By Jack Sparacino
I just finished reading John Heidenry’s recent book on the 1934 St. Louis Cardinals baseball team, “The Gashouse Gang.” It got me thinking again about how our world has, in important ways, spun a long way since then.
Of course the 2011 Cardinals won last year’s World Series over the powerful Texas Rangers. That was the Cardinals’ 11th championship, dating back to 1926. Their third and most famous, boisterous title came during the teeth of the Great Depression, in 1934 against the Detroit Tigers.
That 1934 Cardinal team was a talented, grimy, frenetic piece of work for the ages, one that may hold some interesting lessons for today’s challenging world. Their nickname was the Gashouse Gang, a colorful reference to dirty, foul smelling plants (often located near railroad yards and poor neighborhoods) that made “town gas” from coal for cooking and lighting. This nickname was fitting. It sprang from the team’s often grubby appearance (their uniforms were often filthy) and gritty, scrappy style of play, heavily infused with vibrant confidence and swagger.
Almost 80 years later, many of the players’ are still well known, including brothers Dizzy and Paul Dean, Leo “The Lip” Durocher, Joe “Ducky” Medwick, Pepper Martin, and player/manager Frank “The Fordham Flash” Frisch. Many of the players were from the South or Southwest with hardscrabble working class backgrounds. They came prepared to play hard, win hard, and have a great time in the process.
But not to necessarily make a ton of money. Star pitcher Jay Hanna (“Dizzy”) Dean made $19,500 in 1935 when he won 28 games at age 25 after winning a stunning 30 games in 1934; in 1934, his brother Paul made $5,000 to go with 19 wins and 26 saves. Dizzy Dean was the ringleader of the Gashouse Gang, an irresistibly colorful fellow his entire life.
Americans loved these magnetically energetic players who ground their way to victory no matter who or what the opposition. Like the incomparable racehorse Seabiscuit, born just months earlier, they knew how to persevere and dig deep for every victory, including an astonishing 20 wins in their last 25 games of the regular season to yank the pennant away from the vaunted New York Giants. In many ways, the Gashouse Gang epitomized some of the best of the indomitable American spirit during those miserable economic times.
So I was just wondering, what if those players were able to jump into my time machine, or perhaps the train version, and vault into the present? And what if we could cast them in a reality show, let’s say on a sports network or the History Channel — how would that play out? Well, it might be pretty chaotic getting started, and I might need to somehow get a phone call through to Rod Serling or someone else to consult from “The Twilight Zone,” but we might have a lot of fun filming the series.
Imagine this. The setting would include actual major league baseball games. The Gang would play each of the 30 major league teams twice as part of the regular MLB schedule. We’ll have to figure out how much to pay Dizzy and his team, as their 1934 salaries are in the neighborhood of a thousand times less than what players make today. Sure seems like a good idea to pay them fairly. In the spirit of sportsmanship, teamwork and fun, here are a few of the themes that could be emphasized through the action on the field, travel between games, the broadcasts, and endorsements.
Work hard, play hard, and love what you do. The General Manager of the Gashouse Gang, Branch Rickey, once said, “Work is the zest of life; there is joy in its pursuit.” Isn’t it great to see people who absolutely love what they do for a living. Our boys of summer would demonstrate in all they said and did just how much fun it can be to work your tail off for deliriously happy customers.
Back to train travel. Players mostly traveled by train in 1934. Wouldn’t it be a relief to see our gang forgoing cramped, delayed airplanes and dreary airports? With only 60 games to play all season, they’d have plenty of time to ride the rails. I’m thinking that at least several shows could be filmed live from inside the train: card games, meals, joking around, the works.
Walk the talk the walk. As Dizzy Dean famously said, “It ain’t bragging if you can back it up.” We’ll have to make sure our director captures words and deeds to make sure they’re consistent, and if not, why.
If the Gang is going to call their shots, we’ll hold them to their word and get their reactions afterward.
Most great accomplishments are the work of teams. Baseball teams from the 1930’s spent a lot of quality time together, on and off the field. Our show would help make clear how far pure teamwork goes toward building a championship season.
Fancy men’s grooming aids might take a hike. Well, we’ll let the Gang decide whether they want to use or endorse anything called “bodywash,” 4 bladed razors, hair gel, exotic scents and the like. It might be fun, though, to see good old fashioned dirt followed by plain soap and water make a comeback. I’m thinking we might be treated to something like Gillette meets “Survivor.”
By Jack Sparacino