St. Louis Browns players and owner Donald Lee Barnes celebrate the team’s lone American League pennant in 1944. [Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis, Photographs and Prints Collection, N45028]
Sportsman’s Park, circa 1937. [State Historical Society of Missouri, Charles Trefts Photograph Collection, P0034-1785]
A promotional sticker for the Browns, date unknown. [Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis, Baseball and Sports Collection, 1867–2002, A0090-00042]
George Sisler (left) with fellow all-time greats Babe Ruth (center) and Ty Cobb (right), 1924. [Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-103759]
Browns outfielder Pete Gray. [Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis, Photographs and Prints Collection, N20475]
Eddie Gaedel, the shortest player in major-league history. [Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis, Photographs and Prints Collection, N20472]
Satchel Paige awaits his manager’s call to the bullpen, 1952. [Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis, Photographs and Prints Collection, N22475]
An unidentified Browns player, circa 1950. [State Historical Society of Missouri, Arthur Witman Photographic Prints Collection, S0836-256]

The St. Louis Browns were a professional baseball team that played in the American League from 1902 until 1953. Their home games were played in Sportsman’s Park at 2911 North Grand Boulevard, which also served as the home field for the National League Cardinals. The Browns are best remembered by baseball fans today as being one of the most consistently bad teams in major-league history and for fielding a number of unique players, such as one-armed outfielder Pete Gray and dwarf pinch-hitter Eddie Gaedel. The Browns won the American League pennant once, in 1944, but never won a World Series championship. Since 1954 they have played in Maryland as the Baltimore Orioles.

 

Beginnings

            Casual sports fans might be confused by other early St. Louis teams and stadiums known as the Browns and Sportsman’s Park. The first professional team in St. Louis was organized in 1875 as the Brown Stockings, later simply the Browns. This team played at the original Sportsman’s Park, at the same location as the later Browns’ facility. In the 1880s these Browns won four American Association championships and twice defeated teams from the National League in contests that were forerunners to the modern World Series. The two leagues combined in 1892 to form a larger National League, and by 1900 the old Browns had moved to a new ballpark and changed their name to the Cardinals. When the American League formed in 1901, one of its franchises was in Milwaukee, but this team moved to St. Louis prior to the 1902 season, the club name was changed to the Browns, and a new Sportsman’s Park was built on the site of the old one.

 

The Robert Hedges Era

            Missouri native and carriage mogul Robert “Colonel Bob” Hedges was the man responsible for bringing the American League Browns to St. Louis. After purchasing the team and moving it from Milwaukee, Hedges, who had anticipated the ascent of automobiles and sold his carriage manufacturing business in 1900, invested first in constructing a new wooden grandstand on the site of the old Sportsman’s Park before play began in 1902; he subsequently built one of baseball’s first concrete-and-steel stadiums on the same property in 1909. This ballpark not only was the Browns’ home for the remainder if their time in St. Louis but also served as the home field for the crosstown Cardinals from 1920 until 1966, when it was replaced by Busch Memorial Stadium downtown.

            Hedges brought a number of innovations to the game, including the first electric scoreboard, first public address announcer, and first canvas tarp used to cover the infield during rain delays. He immediately set out to make his club competitive and to lure customers away from the more-established Cardinals. Cleaning up and rebuilding the dilapidated ballpark was a first step. Hedges also instituted promotions such as Lady’s Day to expand his potential fan base and worked to turn the ballpark experience into a more family-friendly middle-class outing by clamping down on drinking, gambling, and what was commonly referred to as “rowdyism.”

            Hedges soon realized that a quick way to build a winning club with a loyal fan base was by pirating some of the Cardinals’ best players. Outfielder Jesse Burkett and shortstop Bobby Wallace, two future Hall of Famers, were soon lured away with better salaries. In 1903 the American and National Leagues reached an understanding respecting each other’s contracts, but until then jumping leagues was a common practice, often leading to bidding wars for top players. At first, Hedges’s plan was successful. The 1902 squad finished 98–78, in second place behind the Philadelphia Athletics, and outdrew the Cardinals. This would be the high point for the Hedges era, however. The team had only three other winning seasons during his ownership and failed to finish as high in the standings again for the next twenty years. The Browns became a mediocre team, with former stars nearing the end of their careers filling out the roster more as gate attractions than as competitive ballplayers.

