Seeking a power bat for a lineup struggling to score, the Cardinals got the slugger they wanted but paid a hefty price, dealing a player who would win the National League batting title.
When the Cardinals traded outfielder Harry Walker, 28, and pitcher Freddy Schmidt, 31, to the Phillies for outfielder Ron Northey 70 years ago on May 3, 1947, the swap appeared to favor them.
Northey, 27, was an established left-handed pull hitter whose swing appeared tailored to take advantage of the short distance (310 feet) down the line from home plate to the right field wall at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis.
Walker, also a left-handed batter, lacked Northey’s power and was struggling to hit for a high average.
“Walker, a great fielder and fast man, wasn’t hitting far enough or long enough to suit” the Cardinals, The Sporting News reported.
The Cardinals, though, didn’t know Walker was close to mastering a revamped swing that would lead to a breakthrough.
Seeking a groove
After winning the 1946 World Series championship, the Cardinals had a dreadful start to the 1947 season. The Cardinals lost 10 of their first 12 games, including the last eight in a row. They scored two runs or less in five of those 10 losses.
St. Louis began the season with a starting outfield of Dick Sisler in left, Walker in center and Enos Slaughter in right, with Stan Musial at first base.
Walker had debuted in the big leagues with the 1940 Cardinals. He had his best year for St. Louis in 1943, batting .294 with 166 hits.
After that season, Walker joined the Army, serving with General George Patton’s unit in Europe, and was awarded the Bronze Star for valor and the Purple Heart, according to a biography by the Society for American Baseball Research.
When Walker returned to the Cardinals in 1946, he platooned with Terry Moore in center field. Trying to hit for power, Walker became a pull hitter but was unsuccessful. He batted .237 with 27 RBI.
During that season, Walker sought the advice of his brother, Dodgers outfielder Dixie Walker, who urged his sibling to close his batting stance and spray the ball to all fields.
During the 1946 World Series against the Red Sox, Walker began to see positive results from the change. He batted .412 (7-for-17) with six RBI, including the double that drove in Slaughter from first base with the winning run in Game 7.
However, when Walker started slowly in 1947, batting .200 with no RBI in 10 games, the Cardinals stepped up efforts to acquire Northey.
Rough on righties
Northey had debuted in the big leagues with the 1942 Phillies. The stocky outfielder had a strong throwing arm and a power stroke.
He also had an ear problem. In his freshman year at Duke University, Northey was beaned by a pitch and experienced a buzzing in his ears ever since, according to The Sporting News.
“It is so annoying that Northey often is forced to rattle papers to keep his mind off the buzz,” The Sporting News reported. “When he goes to bed, he falls asleep with his radio on.”
Northey had his best year with the Phillies in 1944 when he batted .288 with 35 doubles, 22 home runs and 104 RBI.
He pounded right-handed pitchers and was vulnerable against left-handers. In 1946, Northey batted .266 with 16 home runs versus right-handers and .159 with no home runs against left-handers.
In 1947, Northey reported late to spring training after unsuccessfully holding out for more pay. He also clashed with Phillies manager Ben Chapman.
Walker was in New York with the Cardinals and about to board a train for their trip to Boston when he was informed he and Schmidt had been dealt to the Phillies for Northey.
Schmidt, a right-hander, had experienced a breakout season with the 1944 Cardinals, posting a 7-3 record and 3.15 ERA in 37 appearances. He was 1-0 with a 3.29 ERA in 1946.
Let ‘er rip
In reporting the trade, The Sporting News described Northey as a “robust Pennsylvanian who swings from his heels.”
Cardinals owner Sam Breadon told the St. Louis Star-Times, “Harry Walker is a fine defensive outfielder, but what we need right now is punch and I think Northey has it.”
Northey joined the Cardinals in Boston for their series with the Braves and was placed in the lineup for a Sunday doubleheader on May 4. He singled and scored in the opener, a 4-3 Braves victory that extended the St. Louis losing streak to nine.
In the second game, Northey went 3-for-4 with four RBI and three runs scored, sparking St. Louis to a 9-0 triumph. He produced a two-run home run off starter Mort Cooper, the former Cardinal ace, in the fourth, a solo home run against Glenn Elliott in the sixth and a RBI-single off Dick Mulligan in the seventh. Boxscore
Walker went on a tear as soon as he joined the Phillies, getting 10 hits in his first 24 at-bats. He had perfected the batting style his brother had suggested.
In 130 games for the 1947 Phillies, Walker batted .371 with 181 hits, including 28 doubles and a league-leading 16 triples.
Even with his 5-for-25 effort for the Cardinals added to his season total, Walker easily won the NL batting crown at .363. The runner-up, Bob Elliott of the Braves, hit .317.
Walker also placed second in the NL in on-base percentage at .436. Only the Reds’ Augie Galan (.449) did better.
Northey batted .293 with 15 home runs and 63 RBI in 110 games for the 1947 Cardinals. True to form, he hit .313 versus right-handers and .154 against left-handers.
The Cardinals ended the 1947 season in second place at 89-65, five behind the Dodgers.
Northey played two more seasons for St. Louis, batting .321 with 13 home runs in 1948 and .260 with seven home runs in 1949.
Walker batted .292 for the 1948 Phillies, was traded to the Cubs and then shipped to the Reds.
After the 1949 season, in a classic example of what goes around comes around, the Cardinals sent Northey and infielder Lou Klein to the Reds to reacquire Walker.