Adam Whitaker opened his car trunk and pulled out a large video camera. He handed a tripod to his 13-year-old brother, Nick, then headed to the door of the Holiday Inn in Sunset Hills.
The two brothers had driven from Springfield, Mo., to tape a documentary about Thursday's annual 2012 St. Louis Browns Luncheon. Whitaker, 29, a freelance filmmaker, wanted to know why a team that left St. Louis in 1954 still attracted more than 200 people.
"Actually, I'm a Cardinals fan myself," he said with a smile. "I think this is really interesting, though. Browns fans are pretty passionate."
Logically, the Browns, or "Brownies," should not inspire much loyalty. From 1902 to 1953, the cash-strapped team had a collective record of 3,414 wins and 4,465 losses. It won one pennant in 1944, only to lose to the Cardinals in the World Series. Then, the franchise moved to Baltimore and became the Orioles.
Photo - Ned Garver & Bud Thomas signing autographs for fans. Click on photo to enlarge.
I asked South County resident Bill Rogers, the president of the St. Louis Browns Historical Society, why the fans still love the team.
"I've thought about that many times," Rogers, 75, said. "Anybody can root for the winners, but not everybody can root for the losers. The Browns was a losing team, but the players weren't losers. They played their hearts out every game."
The Browns had some good players, including Hall of Famer George Sisler. Management had to trade many of them for money, Rogers said.Fans have embraced all of the Browns, no matter how long they were with the team. They still remember John "Bud" Thomas, 83, who played shortstop from Sept. 2 to Sept. 29, 1951. He played for just 27 days, but that's enough for them.
I must confess my own connection to the Browns. My father, William, an excellent catcher at CBC High School, often caught batting practice or warmed up pitchers at Browns home games. My grandparents, Frank and Helen Bandle, were at the famed Aug. 18, 1951, game when Eddie Gaedel, all 3 feet 7 inches of him, came to the plate against Detroit and drew a walk on four pitches.
For many of the fans, there also is a connection to past generations.
South County resident Erik Delucia, 42, stood in line to get autographs from several of the Browns players. He remembered how his father and grandfather told stories about the Browns.
"When my dad was a kid, he'd collect bottles at Sportsman's Park for the deposits," Delucia said. "Can you imagine having glass bottles at Busch Stadium now? I became a big baseball fan and I like to collect autographs and photos. The Browns are one of my favorites."
Not all of the fans had gray hair. Stephen Cole, 11, of St. Charles, got an autograph from St. Louis resident Roy Sievers, the 1949 American League Rookie of the Year.
When asked why he was a Browns fan, Stephen simply replied, "Because I can."
He was influenced by his father, Bill, 54, who remembered how his mother talked about the Browns. "She said that during the 1944 World Series, almost everyone cheered for the Browns," he said. "The Browns taught some life lessons, like that you can't win them all, but you have to try."
Emmett McAuliffe, a member of the society's board of directors, thinks fans stayed loyal because the Browns remained part of St. Louis history. Unlike the Braves, Giants and Dodgers, who took their names to new cities, the Browns are forever linked with St. Louis.
"They kind of represent the Golden Age of baseball to a lot of people," McAuliffe said.
The Browns players themselves are a vanishing breed. Only 32 are alive and 13 of them are in their 90s.
However, they were having fun at the luncheon. The fans' devotion is a mystery that delights them.
"It's just amazing they still know us," said Sievers, 85, who played for the Browns from 1948 to 1952. "I always feel honored when they want my autograph."
Pitcher Ned Garver, 86, threw for St. Louis from 1948 to 1952. He admitted he had no clue about the fans' devotion.
"We weren't good," Garver said. "I don't know why. All of us players get a charge coming here, signing autographs and meeting people."
It was time to start the festivities. The players, some with the help of canes, slowly walked to their places at the head table. It was time to eat, but people began to form lines for more autographs.