In the first article, we looked at the non-baseball sides of the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry.
Now, it is time to look at the on-field origins of the competition.
While the series between the two clubs remains pretty even, many baseball fans of a certain age recognise the Cubs as lovable losers and the Cardinals as perennial winners. In fact, when I moved to St Louis in the early 2000s, many baseball commentators described the National League (NL) Central as the ‘Comedy Central’ because of how uncompetitive it was.
However, this was not always the case – for many early years, and particularly in the 1930s, the Cardinals and Cubs were the main leaders in the NL and were each other’s main competition in the pennant race.
Coming into the 1930s, both the Cardinals and the Cubs were powerhouses in the NL, and it often seemed that the pennant would finish at one end of I-55. Below you can see their comparative finishes and records in the ten years from 1926;
|Season||Cardinals record||Cubs record|
|1926||1st – 89-65||4th – 82-72|
|1927||2nd – 92-61||4th – 85-68|
|1928||1st – 95-59||3rd – 91-63|
|1929||4th – 78-74||1st – 98-54|
|1930||1st – 92-62||2nd – 90-64|
|1931||1st – 101-53||3rd – 84-70|
|1932||6th – 72-82||1st – 90-64|
|1933||5th – 82-71||3rd – 86-68|
|1934||1st – 95-58||3rd – 86-65|
|1935||2nd – 96-58||1st – 100-54|
This was most certainly the era of the batter, and baseball players of the 1920s and 1930s put up stats that will almost certainly never be seen again. One example was the batting line up of the 1930 St Louis Cardinals. They had a whopping eight players who batted over .300 for the season. Their two leaders were George Watkins with a .373 Batting Average and Frankie Fisch with a .346 average. As amazing as this stat is, you might be surprised to hear that such exceptional hitting was not so unique. During the same season, Cubs outfielder Hack Wilson was having one of the best batting seasons in the history of baseball, driving in 191 runs and hitting 56 homers.
In the end, the Cardinals just squeaked it over the line at the end of the season to win the pennant over the Cubs by two games in their 92-win season (the Cubs finished 90-64). While beating the Cubs to the World Series is a theme that repeats itself, the World Series did not quite go to plan. The Cardinals fizzled out as they only managed to bat .200 in the World Series, which led to a loss against the Philadelphia Athletics. Even back then, what happens in the regular season has no bearing on how the postseason turns out. I’m sure the 2023 Dodgers would be unhappy to confirm that some things never change.
Reasons to smile during Depression
While the city of St Louis was certainly affected by The Great Depression and Prohibition – they are a city dominated by the Anheuser–Busch (Budweiser) brewery after all – the Cardinals were having one of the most successful periods in all of their history. The ‘Gashouse Gang’ dominated by Dizzy Dean (who won 30 games in the 1934 season) and hitters such as Frisch won five National League pennants between 1926 and 1934, plus three World Series titles (‘26, ’31 and ‘34). Logically then, coming into the 1935 season, popular opinion seemed to be that the Cardinals were still the team to beat. In a preseason poll, 126 out of 194 members of the Baseball Writers Association of America voted that the Cardinals would be most likely to win the pennant, while only ten voted for the Cubs. However, the unpredictable magic of sport gave Chicago Cubs fans a season that they were not expecting.
The season opened on what still felt like a wintery day on the north side of Chicago. The Cubs decided to field the NLs youngest team led by catcher Gabby Hartnett (who had the unfortunate nickname of ‘Old Tomato Face’). The Cardinals started as they meant to go on with Dizzy Dean on the mound. During the first inning, Dean was promptly knocked unconscious by a Freddie Lindstrom line drive which headed straight back to the mound. This moment in the first inning of the brand new season seemed to signal good luck for the season ahead for the Cubs and the opposite for the Cardinals. While the Cubs did struggle for the first half of the season, they picked up after the start of July. On 6 July, the Cubs were playing the Pittsburgh Pirates at home and managed to throw away a six-run lead in the bottom of the ninth to send the game to extra innings. The game went through 13 innings when Phil Cavarretta singled home the winning run. This flipped a switch in the Cubs clubhouse and they won 24 of the next 27 games.
A feature which is still part of this rivalry is the annual end of season match-up between the two ball clubs in September. That season, the Cubs arrived at Sportsman Park for a five game series in St Louis holding a three game lead over the Redbirds. The Cubs shutout the Cardinals 1-0 in Game One and Game Two was rained out, which led to a doubleheader on 27 September. The Cubs beat the Cardinals 5-3 in the first game and scored six unanswered runs in Game Two to take the pennant. The Cubs went on to lose to the Detroit Tigers in the World Series despite 30 out of 57 sportswriters in the Associated Press picking them to win. Maybe we shouldn’t listen to people who write about sports!
Second City changes and The Billy Goat Curse
While 1935 was a high point, a few landmark off-the-field events signalled the end of the Cubs’ success and big changes in the city itself. The start of the 1930s saw the beginning of the end of ‘strong men/gangster’ characters like Al Capone, who had dominated life across Chicago. Despite their notoriety, there were also progressive men such as Cubs owner William Wrigley (yes of chewing gum fame) who was a benevolent businessman and voice in the city. He not only built the Cubs, but also left a mark on the city as a whole, including donating a six-storey building in downtown Chicago to The Salvation Army to house the unemployed during The Great Depression. His death in 1933 alongside other events, such as the jailing of Al Capone in 1932, signalled a change in the fortunes of both the city and the ballclub.
After Wrigley’s death, the ownership of the Chicago Cubs passed down to his son Philip K. Wrigley. While many described William Wrigley as a visionary, his son and the new owner was seen as disinterested at best and useless at worst, with the fortunes of the Cubs taking a bit of nosedive. The next notable postseason appearance for the Cubs was the 1945 World Series, but this lives in infamy due to a certain stinky goat.
Legend has it that William Sianis (owner of the Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago’s River North neighbourhood) was at Game 4 of the World Series with his pet goat, and the stench of the goat was bothering other fans. Due to the smell, he was asked to leave and, as he left, he cursed the Cubs saying, “Them Cubs, they ain’t gonna win no more.” And, to cut a long story short, they didn’t – during Philip’s reign, the once-prolific Cubs only had seven winning seasons in the next 32 years and had to wait until 2016 to win another World Series, giving Cubs fans an agonising 108-year wait.
The Cardinals, meanwhile, went on to be one of the most consistent teams in all of baseball. They have not only won the most World Series titles in the National League (second only in all of baseball to the New York Yankees), but they have done so consistently;
- One in the 1920s (‘26)
- Two in the 1930s (‘31 and ‘34)
- Three in the 1940s (‘42, ‘44 and ‘46)
- Two in the 1960s (‘62 and ‘67)
- One in the 80s (‘82)
- Two in the 2000s (‘06 and ‘11)
This means every child born in St Louis since 1926 has seen a World Series win before their 25th birthday.
In Part Three…
While the series between the two clubs has remained close, it certainly stopped being about going toe-to-toe for the NL pennant every year. In the next instalment of this rivalry series we will look at the moments and characters who kept this rivalry alive post-1945.
Jennifer Annely is Bat Flips & Nerds’ St Louis Cardinals contributor, and can be found on Twitter @jenniferbarnes8.
Featured image – courtesy of The Chicago Tribune archives