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Jay Hanna Dean was born in Lucas, Arkansas on January 16, 1911. Dean grew up the son of a poor sharecropper and used to help his father and brother pick cotton. He dropped out of school by the fourth grade but was pitching for the high school team at age 14. When he was 16, Dean enlisted in the Army and was paid $21 per month. He soon tired of the military.

On May 29, 1929, an 18 year-old Dean was signed by St. Louis Cardinals scout Don Curtis. The Cardinals did not offer him any bonus for signing and in 1930 Dean was sent to the last-place team in Class A of the Western League. While with St. Joseph, Dean compiled a winning record of 17-8. During the season, Dean was promoted to Houston of the Texas League. There his winning record was 8-2. Late in the season he was called up to St. Louis. In his major league debut he pitched a three-hit game to Pittsburgh, however, Dean was sent back to Houston. He led the Texas League with 26 wins, 303 strikeouts and an ERA of 1.57 in 1931.

Dean returned to the Cardinals in 1932 to pace the National League in innings pitched, strikeouts, and shutouts. In 1933 he won 20 games and led the National League in strikeouts. On July 30, 1933 in the first game of a doubleheader, Dean struck out 17 Chicago Cubs batters to set a record for that time.

Dean boldly predicted in January of 1934 that the Cardinals would win the National League Championship with himself and his brother Paul both pitching well for the team. They won the pennant indeed. Dean led the league again with a 30-7 record and his brother Paul won 18 games during his rookie year. In 1935, Dean led the league for the third time with 28 wins. He also won strikeout championships in 1934 and 1935. Dean won the National League Most Valuable Player Award in 1934 as well and most likely would have won the Cy Young Award a time or two if it had existed then. Dean and his brother combined to win 4 games in the 1934 World Series.

Dean kept in top form and won 24 games in 1936 with an ERA of 3.17. The Cardinals used Dean as a starter and reliever throughout his career and the heavy usage of his arm caught up to him in 1937. The soreness limited his playing ability and effectiveness and eventually in 1938 the Cardinals released Dean. The Chicago Cubs picked him up for four seasons but he wasn't able to pitch full-time. He remained with the Cubs as a player and coach until June of 1941. He then began broadcasting St. Louis Cardinals and St. Louis Browns games for Falstaff beer. The St. Louis Browns gave him a start in 1947 but by then it was obvious to everyone that Dean's career was over.

Dean was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1953. He died in Reno, Nevada on July 17, 1974 and is buried at Bond Cemetery in Bond, Mississippi.