The Dodgers had the cash. The Cardinals had the players. That combination led the National League rivals to make their second significant transaction of the year at the end of 1940.
Seventy-five years ago, on Dec. 4, 1940, the Cardinals dealt the best young catcher in the NL, Mickey Owen, to the Dodgers for $65,000, catcher Gus Mancuso and minor-league pitcher John Pintar.
Six months earlier, on June 12, 1940, the Cardinals had sent slugging left fielder Joe Medwick to the Dodgers for $125,000 and four players whom a writer described as “a few ham sandwiches.”
The Dodgers, who hadn’t won a NL pennant since 1920, were willing to spend lavishly to acquire the talent needed to become champions.
The Cardinals, confident their farm system could replenish their big-league roster, were willing to deal standout players at their peak market value to increase profitability.
After the 1940 season, Dodgers president Larry MacPhail spoke openly of his intention to acquire Owen.
Babe Phelps, 32, had been the primary catcher for the 1940 Dodgers. He hit well (.295 batting average, 24 doubles and 61 RBI) and was named an all-star for the third time in his 11-year career in the big leagues. The Dodgers, though, wanted a younger catcher with a better arm, better defensive skills and more agility than the lumbering Phelps (who, at 225 pounds, was unkindly nicknamed “Blimp.”).
Owen, 24, met the criteria. He entered the big leagues with the 1937 Cardinals and became their starting catcher in 1938. In four seasons with St. Louis, Owen hit .257. His prime asset was his ability to deter stolen base attempts.
In 1938, Owen ranked third among NL catchers in percentage of runners caught stealing (50.9 percent). Owen was the league leader in that category in both 1939 (61.1 percent) and 1940 (60.4 percent).
By comparison, Phelps caught 33.3 percent of runners attempting to steal in 1940.
In its Nov. 21, 1940, edition, The Sporting News wrote that Owen “is No. 1 on the MacPhail shopping list because of his youth and speed. Larry, however, isn’t at all confident of landing the fiery Redbird receiver.”
The Giants and Cubs also wanted Owen. Cardinals owner Sam Breadon and general manager Branch Rickey were delighted to have multiple bidders for Owen. They were receptive, in part, because they had a hard-hitting catcher at their Columbus farm club, Walker Cooper, who was deemed ready to be a big-league regular.
The Cardinals “will be on the listening end of one of the most interesting _ and profitable _ bidding contests in a long time,” The Sporting News wrote. “… Cardinals chieftains need only to sit back and let the other fellows do the talking and bidding … They couldn’t have done better if they had written the plot themselves.”
At the baseball winter meetings in Atlanta, the Cubs reportedly made an aggressive play for Owen. MacPhail quickly countered and sealed the deal by increasing the cash offering.
Cash trumps talent
Some were surprised the Cardinals settled for Mancuso instead of Phelps in the deal.
Mancuso, 35, who began his big-league career with the 1928 Cardinals and played in the World Series for them in 1930 and ’31, had hit .229 as backup to Phelps for the 1940 Dodgers. Pintar, 27, a right-hander, had posted an 11-9 record and 2.77 ERA for the Dodgers’ Texas League affiliate in Dallas.
“At first glance, it looked like the Dodgers benefitted most” with the Cardinals “getting the money they like so well,” Judson Bailey of the Associated Press wrote. Bailey called Owen “a smart defensive player and the kind of aggressive worker that (Dodgers) manager Leo Durocher likes.”
In The Sporting News, Dodgers correspondent Tommy Holmes opined, “Everybody knew MacPhail wanted Owen … What no one expected was that Mickey would come to the Dodgers for so small an outlay of useful playing material. It seems Sam Breadon … preferred the cash.”
Why not? The $190,000 the Cardinals got from the Dodgers for Medwick and Owen was a staggering sum. In 1940, the highest-paid player in the big leagues was Tigers slugger Hank Greenberg at $35,000. The average player salary in the 1930s was $7,500. In the 1940s, it was $11,000.
In the short term, the deal worked well for both teams. In the long term, the Cardinals did better.
With Medwick and Owen as regulars, the 1941 Dodgers composed a 100-54 record and won the NL pennant, finishing 2.5 games ahead of the second-place Cardinals (97-56).
Medwick batted .318 with 18 home runs, 88 RBI, 100 runs scored and 171 hits in 133 games for the 1941 Dodgers.
Owen was second in the NL in fielding percentage among catchers that season and fourth in percentage of runners caught stealing (51.8). He was named an all-star for the first time. He hit .231 with 44 RBI.
(In the 1941 World Series against the Yankees, Owen failed to catch a third strike pitch with two outs in the ninth inning that should have clinched a 4-3 Dodgers victory in Game 4 and evened the series at 2-2. Instead, the Yankees rallied, won the game, 7-4, and went on to secure the championship with four wins in five games.)
Mancuso and Cooper formed an effective catching platoon for the 1941 Cardinals. Mancuso hit .229 in 106 games, including 98 starts at catcher. However, Mancuso ranked No. 1 among NL catchers that season in percentage of runners caught stealing (69.2 percent).
Cooper batted .245 in 68 games, including 45 starts at catcher, for the 1941 Cardinals and was fifth in the NL in percentage of runners caught stealing (51.4), just behind Owen.
After 1941, Owen never played in another World Series.
Cooper was the starting catcher on Cardinals clubs that won three consecutive NL pennants (1942-44) and two World Series titles.
The left fielder who eventually replaced Medwick and joined Enos Slaughter and Terry Moore as starting outfielders on that 1942 World Series championship club was another standout from the Cardinals farm system, Stan Musial.