Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Baseball's Browns were St. Louis' colorful, lovable losers

ESPN series on lost teams: Warriors, Trojans, Pilots, Whalers, Expos, Braves, Lakers, Athletics, Clippers ... and our ever-lovin Brownies!


Eddie Gaedel's pinch-hitting appearance -- he walked, of course -- was just one of the stunts Bill Veeck pulled when he owned the St. Louis Browns. AP Photo

With the Rams rebooting in Los Angeles, ESPN.com presents a series exploring the remnants departed teams have left behind in the cities they abandoned.
St. Louis has been jilted by the professional sports world yet again.
The Rams have returned to Los Angeles, reuniting with their ex after a two-decade fling in the Gateway City. St. Louis enjoyed a Super Bowl victory and five postseason appearances from 1999-2004, but the divorce ingloriously capped a decade of playoff-free football for the city's NFL fans.

Worse, the Rams are the fourthmajor sports franchise to abandon St. Louis. The NFL's Cardinals bolted for Arizona in 1988. The NBA's Hawks relocated to Atlanta in 1968. MLB's Browns pulled up stakes for Baltimore after the 1953 season and became the Orioles. That doesn't even count the decommissioning of the Spirits of St. Louis prior to the ABA-NBA merger in 1976.
The baseball Browns played 52 seasons in St. Louis, not far off the sum of the Rams (21), football Cardinals (28) and Hawks (13) combined. That fact alone makes the Browns unique among franchises to defect from St. Louis -- but it's a colorful legacy as lovable losers that places them in a sentimental category of their own.
"It's not just that they're bad -- they're comically, lovably, absurdly bad," said sportscaster Bob Costas, who lived in St. Louis for years and still owns a home there. "So I think the reason why they're remembered nostalgically isn't just because they once existed and then left, or because they were bad. It's because they were interestingly bad."

More than six decades after their departure, traces of the star-crossed Browns remain in St. Louis.
A display of Browns memorabilia exists as part of the St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame exhibits at Scottrade Center, home of the NHL's Blues. It contains vintage photos, uniform articles, a bat used in the 1944 World Series, a baseball used in the team's final game and a custom pair of cowboy boots bearing Browns logos that belonged to onetime owner Donald Barnes. The centerpiece is a video documentary about the team's history, narrated by Costas, who helped fund the display.
A sign at the Herbert Hoover Boys and Girls Club commemorates the site where Sportsman's Park stood in various iterations from 1881 to 1966. It lists star players who competed there and notes World Series contested at the location. There are still approximately 20 living former Browns players. Chuck Stevens, 97, is the oldest. J.W. Porter, 83, is the youngest.
The Browns held primacy over the rival Cardinals early in the 20th century, serving as landlords in Sportsman's Park to their National League counterparts. In 1922, the Browns enjoyed a landmark season, winning 93 games but finishing one game behind the New York Yankees for the American League pennant. That year, future Hall of Famer George Sisler established a franchise record by batting .420, and Ken Williams became the first major leaguer to hit 30 home runs and steal 30 bases in the same season.
But it wasn't long before the Cardinals would take over the town, and they won their first World Series in 1926 by defeating the Yankees in seven games. From that point until the Browns departed for Baltimore, the Cardinals won eight NL pennants and five World Series. Meantime, the Browns topped the .500 mark just five times in the next 27 seasons -- and three of those came during World War II, when MLB's ranks were depleted of star players.
The Browns' only AL championship came in 1944 with a wartime roster. They won two of the first three games in the World Series, only to lose in six games to, of course, the Cardinals.

