Tuesday, December 9, 2014

St. Louis Browns Were Colorful

 Major League Baseball fans in Illinois are divided into several camps. Cardinals fans rule the south, while White Sox fans creep in farther north. The Cubs have a strong base statewide. Sixty years ago, there was another, more interesting choice.

Until 1953, St. Louis was home to two teams, the National League's Cardinals as well as the Browns of the American League. Though the Browns lost a bundle of games over the decades, they left a legacy of some of baseball’s most colorful moments.

The Browns opened play in St. Louis in 1902, a year after the founding of the American League, when the last-place Milwaukee franchise moved to the Gateway City after only one season. They were named for the color of their uniforms, which were replete with brown trim. The name also had been an early moniker of the other team in town, the Cardinals, before the turn of the century.

The Browns finished second at 78-58 in that inaugural season, which was not a sign of things to come. In their 52 years in St. Louis, the Browns finished first once, second twice and sixth or worse 33 times. Their ineptitude gave rise to the saying, “St. Louis. First in shoes, first in booze and last in the American League.”

Despite their struggles, the Browns never lacked for color. The team gave rise to the brilliant career
Branch Rickey
of Branch Rickey, who came to St. Louis in 1913 from a successful stint as head baseball coach at the

University of Michigan. Rickey later moved across town and built the first minor-league farm system, which helped the Cardinals win four World Series titles before he left in 1942 for Brooklyn. There, he introduced Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play in the major leagues.

“The owner of the Browns at the time did not recognize Rickey’s value,” said Bill Rogers, of St. Louis, who has researched the Browns extensively. “Had Rickey stayed on, I think things would have turned out much differently.”

Rickey also is responsible for the player that many believe was the greatest in Browns history. First baseman George Sisler was a former Michigan star who batted .420 with 51 stolen bases and 105 RBIs in 1922 to lead the Browns to a 93-61 record, their best ever. Sisler batted .340 in a 15-year major league career, 12 with the Browns. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939.

Poor attendance was a recurring theme in Browns history. The 1935 team drew 80,922 fans for the entire season, and the Great Depression was not entirely to blame. St. Louis never won more than 67 games in a 154-game season at any point in the 1930s and was a miserable 43-111 in 1939.

Finally, the Browns broke through in 1942, finishing third at 82-69 under manager Luke Sewell. 

With a strong pitching staff and a formidable infield, St. Louis was primed for a run. In 1944, they
remained in contention for most of the season and swept a season-ending, four-game series against the Yankees at home to capture the pennant with an 89-65 mark.

Ironically, their World Series opponents were their crosstown rivals, the Cardinals. Since the early 1920s, the Browns actually had been the Cardinals’ landlords as the owners of Sportsmans’ Park. Unfortunately for the Browns, they had to suffer as the Cardinals rose to the top of the National League and routinely outdrew their counterparts at the box office.

The Browns jumped to a 2-1 Series lead, but the Cardinals won the last three to clinch in six games. “The Series appearance was a tremendous shot in the arm for the Browns,” said Rogers. “But in St. Louis, the fans of one team did not like the other team. Even Stan Musial remarked about that once.”

The Browns nearly repeated in 1945, but were eliminated from the pennant race on the last day of the season. That year, the star attraction for the Browns was Pete Gray, a one-armed outfielder who batted .218 in 77 games in his sole major league season.

For most of their existence, the Browns were financially strapped, and often had to sell off star players simply to keep afloat. After their glorious run of the mid-1940s, many top players were sold for needed cash, and the team fell into steep decline.

“I hate to say it, but I think the Browns were often mismanaged,” remarked Rogers. “That put them in a financial bind often, and they had to trade or sell their best players to cover expenses.”

However, there were plenty of memorable episodes. Many were courtesy of the flamboyant Bill Veeck, who bought the team in 1951 from an ownership tandem including Bill DeWitt, whose son is a current Cardinals’ team owner. Veeck challenged the Cardinals head on with a series of wacky promotions.

Soon after buying the team, Veeck signed Eddie Gaedel, a three-foot-seven-inch midget to a one-day contract and sent him up to bat in the second game of an Aug. 19, 1951, doubleheader against Detroit. Wearing the number “1/8" and creating a strike zone of a mere inch-and-a-half, Gaedel walked on four pitches.

Six days later, the Browns hosted “Grandstand Manager’s Night,” in which fans were allowed to

Bill Veeck
make on-field decisions. Manager Zack Taylor held up signs such as “Should the Browns Bunt?,” “Take Out the Pitcher?” and “Steal?,” while spectators held signs replying “Yes” or “No.” The Browns knocked off the Philadelphia A’s 5-3 that night, a highlight for a squad that went 52-102.

Still, many of the players preferred playing for the Browns than the other team in town. Though the Cardinals never finished lower than second from 1941-49, many Browns were happier with their cellar-dwelling franchise. In an interview for a 2000 book, Don Gutteridge, a former Cardinal who was the Browns’ second baseman through their 1940s heyday, said that “the Cardinals were always pinching pennies. The Browns were a better club to play for than the Cardinals.”

Some of the later Browns are among the franchise’s most recognizable names. They include the legendary Satchel Paige, who won 12 games at age 46 in 1952, as well as righthander Ned Garver, who won 20 games in 1951. Garver is one of 23 surviving Browns players today, a list that includes Ottawa native Ed Mickelson, who saw action in seven games for the Browns in 1953 and is said to have driven in the final run in Browns history.

Mickelson, now 88, played in a total of 18 Major League games over three seasons with the Browns, White Sox and Cardinals and later wrote a memoir of his 11 seasons in pro ball, mostly in the minors.

Another surviving ex-Brown is Don Larsen, a St. Louis rookie in 1953. Three years later, he tossed a perfect game for New York in the 1956 World Series.

When the Cardinals were sold to Anheuser-Busch in December 1952, Veeck realized he could no longer survive against a larger-budget rival. His tumultuous run as Browns’ owner came to an end when he sold the team after the 1953 season. The franchise moved to Baltimore and became the Orioles.

Sixty years later, the Browns are hardly forgotten. In 1984, the St. Louis Browns Fan Club was founded and now numbers 370 members. The club holds an annual banquet, publishes an in-house magazine and offers a line of collectibles.

“Interest in the Browns is extremely high,” said Rogers, the president of the club. “Even though only 23 Browns survive, there are tens of thousands of fans left. Even younger people have experienced the Browns through the memories of their parents and grandparents. Like one person said to me, 'we can’t bring back the Browns, but we can at least keep their memory alive.’ ”