Clickety-Clack. Clickety-Clack. It's a sound Don Gutteridge will never forget—the rhythmic clack of steel wheels rolling over the rails as he and his teammates headed for St. Louis, Chicago, New York or, maybe, Boston. "It was the most marvelous sound to go to sleep by, and I never slept better," says Gutteridge, a major leaguer from 1936 through 1948. "It took a lot longer than it does now, but I loved traveling across the country by train."
Gutteridge, now a scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers, was reminiscing in his hometown of Pittsburg, Kans., about the days when major league clubs traveled by train, as all of them did until the late 1950s, when expansion to California dictated a switch to air travel. "You'd spend a whole day, 24 hours, riding from St. Louis to Boston, but no one complained," says Gutteridge, an infielder who spent nine years in St. Louis, first with the Cardinals (1936-40) and later with the Browns (1942-46) before closing out his career with the Boston Red Sox and Pittsburgh Pirates. "It resulted in a far greater camaraderie than you have on ball clubs today because you spent so much time together. We ate together in the dining car, played cards together, slept together in the Pullmans and talked baseball by the hour, far more than the players do today."
But what about the grind? The off-days spent riding the rails? "It still beat riding the buses, as we did in the minors," says former third baseman Clete Boyer, whose 16-year major league career (1955-71, mostly with the Yankees) spanned the eras of train and air travel. "Players got to know each other much better when they traveled by train. And you got plenty of rest."
The far greater camaraderie, closer friendships and stronger team unity are among the advantages cited repeatedly by former players who spent major portions of their careers with the clickety-clack of the railroad track as background music. "They talk about family on some clubs nowadays. But when you traveled by train you really were a family," says Enos (Country) Slaughter, who rode them for 18 of the 19 years of his Hall of Fame career. "Now players drive to an airport, get on the team plane, go to sleep, fly to wherever they're playing next and then scatter. A lot of guys only get to see each other at the ballpark."
April 7, 1991
Most ball clubs chartered two or three private cars—two sleepers and a dining car—which would be coupled to a regular train. Often, though, the teams shared diners and club cars with awestruck regular travelers. Even when they didn't, some players made it a point to mingle with the other passengers on the train. "If Pepper Martin heard there was, say, a group of Shriners or Boy Scouts on the train, he'd go down and talk to them, play his harmonica and sign autographs," says Mickey Owen, who spent several seasons playing with Martin on the Cardinals in the late 1930s. "Sometimes, he'd take along the Mudcats."
The Mudcats were members of the famed Cardinal Gashouse Gang who played—and sang—country music tunes. In addition to Martin, who was the band's leader, the Mudcats included pitcher (Fiddler) Bill McGee, who, naturally, played the fiddle; pitcher Lon Warneke (later an umpire) on guitar; pitcher Bob Weiland, who blew into a jug; outfielder Stanley (Frenchy) Bordagaray, who played a contraption that included a washboard, a car horn and a whistle; and another pitcher, Max Lanier, who sang and played guitar and was the father of former Astro manager Hal Lanier.
"The Mudcats would break out their instruments and practice for hours on train trips," says Owen. "Sometimes they'd go marching through the train playing and attracting big crowds. It was really something to see." And to hear.
Given the flamboyant behavior of Martin and other members of the Gas-house Gang, train trips with the Cardinals were never dull. "Pepper was always doing something crazy," recalls Gutteridge. "He'd jump off the train at a station, smear some grease from a train wheel on his hand and then go around putting bits of grease on teammates asleep in the Pullman cars. Of course, they knew it was Pepper's doing, but no one could get mad at Pepper."
Babe Ruth also enjoyed roaming the cars. "Babe loved people and he'd wander through the train, talking to passengers," says Jimmy Reese, now a coach with the California Angels. In 1930 and '31, he was a backup second baseman for the Yankees and roomed with Ruth. "He was totally uninhibited," says Reese. "I'll never forget the time Jake Ruppert [the owner of the Yankees] was aboard the train and Babe picked him up and threw him into an upper berth. No one else would have ever dared do a thing like that."