The most important signing during Hedges’s tenure was of a backup catcher and utility fielder out of Ohio Wesleyan named Branch Rickey. A subpar player, Rickey fared much better during a fifty-year career as a baseball executive that began with the Browns in 1914. Among Rickey’s early experiments were creating a “farm system” of minor-league teams dedicated to producing talent for the parent big-league club and holding a mandatory spring training for his players in a region with a warm climate. Both would be quickly adopted by most other major-league teams. Under Rickey’s guidance, the Browns improved over the next few seasons on the field and at the gate.

 

The Phil Ball Era

Following the 1915 season, Hedges sold the Browns to Phil Ball, a St. Louis refrigerator magnate, reportedly turning a $400,000 profit on the sale and thus becoming the only Browns owner ever to make money on the team. New owner Ball almost immediately began to make poor decisions. The first was letting Rickey leave (or pushing him out, depending on the account). During their first meeting, the hard-drinking Ball is reported to have greeted the teetotaler Rickey by saying, “So you’re the goddamned prohibitionist?” Their relationship deteriorated from there. Rickey was fired as field manager but remained in the front office. When Rickey was offered a position as the Cardinals’ general manager at the end of the 1916 season, Ball objected after having previously given his blessing and threatened to take action in the press, leading to a falling out between the two men. Under Rickey’s guidance, the Cardinals turned into one of baseball’s best teams in the 1920s and remained at or near the top of the National League for the next two decades. The Browns were overshadowed by their crosstown rivals.

The best player in the Browns’ history was almost certainly first baseman George Sisler. Signed by Rickey in 1915, Sisler had a Hall of Fame career over the next fifteen seasons, twelve of which were spent with the Browns. He held a lifetime .340 batting average and won league batting titles with a .407 average in 1920 and a .420 mark in 1922. His 257 hits during the 1920 season remained a major-league record until 2004. However, at the pinnacle of his career, Sisler missed the entire 1923 season due to an eye infection that caused him to suffer from double vision. He mounted a comeback the following year and eventually played another effective seven seasons, but never regained his pre-illness form. Retiring as a player in 1930, Sisler was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939 and now has a statue outside of the current Busch Stadium, the only Brown represented among the many great Cardinals players.

 Led by Sisler, 24-game winner Urban Shocker, and American League home-run champion Ken Williams, the Browns had one of their best seasons in 1922, notching 93 victories and finishing just one game behind Babe Ruth and the first-place New York Yankees. Their days as contenders, however, were numbered. Failing to invest in the farm system started by Rickey, the Browns fell into a vicious cycle of bad teams that attracted little public attention, drew few fans, and made little money to spend on better players. The team’s best gate attractions tended to be Hall of Fame players in the declining seasons of their careers, including former Cardinals Rogers Hornsby and Jim Bottomley. When the Great Depression arrived at the end of the decade, it hit the Browns particularly hard. Attendance declined precipitously, bottoming out at 80,922—an average of just 1,050 fans per game—in 1935. The team hit rock bottom and stayed there.

 

The Barnes, Muckerman, and DeWitt Era

When Ball died in 1933, no one wanted to buy the team. It was managed through a receiver for three seasons until Cardinals team treasurer and Rickey protégé Bill DeWitt Sr. and his father-in-law, investment banker Donald Lee Barnes, purchased a majority interest in 1936, with DeWitt serving as the club’s general manager. In an effort to raise capital and increase fan interest in the team, stock in the club was offered to the public for just five dollars per share. This generated local interest and raised a considerable amount of revenue, but spreading team ownership over thousands of individuals would cause headaches for later owners trying to consolidate control of the team. The last shares were not bought back until 1976, when the club had already been in Baltimore for more than twenty years.

With hard economic times and the Cardinals fielding more competitive teams through the 1930s and early 1940s, attendance for the hapless Browns continued to plummet. One game in 1933 drew precisely thirty-four paying fans, a record for lowest official attendance that stood until a game was played in 2015 at which no fans were admitted due to civil unrest nearby. By the end of the 1941 season, DeWitt and Barnes were ready to move the club to Los Angeles and had obtained informal permission from the American League to relocate. A formal vote was on the league owners’ meeting agenda for the morning of December 8, but the shock of the attack on Pearl Harbor the previous day, and the anticipation that travel restrictions would be imposed with the nation now at war, rendered the issue moot. The Browns were consigned to remain in St. Louis.

