Dizzy Dean actually had only six full seasons in the majors, but no player packed more accomplishments, excitement, and shenanigans into a shorter time.
Dean was given his nickname by his sergeant in the army, where he picked up the basics of pitching. He was pitching for a semi-pro team in San Antonio when a manager in the Cardinals farm system spotted him at a tryout camp. The Cardinals signed him, and he split 1930 between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Houston, rolling up a combined 25-10 minor league record before pitching a three-hitter for St. Louis on the last day of the season. Returned to Houston for the 1931 campaign, Dean struck out 303 batters on his way to 26 victories.
As a rookie in 1932, the 21-year-old Dean was joining the “Gas House Gang” World Champions. He won 18 and led the NL in strikeouts, shutouts, and innings pitched. He helped his own cause repeatedly with superb fielding, a .258 batting average, and fine speed on the bases. From 1933 to 1936 Dean absolutely dominated batters. During this stretch he won 102 games, led the league in complete games each year, and averaged 50 games and more than 300 innings per season. He was the unquestioned ace of the Cardinal staff and would often come in from the bullpen between starts. In 1933 he struck out 17 Cubs in a game, a major league record at that time.
During spring training in 1934, Dizzy proudly predicted that he and his brother Paul would win 45 games that season. The incredible prediction seemed ludicrous because Paul had never pitched a game in the majors. Yet Dizzy’s boast proved conservative; he won 30 and Paul won 19. Dizzy led the league in wins, strikeouts, shutouts, and complete games, was second to Carl Hubbell for the ERA crown, and batted .246. He easily outdistanced Paul Waner for the MVP award. He capped off his spectacular year with two wins over the Tigers in the World Series, including a shutout in the seventh game.
The 1935 season proved a virtual carbon copy of 1934 as the Deans won 47. Dizzy slipped to 28 victories but still led the league in many pitching categories. This time he was edged out by Gabby Hartnett for MVP. Dean won 24 and saved 11 the next year and again narrowly missed the MVP award, losing to Carl Hubbell.
In 1937 Dean appeared headed for another 25-win season by the All-Star break. Exhausted from the toll of so many innings, he asked to sit out the All-Star Game but went at the urging of Cardinal owner Sam Breadon. As the starter for the NL, Dean suffered a broken toe when he was struck by an Earl Averill line drive. Dean tried to come back before it had fully healed, altering his pitching motion to favor the injured foot, but the change brought on bursitis in his valuable right arm.
Traded to the Cubs for three players and $185,000 just before the start of the 1938 season, he replaced his blazing fastball and dazzling curve with a changeup and slow curve. Dean was able to chip in a 7-1 mark with a 1.81 ERA in 13 games, helping Chicago to the NL pennant. Over the next three years Dean appeared in only 30 games. At age 30 he retired and became a broadcaster for the St. Louis Browns. In 1947, after frequent criticism of Browns hurlers all year, Dean took the mound himself three times. In the last game of the season he shut out the White Sox for four innings and got a base hit in his only at-bat.
Dean’s meteoric pitching career provided ample reason to immortalize him. His bold and zany antics on and off the field have made him one of the most recognizable characters in American folklore. He loved to challenge and bait opposing players before and during games. He was a relentless braggart; fortunately he was as good as he said he was. He gambled and was pretty good at that too. Dean and Pepper Martin formed the core of the Gas House Gang. Whether in the dugout, clubhouse, or hotel, Dean and Martin could be expected to be up to some sort of prank. His popularity and colorful approach to the game continued unabated when he entered the radio broadcaster’s booth. His malapropisms and blatant avoidance of the rules of grammar were legendary, and fans loved it. In 1950 he began doing baseball’s Game of the Week on national television. He remained in sportscasting for more than 20 years.