1944 St. Louis Cardinals team photo. Donnelly is second from the left in the back row.
In this week’s St. Louis Cardinals Blast from the Past, we remember a pitcher who made his major league debut at the age of 30 after toiling nine years in the minor leagues. This right-hander made significant contributions to the Cardinals’ World Series Championship season in 1944, including most specifically his performance in World Series win over the neighboring St. Louis Browns.
Sylvester Urban Donnelly was born on January 21, 1914 in Olivia, Minnesota. Donnelly was the eldest of three sons born to Charles and Elizabeth Donnelly. Charles Donnelly was a barber by trade and his son acquired the skill which he used in his baseball off-seasons. Donnelly was blessed with the nickname “Blix” from his father as well.
Blix played football, basketball, and baseball at Olivia High School, from which he graduated in 1932. Donnelly spent his following summers pitching for an Olivia town team, and in 1934 he was spotted by an umpire named George Thompson. The arbiter invited him to attend a baseball school in Nicollet Park, Minnesota, where he was seen by the manager of the Double-A Minneapolis Millers from the Western League of the American Association. Blix did not get a tryout with the Millers but did ultimately latched on with the Superior Blues of the Northern League in 1935.
Blix pitched in 39 games for the Blues in 1935, in which he posted a record of 15-15 in 228 innings pitched. Donnelly led the league with 184 strikeouts. After the Blues traded Blix to Duluth, he pitched in 38 games for the Dukes, with a 1936 record of 11-19. At the end of that season, the Dukes were purchased by Branch Rickey and became part of the St. Louis Cardinals organization.
Donnelly was assigned to the Bloomington Bengals to begin the season, but that team folded mid-season and Blix was sent to pitch for the Decatur Commodores to finish 1937. Donnelly posted a season record of 18-7 with an ERA of 1.74. He pitched one inning for Decatur in 1938 and was then sent to the Daytona Islanders of the Florida State League to finish the season. Blix returned to pitch in Daytona for the 1939 season as well, where he was selected to pitch in the midseason All-Star Game.
Donnelly’s next minor league destination was the Springfield, Illinois Cardinals of the Class C Western Association. Blix spent two seasons in Springfield, where he led the league in innings pitched, complete games, wins and strikeouts in 1941 as he went 28-6, 2.26. Late in 1941, he was sent to the Sacramento Solons of the Pacific Coast League, where he picked up win no. 29.
Donnelly returned to Sacramento in 1942, pitching to a record of 21-10 for manager Pepper Martin. Martin became the manager of the Rochester Red Wings in 1943 and Blix went from one Triple-A team to the other with him. Donnelly finished the season with a record of 17-8 and an ERA of 2.40, including a no-hitter against the New Jersey Giants.
Blix went to Spring Training with the Cardinals in 1944 and made the roster to start the season. He made his major league debut on May 6, 1944 at the age of 30 in a game against Cincinnati, and pitched a scoreless ninth inning in the 2-0 loss to the Reds.
Though Blix spent most of his minor league career as a starter, he pitched primarily out of the bullpen for the Cardinals in 1944. Donnelly made 27 appearances that season, only four as a starter. Blix had two good pitches, a fastball and a curve, but his control was inconsistent. Despite the control issues, Donnelly had a good 1944, ending the regular season with an ERA of 2.12.
The highlight of his rookie year came in the World Series, however, as he pitched two scoreless innings in Game 1 and was the winning pitcher in Game 2. HIs defensive play in the 11th inning of Game 2, when he fielded a bunt with his bare hand down the third base line and made the throw to get the runner out, was heralded as the best defensive play of the Series. The Cardinals defeated the St. Louis Browns in six games to take the World Championship.
Blix returned to pitch for the Cardinals in 1945, and finished with a career-high 23 starts, a record of 8-10 and an ERA of 3.52. He pitched a one-hitter against the Phillies on June 27.
In 1946, Donnelly hoped to make the starting rotation but ended up back in the bullpen. He missed time due to a sore arm, and by mid-season he was placed on waivers and claimed by the Phillies. Blix pitched mostly out of the bullpen to begin the 1947 season, but a mid-season injury to a starter gave him the opportunity to join the rotation. He started in 10 games that season with a record of 4-6.
In 1948, Donnelly started in 19 games out of 26 appearances. He posted a record of 5-7 and an ERA of 3.69. Injuries in 1949 limited his appearances to 23, 10 as a starter. Minor injuries and the emergence of the eventual 1950 NL MVP winner Jim Konstanty as the Phillies top relief pitcher left Donnelly to make only 14 appearances.
In 1951, with Donnelly 37 years of age, the Phillies sold his contract to the Boston Braves, for whom he made only six appearances before being released on May 12. He returned to the Phillies, and they sent him to their Baltimore farm team. He finished his baseball career there, retiring at the end of the 1952 season at the age of 38.
Donnelly returned to his hometown of Olivia where he worked in a barbershop, and then moved on to several sales jobs. He passed away on June 26, 1976 from cancer at the age of 62. He was survived by his wife Helen and son James.
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