A Cardinal Takes Flight

Red Schoendienst's Rookie Season
in the Kitty League

 

This article was originally published in the February-March 2004 issue of The Bull Pen Kitty League Newsletter.

 

by Kevin McCann

 

The Union City Greyhounds were in big trouble. A 5-22 record during the first month of the 1942 season left the team in the Kitty League cellar. Their losing record, coupled with the fact that America had entered World War II, kept local fans away from the ballpark.

Desperate for help, team president Cecil Moss wired a telegram to Branch Rickey of the St. Louis Cardinals. In addition to his duties as general manager, Rickey was also the overseer of the Cardinals minor league teams and the Greyhounds were part of their vast farm system. Attendance was so bad that unless something was done to bring in better players, the telegram read, the team would be forced to disband. After consulting with his scouts, Rickey began sending fresh reinforcements to Union City.

Cardinals scout Bob Finch had seen a young red-haired shortstop from Germantown, Illinois named Albert Fred Schoendienst at a tryout camp held at Sportsman’s Park. He contacted the 19-year-old, intent on signing him to play at Union City. But first he needed the signature of the youngster’s father on the contract. The elder Schoendienst was a painting contractor and Finch managed to find him working on a highway bridge. Once his father signed the contract, Albert got on a bus at Breese, Illinois bound for Bowling Green, Kentucky, where the Greyhounds were playing a road series.

Al Schoendienst made his professional debut that evening—Friday, June 12, 1942—batting sixth in the lineup and playing second base. He had three hits in five at-bats, including a double and an RBI. He also turned his first double play—Schoendienst to first baseman Emerick Schmidtand committed his first error.

The Greyhounds completed their series at Bowling Green on June 14, splitting a day-night doubleheader with the Barons. The “little second baseman,” as the writer for the Union City Daily Messenger described him, went 5-for-9 in both games, driving in two runs, scoring two runs, and stealing a base. His twin bill performance bolstered his batting average to .571, with eight hits in 14 at-bats in his first three professional games!

It was about this time that Schoendienst asked manager Everett Johnston if he could bat left-handed when facing a right-handed pitcher. “I never will forget the look on his face,” he recalled in his autobiography, Red: A Baseball Life. “He thought I was crazy — until I explained…that I couldn't pick up the curve from a right-hander without turning my head because of my problems with my left eye. (He had injured his eye—and almost lost it—three years earlier when he was hit by a nail.) (Johnston) still was a little skeptical, but he said if I wanted to try it I could.”

Meanwhile, the financial woes continued for the Greyhounds front office. Most of the players sent by the Cardinals failed to reverse the team’s fortunes and attendance had not improved. After starting the season with a $1,500 surplus, the club was now operating at a $3,600 deficit. (Ironically, it was Union City that pressed to play the 1942 season despite the uncertainties caused by the war.)

On June 15, the baseball committee of the local American Legion that operated the Greyhounds met with William Walsingham, vice-president of the Cardinals farm system. It was decided that the team would have to be disbanded to prevent further financial losses.

“Experience of the better teams of the Kitty League this year shows that people generally are not interested in baseball,” remarked club president Cecil Moss. “People are working hard and the war is uppermost in their minds.”

Union City wasn’t the only team in the Kitty League losing money. Bowling Green, Hopkinsville, and Owensboro were also suffering. Even the first-place Fulton Tigers were averaging only 150 fans a game.

The next morning, league president Shelby Peace asked Union City officials to play two more games, after which the entire league would disband. The Union City officials agreed to do so.

The Greyhounds and Bowling Green Barons returned to Union City for a one-game series at Turner Field on June 16. The Greyhounds won by the score of 3 to 1 as Ed Beane tossed a one-hitter for the Greyhounds. Schoendienst went hitless in four at-bats but was part of his second double playshortstop Herschel Held to second baseman Schoendienst to first baseman Emerick Schmidt. He also had four assists at second base. The Union City Daily Messenger sportswriter referred to him as “Red” Schoendienst, the first time in print he was called by his nickname. The game also marked his only appearance before the hometown fans in Union City.

Afterward, the Greyhounds stumbled back onto their team bus for another road series, this one at Hopkinsville, Kentucky. Both games were lost to the Hoppers. Johnston bumped Schoendienst up to second in the batting order, where he had two hits in five at-bats in the first game on June 17. He belted two doubles and drove in a run in the 7-6 defeat, but also committed an error at second base.

Fittingly, the last game of the 1942 Kitty League season for Union City was yet another loss. With the score 8-3, the Greyhounds were set for a late-inning rally with the bases loaded in the ninth and no outs. But Hopkinsville pitcher Vernon “Turkey” Curtis quickly retired the side with strikeouts to put an end to Union City’s  miserable season. Schoendienst had a single in four plate appearances but helped turn his third double play—third baseman Stan Wolfson to second baseman Schoendienst to first baseman Schmidt.

The Greyhounds finished the season in last place with a 9-35 record. After the Kitty League formally disbanded, the Cardinals reassigned the Union City players to other teams in their farm system. Schoendienst was sent to another Class D club in Albany, Georgia where he finished the 1942 season with a .269 batting average, one home run, and 28 RBI in 68 games.

The 19-year-old second baseman who began his professional career in obscurity in the Kitty League went on to become a member of the St. Louis Cardinals just three years later. He spent the next 12 years with the Redbirds where he was named to the All-Star Team twelve times. In all, his 19-year major league career produced thirteen All-Star appearances and culminated in his belated induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1989.

In 1953, the Kitty League Writers and Broadcasters Association elected him to their Hall of Fame. It was a choice based more on his accomplishments during his major league career than what he did during his six games in the Class D circuit.

Yet, if it hadn’t been for hard times in Union City and a cry for help made to the Cardinals, it’s possible that the Hall of Fame career of Albert “Red” Schoendienst  may never have begun.


For more information about the life and playing career of Albert “Red” Schoendienst, I recommend reading his autobiography,
Red: A Baseball Life (co-written with Rob Rains) (Champaign, Ill: Sports Publishing, 1998).

 

RED SCHOENDIENST'S KITTY LEAGUE CAREER

DATE OPP G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB
6/12 @ BG 1 5 1 3 1 0 0 1 0
6/13 @ BG 1 5 1 3 0 0 0 1 0
6/13 @ BG 1 4 1 2 0 0 0 1 1
6/16 BG 1 4 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
6/17 @ HO 1 5 1 2 2 0 0 1 0
6/18 @ HO 1 4 0 1 0 0 0 0 0
TOTAL .407 6 27 4 11 3 0 0 4 1

 

 

(c) 2006 Kevin D. McCann. All rights reserved.