History of the St. Louis Browns
The St. Louis Browns was a Major League Baseball team that originated in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as the Milwaukee Brewers. Charter member of the American League, the Brewers moved to St. Louis, Missouri, after the 1901 season, where they played for 52 years as the St. Louis Browns. This article covers the franchise's more-than-five-decade history in St. Louis.
In the late 19th century, the team was formed as the Milwaukee Brewers in the Western League. For the 1900 season, the Western League was renamed the "American League", and in 1901, it was converted to a major league team under the leadership of Ban Johnson.
Johnson originally intended to move the Milwaukee Brewers to St. Louis, a larger market for Major League Baseball. When he could not find a suitable owner, he operated the team in Milwaukee for a lame-duck season in 1901. In 1902, he found a suitable St. Louis-based owner in carriage maker Robert Lee Hedges. The team moved to St. Louis and changed their name to the "Browns." This referred to the original name of the 1880s club that by 1900 was known as the St. Louis Cardinals. Hedges built a new park, known as Sportsman's Park, on the site of the old Browns' former venue.
In their first St. Louis season, the Browns finished second. Although the Browns had only four winning seasons from 1902 to 1922, they were very popular at the gate during their first two decades in St. Louis. They trounced the Cardinals in attendance. Pitcher Barney Pelty was a workhorse for the Browns, and a member of their starting rotation from 1904, when he pitched 31 complete games and 301 innings, through 1911. In 1909, the Browns rebuilt Sportsman's Park as the third concrete-and-steel park in the major leagues.
During this time, the Browns were best known for their role in the race for the 1910 American League batting title. Ty Cobb took off the last game of the season, believing that his slight lead over Nap Lajoie, of the Cleveland Naps, would hold up unless Lajoie had a near-perfect day at the plate. Browns' manager Jack O'Connor had ordered rookie third baseman Red Corriden to play on the outfield grass. This all but conceded a hit for any ball Lajoie bunted. Lajoie bunted five straight times down the third base line and made it to first easily. On his last at-bat, Lajoie reached base on an error – officially giving him a hitless at-bat. O'Connor and coach Harry Howell tried to bribe the official scorer, a woman, to change the call to a hit – even offering to buy her a new wardrobe.
Cobb won the batting title by just a few thousandths of a point over Lajoie. But it was later reported that one game may have been counted twice in the statistics, and there were rumors about the attempted bribery, causing a scandal about the rankings. After news broke of the scandal, a writer for the St. Louis Post claimed: "All St. Louis is up in arms over the deplorable spectacle, conceived in stupidity and executed in jealousy." The resulting outcry triggered an investigation by American League president Ban Johnson. At his insistence, Hedges fired O'Connor and Howell; both men were informally banned from baseball for life.
In 1916, Hedges sold the Browns to Philip DeCatesby Ball, who owned the St. Louis Terriers in the by-then-defunct Federal League. Under Ball's early tenure, the club had its first sustained period of success on the field; they were a contender for most of the early 1920s. Ball spent freely to put a winner of the field; he reinvested all profits into the team.
But, analysts think Ball made a series of blunders that would ultimately doom the franchise. Shortly after buying the team, he fired general manager Branch Rickey, who was promptly hired by the Cardinals. Four years later, Ball allowed the Cardinals to move out of dilapidated Robison Field and share Sportsman's Park with the Browns. Rickey and Cardinals owner Sam Breadon used the proceeds from the Robison Field sale to build baseball's first modern farm system. This effort eventually produced several star players who brought the Cardinals more drawing power than the Browns.
The 1922 Browns excited their owner by almost beating the Yankees to a pennant. The club was boasting the best players in franchise history, including future Hall of Famer George Sisler and an outfield trio of Ken Williams, Baby Doll Jacobson, and Jack Tobin, who batted .300 or better from 1919–23 and in 1925. In 1922, Williams became the first player in Major League history to hit 30 home runs and steal 30 bases in a season, something that would not be done again in the Majors until 1956.
Ball confidently predicted that there would be a World Series in Sportsman's Park by 1926. In anticipation, he increased the capacity of his ballpark from 18,000 to 30,000. There was a World Series in Sportsman's Park in 1926 – but it was the Cardinals who took part, upsetting the Yankees. St. Louis had been considered a "Browns town" until then; after their 1926 series victory, however, the Cardinals dominated St. Louis baseball, while still technically tenants of the Browns. Meanwhile, the Browns rapidly fell into the cellar. They had only two winning records from 1927 to 1943, including a 43-111 mark in 1939 that is still the worst in franchise history.
Ball died in 1933. His estate ran the team for three years until Rickey helped broker a sale to investment banker Donald Lee Barnes. His son-in-law, Bill DeWitt, was the team's general manager. To help finance the purchase, Barnes sold 20,000 shares of stock to the public at $5 a share, an unusual practice for a sports franchise.
