In this week’s St. Louis Cardinals Blast from the Past, we remember a former player, coach and manager of the club. He spent 10 seasons as an outfielder and seven seasons as either a coach or manager in the organization. His coaching and managing career extended beyond his time with St. Louis to stints in that capacity with three other teams.
Francis Raymond Blades was born on August 6, 1896, one of eight children of Francis Marion and Mary Magdalene Blades in McLeansboro, Illinois. Blades’ baseball career genesis was being spotted by Branch Rickey, then the manager of the St. Louis Browns, in a sandlot game in 1913 when Ray was a teenager. Six years later, when Rickey was managing the St. Louis Cardinals, the club traveled to Mount Vernon, Illinois to play an exhibition game against the local semipro team, the Carbuilders. Blades played second base for the Mount Vernon team, which beat the Cardinals, 2-1.
Rickey was impressed with several players on the Carbuilders, and he signed three of them, including Blades. At that time, Ray was 23 years old and already a veteran of World War 1. Blades was a small man, only 5’7”, weighed 163 pounds, and was a switch hitter.
Ray began his professional baseball career in 1920 with the Memphis Chicks of the Southern Association. In 1921, he was moved to the Houston Buffaloes of the Texas League. While with Houston, Blades abandoned switch hitting and became a right handed hitter only.
Blades was called up to St. Louis on August 18, 1922 and debuted the next day against Philadelphia in Sportsman’s Park. Ray was hitting a league-leading .330 in Houston before the call up, and after 37 games in his rookie season with St. Louis, he batted an even .300.
Rays played second base in Houston, but his defense left a little to be desired. He committed 142 errors over three minor league seasons, and the presence of Rogers Hornsby in St. Louis meant Blades had to change positions. Ray tried third base but was no better defensively there than at second. The Cardinals decided that his best shot to remain in St. Louis was to move to the outfield.
The team’s left fielder, Austin McHenry, had been sent home in June of 1922 to recover from an illness that consisted of persistent balance issues and vision problems. He was later diagnosed with a brain tumor and passed away in November of that year. This loss, though tragic, left an opening in the outfield that Blades filled. After much hard work and practice, Ray became quite successful in the outfield defensively.
Blades played in 98 games in 1923, then topped 100 games each season from 1924 to 1926. His best season was 1925, in which he hit .342/.423/.535 in 462 at bats. He reached base in 54 consecutive games in one stretch that season and was recognized as one of the best leadoff hitters in the game.
On August 17, 1926, Blades attempted to climb a fence to catch a fly ball and caught his spike in some chicken wire strung along the top of the fence. He had to leave the game with a knee injury that ended his season and kept him out of the World Series win. Ray had surgery on the knee in the offseason, and though the surgery was a success, he walked with a slight limp the rest of his life.
Though Blades returned for the 1927, the injury caused him to lose much of his speed and his play in the outfield, as well as at the plate, suffered. Ray played in only 102 games across 1927 and 1928 and had just one plate appearance in the 1928 World Series. In 1929, he was sent back to the minor leagues.
Ray returned to St. Louis in 1930 as a player-coach but did not see much action. He had 101 at bats in 1930, and only 81 in 1931, as the Cardinals won the NL pennant both seasons. Another outfield wall collision in 1932 shortened his season and his major league career was effectively over. The 36-year old became player-manager of the Columbus Redbirds in 1933 and 1934, winning the Junior World Series title both years.
Ray had a temper and was suspended three times for abusive language toward umpires. In 1935, he was suspended again for having his players stall in a game against Minneapolis. Blades continue to manage in the minors through the 1938 season.
In November 1938, the Cardinals brought Blades up to St. Louis to succeed manager Frankie Frisch. The Cardinals finished the 1939 season in second place behind the Cincinnati Reds with a record of 92-61. Ray was reupped to manage in 1940, but that season did not go well, as the Cardinals fell farther and farther behind in the standings. By June, owner Sam Breadon had had enough and fired Ray on June 7, replacing him with Billy Southworth.
Blades spent the next eight years as a coach in the Brooklyn Dodgers and Cincinnati Reds organizations. He replaced Charlie Dressen as third base coach for the Dodgers in 1947 and became interim manager for one game in 1948 after Leo Durocher left for the New York Giants.
Ray was removed as a coach for Brooklyn in August 1948 and assigned to scouting. He continued with the Dodgers through the 1950 season. That November, new St. Louis manager Marty Marion hired Blades, his first manager, as third base coach, but Blades was let go after one season.
Blades was hired as a coach/scout by the Chicago Cubs in 1953 and remained through the 1956 season, retiring from baseball entirely that October at the age of 60. He appeared at various reunions and events for the Cardinals until he passed away at the age of 83 on May 18, 1979. He was survived by his second wife Ruth and a stepdaughter.
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