Tracks of Cardinals heroes
The story of the train wreck referenced in that telegram – involving the future Hall of Famer and his St. Louis teammates – is a remarkable tale of tragedy, fate and heroism ... and it all began one night earlier.
Before the days of practical air travel, baseball clubs made trips between Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Boston, and New York, on board the “Federal Express” of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad line. On the evening of July 10, 1911, after completing a four-game series against the Phillies, Bresnahan, his Cardinals players, the club treasurer, and a pair of St. Louis sportswriters boarded that very train at Philadelphia’s Broad Street Station for the 10-hour ride to Boston.
Originally, the ballplayers occupied a pair of Pullman sleepers located near the front of the train, close behind the 10-wheel locomotive and a U.S. Fishery coach. The position wasn’t ideal. Amid the sweltering heat that saw the mercury rise to 100 degrees earlier that day, it was nearly impossible to sleep with the car windows closed. But opening the windows only made matters worse, letting in the unpleasantness of engine cinders and the stench of baby trout.
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Well past midnight, after taking the Jersey City ferry, the cars were repositioned, with the Cardinals’ Pullmans moving to the very rear of the 10-car arrangement, while a day car and four other sleepers moved closer to the front. Contemporary sources differ on why the cars were rearranged. Some state that the move was in response to Bresnahan complaining about their position, while others claim that a simple mix-up occurred when the cars were coupled back together. Whatever the reason, the alteration proved lucky for the ballplayers but deadly for more than a dozen others.
At 3:32 in the morning of July 11, the Federal Express roared through West Bridegport, Conn., barreling through a crossover at an estimated 60 miles per hour, four times the regulation speed called for at the switch. The locomotive failed to negotiate the curve, jumped the tracks and plunged off the embankment into the street below. A frightful procession of derailed cars followed the mighty engine for some 400 feet as it plowed forward, demolishing telegraph and trolley poles, the girder of a steel bridge and everything else in its relentless path.
The engine had been reduced to a mound of twisted metal and glowing coals. As Cardinals pitcher Slim Sallee observed: “The locomotive looked like a tin can that had been placed under a pile driver. Only a cylinder and the cow-catcher remained to tell what had landed on the pavement.” Behind the ruins of the engine lay a melee of crushed cars haphazardly strewn about, their structures mangled into splinters of wood and piles of iron.
Tom Shieber is the senior curator at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum