Friday, January 13, 2017

A Short History of the St. Louis Browns, 1902-1953

© 2012 Emmett McAuliffe

Although the name "St. Louis Browns" will forever be associated with futility, that certainly was not the plan originally.  The “Brownies” began play with the fresh hope and optimism befitting a new century, and a brand-new league, the American League. Founded in 1901 by Ban Johnson from the remnants of a 19th century minor league (the old Western League), the “Junior Circuit" began play without teams in both New York and St. Louis. But it was unthinkable to compete against the National League without these two major cities in the fold. And St. Louis was the fourth-largest city in America and about to host a World's Fair.  Within two years, Johnson moved the Baltimore franchise to New York to become the Yankees and moved the Milwaukee Brewers to St. Louis. Although “The St. Louis Brewers” would have been a fitting nickname for the country's number-two brewery town, and Browns president Ralph Orthwein was a cousin of the Busch family by marriage, the name Browns was still etched in the minds of St. Louisans from the days when an earlier St. Louis Browns, owned by a thick-accented German saloonkeeper named Chris Von Der Ahe, dominated the old American Association, winning four consecutive pennants and competing in the first version of the World Series against the National League. The nick-name "Browns" had become identified with St. Louis Baseball (just like the "Reds" with Cincinnati and "the Orioles" with Baltimore). Thinking perhaps that the diamond the old Browns played on must have had some magic too, they purchased Sportsman's Park on Grand Avenue, which would later be known as Busch Stadium, which by 1902 had dilapidated to a shoot-the-chutes operation and a race track. In the beginning, the Browns spent freely, luring star players from the National League Cardinals to "jump" leagues and signing Christy Mathewson. They introduced the first PA announcer, electronic scoreboard and retractable roof (made of canvas tent). In 1909, they rebuilt Sportsman's Park using the then-novel material called steel.
And for a while, the innovating (and heavy spending) paid off. In their first season, the Browns finished in second place (one of only two second-place finishes in their history). In 1904, they flipped one of those former Cardinals who had been lured away, Jesse Burkett, to the Red Sox for George Stone who would win a batting championship for the Browns (a rarity in Browns history reserved only for guys named "George"). In the year referred to by baseball historians as Crazy '08, the Browns purchased perhaps the wackiest player ever to make the Hall of Fame: Rube Waddell who came in and led the league in K/9 for the 8th straight time and gave the Browns a neat 19 wins on their way to their best total ever, 83.
As Waddell's legal problems mounted (he went through two divorces while with the Browns) and his skills dropped, so did the Browns' fortunes. The Browns went down in the second-division for a decade. But popularity-wise, it didn't matter much. The Cardinals were down too, and had failed to deliver a pennant since they brought National League baseball to town back in 1892. In 1914-15, both teams had to battle a third rival: the Federal League St. Louis Terriers. But the Browns had a more modern ballpark than the Cardinals. For at least two-decades, St. Louis was referred to as an "American League town" and St. Louisans, as strange as it may sound today, bled "Brownie brown" more so than "Cardinal red."
But then, the Cardinals got revenge for the Great Roster Raid of 1902.  In 1920, the Cardinals convinced the Browns to let them share Sportsman's Park. Cardinals attendance immediately doubled. Meanwhile, Branch Rickey a former Browns catcher back in the "aughts", who had risen to Browns General Manager, could not get along with new Browns owner (former Federal League owner Phil Ball), and was ankling the Browns to move to the Cardinals. The Cards' owners sunk the money that they saved on stadium upkeep into the idea Rickey had originally germinated with the Browns: the minor league "farm system".  In the late teens and 20s, the resurging Browns, with squads featuring names like Urban Shocker, Ken Williams, Jack Tobin, Baby Doll Jacobson and Gorgeous George Sisler could not quite top a talent-rich American League with names like Ruth, Cobb, Foxx, Speaker and Walter Johnson.  Meanwhile, Branch Rickey's farm system was starting to pay dividends and the Cardinals were cleaning up on the weak National League talent.  In 1926, it was the Cardinals and not the Browns who brought St. Louis its first baseball championship since those storied days of the American Association Brown Stockings.
