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Whatever may happen to the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series, it’s unlikely to produce a moment as dramatic and historic as Grover Cleveland Alexander’s
strike out of the New York Yankees’ Tony Lazerri in the seventh 1926 game.
“Ol’ Pete,” by then 39-years old, weary, nearly deaf from a World War I injury sustained during seven weeks on the front under heavy bombardment, alcoholic and epileptic nevertheless managed to summon up his skills once more to lead the Cards to victory in its first series appearance.
In the middle of the 1926 season the Chicago Cubs released Alexander even though he had won 325 games. In a thinly veiled reference to Alexander’s losing battle with alcoholism, the Cubs’ crusty manager Joe McCarthy said that if the Cubs were going to finish last again, as the team did in 1925, he would rather it be without the troubled pitcher.
Looking back on her husband’s release, Alexander’s wife Amy said:
He thought he was through in baseball forever. Whenever he tried to speak, tears came to his eyes.
But Cardinals manager Rogers Hornsby, who postponed his mother’s funeral because it would have interfered with the series, viewed Alexander differently. Admitting that “I’m no Sunday school teacher,” Hornsby jumped at the chance to sign “Old Pete”.
Alexander helped guide the Cardinals to the National League pennant where they faced the young, upstart Yankees and their imposing Murderers’ Row line up with the slugging Babe Ruth, Lou Gerhig, Tony Lazerri and Bob Meusel.
Hornsby gave the starting assignment in games two and six to “Old Pete” who promptly mowed the Yankees down with complete games, 6-2
. After winning the sixth game Alexander, incorrectly assuming his work was done, went on an all night bender.
Alexander, however, had one more appearance to make. With two men out in the bottom of the seventh of the final game, Cardinals starter Jesse Haines faltered. The Yankees loaded the bases when Hornsby summoned “Old Pete” to face the slugging rookie, Lazerri.
Cardinals’ third baseman Les Bell recalled the moment:
I can see him yet…walking in from the left field bull pen through the gray mist. The Yankees fans recognized him right off, of course, but you never heard a sound from anywhere in the stadium. They just sat there and watched him walk in. And he took his time. He just came straggling along, a lean old Nebraskan, wearing a Cardinals’ sweater, his face wrinkled, that cap sitting on the top of his head and tilted to one side, the way he like to wear it.
After a mound conference during which Hornsby tried to tell Alexander not to throw inside fastballs, the manager left the mound muttering:
Who am I to tell you how to pitch?
Alexander’s first pitch was a curve ball, strike one. His second, an inside fastball fouled off, strike two. Then on another curve on the outside corner, Lazerri swung and missed. In the eighth and ninth innings, Alexander held the Yankees hitless to preserve the Cardinals first world championship. In 20-1/3 World Series innings, Alexander struck out 17 Yankees.
In 1927 and 1928, Alexander won 21 and 16 games. But two years later, he drank himself out of baseball and subsequently several other jobs. For a brief period, Alexander worked in Times Square at Hubert’s Flea Circus retelling the story of how he struck out Lazerri on three straight pitches.
In 1938, the Hall of Fame recognized Alexander’s amazing achievements that include 373 wins, a 2.56 ERA and a 1.5 walks per nine innings ratio. Alexander was famous for his pinpoint control and his fast work on the hill where he routinely took care of business in less than two hours.
But by the time the Hall honored Alexander, he was an emotional and physical wreck. As he said in 1944:
I’m in the Hall of Fame…and I’m proud to be there, but I can’t eat the Hall of Fame.
In 1950, after two decades of uninterrupted post-baseball tragedy that included an operation to remove his cancerous ear and abject poverty, Alexander died alone in a rented room in St. Paul. Alexander, the most tragic figure ever to wear a Major League uniform, was buried with full military honors.