The Most Unloved Team in Baseball
By Bruce McCall for the New Yorker
I was a thirteen-year-old baseball nut in 1948 when I discovered the St. Louis Browns of the American League. Red, white, and blue had monopolized big-league team colors since Bob (Death to Flying Things) Ferguson had cavorted for the Hartford Dark Blues decades before, but the Browns had been flouting color convention since their founding, in 1902. For the same logical reason that the Homestead Grays’ uniforms could hardly be puce or taupe, the Browns had to wear brown. A rich color, brown, but not a heroic color.
It was a perfect fit. A color scheme that evoked the barnyard and the excretions of babies fittingly defined the Browns. They were the Lowly Browns from the outset, setting all the wrong records: first in last-place finishes; leukemic attendance that reached a nadir, in 1933, when thirty-three fans paid to watch a home game; so financially strapped that scuffed, worn, and torn baseballs were put in play because the club couldn’t afford the regulation number of fresh ones.
Other than a freak World Series appearance in 1944, amid a wartime talent drought so dire that a one-armed outfielder eventually made the starting lineup, the Browns were as universally unloved a baseball team as ever existed. The National League Cardinals shared the Browns owned Sportsman’s Park with the Browns and were their opposite: perennial winners, darlings of St. Louis baseball fans. The red-white-and-blue Cards filled the park as fast as the Browns emptied it.
Which struck a resonant chord and endeared them to me, because of my own issues of low self-esteem. I identified with unloved losers in all spheres: in hockey, the then forlorn New York Rangers; in automobiles, Nash, a poor relation of Detroit’s Big Three, about to go under; in politics, Harold Stassen, the Don Quixote from Minnesota. Naturally, I despised the rich and smug New York Yankees the way Walter Reuther despised Henry Ford.
I wallowed in my Brownsophilia even after that baseball Barnum Bill Veeck took over the team, in 1951. He proceeded on the principle that stunts would be a faster, cheaper route to higher ticket sales than trying to build a winning team. It was Veeck who once sent a three-and-a-half-foot little person up to bat, who let the fans in the stands vote on strategy, who tried attracting St. Louis’s black community to Sportsman’s Park by signing the beloved grandfatherly pitcher Satchel Paige (the Cardinals stayed all-white to the bitter end).
I wallowed in Brownsophilia until that fateful day in 1953 when baseball exterminated the Browns like a roach (an ugly brown roach, natch) and the franchise morphed into, ladies and gentlemen, your Baltimore Orioles.
Yet that youthful crush abides even today. As I write this I’m wearing a sweatshirt with the classic BROWNS,” and atop it a medieval knight astride his horse, wielding a mighty sword, more Knights of Columbus heraldry than baseball iconography. (Its origins and meaning remain tantalizingly mysterious.) My sweatshirt was obtained via the official online Browns Fan Club, a hardy cell of nostalgists keeping the feeble flame alive sixty-two years after the last Brownie whiffed.Browns logo over the heart: a shield enclosing a baseball imprinted with “
There’s even a Brownie theme song and a Surviving Players roll call. (The nifty fifties hurler Ned Garver, a twenty-game winner for a 1951 Browns team that lost a hundred and two games, is ninety years old.)
Baseball economics today have levelled out the old imbalance that kept rich teams like the Yankees riding so high and the impoverished Browns providing the flooring for the league cellar, year after year. I feel for the kid with an inferiority complex who has just discovered the game, because the sweet misery of Brownsophilia will never be his.