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."
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."