How to keep young Musial on the bench
On June 7, 1942, after sitting out his team’s first two encounters with Carl Hubbell, Stan Musial finally took his cuts against King Carl — and took the collar, fanning twice in a game for the first time. The Cards still won (and the fading Hubbell fell to 1-5, 5.75). But manager Billy Southworth sat Musial for Hubbell’s four remaining starts against the Cards that year.
Of course, Musial wasn’t being shielded from Hubbell per se, nor from other aces like Johnny Vander Meer (he sat all five games) and Larry French (played one of five). And he wasn’t just some rook who had to fight for playing time — not after his phenomenal debut in September ’41, and certainly not after June of ’42, when his batting average climbed above .300 for good.
He was being platooned.
You might not see it in his basic stats, since he played 140 of 156 games. And you wouldn’t expect it, given his career .323 batting average and .943 OPS in games started by a lefty, just a little worse than in righty starts.
But in 1942, he started only 109 games, and just 9 of 55 when the Cards faced a lefty. He started 100 of their 101 games against right-handed pitchers.
Making the Move
Bill Madden’s obituary in the New York Daily News notes the platoon, but muffs the timing:
“Despite [his] auspicious debut, the Cardinals started off platooning Musial in the outfield in 1942, but he soon hit his way into regular duty.”
Actually, there’s no sign that Southworth planned to sit Musial against lefties; he started Stan in four of the first seven chances. But events spurred a change of plans.
First, Musial produced just a single and a walk in those four games. In his other games to that point, Musial batted .363 and slugged .690.
Second, while St. Louis was 10-9 at the point, they had lost 6 of 7 against southpaw starters. And the lefties kept coming at a relentless pace — 35 lefty starters in their first 78 games. (Giants skipper Mel Ott had a big hand in this lefty glut, listing to port in 11 of 15 first-half contests against St. Louis, and 14 of 22 overall. And it was clearly strategic, as lefties started just one-third of other Giants games.)
So Southworth tinkered. Left field became a platoon position, as it was the year before, when Coaker Triplett started 42 of their 44 games against southpaws but not once against a righty. After May 5, Musial sat the next 15 times the Cards faced a lefty; Triplett hit well enough, and the Redbirds went 8-7 in those games. Triplett wound up starting 43 games against lefties in ’42, just one against a righty.
After his oh-fer in that Hubbell game, Musial sat out five more southpaw starts. He started July 1, against Ken Heintzelman, the only lefty he had hit safely (and why not give the kid another chance, since Heintzelman had blanked the Cards twice in a week); Musial singled twice in 4 trips. He started July 4 against a lefty, with a single in 5 trips. But still no impact hits. Musial had now started 7 of their 30 LH games, going 4 for 26, all singles, with no runs or RBI, as the team lost 5 of 7.
The Cards at that point were 26-13 against righty starters, but only 14-16 against lefties. After July 4, Musial sat 23 of the last 25 games against a southpaw, and the Cards went 17-6 in those games. Musial never did get an RBI or XBH against a lefty starter that year.
Matching up in the Series
After fighting off all those lefties to reach the ’42 World Series, the Cards faced a Yankee team without one significant southpaw. Lefty Gomez logged 80 innings, none after August 14. Marius Russo, a fixture in 1940-41, was out most of the year. And that’s it — no other lefty pitched for the ’42 Yanks, and none worked in the Series.
It’s hard to say if that made a difference; St. Louis won in 5 games, but Slaughter and Musial still hit just .243 combined, with 1 HR and 4 RBI. Perhaps in game 2, tied in the 8th with Tiny Bonham still going, Joe McCarthy might have wished for a lefty when Slaughter doubled with 2 outs, bringing up Stan. But Bonham stayed in, Musial drove home the run, and the Cards never looked back.
Marius Russo returned in ’43 and won game 4 of the Series rematch (CG, no ER), as the Yanks won in 5 games.
One-and-done for the Musial platoon
The platoon ended in 1943, as Musial started all but two games total, and all but one against a lefty — including Hubbell’s two games (going 4 for 8 with a triple). Why did Southworth change his strategy? Maybe he saw an adjustment from Musial, but it might have been just the wartime talent shortage. They still had Triplett, but with starting OFs Slaughter and Moore gone, Southworth didn’t have many OF options better than Musial against lefties.