Then, the Great Depression hit, and the St. Louis sports fans' dollar was stretched thin.  Unlike Chicago with the Northside and Southside team, the Browns and Cards played in the same park.  Increasingly, St. Louisans preferred seeing winning baseball, albeit of the National League variety, and started to gerrymander their visits to Grand & Dodier to when the Cardinals were in town. Browns attendance sank like a rock. Competing with the Cards' famous "Gas House Gang" became an increasingly daunting task for a Browns team owned during the depression, not even by a man but by a man's estate (that could find no ready buyers).  A downward-spiral had taken hold.  It was somewhere about this time that the image of the bitter, downtrodden, accursed, (but always-loyal!) Browns fan became etched in the national consciousness.  
1902 St. Louis A.L.
By 1940, The Browns had become firmly synonymous with losing.  But this was all to change …  however briefly.  In 1942 the Browns had a winning record for the first time since the 1920s.  World War II was beginning to wreak havoc on the rosters of major league baseball as players became soldiers.  The Browns sensed an opportunity. In 1944, it looked like their moment had arrived, as the Browns won their first nine games of the season.    Owner Donald Barnes, skipper Luke Sewell and a GM named Bill DeWitt had assembled a deft wartime mix of grizzled veterans, 4-Fs and weekends-only pitchers whose first duty was a war plant.  But as the ’44 season wore on it looked like it was going to be another tale of heartbreak for the beleaguered Browns fan.  On Friday, September 29, 1944 the Browns found themselves in second place, facing the New York Yankees  for a season-ending four-game series.   The Browns had won seven of their last eight games, but that was not good enough.    Could they somehow sweep the storied Yankees,  who had won the pennant more times than they could count, and secure the top rung of the ladder for the first time in their history?  Only 6,000 showed up  for the Friday doubleheader which the Browns swept.    On Saturday, attendance almost tripled as 17,011 saw the Browns shut out the Yanks for the second straight game.   On Sunday, the attendance would double to a nearly 36,000 – over capacity.  The excitement was described as “near delirium”, as St. Louis fans beheld a sight they thought they would never see:  the Browns playing a last-day game not to go home but to go on.  It wouldn't be easy. True to form, the pinstripes jumped ahead 2-0,. That lead which held through three.   18 more outs and it would be another also-ran finish. But the Browns tied it up in the fourth. Then took a two-run lead in the fifth!  The crowd howled with every Yankee out from there on.  (Not as baying hounds but as a dog finally having his day.)  Two homers by "nights and weekends only" outfielder Chet Laabs, a dinger by All-Star shortstop Vern Stephens and an inspired pitching performance by a bottle-challenged veteran named Sig Jakukci gave the Browns their first pennant-clincher in history.
As the fans ran onto the playing field field and mobbed their victorious Brownies, the irony dawned: the Browns would have to share the “St. Louis love” with their tenants the Cardinals, who were on their eighth title.  And in order to gain their first-ever world championship, the Browns are going to have to get past the likes of Stan Musial and Marty Marion.  Oh what a revolting development.  
Nevertheless,  the city founded as a French fur trading post in 1764, which had the World's Fair in 1904, now had the World's Series in 1944 - all to itself.   A "streetcar" series! But who would the city root for?  Which team would have the "home-field advantage" when both were playing in their home ballpark?  Musial noticed that more fans were rooting for the underdog Browns than his Cardinals.  After jumping out to a two games to one lead, the Browns crumbled, and dropped the series four games to two.  It was a pitchers duel, in icy October temperatures … and the Browns had the short end of the stick.  
