Pepper Martin

(From a column written in 1992 during my career as a sportswriter)

In 1930 Pepper Martin hit .363 for Rochester in the International League. This, however, was not what impressed the parent Cardinals. Every player in St. Louis’ regular lineup hit .308 or better. Four reserves had averages above .320. No, what impressed general manager Branch Rickey was Martin’s salary: $4,500.

By shipping Taylor Douthit, who had finagled $14,000 out of the thrifty Mahatmah, to the Reds, Rickey saved the strapped (so he said) Cardinals $9,500 and happened upon a major star.

Martin spent eight long years in the minor leagues. He hopped freight trains to get to his first spring training. Until 1931, he never made more than a few thousand dollars a season.

When Martin got 12 hits in his first 18 at-bats of the ’31 World Series, his wife Ruby said, “He’s always been a hero to me. When we were in grammar school I stood on a soapbox to cheer for him. Now when the crowd yells my eyes get misty.”

—–

Although Martin was known as the “Wild Horse of the Osage,” he was born in Temple in southwestern Oklahoma and grew up in Oklahoma City. He turned professional with Guthrie of the Oklahoma State League in 1923.

He debuted with the Cardinals in 1928, appearing in 39 games and getting into one World Series game as a pinch runner. He went back to the minors the next year, and it was not until ’31, when he batted .300 with 75 runs batted in, that he established himself as a star.

Martin’s aggressive, headlong style made him injury prone, and by 1937 he was struggling to stay in the lineup. At the end of the 1940 season he was made manager of the Cardinals’ minor league team in Sacramento, despite hitting .316 that year.

Baseball players in those days generally had off-season jobs, and Martin had some doozies. He drove miniature stock cars for awhile, until the club made him stop, and played in a country music band. One winter he was general manager of the Oklahoma City minor league hockey team. He returned to the major league team in 1944, when most of the regular players were in the military, and batted .279 in 40 games. At age 54, he appeared in a few games as player-coach of the Tulsa Oilers in the mid-1950s.

In later years, Martin became athletic director of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester. He died suddenly of a heart attack at age 61, in 1965.

 

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