In the first 5 games against southpaws, Stan went just 4 for 20 with a double and 1 RBI. But he stayed in there. In three late-May starts against lefties, Musial went 5 for 13 with a HR, triple and double. And on June 1, Triplett was traded. Musial wound up doing just dandy against lefties, and he was never severely platooned again.
By the way, the platoon probably kept Musial off the ’42 All-Star team — the only time he was eligible but not selected. He was batting .311/.898 at the Break, but had only started 48 of 73 games. His outfield mates were both named as reserves, Terry Moore (hitting .278/.745 at the Break) and Enos Slaughter (.274/.796), as were future teammate Danny Litwhiler (.268/.695) and fellow rookie Willard Marshall (.253/.673). NL skipper Leo Durocher had been feeding the Cards a lefty whenever possible — none of his five top starters was left-handed, and lefties started just 22 games for Brooklyn, but he still tossed a southpaw in 8 of 22 games against St. Louis, and Musial sat out all but one. Durocher would not have been inclined to select a platoon player — and maybe he was also taking a jab at the future superstar.
Scrounging for Southpaws
It’s a little odd that the ’42 Cards faced so many lefties. It was the middle of perhaps the most right-leaning era in NL pitching history: From 1938-45, lefties started just 21% of all NL games. And many of this era’s good lefties pitched for the Cards (Howie Pollet, Max Lanier, Harry Brecheen, Ernie White); St. Louis started a lefty in 33% of their games in this span.
The ratio was even sharper at the top of the NL performance curve:
- Righties led in 20-win years by 22-zip overall (16-0 for non-Cardinals);
- Righties led in 16-win years by 49-6 (38-2 for non-Cardinals);
- Righties led in 5-WAR years by 20-3 (16-2 for non-Cardinals).
In 1942 specifically, teams other than St. Louis started a lefty just 21% of the time. But they often lobbed their lefty grenades at the Cards, who saw a southpaw in 35% of their games (55/156).
So, in a year with few southpaws overall, and just two opposing lefties topping 2.5 WAR, the Cardinals faced a much higher rate of lefties than the rest of the league. That means opposing managers trotted out a lot of so-so lefties.
Hubbell may have hung on largely to face the Cards, with 7 of his 20 starts and a 2.77 ERA against them (4.59 against all others). Braves rookie Lou Tost might have been hired especially for this job; after a mediocre minor-league career, he debuted at 31 in ’42 with 6 of his 22 starts against St. Louis. (The first was a rain-shortened shutout; the rest were disasters, and he started just one more game after ’42.) Other rotation part-timers who made disproportionate starts against St. Louis: 4 of 10 starts for Bill Donovan, another Boston rookie; 5 of 18 for Pittsburgh’s Ken Heintzelman; 4 of 17 for Cubs swingman Vern Olsen (71 ERA+ overall); 3 of 10 for Johnny Schmitz, another Cubbie; 3 of 8 for Brooklyn novelty Max Macon.
Did the strategy work? Well, the Cards went 32-23 against lefty starters (.582). But they went 74-25 against righties (.747). So, yeah, it worked.
But why was it even attempted?
OK, their two best hitters swung lefty, Enos Slaughter and Musial. And Johnny Hopp, despite a down year in ’42, maybe had some reputation from his .303 BA in ’41. But Johnny Mize was gone, and they had plenty of solid righties: Terry Moore, Walker Cooper, Whitey Kurowski. Even Marty Marion had a good year with the stick.
I’ll guess at three factors:
(1) Slaughter had a huge platoon gap for 1939-41. He hit about .330/.910 in righties’ starts, but more like .250/.700 in lefties’ starts. Even if managers didn’t have the data, you can’t miss a chasm like that. (Who knew that it would vanish in ’42?)
(2) Those righty hitters were not yet established players, except for Moore. Kurowski was a rookie, with far better years ahead. Cooper was in his first full year, after hitting .245 with 1 HR as a rookie. Marion had hit a punchless .264 in his first two years; in ’42 he came up to .278 and led the league in doubles.
