Saturday, May 4, 2013

May 4, 1926: Cards Win "Must Win" Game vs Reds

May 4, 1926:  With Branch Rickey as field manager, the St Louis Cardinals began the 1925 season with a miserable 13-25 record.  When Rickey left the dugout for the front office, the Cardinals finished the season with a 64-51 record with player-manager Rogers Hornsby at the helm.  Apparently, taking on the added responsibility as field manager didn't seem to distract the National League's greatest hitter, who responded by winning the Triple Crown (.403 BA/39 HR/143 RBI).  Although the Redbirds ended the season in 4th-place with a 77-76 record - 18 games behind the 1st-place Pittsburgh Pirates - there was reason to be optimistic for the future, based on how the team had improved after the managerial change.

Unfortunately, the Cardinals stumbled out of the gate early in the '26 season.  After dropping the first game of a three-game series at home versus the Cincinnati Reds (10-7), the Redbirds had lost five games in a row to fall three games under .500 (8-11) - and appeared well on their way to a sixth straight loss when Cards starter Walt Huntzinger was quickly tagged for five hits, putting the Cardinals in a 2-0 hole by the third-inning; threatening to break the game open.

Hornsby had seen enough, summoning reliever Hi Bell in to get out of the jam with no further damage.  Bell did just that, keeping the score at 2-0, while stranding the bases full of Reds.  However, the  Redbirds still had their work cut out for them, as Cincinnati had their ace on the mound - Adolfo Domingo de Guzman Luque aka Dolf Luque - "The Pride of Havana".  Luque was a terrific pitcher (career 3.24 ERA) who would probably be in the Hall of Fame if he had pitched for those great Yankees teams of the Roaring Twenties, when he was in his prime.  Instead, he labored in relative obscurity in Cincinnati for most of his career.

Luque managed to keep the Redbirds scoreless until the fifth-inning, when catcher Bob O'Farrell led off with a triple and one out later, scored on a single by pitcher Hi Bell - who was becoming a hero by this time.  Bell continued blanking the Reds while the Cardinals were able to get something started in the bottom of the eighth, on a tiring 35-year old Luque.  A two-out single by Jim Bottomley was followed by Chick Hafey's double down the right field line.  Third baseman Les Bell (no relation to Hi) followed that with a two-RBI single that proved to be the game winner, as the other Bell retired the side in the top of the ninth to preserve the win.

During the course of any season, games that are won or lost in May are often forgotten.  However, this St Louis victory over Cincinnati came at a time when the team was struggling.  In fact, they would lose the rubber game of the series the next day, and then lose three out of four at home to the Brooklyn Dodgers, while Cincinnati was at home winning three out of four against the Philadelphia Phillies.  After 25 games, St Louis (10-15) trailed Cincinnati (16-9) by six games.  That would prove to be the low point of the season for the Redbirds, who went 79-50 the rest of the way, to edge the Reds by a slim 2-game margin.

Without this May 4 game in the win column, St Louis would have finished the season at 88-66 - tied with the Cincinnati Reds for first place in the National League; forcing a three-game NL championship series, with the winner taking on the mighty - and well-rested - New York Yankees. 

So yes, for all practical purposes, the May 4, 1926 game was a "must win" for the Cardinals; although they really didn't know it at the time since they probably didn't have a crystal ball at their disposal.

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