Despite losing the World Series, the team had confidence going into spring training in 1945 that they had essentially the same group of guys and the rest of the American League was, if anything, weaker due to the draft.  But as the Browns tried to repeat, the national spotlight was on them for a different reason:   the bringing up from the minors of a .333-hitting outfielder named Pete Gray.  This would normally not be controversial except this .333 hitter had lost an arm at age six when he was thrown from a truck. The Browns fell behind in the standings early in the season as the one-armed Gray struggled to hit major league curve-balls. And although they recovered to within 3-1/2 games back at the Labor Day milepost, they could finish no better than third place. In the Fall of '45, the Browns surrendered possession of the AL crown for the last time (and missed a chance at a Browns-Cubs World Series!).
As the boys of summer marched home from "over there", the Browns resumed their role as the shirttail cousins to the Yankees and Tigers.  As America rebuilt from the war, it was also time for the Browns to sink some money into infrastructure.   A ballpark renovation in the Browns top farm club San Antonio was quoted at $300,000 but ended up costing $720,000.    Despite the attendance boost from playing winning baseball, the Browns were poor ... again! .... and had to start unloading expensive contracts or selling off players for cash just like they had during the Depression. Stephens and Jack Kramer (who had 0.00 ERA in the World Series) were sold to the Red Sox. (Kramer promptly went 18-5 for the 'Sox).   Many more were to follow. On occasion, the players hired in to replace the players sold-off were less than savory: like Blackie Schwamb, a scary, six-foot-six, beanpole of a guy who threw the ball as hard as anyone in baseball but had a long police record, and after a half-season with the Browns was convicted of separate robberies and a murder.  
Yet the Browns scouting/farm system of the postwar period, was above-average for baseball at the time. Featuring scouts such as Jim Russo (who would later become known as “SuperScout”), the Dewitt-led front office was doing many things right, even on a shoe-string budget. It churned out many players who would go on to be All-Stars: perennial stolen base leader Bob Dillinger, World-Series Perfect Game pitcher Don Larsen, Yankee starters Bob Turley and Ryne Duren, and Tito Francona. The Browns narrowly missed signing Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle (for want of $500 in bonus money and a rain-free day, respectively). Tommy Lasorda spent his first major-league spring training with the Browns. Two Brownie farm products won rookie of the year titles: Roy Sievers and pugnacious catcher Clint “Scrap Iron” Courtney.  One product, 5’ 10” righthander Ned Garver, pulled off a feat that some say will never be repeated:  winning 20 games for a team that lost a 100 games and finished in last place. And last but not least, although he was far from an All-Star, a 30-year old pitcher who was languishing in the International League, was plucked by a Browns scout and became the only major league pitcher in the modern era to throw a no-hitter in his first start: Bobo Holloman.
Into these post-war fiscal woes stepped a brave war veteran: new Browns owner Bill Veeck. Veeck had served three years in an artillery unit in World War II and had lost his leg. His amputation got progressively worse and had to undergo 36 operations. He was a five-pack-a-day smoker who jocularly used a cup cut into his wooden leg for an ashtray.  None of this seemed to slow him down. He fathered nine children, six of them after age 47 by his second wife. Upon purchasing the Browns in 1951, Veeck announced in “High Noon” fashion that St. Louis was not big enough for two major league baseball teams and that he was prepared to run the Cardinals out of town.  It seemed an impossibility to run the more popular, more successful and better-funded team out of town.  But if he and his new wife, an Ice Capades promoter, worked hard, and got a couple lucky breaks, Veeck figured, “It could happen”.  In order to be on 24-hour call, Veeck moved his family into a specially-built apartment underneath Sportsman’s Park (that would later be occupied by a young August Busch III.)  Veeck worked 20-hour days, read a book a day, and would speak at a community group nearly every night that the Browns didn’t have a night game in an attempt to resell the Browns to St. Louis. And in his “downtime” he would cook up wacky promotions to make the ballpark “fun”, as he put it.  Like Grandstand Manager’s night where the fans used placards to make strategic decisions in place of the manager.  His ultimate gimmick was in 1951 when, on a the ruse of celebrating  the 50th anniversary of the American League, he had a midget named Eddie Gaedel pop out of a giant birthday cake and then proceed to take a spot in the lineup as a pinch hitter. Wearing elf-like shoes and a 1/8 as his uniform number, Gaedel walked on four straight pitches.  He was then pulled for a pinch runner and rode off into the history and was hardly heard from again. Veeck even took the "show" to the fans' living rooms, allowing home games to be televised every day.