(3) Musial hadn’t been around long enough to have a real book on him. But if anyone was counting in September ’41, he went 17-for-37 in games started by righties, with 5 extra-base hits, while in southpaw starts he was 3-for-14, all singles. And maybe his odd stance — “hunch-backed, close-footed, coiled,” with his right shoulder turned in toward the plate — made him seem vulnerable to lefties. In any case, he wasn’t let to face many of them in ’42, and he barely touched the ones he saw.
Return of the Lefties
When the War ended, the right/left proportions of MLB starting pitchers changed abruptly. Lefties started just 19% of all games in 1945, but 29% in ’46. This puzzled me at first. Had the military taken a disproportionate number of lefties, for some reason?
I was asking the wrong question, of course. The major leagues take a disproportionate number of lefties: About 10%-15% of the world’s population is left-handed, whereas southpaws usually account for 25%-30% of MLB innings. But with many of the most able-bodied men in the service during WWII, the majors were left to choose from a more representative population, so lefty innings went down.
The ’42 Pennant Race
At 40-29 on Independence Day, the Cards were already 9.5 games behind the defending Dodgers, who had roared off at 50-20. A 14-3 stretch, taking 3 of 4 from Brooklyn at the end of a long homestand, brought the Redbirds within 6 games as they embarked on a 25-game road trip, visiting every other team in the league. (Such trips were common during the War.) They went 14-10 with one tie, raising their record to 68-42 (.618), but lost ground to the Dodgers and now trailed by 8.5 with 44 games remaining.
Brooklyn played .622 ball from there. But the Cardinals blazed home at 38-6, taking 5 of 6 from the Dodgers, and won the pennant by 2 games. The teams were tied on September 12, the first time since mid-April that the Dodgers did not stand clear of the field, and the first time all year that the Cardinals alighted on the topmost branch. The Dodgers closed at 10-4, but it wasn’t good enough.
Brooklyn’s 104 wins tied the 1909 Cubs for the most by a team that missed the postseason. Their .675 winning percentage is tied for 25th in modern history; the Cardinals’ .688 ranks 16th. Bad timing.
Cooper and Beazley (and the rest aren’t too measly)
The 1942 Cardinals had one of the best and deepest pitching staffs ever. They led the NL with a 135 ERA+; the best by the “M/S/G” Braves was 131 in 1997. In a hitter’s park, the Cards allowed 20% fewer runs than the league average. Out of nine pitchers with 80+ innings, the worst ERA was 3.29, the worst ERA+ 104. All nine started at least 7 games; five tossed at least one shutout, with 10 by MVP Mort Cooper. Cooper had a 192 EA+, and the rookie Johnny Beazley 160; only 10 other live-ball teams had two pitchers with 200+ IP and ERA+ of 155 or better.
Twilight of the King
At the Break in ’42, Carl Hubbell was 1-6, 5.06. But he mustered one last march of glory in the second half. Beginning with a game against the Cards (Musial sat again), the Meal Ticket ripped off eight straight winning starts, recording all but two of the outs. It’s the second-longest win streak of his career, by decisions or starts, after his record-setting run of 1936-37. The ’42 streak was stopped by Vander Meer and a pair of unearned runs.
Hubbell wound up his Hall of Fame career with a forgettable ’43 that featured one last gem. Fourteen years after no-hitting the Waner-brothers Pirates, and two weeks from his 40th birthday, Hubbell stopped Pittsburgh on one hit, a homer in the 7th by Elbie Fletcher. (Much forgotten now, Fletcher led the NL in on-base percentage in 1940, ’41 and ’42; rang up a .401 OBP from 1939-49; and led NL first-sackers in WAR for 1940-43 combined.)
If you’ve ever wondered why Musial hit so many HRs in the Polo Grounds (nearly twice his HR rate for all other parks), take note of this from his 1964 autobiography:
“The secret to hitting is to relax, concentrate, and don’t hit the ball to center field. … [A]s I cocked my right knee I shot for either foul pole to avoid hitting to the deep part of the park.”
In Wrigley Field, a good HR park between the straightaways but with relatively deep foul lines, Musial’s HR rate was lower than his overall rate.
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