Padgett catches a glimpse of history for 1939 Cardinals
But it was a little-known backup catcher, Don Padgett, who led the way and ultimately set a still-unbroken big league mark.
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The 1939 Cards led the big leagues with a .294 average, far outdistancing the National League runner-up Cincinnati’ .278 batting mark. Despite this offensive might, St. Louis’ 92-61 record was only good for second place, as the Reds took the pennant with 97 wins.
The Redbirds’ Hal of Fame trio each finished in the Top 10 of the NL batting race that year, with Mize leading the loop with a .349 mark, Medwick the third-place finisher at .332 and Slaughter eighth at .320.
But Padgett ended the ’39 campaign with a remarkable .399 batting average, though it came in only 92 games –including 61 as a backstop. No other catcher in the modern era (post 1900) has hit at high as .370 in while appearing in at least 40 games behind the plate in any single season.
A still-surprised Padgett would later explain to the Sporting News that two days after Christmas, on Dec. 27, 1937, a box arrived at his North Carolina home from Cardinals general manager Branch Rickey that included four catcher’s mitts, a catcher’s mask, a chest protector and shin guards.
The next day a bewildered Padgett received a letter from Rickey informing him he would be attempting to become a catcher the following spring.
But when Padgett, 27, returned to the regular season lineup he made up for lost time. Despite losing the starting catcher job to Mickey Owen – infamous a few seasons later for his dropped third strike for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1941 World Series – Padgett’s batting average crept over .400 in mid-June and remained there pretty much until the end of the season.
By early August, newspapers across the country were reporting National League managers’ bewilderment as to why the Cardinals did not play Padgett – who was batting well over .400 in a part-time role behind the plate at the time – more often back in the outfield.
With the season coming to an end, Padgett dipped below .400 for the first time in months when he went 1-for-4 on Sept. 28. On the penultimate day of the regular season, Padgett didn’t play in either game of a doubleheader. Then, in the Cardinals’ final game of the 1939 regular season on Oct. 1, Padgett, with a .399 batting average, walked in a pinch-hitting appearance, dashing any hopes of ending his noteworthy year with the coveted .400 milestone.
If Padgett had played in eight more games in 1939 he would have qualified for the batting crown, which was then based on participation in 100 or more contests.
Padgett later went into the Navy in 1942 and missed four years of baseball while in the military.
“I did virtually all my work at submarine bases, and they stretched from New Guinea to Australia, to the Admiralties, to the Philippines,” Padgett explained later. “After I had my training in the United States, I was shipped to New Guinea at a time when things were a bit rough in that part of the world. We were getting into stride.
“I spent 10 months at Brisbane, Australia, where the folks were real friendly, and they knew just a little about baseball. Where they were baseball daffy was in the Philippines. I had quite a stretch around Luzon. Altogether, my overseas service lasted 21 months.”
Padgett’s spent eight years in the big leagues (1937-41, 1946-48) spending time with the Cardinals, Brooklyn Dodgers, Boston Braves and Philadelphia Phillies, his career ending with a .288 batting average.
Padgett died on Dec, 2, 1980 at the age of 68 in High Point, N.C.
Bill Francis is the senior research and writing specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum