The Pill-Popping St. Louis Cardinals of the 1940s
The MLB juggernaut pursued every legal advantage possible during a decade when they never finished worse than second in the National League
Performance enhancers and other pharmaceuticals have been the cause of numerous scandals and news stories in Major League Baseball over the years. However, their history in the game goes back further than some may realize. In fact, the St. Louis Cardinals actively encouraged and mandated that their team take copious amounts of pills they called “morale vitamins” back in the 1940s.
The journey to physical fitness and wellbeing looked much different in the 1940s than it does today. In particular, activities like weightlifting were frowned on for baseball players because of the belief that muscle-bound players were more easily injured. Preventative medical treatments were also less frequent and robust.
The rigors of a big-league season takes a physical toll on players, as the constant travel and frequent games gives precious little down time. During the early 1940s, the Cardinals came to combat this by prescribing their players to regularly take large daily doses of B-1 vitamins in pill form, which the team came to call “morale vitamins” and “wham vitamins.”
Harry Ferguson, a United Press Sports Editor described the practice in a column about the Cardinals’ spring training camp that he wrote in the April 17, 1941 issue of the Pittsburgh Press:
“Since they arrived at their camp in St. Petersburg, Fla., the Cardinals have been chewing away on 25,000 vitamin B-1 pills. Bottles of the things were lying around the clubhouse in such profusion that baseball writers wondered whether they were in a training camp or had blundered into the bi-ennial convention of the American Pharmaceutical Association.
“Sitting on a bench in the sun, crammed all the way to his tonsils with B-1, was Cardinal President Sam Breadon, delivering an oration on the virtue of the little white pills he ordered fed to his players. He beamed as Lonnie Warneke, the aged, creaky-jointed pitcher, ran like a frightened deer around the bases. He went into raptures as old Gus Mancuso sprang around home plate as though this was his first season as a big-league catcher.”
According to Healthline.com, B-1 is also known as Thiamine and “is an essential nutrient that all tissues of the body need to function properly. Thiamine was the first B vitamin that scientists discovered. This is why its name carries the number 1. Like the other B vitamins, thiamine is water-soluble and helps the body turn food into energy.”
Although Vitamin B-1 is generally not toxic, the recommended daily allowance is 1.5 mg per day for adults, according to Medical.net. Exceeding that limit can cause vitamin toxicity, with symptoms including nausea, gastrointestinal issues, hair loss, rash and nerve damage.
The 1941 Cardinals were a tough squad. Due to their talent, and perhaps their extreme vitamin regimen, they reeled off 97 wins, good for second place in the National League. A solid, if unspectacular pitching staff was offset by an offense led by young stars like Johnny Mize, Enos Slaughter and Marty Marion, who were all 28 or younger.
Breadon may have started the team on its pill popping but it was backed up in full force by manager Billy Southworth. In 1942, he brought 12,000 B-1 pills with him to spring training and mandated that all players take three of them each day with their breakfast.
St. Louis also sought innovation to aid the performance of their players in other ways. Their trainer, “Doc” Weaver invented an arch support for shoes that he made with latex, rubber and aluminum. The last two materials were difficult to get because of World War II, but he finally found a working supply by utilizing scraps thrown away by a manufacturer. The inserts were immediately popular with the players. Second baseman Jimmy Brown explained, “I mean, they’re the nuts.”
Weaver was a man of many talents. He was always working on one thing or another to help the players. Just a few years prior, he had cobbled together a small device for players suffering from hay fever to insert in their noses and provide filtered air. Nicknamed a “schnozzle plug” by players, it was just another small way in which an advantage could be gained.
The Cardinals, having added young rookie outfielder Stan Musial, and having pitcher Mort Cooper develop into a star, reached even higher heights in 1942. They were an impressive 106–48 and defeated the dreaded New York Yankees in five games during that year’s World Series.
It’s not known when the Cardinals stopped guzzling B-1 pills at such a high rate. However, they finished first or second in the National League every year in the 1940s. They certainly had the talent for such an impressive run, but their willingness to pursue alternative measures, including mandated pill regimens, may have also played a significant role in their decade of dominance.