Doug Wolter: Gashouse Gang era can never be repeated

I mentioned to an acquaintance of mine that I’m reading a book about the Gashouse Gang. He looked at me like I had grasshoppers jumping out of my ears.

Doug Wolter photo
Doug Wolter

I mentioned to an acquaintance of mine that I’m reading a book about the Gashouse Gang. He looked at me like I had grasshoppers jumping out of my ears.

I’d thought every baseball fan knew about the Gashouse Gang, but I obviously thought wrong. My friend is much younger than me, not a baby boomer like myself, so he can be forgiven. I told him that the Gashouse Gang is a term that was used to describe the 1934 St. Louis Cardinals, one of the most colorful teams in baseball history.

He nodded. I could tell he wasn’t particularly impressed.

The book, simply titled “The Gashouse Gang,” was written in 2007 by John Heidenry. Inside the cover flap, The New York Daily News describes the ‘34 Cards correctly as a collection of characters -- mostly “scrappy, not-very-educated kids” highlighted by such odd ducks as the nasty Leo Durocher and Joe Medwick and, of course, Dizzy Dean. Heidenry, in his preface, says they were uniquely a product of the Depression, “mostly men who had known extreme poverty and hardship in the South and West, with a few hard-nosed kids from eastern states thrown in for variety.”

I suppose if you’re looking for a more modern version of the Gang, you’d have to go to the 1970s Oakland A’s, who were famous for the rivalries they cultivated with each other. Guys like Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter and Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers were some of the more familiar names, and they were able to win three straight World Series crowns despite fighting against each other and, especially, their miserly owner Charlie Finley.


But in reality, the 1934 Cardinals were unique. They played at a time, I think, when Americans were truly separated by degrees much more so than they are today. In 2021 America, society has evolved in a way that the differences between “regular” people and the truly odd ones are less pronounced. We partake in so many similar social norms now -- Facebook, Twitter, television, movies. Public education has not only narrowed the gaps in our knowledge, but narrowed the differences in our mental makeups.

As proof, I offer the strange and incredible life of the Gashouse Gang’s most famous and best player, Jay Hanna “Dizzy” Dean, who won 30 games in 1934 in leading the Cardinals to their World Series victory in seven games over the Detroit Tigers.

Dean was the son of a sharecropper and he spent his youth roaming from place to place as his parents searched for cotton fields to pick. He went to school intermittently and quit early to continue his life on the road.

Because of a short stint in the Army, where Dean starred on the baseball team, he was discovered. By the time he joined the Cardinals organization, he was impossible to handle. Full of confidence, unable or unwilling to control his appetites and equally unable or unwilling to accept any kind of authority, the Cards and their flabbergasted general manager, Branch Rickey, didn’t know what to do with him.

While in the minor leagues, Dean enjoyed “borrowing” cars, which he drove wildly against traffic on one-way streets. He had a habit of registering in multiple hotels simultaneously, and he slept at the one he happened to be closest to at the time. When first summoned to join the Cardinals, he carried two suitcases which contained no clothes but only cheap Wild West books. He constantly hustled Rickey for advances on his salary and foolishly wasted what he had on sodas, cigars, cigarettes, fountain pens, sunglasses and key chains, and whatever else tickled his fancy.

His pitching, however, caused Cardinal fans to adore him. His personality did, too. He was a braggart, but he backed it up. He mocked opposing batters, made funny faces at them, and laughed at them when he struck them out -- which was often.

If a batter liked to dig in, Dean would walk halfway to the plate and say, “Just keep on diggin,’ cause that’s where they’re gonna bury you.”

Yeah, when it comes to Dizzy Dean and the 1934 Cardinals, you just can’t make this stuff up. It was another time, and it will never be repeated -- certainly not in the era we’re living in today, where all true characters are hammered down to fit an acceptable mold.


My father, who loved baseball, was 19 years old the year Dean won 30 games, and Dean was always his favorite player. I guess that says a lot about my dad, and why he chose “Dean” to be my middle name. I honestly am glad I didn’t live in the 1930s, but it’s fun reading about it and realizing how strangely different life, and baseball, is 90 years later.

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