The Game's Greatest Writer on the Game's Greatest Years
by Red Smith
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FT. LAUDERDALE, FLA. -- Johnny Keane, a Cardinal from his first day in baseball until he managed the world champions 32 years later, was reminiscing about last year's struggle for the National League pennant when Joe Reichler, of The Associated Press, came into the Yankees' dugout.
"Sorry to bring bad news," Joe said, "but Pepper Martin is dead."
Keane's gray, lined face was stricken. It is unlikely he and Pepper ever were intimate, for when John Leonard Martin was the biggest name in the game John Keane was 19, going on 20, and had just completed his second season as a bush league infielder. In a baseball sense, the towns where Keane had played -- Globe, Ariz., Waynesboro in the Blue Ridge league, and Springfield, Mo. -- were a million light years from Sportsman's Park.
But as a kid in St. Louis Johnny had been a card-carrying member of the original Knothole Gang, sitting in left field and screeching, "We want a homerrr!" whenever Rogers Hornsby and Chick Hafey or Jim Bottomley went to bat. Then in Globe and Waynesboro and Springfield he was a member of the family. And for any kid in the Cardinal chain in those days, the beau ideal, the model, the hero larger than life, had to be Pepper Martin, the Wild Horse of the Osage.
"Oh my," John said at Reichler's news. "Oh, my. I saw Pepper just -- well, maybe it was at the World Series. He was in St. Louis and he looked fine. What a sweet guy, and what a ball club that was! Do we have them as tough as that today? These were guys who just hated to play in clean suits."
Perhaps that was a curious way of expressing it, but the words brought memories back in a flood -- a hundred memories of the cutting, slashing desperadoes who were the Cardinals of 1931, and most vivid in all the image of a rawboned, ungainly country boy who couldn't play one inning without looking like something drug out of a potato field.
They could send Pepper Martin out of the clubhouse all scrubbed and combed and laundered and pressed, though there never was a tailor who could cut flannels to look natty on those preposterous shoulders. Then he'd go busting down to second base with one of those headlong, belly-whopping slides and up he'd come out of the dusty whirlwind that was his native habitat with his sweat-soaked, haberdashery blacked with loam, a glistening film of grime on the homely face with its great, beaked prow. Pepper Martin wasn't the greatest hitter of all time, or the greatest fielder or thrower or base runner, but he did everything well and no more fiery competitor ever lived in any sport.
In the highly colored judgment of one who was a young sports writer at the time covering the Cardinals and all wrapped up in the team's fortunes, Pepper was, for at least one ten-day span in his life, the most exciting ballplayer of human history. That was in the 1931 World Series when he was a living flame laying waste to what may have been Connie Mack's greatest team.
This was the team of Lefty Grove, George Earnshaw and Rube Walberg, Al Simmons, Jimmy Foxx, Mickey Cochrane and the rest, overpowering favorites to win their third straight world championship. Almost literally, Pepper broke them between his soiled and reddened hands.
He didn't hit everything Grove and Eamshaw threw and he didn't steal Cochrane's underwear. It only seemed that way. By the time the series was three games old, newcomers arriving in the park were asking first of all, "Which one is Martin?"
In enemy Philadelphia, the hotel lobby was a maelstrom with Pepper its center. "Pepper, how do you account for the way you're going?" "I dunno. I'm just takin' my natural swing and the ball is hittin' the fat part of the bat." "Mr. Martin, where did you learn to run the way you do?"
"Well, Sir, I grew up in Oklahoma, and once you start runnin' out there there ain't nothin' to stop you."
In Philadelphia's Broad Street Station Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the commissioner who never was unaware of an audience, bellowed above the crowd: "Young man, I'd like to change places with you right now."
Quoth Pepper, never unaware of salary discrepancies: "Well, Judge, $75,000 against $7,500 -- I'll swap you."
After the World Series Pepper toured in vaudeville for more money than he had collected in baseball -- people would fill theaters just to see and hear a ballplayer in those days of innocence. Then he loaded his shotgun and his midget racing car and other necessities of life into the pickup truck which was his idea of a wealthy young sportsman's equipage, and took off for Oklahoma.
He never changed. He played the big cities and he managed in the top minors but in all his travels he never found anything more beautiful in his eyes than a tractor. There was passionate honesty in him, and an almost ministerial sincerity, yet on a team of indefatigable merry-Andrews he had a hand in every prank.
He was one of those who, disguised in white coveralls and carrying paint buckets, marched into a dinner in a Philadelphia hotel and began redecorating the room, somewhat to the consternation of the speaker. He was maestro of the Mississippi Mudeats, a jug-and-washboard band in the Cardinal clubhouse. When the team was tossed out of a Boston hotel for shooting pigeons from the windows, Pepper was there.
He did not clown on the field, though. An umpire in the minors found that out when Pepper, then a manager, dissented from a decision.
"Pepper," the league president asked later, "when you had your hands on that man's throat, what could you have been thinking!"
"I was thinking I'd choke him to death," Pepper said earnestly.
From Red Smith on Baseball Copyright © 2000 by Phyllis W. Smith. Used by permission.