By 1941, Barnes was convinced he could never make money in St. Louis. After interests in Los Angeles approached him about buying a stake in the team, he asked AL owners for permission to move there for the 1942 season. Los Angeles was already the third-largest city in the United States, and was larger than any major-league city except New York and Chicago. The Browns got tentative approval from the league, which went as far as to draw up a schedule accounting for transcontinental train trips, though the Browns suggested that teams could travel by plane, a new concept at the time. The deal was slated to receive final approval at a league meeting on December 8.
The deal was disrupted by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which took place on December 7. League officials expressed concerns that travel restrictions would be too stringent for a prospective Los Angeles-based team to be viable, and the Browns' proposal was unanimously rejected.
During World War II, in 1944 the Browns won their only American League pennant in St. Louis. Some critics called it a fluke, as most major league stars voluntarily joined or were drafted into the military; however, many of the Browns' best players were classified 4-F: unfit for military service. They faced their local rivals, the incredibly successful Cardinals, in the 1944 World Series, the last World Series to date played entirely in one stadium. However, the Browns lost the series in six games. After the Series, Barnes sold the Browns to businessman Richard Muckerman.
In 1945, the Browns posted an 81–75 record and fell to third place, six games out, again with less than top-ranked talent. The 1945 season may be best remembered for the Browns' signing of utility outfielder Pete Gray, the only one-armed major league position player in history. The Browns never had another winning season in St. Louis. 1944 and 1945 were two of only eight winning seasons they enjoyed in the 31 years after nearly winning the pennant in 1922. Muckerman was said to care more about improving Sportsman's Park than improving the on-field product.
He sold the team to DeWitt in 1949, but DeWitt was unable to reverse the slide. At one point, DeWitt was forced to sell any good prospects to the Red Sox or Tigers in order to pay the bills.
In 1951, Bill Veeck, the colorful former owner of the Cleveland Indians, purchased the Browns from DeWitt. In St. Louis, he extended the type of promotions and wild antics that had made him famous and loved by many and loathed by many others. His most notorious stunt in St. Louis was held on August 19, 1951, when he ordered Browns manager, Zack Taylor, to send Eddie Gaedel, a 3-foot 7-inch, 65-pound midget, to bat as a pinch hitter. When Gaedel stepped to the plate, he was wearing a Browns child's uniform with the number 1⁄8. With no strike zone to speak of, Gaedel walked on four straight pitches, as he was ordered not to swing at any pitch. The stunt infuriated American League President Will Harridge, who voided Gaedel's contract the next day.
Veeck also promoted another publicity stunt in which the Browns handed out placards – reading "take, swing, bunt", etc. – to fans and allowed them to make managerial decisions for a day. Manager Zack Taylor dutifully surveyed the fans' advice and relayed the sign accordingly. The Browns won the game against the Philadelphia Athletics, whose venerable owner Connie Mack took part in the "Grandstand Managers" voting (against his own team).
After the 1951 season, Veeck made Ned Garver the highest-paid member of the Browns. Garver went on to win 20 games, while the team lost 100 games. He was the second pitcher in history to accomplish the feat. Veeck also brought Satchel Paige back to major league baseball to pitch for the Browns. Veeck had previously signed the former Negro Leagues great at age 42 to a contract in Cleveland in 1948, amid much criticism. Paige was 45 when he returned to the mound in a Browns uniform. Veeck was criticized among baseball's owners, but Paige finished the season with a respectable 3–4 record and a 4.79 ERA.
Veeck believed that St. Louis was too small for two franchises and planned to drive the Cardinals out of town. He signed many of the Cardinals' most popular ex-players and, as a result, attracted many Cards fans to see the Browns. Notably, Veeck inked former Cardinals great Dizzy Dean to a broadcasting contract and tapped Rogers Hornsby as manager. He also re-acquired former Browns fan favorite Vern Stephens and signed former Cardinals pitcher Harry Brecheen, both of whom had starred in the all-St. Louis World Series in 1944.
Veeck also stripped Sportsman's Park of all Cardinals material and dressed it exclusively in Browns memorabilia, even moving his family to an apartment under the stands. The Browns never came close to fielding a winning team during this time; in Veeck's three years as owner, they never finished any closer than 31 games out of first, and twice lost 100 games. But Veeck's showmanship and colorful promotions made Browns games more fun and unpredictable than the conservative Cardinals were willing to offer.
Veeck's all-out assault on the Cardinals came during a downturn in the Cardinals' fortunes after Rickey left them for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1942. Veeck appeared to have won the battle when Cardinals' owner Fred Saigh was convicted of massive tax evasion late in 1952 and forced to sell his team. For a time, it looked almost certain that the Cardinals were leaving town, as most of the credible bids came from non-St. Louis interests, particularly Houston, Texas, where the Cardinals operated a Minor League Baseball|Class AAA]] farm team. But, just when it looked like the Cardinals were about to move to Texas, Saigh accepted a bid from St. Louis-based brewery Anheuser-Busch.
Brewery president Gussie Busch jumped into the bidding specifically to keep the Cardinals in St. Louis. Veeck quickly realized that he was finished in the city. Anheuser-Busch's corporate wealth behind the Cardinals gave them more resources than he could ever hope to match. Unlike most of his fellow team owners, he had no income apart from the Browns. Reluctantly, he ceded St. Louis to the Cardinals and decided to move the Browns.
