1938. In what Dean would call his greatest outing of his career, he pitched the opening game of the series and with an ailing arm, relied more on his experience and grit to defeat the Pirates by a score of 2–1. He would go on to pitch in Game 2 of the 1938 World Series before losing to the New York Yankees in what would ultimately become known as “Ol’ Diz’s Last Stand.”
He would make a one-game comeback on September 28, 1947. Dean had retired as a player but due to his popularity, he was hired as a broadcaster by the cash poor St. Louis Browns to drum up badly needed interest and publicity. After watching several poor pitching performances, Dean opened his mouth on air with, “Doggone it, I can pitch better than nine out of the 10 guys on this staff!”
With management needing to sell tickets, they took him up on his offer and had him pitch the last game of the season against the Chicago White Sox. At the age of 37, he pitched four innings, allowed no runs and hit a single in his only at-bat. While rounding first base, he pulled his hamstring. Once he returned to the broadcast booth after the game, he said, “I said I can pitch better than nine of the 10 guys on the staff, and I can. But I’m done. Talking’s my game now and I’m just glad that muscle I pulled wasn’t in my throat.”
As a broadcaster, Dean was famous for his wit and his often-colorful butchering of the English language. He would broadcast for the Cardinals (1941-46), Browns (1941-48), Yankees (1950-51), Braves (1966-68), and nationally with Mutual (1952), ABC (1953-54) and CBS (1955-56). His image as a not-too-bright country boy, as a way of entertaining fans and it worked. After watching Browns outfield Al Zarilla slide into a base, he said, “Zarilla slud into third!” The word “Slud” became a frequently-used expression while Dean was in broadcasting.
One time an English teacher wrote him with the complaint that he shouldn’t use the word “ain’t” on the air, as it was a bad example to children. On the air, Dean said, “A lot of folks who ain’t sayin’ ‘ain’t,’ ain’t eatin’. So, Teach, you learn ’em English, and I’ll learn ’em baseball.”
Dizzy Dean would later pass away on July 17, 1974 at the age of 64 from a heart attack in Reno, Nevada.
Throughout his short-lived career, Dean left a mark on baseball. He was a four-time All-Star selection (1934, 1935, 1936 and 1937), won four consecutive strikeout titles (1934-37), led the NL in complete games for four years (1934-37), a World Series champion (1934), three time 20-game winner, won 30 games in 1934, NL MVP of 1934, and elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1953.
The Cardinals retired his number 17 after his death. Dean was also inducted into the Cardinals Hall of Fame Museum with the inaugural class of 2014 and St. Louis Walk of Fame.
(Photo Credit: Getty Images)