St. Louis Cardinals: Did Dizzy Dean come in from the radio booth to pitch a game for them?
BASEBALL URBAN LEGEND: A team's radio announcer came in to pitch the final game of the team's season.
Criticism of professional athletes by announcers put an interesting spin on a traditional retort that people being criticized often use, which is the classic "could you do any better?" In the case of sports announcers, though, the one doing the criticism often was once a professional athlete, and often legitimately could have done better when they were younger! Therefore, quite often the playing career of the media member is put on trial when they criticize current players. In October 2010, when Brandon Marshall of the Miami Dolphins was criticized by NFL Network analysts Sterling Sharpe, Mike Mayock and Solomon Wilcots (all former NFL players) over his conditioning, Marshall retorted, "But again, those guys never coached, and I don't honestly think that those guys were elite players, including Sterling Sharpe. I know he's done some good things, but from my understanding, he's not a Hall of Fame player." When Sharpe was Marshall's age, he actually had a better resume (by 26, they were both named to two Pro Bowls, but Sharpe also was a first team All-Pro while Marshall was "just" a second teamer), but imagine if the 45-year-old Sharpe could actually back up his criticisms of the 26-year-old Marshall on the field? That's just what St. Louis Cardinal legend Dizzy Dean did on the last day of the 1947 season when he came out of retirement for one last game just to prove a point.
Read on to see what happened!
Jay Hanna "Dizzy" Dean pitched just six seasons for the St. Louis Cardinals from 1932-1937 (plus a single game in 1930), and those were the only six seasons that the pitcher pitched in more than 20 games in a season. An injury suffered in the 1937 All-Star Game effectively ruined his career. He was dealt to the Chicago Cubs in 1938 and managed to eke out three more seasons in the Majors before retiring at age 31 after pitching a single inning for the Cubs in 1941. Those six seasons were so good that Dean was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1953. His most famous season was 1934, when he went 30-7 on his way to the National League Most Valuable Player Award and a championship for the Cardinals' "Gashouse Gang" (Dean won the clinching Game 7 of the World Series). So when Dean retired, he went straight to broadcasting Cardinals games.
There was an interesting radio situation in St. Louis in the 1940s. The Cardinals and the American League team in St. Louis, the Browns, each had two sets of announcers calling their games. Harry Caray and Gabby Street called games on WTMV and WEW while Dean and play-by-play man Johnny O'Hara called the games on WIL. The duos were able to call both teams because of an unusual arrangement between the Cardinals and the Browns where only the home games of each team would be broadcast on the radio. This was done so that the home games of the one team would not be competing against radio coverage of the other team. As you would figure, such an arrangement was bound to end eventually, and 1947 was the year it came to an end, as the Cardinals decided to broadcast all of their games on the radio. They took this opportunity to choose an exclusive announcing team, as well. Despite Dean's presence as a legendary member of the Cardinals, Cardinals owner Sam Breadon decided to go with Caray and Street over Dean and O'Hara.
Dean was angry at being passed over, and he and O'Hara were effectively forced into becoming the announcing team for the lowly Browns (coming off a 66-88 record in 1946). The 1947 Browns season was even worse, with the team finishing the year 59-95 (they did have some positive historic moments that season, as they became the first Major League team to employ two African-American players - and when they played the Cleveland Indians, they were part of the first Major League baseball game that had two teams that each had an African-American player). All season long, Dean criticized the Browns, specifically the pitching staff, which ended the season with a league-worst team ERA of 4.33. Dean would often note that he could pitch better than these guys, specifically saying, ""Doggone it, I can pitch better than nine out of the ten guys on this staff!" On the last day of the 1947 season, Browns General Manager Bill DeWitt decided to call Dean on his bluff.
You see, while attendance for bad baseball teams nowadays can get pretty rough, especially at the end of the season, it was particularly bad back in the first half of the 20th Century. The Browns had failed to draw 5,000 fans in any home game from August 27th on (in 2011, the Houston Astros averaged over 20,000 fans a game on their final seven-game homestand in a season where they lost 106 games!), with the final game of their penultimate home series being particularly brutal, as just 315 fans watched the Browns defeat the Indians on September 25th. So DeWitt figured he had to do something to help the box office gate, and he was not above using a St. Louis legend's bragging to his benefit. Dean was signed to a $1 contract and scheduled to pitch on September 28th, the final game of the season, against the Chicago White Sox (led by first baseman Rudy Yotk) and their top starting pitcher, Eddie Lopat. The Browns manager, Muddy Ruel, was so angry over the stunt that he refused to manage the game and actually started his offseason one day early.
Dean was not a popular man on "his" team that day, but the fans ate it up. A crowd of 15,910 attended Sportsman's Park that day to see the 37-year-old Dean face off against the White Sox. That would be the second-highest attendance the Browns would have all season (the first being a June game against the eventual World Champion New York Yankees). Dean pitched through three innings without allowing a run, scattering three hits and walking one batter. In bottom of the third, Dean also hit a single! However, he pulled a muscle on the hit and left after pitching the fourth inning. In typical Browns fashion, reliever Glen Moulder (who took over from Dean and pitched the rest of the game) gave up five runs in the ninth, including a three-run home run with the score tied at 2. The Browns lost the game 5-2. Dean, however, had proven his point. He would return to the broadcast booth, where he went on to have a stellar career as an announcer, especially a few years later when he became the voice of ABC's "Game of the Week," a national telecast of MLB games. The National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association inducted Dean into its Hall of Fame in 1976.
Dean once said, "it ain't bragging if you can do it," and on that September 1947 day, Dean was no braggart.
The legend is...
Thanks to Ben Volin of the Palm Beach Post for the Brandon Marshall quote.
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Photo: Dizzy Dean. Credit: Simon & Schuster.