When the St. Louis Cardinals introduced newly-signed pitcher Mike Leake to the media on December 22nd, it was met with considerable surprise by baseball traditionalists for one reason. While the news of the signing itself, including the terms - five years and $80 million dollars - had been known for several days, what was not known was his new uniform number.
When Leake held up his new jersey, his name along with the number “8” was on its back.
Leake explained that he wore it (all three years) at Arizona State University, from where he went directly to Cincinnati as the Reds’ first-round draft pick in 2010. The rarity of never playing in the minors before going to the major leagues was diminished, however, when he was briefly sent down to Triple-A in 2011. With the Reds, Leake wore number 44 before being assigned 13 after his trade to San Francisco last July.
I racked my brain, but honestly could not come up with a prior single digit pitcher example in Cardinals team history.
How much is superstition and how much is custom is unclear, but the fact is that pitchers just don’t wear single digits. The practice goes back the earliest days of uniform numbers, when the early-adopting New York Yankees’ starting position players wore 1 through 8 and the back-up catcher was assigned number 9. For those interested in more background on the history, the Wall Street Journal covered it in depth in 2005.
My only Cardinals guess, Omar Olivares, does not apply. After having donned 55 and 26 with St. Louis earlier, the right-hander wore both his initials in numeric form, “00”, during the 1993 season only. Olivares returned to 26 in 1994.
A table at the bottom of the aforementioned WSJ article provided my answer. Only three pitchers in Cardinals history prior to Leake wore a single digit – and after digging in, I discovered that no one did it for more than 14 contests.
1940 – Ernie White “2” (rookie, less than eight games before changing numbers)
1950 – Erv Dusak “7” (14 games)
1955 – Tony Jacobs “1” (one game)
As a result, when Leake makes his 15th appearance as a Cardinal, he will set the new team record for most games by a pitcher wearing a single digit number. Obscure, but interesting, to say the least.
Let’s look into the histories of the three to come before Leake.
61 years ago, Tony Jacobs was the last Cardinals pitcher to don a single digit. But even if you were alive in 1955, if you had blinked, you would have missed it. In fact, the stat bible Baseball-Reference.com did just that, having no mention of Jacobs’ wearing number 1 on his lone day on the mound with St. Louis. Of course, that digit has since been retired to recognize the Hall of Fame career of shortstop Ozzie Smith.
Jacobs’ big day was on Opening Day, April 12, 1955 in Chicago. The right-hander was called upon in relief in the second inning with two runners on and the Cards down, 7-1. Three straight singles and an RBI groundout brought home both inherited runners plus two of Jacobs’ own. He yielded two more scores in the fourth before being pulled. Jacobs’ game and Cardinals career line shows four earned runs on six hits in two innings for an 18.00 ERA.
At the time, Jacobs was 29 years old and had fought for seven years to get back to the bigs for an opportunity that ended as fast as his debut. When he was 22, the Illinois native had pitched in one 1948 game for his later opponent, the Cubs.
After his one-game stint with St. Louis in 1955, Jacobs returned to the minors, where he pitched for three more years before calling it quits.
Footnote: In the Cardinals history books, April 12, 1955 was far bigger for two other reasons.
It was the first day that third baseman Ken Boyer officially appeared as a Major Leaguer, wearing his since-retired number 14. It had previously been worn by pitcher Gerry Staley, who had been traded during the off-season.
It was also the first regular season broadcast of a Cardinals game exclusively on KMOX Radio. The station gained sole rights prior to the 1955 season, with its 50,000-watt signal key in establishing the team’s broad national fan base. Joe Garagiola joined the legendary booth combination of Harry Caray and Jack Buck for 1955.
Ernie White debuted on May 9, 1940 in what would be one of the better games of his six-season MLB career. The left-hander tossed 7 2/3 innings of scoreless relief at the Phillies at Sportsman’s Park and chipped in offensively with three hits and a walk. The 23-year-old’s debut was in the “2” jersey later made famous by Hall of Famer Red Schoendienst and since retired forever.
Before his eight-game rookie stint ended the next month, White had been shifted to the more traditional number 30. Back in the majors the next season, wearing 28 this time, White stepped into the spotlight with a 17-7 record with a 2.40 ERA for St. Louis. He placed sixth in the 1941 National League Most Valuable Player vote.
White encountered arm problems in 1942, but bounced back to pitch masterfully on the biggest possible stage. Starting Game 3 of the 1942 World Series at Yankee Stadium, White tossed a complete-game two-hit shutout in St. Louis’ 2-0 win. It was the first time the Bombers had been shut out in a World Series contest since 1926.
From there, it went downhill for the South Carolina native, who continued to struggle with injury, then missed two years due to World War II (1944-1945). White was pinned down for a day in icy water during the Battle of the Bulge and he said it cost him his fastball. He caught on with former manager Billy Southworth and the Braves after St. Louis released him in May 1946, but would not earn another win in parts of three seasons with Boston.
White went on to coach and manage in the minor leagues for several decades before passing away at the age of 57 in 1974.
That leaves Erv Dusak, the lone Cardinals pitcher before Leake (expectedly) to wear a single digit for more than in passing. Even then, it was just 14 games.
I know Dusak’s story well, having dug into it when researching a very unusual photo of Stan Musial wearing number 19, a journey chronicled here.
On September 17, 1941, the utilityman was called up to St. Louis for the first time along with the kid outfielder Musial. Dusak was assigned number 19 and moved to 17 in 1942. Upon his return from World War II, Dusak returned to 19 in 1946 before shifting to number 7 during the 1947 season.
You may be asking yourself while I am profiling a position player in a story about pitchers.
After averaging 354 plate appearances per season during the period of 1946-1948 while playing all over the diamond, “Four Sack” Dusak’s average had dipped to a career-low .209 in 1948. A signal of what was to come occurred when he pitched a scoreless ninth inning of the final game of the 1948 season, a loss to the Cubs at Sportsman’s Park.
In 1949, at the age of 28, Dusak found himself back in the minors for the first time since 1942, but in a new role – as a pitcher.
Installed in the Triple-A Rochester rotation, Dusak went 11-8 with a 4.59 ERA, but issued 104 walks in 138 innings. Still, Dusak the pitcher made his way back to St. Louis in 1950, pitching in a total of 14 games wearing his old “7”. He returned briefly in 1951, wearing 25, before being traded to Pittsburgh that May.
Dusak’s MLB results as a pitcher over two seasons with the Cards and Bucs was a meager 0-3 record with a 5.33 ERA.
Head over to The Cardinal Nation blog for full details on Cardinals roster numbers for 2016 spring training as well as all changes from 2015 noted.
Not yet a member of The Cardinal Nation? Join today for as little as $7.95 after our seven-day free trial and be able to read all of our exclusive content year-round covering the majors and especially the Cardinals minor league system.
© 2016 The Cardinal Nation, thecardinalnation.com and scout.com/mlb/cardinals. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.