By the 1950s, most players had their own roomettes aboard the team trains. But in the earlier years, players slept in upper and lower berths in Pullman cars. "The veterans got the lower berths and the younger players the uppers," says Reese, who, at the age of 84, is still hitting fungos. "But when I was with the Yankees, Babe had his own drawing room on the train, something that, as a rule, only managers and coaches had. During one of my two seasons with the club, the Yankees persuaded him to bring his wife, Claire, along, apparently in an effort to keep the Babe under control on the road. I don't think it worked too well, though."
Ruth figured prominently in one of the legendary episodes of baseball train travel, although the incident was hardly funny to the Bambino at the time. "The Yankees were about to leave Shreveport, La., during a spring training trip in 1925 when, suddenly, the Babe came running through the train followed by a woman with a knife," says Red Foley, veteran baseball writer for the New York Daily News. "When he got to the observation platform at the end, he jumped off to escape the woman. She finally got off and Babe managed to jump on the train as it was pulling out of the station."
Foley also remembers a less well-known chase scene. This one involved Nick Etten, who played first base for the Yanks during the early and mid-1940s, and Joe Trimble, Foley's coworker on the Daily News. "In those days, players left their gloves on the field when their team was at bat," Foley says. "In one game, a batted ball hit Etten's glove, resulting in an out, rather than a hit. Trimble then wrote something to the effect that Etten's glove fielded better empty than with Nick's hand in it. When Etten got hold of that story, he was furious and went after Joe, chasing him through the train. I don't think Etten ever caught up with Joe, though, and eventually he forgot all about it."
If there were memorable train chases involving ball-players, so, too, were there memorable fights and near fights as trains rattled through the night. One, during a Yankee victory celebration, was a one-punch, or one-shove, affair, depending on who was telling the story.
Having clinched another pennant in the late 1950s in Kansas City, the Bronx Bombers were celebrating the occasion with champagne as their train headed for Detroit. As Ralph Houk, then a coach with the Yanks, prepared to light up a victory cigar, relief pitcher Ryne Duren sneaked up behind him and playfully—or at least playfully to Duren—squashed the cigar in his face. Houk responded by decking Duren. "I think it was only a push, not a punch," says the Yankees' Whitey Ford. Other witnesses, mostly sportwriters, say that Houk, who was known as the Iron Major and was renowned for his quick temper, nailed Duren with the back of his hand.
It wouldn't have been the first time a punch had been thrown on a train trip. Though the Gashouse Gang had a reputation for being a rollicking collection of characters, it had its share of internal strife. Owen remembers that during a game of poker aboard a train, Paul (Daffy) Dean, had implied that Hall of Fame outfielder Joe Medwick had not anted up. "Joe was furious and said to Paul, 'Are you calling me a thief?' " says Owen. Without waiting for an answer, Medwick, always ready for a fight, belted Dean in the nose. "Blood spurted from Paul's nose, and I think Joe felt he had killed him," says Owen. "But Paul never flinched and Joe backed off, realizing Paul had taken his best shot without going down. Paul then lunged at Joe, who fell over. Paul then jumped on Medwick and began to bang away, before some of the guys pulled him off. It was totally out of character for Paul, who was a quiet, easygoing guy and never got into fights."
Getting into fights was not out of character for Pete Gray, the one-armed outfielder who spent the 1945 season with the St. Louis Browns. "Pete was a helluva ballplayer, but he had a chip on his shoulder a mile wide," says Ellis Clary, a teammate of Gray's who is now a scout with the Toronto Blue Jays. "If he thought you were feeling sorry for him, he was likely to go right at you, and he often did."
Clary recalls a near fight involving Gray on a railroad station platform in Toledo. "We were waiting for a train after playing an exhibition game against our Toledo farm club," Clary says. "There was a barrel of fish on the platform, and someone took one of the fish, sneaked up behind Pete and put the fish in his left pocket where he kept his cigarettes. When Pete reached in his pocket for his cigarettes and found the fish, he went right at Sig Jakucki, a big pitcher who outweighed Pete by about 50 pounds and was always pulling pranks on him. Pete, suspecting Jakucki, hauled off and punched him in the chest. If some of the guys hadn't grabbed Sig, he might have killed Pete right on that platform."
