No Shortage of Talent

Marty Marion turned defensive wizardry at shortstop into spot on Hall of Fame ballot

November 20, 2012
2013 Pre-Integration Committee candidate Marty Marion. (NBHOF Library)

Tall and skinny, Marty Marion did not fit the look of the prototypical shortstop from the mid-20th century. But the player once described as “built like a floor lamp” was such an agile fielder that he was considered by many to be the most vital cog of the 1940s St. Louis Cardinals dynasty.

Marion, who helped the Redbirds capture four National League pennants and three World Series championships between 1942 and 1946, is one of 10 finalists on this year’s Pre-Integration Committee ballot at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. The Pre-Integration Committee will vote on Dec. 2 at baseball’s Winter Meetings in Nashville, Tenn., and the results of the vote will be announced Dec. 3.

The 10 candidates on the Pre-Integration Committee ballot are: Sam Breadon, Bill Dahlen, Wes Ferrell, Tony Mullane, Hank O’Day, Alfred Reach, Jacob Ruppert, Bucky Walters, Deacon White and Marion. Any candidate who receives at least 75 percent of all ballots cast will be enshrined in the Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2013.

Born Dec. 1, 1917, in Richburg, S.C., Marion spent his childhood in Atlanta, where, at the age of 10, it looked as though his baseball career would be over before it even started. After suffering a broken right leg when he fell off a 20-foot embankment, the limb would months later have to be rebroken for a better setting.

After spending almost two years in the hospital and on crutches, Marion’s right leg would eventually be an inch shorter than his left. He would be deferred from military service during World War II because of his childhood leg injury.

Fighting through adversity, Marion would become a star third baseman in high school before signing a professional contract to play with the Cardinals organization. Attending his first minor league spring training camp in 1936, he soon realized he was one of 11 third basemen while there were no shortstops. Marion decided at that point to make a position switch that would last throughout his career.

After spending four seasons in the minors, Marion made his big league debut with the Cards in 1940. A sure-fielding shortstop and good hitter, he would anchor the franchise’s infield through 1950.

“Maybe I’m prejudiced because I see him every day,” said Cardinals manager Billy Southworth, who would bestow the nickname Mr. Shortstop on Marion. “But he’s the best ever. Yes, he’s Mr. Shortstop in person. He anticipates plays perfectly, can go to his right or left equally well and has a truly great arm. Some of the things he does have to be seen to be believed. And he’s just as grand a person, too, as he is a ballplayer.”

At a time when shortstops were generally small, compact and built close to the ground, the 6-foot-2 and 170-pound Marion, also known as Slats and The Octopus, would break the mold. He would go on to lead NL shortstops in fielding percentage four times.

“He robbed us of base hits all day long, and I swear on one play he had three extra arms. The guy’s uncanny,” said Hall of Fame skipper Casey Stengel when he was managing the Boston Braves. “All he has to do is throw his glove on the diamond and (Cardinals owner Sam) Breadon’s got an infield.”

During an era that included future Hall of Fame shortstops such as Pee Wee Reese, Phil Rizzuto and Lou Boudreau, Marion was talked about as possibly being the greatest defensive shortstop the game had ever known. In his prime he was also compared to the legendary Honus Wagner.

“I’ve looked at a lot of shortstops,” said Hall of Fame manager Connie Mack in 1944, “but this fellow is the best I’ve ever seen. Although Wagner was a better hitter, I don’t think he could cover more ground.”

“I’ll have to admit that the Marion kid handles himself as well as Wagner in the field,” said Hall of Fame umpire Bill Klem in a 1944 interview. “You know, the first year Marion was up there (1940) I watched him play and really felt sorry for him. He couldn’t do anything right. But the next year I was so impressed I had to tell him, ‘Son, you’re the most improved ballplayer I ever did see.’ And what a shortstop he is now.”

Though he batted only .267 with six home runs and 63 RBI, Marion captured the 1944 National League Most Valuable Player Award, voters claiming it was his defense and leadership that gave him the edge. That same year he finished second to golfer Byron Nelson in the Associated Press’ voting for Male Athlete of the Year.

“I’m not watching games anymore,” said then-Pirates manager Frankie Frisch during the 1944 World Series between St. Louis’ Cardinals and Browns. “Instead, I find myself sitting in the stands just hoping the Browns hit to short so I can see more of Marion. It’s beautiful.”

Celebrated for his defense, which included sure hands, range and an accurate arm, Marion improved at the plate throughout his career. Though he hit only 36 home runs in 5,506 career at-bats, he led the league in doubles with 38 in 1942.

“When I came up, a poor hitter and good fielder, the older players told me, ‘You worry about the fielding; we’ll do the hitting,’” Marion once said. “I believed them for a time, but now I’d rather hit than field.”

A team leader for a Cardinals squad that won pennants in 1942, 1943, 1944 and 1946, Marion always claimed his biggest thrill in baseball came in the fifth and deciding game of the 1942 World Series when he picked Joe Gordon off second base in the ninth inning during a Yankees rally.

“We had no signal for it and had never pulled it before,” said Marion. “(Catcher) Walker Cooper snapped down the throw and I was on top of the base to make the tag.”

Marion would go on to manage the Cardinals to a third-place finish in 1951, serve as player-manager of the Browns in 1952 and ’53 and skipper the Chicago White Sox to winning seasons in 1955 and ’56.

By the time the eight-time All-Star (1943-50) left the field due to an ailing back and a knee problem, he had collected 1,448 big league hits and finished with a .263 lifetime batting average. In 1969, Marion was voted as the shortstop on the “Greatest St. Louis Players Ever” team in a vote of more than 10,000 fans.

Marion died on March 15, 2011, at the age of 93.

Bill Francis is a Library Associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum