The Genius Of Baseball's Hillbilly Philosopher

A few weeks ago, Dizzy Dean was inducted into the Baseball Reliquary's Shrine of the Eternals. Our man John Schulian was there to honor the occasion.

Dizzy Dean was baseball's one-man free speech movement. There were big names with untamed mouths before him, of course, Babe Ruth being the obvious example, but the Babe was only too happy to take time out for the occasional cigar, hot dog, bootleg cocktail, and available maiden. Dizzy, on the other hand, started talking the day he signed his first professional contract for a whopping $300 a month and didn't stop until he drew his final breath.

Upon meeting Branch Rickey, the architect of the St. Louis Cardinals' Gashouse Gang, he announced, "I'm the fella that's gonna win you a lotta ballgames." He set about proving his point as soon as he hit St. Loo, celebrating every victory by leaning out of taxi cab windows and hollering at strangers on the street: "I'm the Great Dean. Want me to sign something for you?" He went one step further when he visited a children's hospital and promised that he'd strike out the New York Giants' Bill Terry, a future fellow Hall of Famer. And strike Terry out he did, a feat he underscored by uttering a line that would take on new life when Muhammad Ali and Broadway Joe Namath began beating their chests: "It ain't braggin' if you can do it."

The sportswriters of the 1930s flocked to Dizzy, which was a surprise because they generally considered it beneath their dignity to converse with the roughnecks they covered for a living. But here was a mesmerizing presence, a raw-boned, unfiltered character who seemed to have ambled from the imagination of Ring Lardner. Somehow every writer came away with a different story about how Dizzy grew up as a sharecropper's son and played catch with his brother Paul—aka "Daffy"—using baseballs that were nothing more than rocks wrapped in yarn from an old sock. Dizzy's given name was Jay Hanna Dean, but he sometimes told writers it was Jerome Herman Dean, in memory of a cousin who drowned in a swimming hole. And that nickname of his? He claimed he got it in the Army, when a sergeant caught him throwing potatoes at a garbage can lid and screamed, "What the hell you think you're doin', you dizzy son of a bitch?" There were other versions of the story, though not as many as there were places he said he'd been born. It was one for this writer and another for that writer, and so on down the line.

"You're gonna run out of states south of the Mason-Dixon Line pretty soon," Leo Durocher, the Cardinals' shortstop, warned him.

"They got a story to write, pardner," Dizzy said. "I'm big news now. If I give this one the same story, what's there left for him to write? That ain't news."

The Genius Of Baseball's Hillbilly Philosopher

According to the available evidence, Dizzy was born to Alma and Albert Dean on Jan. 16, 1910, in Lucas, Ark. (He was a Capricorn, the Baseball Almanac dutifully points out.) The family drifted through the South and Southwest, working hardscrabble farms and not paying much attention to book learning for the boys. You get some idea of what their life was like when you listen to Billy Joe Shaver, a singer and songwriter from Texas who dipped into his own experience for these lyrics: "I got all my country learnin' milkin' and a-churnin'/ Pickin' cotton, raisin' hell and bailin' hay."

There was, however, a way off the farm for lads weary of staring at the backside of a mule. It was baseball, which Jimmy Breslin, the legendary New York columnist, described as "a sport for hillbillies with great eyesight." It's an observation that conjures up images of milk-fed young brutes hitting line drives that dented the tin outfield wall in Philadelphia's old Baker Bowl and of Hack Wilson, the Chicago Cubs' bibulous slugger, sobering up before games in a tub of ice water tended by a young fellow named Bill Veeck. Dizzy's job as a pitcher was to knock the thunder and lightning out of the opposition's big bats. He claimed to have everything he needed for the job: "A good body, a strong arm, and a weak mind."

Untroubled by self-analysis, he would have a brilliant but star-crossed career as a pitcher who feared no hitter and wound up nailed to a cross of bum luck. He won 18 games for the Cardinals as a rookie in 1932, and then reeled off four straight 20-victory seasons, the highlight of them being the 30 wins he racked up in 1934. No National League pitcher has won that many games in a single season in the post-dead ball era, or had as much fun, or riled up quite as many people when he wasn't winning hearts and minds among the rest of the populace. It was Dizzy Dean more than anyone else who put the gas in the Gashouse Gang.

Some call the Gang the second greatest team ever, surpassed only by the 1927 Yankees. But Leo Durocher, always honest, seldom kind even when the subject was his old ball club, went to his grave saying there were a dozen or more teams better than the Gashousers. But the rowdiest, scrappiest, brawling-est team ever? The team that seemed to have been put together just to give Depression-stricken America a band of underdogs to root for? Now there you could make a case for the Gashouse Gang.

