This past week marked the 114th anniversary of the first game played by the American League’s St. Louis Browns.
These Browns are not to be confused with a 19th century club by a similar name that became known as the Perfectos for one season and then, more permanently, the Cardinals. That team was a member of the old American Association before hooking up with the National League in 1892.
No, the Browns I’m talking about are the very same that, though mid-20th century, were known for being “the first in booze, the first in shoes and last in the American League.” They made St. Louis a two-team town until 1953, when they flew their Sportsman’s Park coop to become the Baltimore Orioles.
But, for a while, the hapless Brownies were at least as popular as the more successful Cardinals. Showman owner Bill Veeck very nearly succeeded in driving the Redbirds out of town and cornering the St. Louis baseball market for his own.
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First, a little club history:
The Browns were founded in 1885 as the Milwaukee Brewers and were members of the Western League, whose commissioner (for lack of a better description) was a fellow named Ban Johnson.
The Western League wasn’t held in the same esteem as other professional leagues, so Johnson reorganized it in 1901 as a competitor to the mighty National League. His aim was to make the new American League a “clean” alternative to the senior circuit, free of the rough-and-tumble characters and booze-serving owners. In this endeavor, he was the perfect foil for Cardinals ownership, which operated a beer garden at old Robison Field — gasp! — even on Sundays.
It was Johnson himself who wanted the Brewers moved to his adopted home of St. Louis and he recruited carriage maker Robert Lee Hedges as the new local owner. And it was Hedges — aka “Colonel Bob” — who built Sportsman’s Park at the corner of Grand and Dodier.
The Browns from there went on to a reputation as perhaps the worst in major league history. In their 52 season in St. Louis, they had a winning percentage of .428, including 11 winning seasons and eight of 100 losses or more. They finished dead last in the AL 10 times and next-to-last 11 more times.
In their 52 season in St. Louis, the Browns had a winning percentage of .428, including 11 winning seasons and eight of 100 losses or more. They finished dead last in the AL 10 times and next-to-last 11 more times.
George Sisler, for example, remains one of the greatest ever to play in St. Louis. He’s in the Hall of Fame, but will never go down in local baseball lore with the likes of Stan Musial or Rogers Hornsby because he was a Brownie.
Still, Sisler hit. 340 over a 16-year big league career, including two season in which he hit over .400. He hit .420 as the centerpiece of a great Browns team that won 93 games and finished a close second to the Yankees in 1922.
Credit is due the current Cardinals ownership for seeing fit to memorialize Sisler with a statue outside Busch Stadium II and III.
Despite the Cardinals success through the 1940s, some of the old timers will tell you that the Browns were more popular. This is where Veeck took charge and came surprisingly close to driving our now beloved Redbirds out of town.
In 1951, Veeck started to stock his organization with St. Louis fan favorites — Dizzy Dean was his radio play-by-play man and none-other than Hornsby was hired to manage the team. He also brought in 45-year-old Satchel Paige and Ned Garver, who was just the second pitcher ever to win 20 games for a team that lost 100.
The team was horrible, but with his crazy promotions — like polling fans to direct the manager’s strategic decisions — Veeck was winning St. Louis over.
Cardinals’ owner Fred Saigh, meanwhile, was facing federal tax evasion charges, a big public relations crisis and pressure from the National League to sell. A consortium of Houston businessmen stepped forward to bail him out, but were intent on moving the Redbirds to Texas.
Saigh didn’t have a choice.
At the 11th hour, Gussie Busch rode in with a lower bid, but the promise to keep the Cardinals where they belong. Civic pride was important to Saigh, so he sold the team for $3.5 million.
(Don’t feel sorry for Saigh, though. By the time he was released from prison, he had amassed the most stock in Anheuser-Busch outside the Busch family itself. He died at age 94 worth a reported $500 million.)
Veeck knew he’d never compete with the brewery’s deep pockets and conceded the St. Louis market to the Cardinals. But his petitions to move the Browns back to Milwaukee and, later, to Baltimore were denied by other American League owners who didn’t like Veeck and his Barnum-and-Bailey ways at drumming up business.
Veeck took care of that by lapsing on upkeep of Sportsman’s Park and by letting it slip — oops! — that 1953 would be the Browns’ last in St. Louis. Attendance promptly slumped to less than 4,000 per game.
Within a year, the Browns were in Baltimore and renamed the Orioles. The Cardinals have since won 10 National League championships and five World Series.
How different would things in St. Louis be had Saigh sold out to the Houston buyers?
As an American League city, would we harbor a seething rivalry with the Chicago White Sox? Or maybe the Yankees? Would Frank Robinson and Jim Palmer be memorialized in statue outside Busch Stadium? Would it even be Busch Stadium? Or would we still be going to games at a venerable old ballpark on Grand and Dodier?
A sea of brown on game day?
It almost happened.