A train carrying the Brooklyn Dodgers to New York after they had clinched the 1941 National League pennant in Boston was noteworthy for other reasons. En route, the train crew was sent a wire by Dodger president Larry MacPhail, requesting that the train stop at the 125th Street station in Manhattan, so MacPhail could get aboard and be poised for the limelight in a celebration at Grand Central Terminal. Leo Durocher, the Dodger manager, who was supposed to pass on the wire, later insisted that he had never received it. Whatever, the train rumbled through the 125th Street station without stopping. MacPhail, enraged at what he construed to be an act of defiance by the always obstreperous Durocher, fired him—on the day, no less, that the Dodgers had won their first pennant in 21 years! Hours later, MacPhail relented and Durocher was rehired.
Ballplayers usually whiled away the time aboard trains playing cards, sleeping and talking baseball, hunting and fishing—mostly baseball. "A lot of the veterans would take young players aside on the train and tell them what to expect from other teams they'd face," Gutteridge says. "At the beginning of my career, I learned an awful lot riding the trains."
Owen's recollections are much the same. "I remember sitting with pitchers like Lon Warneke and Curt Davis, who would tell me about different hitters," says Owen, a fit 74-year-old who still catches in old-timers' games. "Sometimes you'd find yourself on trains with other teams. I remember how, once, while I was with the Cardinals, Jimmie Wilson, a great catcher who was managing the Phils at the time, spent an hour in the washroom showing me the best way to put a tag on a runner. He was the best tagger I ever saw. He helped me tremendously."
But in addition to the long hours, train travel had other drawbacks. "When I came up [in 1935], the trains were not air-conditioned," says Terry Moore, who played on the Cardinals' World Series championship teams in 1942 and 1946. "We'd spend a lot of time in the diners, which were air-conditioned by ice. At night, we'd open the windows to get some air, and then wake up covered with soot and cinders."
Moore recalls other rigors of train travel that were unique to the Cardinals organization. "We rarely ever had a day off since [St. Louis owner] Sam Breadon always booked exhibition games on off-days," Moore says. "We were like a carnival, stopping off in towns we'd never heard of to play exhibitions.
"I recall playing a doubleheader in Pittsburgh on a Sunday in late August in 1941, while we were in a pennant race with the Dodgers, then riding the train all night to play a morning exhibition game in Stamford, Connecticut, against a semi-pro team. After the morning game, we got back on the train and rode on to Boston, where our cars were uncoupled and we were shunted to a siding so we could get some more sleep before playing another game that same afternoon."
For the Cardinals, as with some other clubs, the special railroad cars served as hotels during spring training. For many years before the era of air travel, the New York Giants and Cleveland Indians spent several weeks barnstorming in the early spring, traveling aboard a train that included four Pullman cars—two for each club—along with two diners and two baggage cars. In many towns, the players dressed aboard the trains and walked to the ballparks.
"The train was a rolling clubhouse," says broadcaster Mel Allen, who traveled with the Yankees in the '40s and '50s. "Casey Stengel would roam through the train, delighting passengers with his stories or making speeches in the dining car that just about everyone on the entire train could hear."
Jack Lang, who covered the Dodgers and Mets for the now defunct Long Island Press, and later the Mets for the New York Daily News, says his job was both easier and more difficult in those days. "The players were far more accessible on the trains," Lang says. "In a way, they were a captive audience, and the writers go to know them much better."
But when it came to filing stories, Lang's memories are less rosy. "Quite often you'd have to hurry to catch the train after a game," he says. "So you'd have to write your story on the train. If you left Cincinnati, for example, you'd have an hour and a half to get your story done before the train reached Indianapolis, where a Western Union messenger would be waiting. You had to have it done by then, because there was no other way to reach your office."
Airplanes may run into turbulence, but don't think that train travel was without its rough moments. Hall of Fame shortstop Lou Boudreau, who also managed both the Indians and the Red Sox, says sleeping on trains could be difficult. "You'd hit a bad curve and wake up, or you'd be awakened while going along a bad stretch of track," says Boudreau. He also remembers the time in the late '40s when Bill Veeck, then owner of the Indians, arranged for the team to travel across Lake Michigan from Cleveland to Detroit by lake steamer.
But for Gutteridge, the pleasant memories of team travel via rail live on. "I still remember that clickety-clack," he says. "And someday, when I find the time, I want to get back on the train and take some of the same long trips that we did many years ago. I bet I'll sleep better than ever."
Jack Cavanaugh is a free-lance writer who frequently contributes to this magazine.