Veeck’s showmanship worked for a while.  Browns attendance for 1952 increased dramatically during an era when baseball attendance was in a slump.  Even the play on the field improved with the Browns upping their record by 12 games on the win side and pulling themselves out of the basement.  A wheeler-dealer, Veeck acquired several future All-stars: Vic Wertz, 20-game winner Virgil Trucks, Dale Long, shortstop Billy Hunter (another future Yankees first-stringer) ... and even one Hall of Famer: Satchel Paige.
In April 1952, Veeck got just the kind of break he was looking for: Cardinals owner Fred Saigh had been indicted for tax evasion.  The Cardinals might have to be sold.  In the off-season of 1952-3, it became clear that Saigh was going to jail and that the Cardinals would have to be sold.  But no credible St. Louis-based buyer appeared.  Rumors swirled that the desperate Saigh would be selling the team to Houston interests.  It looked like Veeck might actually pull it off and get St. Louis and Sportsman’s Park all to himself.  But then, in a pique of civic pride, Saigh took less money to sell the team to Anheuser-Busch.  The era of corporate-owned baseball teams was dawning and the era of the entrepreneur-owner without an independent fortune, like Veeck, was beginning its decline.  And Veeck knew he could not compete against a corporation. In 1953 the Browns opened the season winning five of their first six games. But in June, Veeck had to sell opening day starter Trucks to the White Sox just to raise $75,000 cash. (Trucks would end up winning 20-games that season.) Then Veeck sold the whole team for cash .... to Baltimore interests, at the end of the season.  
The Baltimore owners did not keep any of Veeck’s wacky promotions, retired the whimsical elf “Louie” from the jerseys, released Satchel Paige and sold off his bullpen rocking chair, and changed the name from Browns. The Braves, Giants, Dodgers and A’s would move and keep their historic names.  But the name Browns will forever be associated with St. Louis … and baseball of a simpler era.  
1953 St. Louis A.L.
Post Script from the Author.
The "shoulda, woulda, couldas" of the Browns staying in St. Louis are legion:
  • What if the Browns had kept Christy Mathewson rather than returning him as a peace offering (and maybe the Browns win four pennants instead of the Giants)?
  • What if Branch Rickey and (the inaptly named) Phil Ball had gotten along?
  • What if George Sisler's Browns had nipped the Yankees and won the pennant in 1921, thereby winning the race to deliver St. Louis its first Worlds Series championship?
All of these could have had an influence on which St. Louis team stayed and which one moved, although they are considerably "up river" from the date of the Exodus of 1954.  

But more apropos perhaps is the near miss of Mantle and Berra. I would like to think that the St. Louis city fathers would never have allowed a team that featured home-towners Berra, Turley and Sievers, Missourian Long, plus "the Mick" (from the other side of the Oklahoma state line from Joplin, MO) in center-field, to leave town.  Then add Lasorda into the mix (Veeck wanted to keep him but could not afford the option price).  You could have had a 1950s version of the Gas House Gang! Add-in a cross-state, intra-league rivalry with the Kansas City Athletics in 1955, and the fact that the Cardinals of the 1950s were mostly dead-wood, and surely the turnstiles would have begun spinning again.  That team would have won a lot of ballgames and had a lot of fun doing it, with a fillip of local pride: "Game over? Will it be spaghetti and meatballs at the Berra house on the Hill or sauerkraut and brats at the Sievers, Mick?"