While the Cards were writing history, the Browns had to settle for footnotes. Pete Gray, who had lost his right arm in a childhood accident, played 77 games as an outfielder in 1945. Roy Sievers, a St. Louis native, was named 1949 AL Rookie of the Year and later became an All-Star for the Washington Senators and Chicago White Sox. Then there's the unlikely tale of Bobo Holloman, who pitched a no-hitter in his first career start on May 6, 1953, only to be permanently demoted to the minors 2 1/2 months later.
It was during the Browns' final three seasons, under the eccentric ownership of Bill Veeck, that they established themselves as a team for the ages. Veeck and the Browns created myriad spectacles during the second half of the 1951 season alone. A sampling:
  • July 2: Veeck purchases the club.
  • July 14: The team signs legendary Negro Leagues pitcher Satchel Paige, thought to be 45, although his true age was debatable. Paige would compile an 18-23 record in three seasons with St. Louis -- pretty good for a team that lost 292 games during that span.
  • Aug. 19: Eddie Gaedel, at 3-foot-7 and 65 pounds, draws a walk as a pinch hitter in his only career plate appearance. Detroit Tigers catcher Bob Swift is reputed to have offered this sage advice to pitcher Bob Cain prior to the encounter: "Pitch him low."
  • Aug. 24: The team holds Grandstand Managers Night, whereby fans made actual game decisions by voting with flash cards.
  • Sept. 30: On the final day of the season, Ned Garver becomes the first pitcher in modern baseball history to win 20 games for a team that lost at least 100. He remains the only major leaguer to do so.

"In a weird way, it was almost better for the long-term memory of the Browns that we didn't win any pennants except the asterisk pennant of 1944," said Emmett McAuliffe, vice president of the St. Louis Browns Historical Society. "It almost cements us in the public mind."
Don Larsen is known best for the perfect game he threw as a Yankee in the 1956 World Series, but he began his career with the Browns. He was a rookie during the team's woebegone 1953 season, and he closed out the final Browns victory by pitching two innings in relief of Paige. That game, a 7-3 win at Detroit on Sept. 22, also turned out to be the final victory of Paige's career.
Larsen recalls traveling by train on road trips and the willingness of veterans to help him acclimate to the majors. He also remembers participating in spring training in San Bernardino, California, alongside a young left-hander named Tom Lasorda, whom the team eventually couldn't afford to keep under contract.
Larsen compiled a 7-12 record in 1953 and threw a team-leading 192 2/3 innings. He also hit three homers and drove in 10 runs. The team infamously went 54-100 that year while drawing only 297,238 fans -- an average of 3,860 per game.
"Of course, we didn't do all that well," Larsen said. "We didn't draw for crap, but I liked St. Louis. I enjoyed it, especially with the guys we had. It was my first year. They all treated you well, and we were just trying to do our job the best way we could and hang in there."
Larsen remembers Veeck, who once lived with his family in an apartment under the Sportsman's Park grandstands, regularly mingling with players. Larsen can picture Veeck and catcher Les Moss regularly playing cards during the owner's frequent visits to the trainer's room to receive treatment on his right leg, which was injured and amputated at the knee in World War II.
"I liked him very much," Larsen said of Veeck. "He was a good man. I think the other owners didn't like his showmanship, per se, but I think he tried to give something back to the fans."

The Browns Historical Society curates the Scottrade Center display and has since become de facto caretakers of a trove of memorabilia and countless recollections of the bygone franchise. It holds an annual reunion luncheon for players and fans, although only two former Brownies -- Porter and Sievers -- were able to attend last year's event. The group, also known as the Browns Fan Club, published a three-part book titled "Ables to Zoldak" of the team's historical numbers years before statistics were readily available online.
Although the ranks of the living Browns are inevitably shrinking, the historical society dutifully endures "to keep the memory alive of this odd duck," McAuliffe said.
"When we started in 1984, there were a couple hundred living Brownies," McAuliffe said. "It was mainly an effort by us to get as many of them as could come back, kind of like a college reunion. We would get dozens of Brownies back then. As the players have gotten older and there's gotten fewer and fewer, it's turned into like a last man's club."
St. Louis is widely considered second to none as a baseball town, so McAuliffe pitches a wild idea. Maybe the city could lure a relocated or expansion team to share Busch Stadium and become the new Browns. If a rekindled team attracted even half the 3.52 million who attended Cardinals games last season, it would outpace the 2015 totals of four MLB clubs. So what if ...
"No, no, no, no," Costas said, bringing reality back into focus. "That is a sweet notion that comes from a good place and has no practical justification."
Unlike the Rams, the Browns never won a championship. But unlike the Rams, the Browns had a spirit that leaves them remembered fondly by the city they left behind.
"It's one thing just to suck and to fail," Costas said. "It's another to fail colorfully, nobly and unforgettably -- which brings up the question: Did they really fail? Here we are [talking about it] 60 years later. ... Their place in history exceeds their accomplishments about 10 times over."

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