Their nicknames alone offered a kind of escapist poetry to the hard-luck cases riding the rails and seeking out soup kitchens: Rip Collins at first base ... Frankie Frisch, the Fordham Flash, at second ... Leo the Lip at short ... Pepper Martin, the Wild Horse of the Osage, at third ... Ducky Joe Medwick in left field ... and, of course, the Dean brothers, Dizzy and Daffy, on the mound.

They slid headfirst and sang country music, crashed into walls and came up swinging at the slightest provocation. Medwick fought Detroit's Marv Owen right there at third base during the 1934 World Series. Why not? He'd already fought just about everybody on his own team. He knocked one Cardinal pitcher cold, and when Dizzy accused him of being less than energetic in pursuit of a fly ball that fell for a base hit, Medwick decided to flatten the loquacious pitcher, too. Daffy Dean leaped to his feet, ready to aid Dizzy in combat, so Medwick grabbed up a bat and invited the brothers to meet their doom together. Hard as it is to believe, cooler heads ultimately prevailed.

But in the grand baseball tradition, red asses remained the order of the day for the Gashouse Gang, and no one's ass was redder than Dizzy's when the Giants lit him up with a seven-run inning in an exhibition game. His response, as Durocher recalled it in his autobiography, was a commentary on the way baseball was played then. Dizzy told the Giants he was going to hit every dad-blasted one of them, and then he did it. The umpire didn't throw him out of the game. No hitter charged the mound. It was just baseball's rough justice at work: If a hitter dug in too deeply at the plate, down he went, and if the opposition scored too many runs or even had the nerve to hit the ball too hard for a pitcher's liking—bang!—someone got drilled. Still, the eighth Giant to come to the plate in that fateful inning—who else but Bill Terry?—couldn't resist looking out at the mound to see if seven was enough for Dizzy. "You're no better than the rest of them," Dizzy shouted. "Get up there, because you're going to get yours, too."

Then there was the day he bet he'd strike out the Boston Bees' unfortunate Vince DiMaggio four times. Dizzy blew him away his first three at-bats and was working on number four when DiMaggio somehow managed to hit a foul pop-up. It was an easy play for the Cardinals' catcher, but Dizzy ran off the mound bellowing, "Drop it, drop it!" The catcher did. On the next pitch Dizzy won his bet.

His self-confidence fed his own mythology, never more so than in '34 when he pitched seven and a third hitless innings against the Brooklyn Dodgers in the first game of a doubleheader and finished with a three-hit shutout. In the nightcap Brother Paul pitched the masterpiece that had eluded Dizzy. "Gee, Paul," Dizzy said in the locker room, "if I'd a-known you was gonna throw a no-hitter, I'd a-throwed one, too." Those two victories gave the brothers 45 combined for the season, which is what Dizzy had predicted for them. One problem, though: The season wasn't over. The Cardinals were in a blood-sweat-and-tears pennant race with the Giants that wouldn't be settled until the last three games, against Cincinnati. Dizzy won the first one, Paul the second, and then Dizzy returned on a day's rest to put a bow on the pennant with his 30th victory. Together, the Brothers Dean had amassed 49 wins. Even Dizzy was surprised. He wasn't used to underestimating himself.

All the Gashouse Gang had to do after that was beat Detroit in the World Series. The Tigers were built on the muscle of sluggers Hank Greenberg, Goose Goslin, Charlie Gehringer, and Mickey Cochrane, so it seemed only fitting that Frisch would want to share the scouting reports on them with his ball club. That's what managers do. But he wasn't halfway through when Dizzy stood up and said, "What the hell you going over the hitters for? They're not going to get any hits off me." Yes, they were. They even beat Dizzy once and hit him in the noggin with a throw when he was trying to break up a double play, an episode immortalized by a newspaper headline that may or may not be apocryphal: "X-Ray of Dean's Head Reveals Nothing." He got the last laugh, though, by beating the Tigers twice. Paul did the same, and the Gashouse Gang ruled the world of baseball.

They might have become a dynasty if the team's owners had listened to Dizzy. He had what was for his time a wild idea about two players the Cardinals should sign. A pitcher and a catcher. Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson. Dizzy had barnstormed with them in the offseason, and he had seen their greatness up close. Greatness was all that mattered to him. Dizzy didn't care that Satch and Josh were black and he and his teammates were white. He was a pragmatist, plain and simple. "If we sign them," he said, "we'll wrap up the pennant by the Fourth of July and we can go fishin' until the World Series." Dizzy never got his wish, though, and the Gashouse Gang's failure to make it to another Series became the moral of the story.