As a first step, he sold Sportsman's Park to the Cardinals. He probably would have had to sell the park in any event. The 44-year-old park had fallen into disrepair, and Veeck could not afford to bring it up to code even with the rent from the Cardinals.
Veeck attempted to move the Browns back to Milwaukee (where he had owned the Brewers of the American Association in the 1940s), but the move was blocked by the other American League owners. Boston Braves owner Lou Perini abruptly moved his National League franchise there in March 1953, three weeks before opening day.
Undaunted, Veeck got in touch with Baltimore Mayor Tommy D'Alesandro and attorney Clarence Miles, who were leading an effort to bring the major leagues back to Baltimore after a half-century hiatus. He was rebuffed by the other owners, still seething over the publicity stunts he pulled at the Browns home games. (They also opposed proposals Veeck had made to pool revenues from broadcasting, a concept particularly abhorrent to the Yankees, whose broadcast income dwarfed most other franchises).
Although there was never official word that the 1953 season would be the Browns' last in St. Louis, fans understood and attendance dwindled to 3,860 fans per game. Under the circumstances, the Browns made a wretched showing, finishing 54-100, 46 games out of first. Late in the season, the Browns were running so low on baseballs that they were forced to ration them during batting practice. When what would be the Browns' last game in St. Louis—a 2-1 loss to the White Sox—went into extra innings, the Browns had so few baseballs on hand that the umpires were forced to recycle the least damaged used ones. Reportedly, the last ball used was gashed from seam to seam.
After the season, Veeck cut a deal with Miles, by which the Browns would move to Baltimore. Under the plan, Veeck would have remained as principal owner, but he would have sold half of his 80% stake to a group of Baltimore investors headed by Miles. Despite assurances from American League president Will Harridge that approval would be a formality, only four owners voted in favor – two short of passage. Reportedly, Yankees co-owner Del Webb was drumming up support to move the Browns to Los Angeles (where Webb held extensive construction interests).
The Los Angeles proposal may have been a bluff – many owners believed that travel and schedule considerations would make moving only one franchise to the West Coast insurmountable for the league. But Veeck, Miles and D'Alesandro realized that the other AL owners were looking for a way to push Veeck out. Over the next 48 hours, Miles lined up enough support from his group of investors to buy out Veeck's entire stake for $2.5 million. Veeck had little choice but to agree. He was facing threats of having his franchise revoked, and he'd given up his only leverage by selling Sportsman's Park to the Cardinals. The other owners duly approved the sale.
While Baltimore brewer Jerold Hoffberger became the largest shareholder, Miles was named president and chairman of the board. His first act was to request permission to move the team to Baltimore, which was swiftly approved.
Unlike other clubs that relocated in the 1950s, retaining their nickname and a sense of continuity with their past, the St. Louis Browns were renamed the Baltimore Orioles upon their transfer. It was intended to distance them from their history. Their move was unique in that era as they moved eastward rather than westward. (A number of other teams moved and kept their former nicknames: Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers, New York/San Francisco Giants, Boston/Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves, and Philadelphia/Kansas City/Oakland Athletics).
In December 1954, General Manager, Paul Richards made a 17-player trade with the New York Yankees that included most former Browns of note still on the Baltimore roster, dramatically changing the team. This remains the biggest trade in baseball history. Though the deal did little to improve the short-term competitiveness of the club, it helped establish a fresh identity for the Orioles franchise. The Orioles do not often refer to their past as the Browns.
In August 1979 the Orioles were considered to cut the last ties to the Browns era, when new owner Edward Bennett Williams bought back the shares Barnes had sold to the public in 1936, making the franchise privately held once again. The buyout price was not published. But, given the Orioles' prosperity over their then 25 years in Baltimore, the owners likely made a handsome return on their investment.
The Browns, like the Washington Senators, were associated mostly with losing. The Senators became the butt of a well-known vaudeville joke, "First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League" (a twist on the famous "Light Horse Harry" Lee eulogy for George Washington: "First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen"). A spin-off joke was coined for the Browns: "First in shoes, first in booze, and last in the American League." (On October 2, 1944, cartoonist Amadee drew the St. Louis Weatherbird in a Browns uniform, standing on its head, with the legend "And first in the American League!")
Many older fans in St. Louis remember the Browns fondly, and some have formed societies to keep the memory of the team alive. The former in-town rival Cardinals have honored George Sisler with a commemorative statue outside Busch Stadium, and generally take up the responsibility for honoring the Browns.
In popular culture
- In the 1944 movie Going My Way, Bing Crosby wears a sweatshirt labeled "St. Louis Browns" and takes the "boys" to see them play. That year the Browns won the American League pennant, but lost the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals.
- Skip Battin and Kim Fowley wrote a country rock song called "The St. Louis Browns". The song appears on Battin's 1972 solo album Skip, and as the B-side of his single "Central Park". It was included in the compilation album Baseball's Greatest Hits: Let's Play II.
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- "Skip Battin: "Central Park" / "The St. Louis Browns"". Discogs. Retrieved October 6, 2017.