Murry Dickson

August 6, 2021
  

Murry Dickson?

 

Murry Dickson was the Doyle Alexander of his time.  Murry grew up in Leavenworth, Kansas, and lived there most of his life. At the age of 16 he was playing a game at a prison in Lansing, which is attached to Leavenworth, when a prison gang led by the infamous criminal Wilbur Underhill . ..well, let me quote from Dickson’s SABR biography, by Warren Corbett:

 

He was pitching for Leavenworth’s American Legion team on Decoration Day 1933, trailing a team from Topeka in a game at the state prison in Lansing. A gang of convicts led by Wilbur Underhill, a desperado known as the "Tri-State Terror," invaded the stands, took the warden hostage, and tried to escape. Guards with tommy guns surrounded the field, stopped the game, and saved Dickson from being shot down in defeat.

 

Uh.. . ..not to be picky here, Warren, but they didn’t "try" to escape; they DID escape, Underhill and 9 of his buddies.  They robbed a bank in Arkansas a couple of weeks later, which I think technically made him a four-state terror.  A few months and several bank robberies later, just before Christmas, Underhill got married. His bride filled out the paperwork, and when the clerk said they needed a home address, she gave them the address where they would be staying.  Word of this reached the police. The day after Christmas, police surrounded the house where Underhill was spending his honeymoon. He ran from the house in his underpants, in the middle of a raging gun battle, and was shot and killed.  The honeymoon was truly over.  It’s got nothing to do with Murry Dickson, but I’ve been a writer a long time.  I ain’t wasting a story like that. 

 The Cardinals in that era ran an enormous farm system, most of it built out of rural and small-town boys from Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Texas, Iowa, Illinois.  Dickson signed with the Cardinals, and very quickly reached the highest levels of the St. Louis farm system, where he went 22-15, 17-8 and 21-11 before he was allowed to graduate to the majors. He also hit .304 and .341 in his twenty-win seasons in the minors, and would hit .231 in his long major league career.

The Cardinals had platoons of talented young pitchers, new ones every year.  Drafted by the U. S. Army after the 1943 season, Dickson fought his way across Europe under General Patton, and was a member of the force that liberated the death camp at Dachau. 

Back with the Cardinals in 1946, he was 15-6 with a 2.88 ERA and started two games in the World Series, including the famous game in which Slaughter raced home as Johnny Pesky held the ball.  In 1947 he pitched 232 innings with an ERA a full run better than the league, an ERA+ of 134.  Somehow, though, he finished 13-16.  He 1948 he worked 252 innings and was a league-average pitcher, but finished 12-16.  The Cardinals had good teams, competitive teams. 

Held fully liable for his poor won-lost records, as all pitchers were in that era, Dickson developed a bad reputation.  Branch Rickey described him as "scatter-brained".  Sometimes he didn’t seem to take baseball all that seriously. . .which, you know, seeing Dachau with your own eyes will do that to you, I suppose.  He was a comic character, always had a story to tell.  The Cardinals decided that he was a Loser, and sold him to the Pirates. 

I worked with Joe Garagiola once a week for a couple of years. Garagiola was Dickson’s teammate, battery mate, on a US Army team at Ft. Riley, later was his teammate with the Cardinals, and still later was his teammate with the Pittsburgh Pirates.  In that era the catcher called the pitches with little interference from the dugout, and pitchers rarely shook off a pitch.  One time I was trying to probe Joe as to how much impact he thought a catcher in his era had by calling the right pitches.  Joe said "almost none, because the pitcher has to execute."  I’m remembering his quote from 30 years ago, but it was something like "you’d be 1-2 on the hitter, call for a fastball, Harry Brecheen or Pollet would know you meant to waste a fastball down and away.  But Murry Dickson would throw the fastball right down the middle.  You’d think, "Christ, Murry, you ought to know I didn’t mean THAT fastball."   He did set a major league record for home runs allowed in a season, 39 in 1948. 

After the 1948 season the Cardinals sold him to the Pirates for $125,000, which was a good chunk of cash at that time. The Pirates were the armpit of baseball, finishing last every season from 1950 to 1955, except in 1951 they escaped the cellar by two games.  They escaped the cellar in 1951 because Murry Dickson won 20 games (20-16) on a team on which no one else won more than 7. Dickson also hit .273 that year, in 110 at bats, but then he led the league in losses in 1952.  And 1953.  And 1954.  I think he is the only guy ever to lead the league in losses three years in a row, although maybe Losing Pitcher Mulcahy had done that, or maybe Pedro Ramos.  (Ramos also is classified as a Number One pitcher in 1960, despite leading the league in losses.)

As a young pitcher, Murry was perceived as having great stuff, but not knowing what to do with it.  He had the best slider in the National League, a hard, sharp-breaking slider, but he would throw ANYTHING.  He had six, seven pitches, and he threw them from every different arm angle.  A story was often told about his striking out a good hitter, forget now who it was, by throwing six straight curve balls from six different arm angles. He was called, almost derisively, the Thomas Edison of the mound, meaning that he was always inventing something.  There is one pitcher in every generation who can do that, just make up a pitch in the middle of the game and throw it.  David Cone could do that, and Greinke can.  El Duque could do that, Orlando Hernandez.

My point is, Dickson, like Doyle Alexander, was not a respected pitcher.  He hung around a long time and won 172 games, but he always carried the reputation of fluke, a flake, a loser. 

So in 1955, 1956, Murry Dickson winds up on the list of #1 starters, aces, and I felt the need to explain that.  In 1956 there were five true aces in the National League.  Don Newcombe (27-7, 3.06 ERA) won the Cy Young Award and the MVP Award.  Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette were 20-11 and 19-10 for Milwaukee, with ERAs of 2.78 and 2.70. Johnny Antonelli, a perennial ace, was 20-13 with a 2.86 ERA for a sixth-place team, and Bob Friend worked 314 innings and won 17 games for the Pirates, still struggling to stay out of the basement.  There are five identifiable aces, but we need eight.  Who gets the other three slots?

Sal Maglie made only 26 starts after joining Brooklyn in mid-season, but was 13-5 with a good ERA, and actually finished second in the league MVP vote, behind Newcombe, so he gets one slot.  

For the other two, the candidates include Brooks Lawrence, who was 19-10 for Cincinnati, Bob Buhl, who was 18-8 for Milwaukee, and Robin Roberts and Curt Simmons, who were 19-18 and 15-10 for Philadelphia.  In the minds of 1956 sportswriters, those were the other aces, the other key pitchers. 

But Roberts, after a string of stunning seasons, lost 18 games beside his 19 wins and had a 4.45 ERA, far worse than the league.  Murry Dickson, the old eccentric who turned 40 late in the season, was 13-11, and Bob Rush, who was a similar guy, was 13-10 for the Cubs.  But both Dickson and Rush pitched more innings than Buhl, Simmons or Brooks Lawrence, had better ERAs, had better ERA+ (which is park- and league-adjusted ERA), and had better strikeout/walk ratios.  Season score, although it does not completely ignore the won-lost record, picks Dickson and Rush as the #7 and #8 starting pitchers in the league, and I think, in objective terms, those are the right choices.  Murry Dickson was 12-11 with a 3.50 ERA in 1955, 216 innings, and 13-11 with a 3.28 ERA in 1956, 219 innings, and ordinarily those records would make you a #2 starter, not a number one.  In those years, he’s in the top eight in the league. 

 

 
 
 
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