The fates began to abandon Dizzy in the 1937 all-star game when Earl Averill, the Cleveland Indians' slugger, hit a line drive off his left foot. The doctor told him his big toe was fractured.

"Fractured, hell!" Dizzy said. "The damn thing's broken."

Trouper that he was, he came back too soon, and when he did, he changed his pitching delivery to ease the pain in his foot. The next thing he knew, he had a sore right arm that took the fire out of his fastball and ended his string of 20-win seasons. P.K. Wrigley, the owner of the Cubs, insisted on signing him for the 1938 season anyway. These weren't the Cubs who have since put a trademark on futility, the Cubs who years later would give away Lou Brock to get—it's still hard to believe this—Ernie Broglio.

They would secure their grip on the pennant when Gabby Hartnett hit his Homer in the Gloamin' and broke the Pittsburgh Pirates' hearts. They wouldn't have been in position to do it, though, if Dizzy hadn't won 2-1 the day before in what he called the greatest performance of his career. And yet his downward spiral continued: a World Series loss to the Yankees, a meager six wins in 1939, and three—his last in the big leagues—in 194o. A year later, he was out of baseball, at age 31.

There was nothing left for him to do but talk. All right, he sang, too. It took almost no urging at all to get him to belt out that old Roy Acuff hit "The Wabash Cannonball." But mostly people wanted to hear Dizzy make ballgames sound, as one writer put it, "like stories by Mark Twain." He spoke his own language whether he was doing play-by-play for the St. Louis Browns on the radio or the CBS Game of the Week on TV. When a player's name was a mouthful, Dizzy could be counted on to pronounce it as though a Las Vegas blackjack dealer were parked on his tongue shuffling the letters.

But mangled names were just one of Dizzy's oratorical flourishes. In his world, a right-handed pitcher who threw sidearm was coming "by way of Port Arthur," thereby giving that Texas oil town a measure of fame before it became known as Janis Joplin's birthplace. Al Zarilla, a Browns outfielder, didn't slide into third base, he "slud." A hitter who swung at a bad pitch—as if the Browns had any other kind of hitter—"shouldn't hadn't oughta swang." Dizzy was equally blunt on CBS, once saying "I don't know why they're calling this the game of the week. There's a much better game, Dodgers and Giants, over on NBC." And of course there was the staple of seemingly every sentence that tumbled from his mouth on the air and off: "ain't." He drove English teachers crazy with it, and when one wrote to complain, he used the broadcast booth as his bully pulpit: "A lot of folks who ain't sayin' ain't, ain't eatin'. So, teach, you learn 'em English and I'll learn 'em baseball."

The Browns' pitchers and their loving wives weren't any happier than the English teachers that day in 1947 when Dizzy told listeners, "Doggone, I don't know what this game's a-comin' to. I swear I could beat nine out of 10 guys that call themselves pitchers nowadays." To silence the cries of outrage, the Browns' management signed Dizzy to a $1 contract to pitch the final game of the season. His fastball was a memory, but he still shut out the Chicago White Sox for four innings—and got a base hit, too—before he pulled a muscle in his leg and left the game to the cheers of the very people he'd made so angry. The Browns went on to lose their 95th game of the season while Dizzy retired to the broadcast booth for keeps. "It's a good thing that muscle I pulled wasn't in my throat," he said.

If ever someone was born to be in the Shrine of the Eternals, it is Dizzy Dean—pitcher, broadcaster, singer, clown prince, hillbilly philosopher. The only regret raised by his induction is that it comes 40 years after his death, and in the 14th year since the Shrine began saluting the free spirits and relentless crusaders who one way or another changed baseball for the better. So it is that you can't help wondering what Dizzy would say if he were around to step up and accept his award for being Dizzy.

Listen closely now.

There he is. Hear him?

He's saying, "What took you so long?"


John Schulian was a sports columnist for the Chicago Daily News, the Chicago Sun-Times, and the Philadelphia Daily News before moving to Hollywood, where he wrote for a number of television shows and was the co-creator of Xena: Warrior Princess. His work has been collected in several books, including Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand: Portraits of Champions Who Walked Among Us. With George Kimball, he edited At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing for the Library of America. He is the editor of the Library of America's forthcoming anthology, Football: Great Writing About the National Sport.

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Photos by Jesse Saucedo