When the 1945 Cardinals reported to spring training at Cairo, Ill., they found the outfield better suited for fishing than for chasing fly balls. Unable to have fielding or batting practice because of flooding at Cotter Field, the Cardinals abandoned the Illinois river town and conducted spring training at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis.
Seventy years ago, in March 1945, the defending World Series champion Cardinals planned to hold spring training in Cairo for the third consecutive year. St. Petersburg, Fla., was the Cardinals’ spring training base, but the Redbirds, like all big-league clubs, trained at sites closer to home from 1943-45 in order to conserve resources through reduced travel during World War II.
Training at Cairo worked well for the Cardinals in 1943 and 1944. They had more than 100 wins and earned a National League pennant in each of those years, including a World Series title in 1944.
River runs through it
Cairo is located on the southern tip of Illinois, where the Ohio River flows into the Mississippi River. In March 1945, rain swelled the rivers. Even with walls and levees protecting the town, water seeped into the ballpark used by the Cardinals.
The stages of the rivers were 10 feet above the level of the ballpark, according to the Associated Press. Under orders from club owner Sam Breadon, Cardinals traveling secretary Leo Ward searched throughout Cairo for an alternative spot to conduct batting and fielding practice, “but he mired in mud and returned gloomily to the hotel.”
“There was talk of moving the training camp back to St. Louis as early as March 13, the second day the players were in camp,” The Sporting News reported. “However, Breadon gave the Cairo people a few days more to get their park in shape.”
Cairo Mayor E.A. Smith and city fire and street departments “did everything they knew to get the field in shape. They dug draining ditches and put the fire pumps to work in the outfield, but each morning a new film of seepage water covered the infield,” The Sporting News wrote.
In a story filed on March 19, 1945, the Associated Press reported, “The outfield of the practice diamond was under four feet of water and it appeared doubtful that the park would be useable for baseball during the two weeks the team will be in town.”
Among those in camp for the Cardinals were pitchers Max Lanier, Blix Donnelly and Bud Byerly, first baseman Ray Sanders, second baseman Emil Verban, third baseman Whitey Kurowski, outfielder Debs Garms and rookie Red Schoendienst.
A picture in The Sporting News showed Kurowski, Lanier and Sanders casting fishing lines in the outfield water.
Coach Mike Gonzalez was running the club while manager Billy Southworth was at home in Sunbury, Ohio, after spending weeks in New York while joining in a mission to search for his son, who was killed in a crash of a B-29 he was piloting.
Southworth was trying to find a training site for the Cardinals in Ohio. “Breadon announced Southworth is looking for a place and that the squad will leave (Cairo) if satisfactory arrangements can be made,” the Associated Press reported.
The Sporting News revealed Southworth wanted to bring the Cardinals to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where the minor-league Columbus and Rochester teams were training.
“Miami University officials hustled around to find living quarters for the Cardinals and a series of games among the three clubs was being worked up,” The Sporting News wrote. “Manager Billy Southworth … believed the arrangement was set, but owner Sam Breadon vetoed the move to Oxford.”
Breadon ordered the team instead to return to St. Louis. The last time the Cardinals had spent spring training at home was in 1919. The reason then was lack of finances.
Wrote The Sporting News of the deteriorating conditions in Cairo: “For a week, the Redbirds had no real baseball work. They indulged in pepper games on a hard cinder footing, did some throwing, running and calisthenics but had no batting practice or real infield workout … A soggy infield, no batting practice for five days and fishing in the outfield quickly convinced (Breadon) that he had to act quickly.”
Said Breadon: “Oh for a return to good old St. Petersburg.”
The Cardinals began workouts at Sportsman’s Park on March 26, 1945, and opened the season on April 17 at Chicago.
The disrupted spring training didn’t appear to hurt them much. The 1945 Cardinals had 95 wins and finished in second place, three games behind the Cubs.