            Somewhat ironically, the team then had its greatest success during the depths of World War II. The wartime draft gutted the rosters of most teams, but not the Browns, who were compiled mostly of castoffs from other teams and players nearing the end of their careers. Most of the Browns were ineligible for the draft because they were either too old or designated 4F from previous injuries. Of the 340 major-league players drafted during 1943 and 1944, only one was from the Browns.

            The 1944 season was the team’s high-water mark. They finished with an 85-69 record, the lowest winning percentage of any American League pennant winner at that time, and advanced to play the Cardinals in the World Series. In the last World Series ever played entirely in one stadium, the Cardinals prevailed, four games to two. With most rosters still depleted by the military in 1945, the Browns managed another winning record the following season but were unable to defend their league pennant. In the postwar years they quickly reverted to their accustomed place in the American League’s second division as star players returned from military service to rejoin other teams.

            Following the 1944 season, Richard Muckerman, a minority shareholder, bought the majority interest from Barnes, with DeWitt staying on as general manager and owning a minority interest. Muckerman’s first season as majority owner witnessed what at first glance was one of the oddest, most eccentric, and downright bizarre events in the team’s history: the Browns added a one-armed center fielder to the 1945 club. The real story, however, is not as weird as it would seem. Pete Gray was severely injured in a car accident as a boy, resulting in his right arm being amputated at the elbow. He grew up playing baseball in sandlots, learning to both catch and throw using his left arm, and became a local standout. Minor-league owners were understandably cautious about signing him, but as the military draft continued to decimate club rosters in both the major and minor leagues, spots started to open up for him, and he was able to demonstrate his clear abilities. In 1944 he was the MVP of the AA Southern League, batting .333 and leading the league with 68 stolen bases. Any player putting up those numbers in the high minors, especially given the shortage of players during the war years, would likely have been given a shot on a big-league club. While Gray started the season well, fielders quickly learned how to play him, and given his physical limitations, he was unable to adjust his batting style to compensate. He finished the season, and his major-league career, playing 77 games and batting .218. Gray played several more productive seasons, however, in the minor leagues.

            The postwar Browns had little in the way of a radio network, and what they did have was far smaller than the Cardinals’ network. They did have quite a color man, though, in Dizzy Dean. One afternoon during the 1947 season, the Hall of Fame pitcher and Browns broadcaster was strongly endorsing the station’s sponsor, the Falstaff Brewing Corporation, when he lamented at length over the air how bad the Browns’ pitching was and lectured on how he could do better. Management, being always open to an attraction, signed him as a pitcher nearly a decade after he had last played in a major-league game. Dean threw four scoreless innings before going back into retirement. His performance did little to raise the Browns’ prospects.

 

The Bill Veeck Era

            Having exhausted all available capital and with no sign that better days were coming for the Browns, DeWitt decided to sell the controlling share of the club midway through the 1951 season to Bill Veeck, a former owner of the Cleveland Indians and teams in the minor leagues. Veeck brought to St. Louis a deep knowledge of the game, an almost singular talent for promotions, and a penchant for angering other team owners. It was this last quality that would finally drive the Browns out of St. Louis for good.

Veeck came to St. Louis with a plan. He was convinced that the city was no longer big enough for two big-league clubs, and that the rapid postwar growth of cities on the West Coast and in the Sun Belt had created new markets that major-league baseball would inevitably court. Knowing the Browns’ performance was unlikely to improve dramatically in the near term, Veeck planned to use showmanship and promotions to increase his club’s attendance at the expense of the Cardinals and gradually push the National Leaguers toward one of the many cities clamoring for a franchise. For a while, the Cardinals’ ownership seemed happy to oblige, as rumors of financial troubles circulated.

Veeck soon engaged in a series of stunts that put the Browns back in the public eye. The most memorable was recruiting Eddie Gaedel, a 3’7” performer, to pinch-hit during a doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers in 1951. Donning a uniform with the number 1/8, Gaedel presented an impossibly small strike zone and unsurprisingly walked on four pitches. The American League voided Gaedel’s contract the next day. Later that season, Veeck also staged Grandstand Managers Night, in which some four thousand fans were seated in a special section and given signs saying “yes” on one side and “no” on the other. They effectively replaced the Browns’ manager, using their cards to vote on the starting lineup and to make in-game decisions. The Browns won the game against the Philadelphia Athletics, 3–2, with A’s owner-manager Connie Mack sitting in the stands and voting for plays against his own team. Another Veeck move was to bring in American folk legend and former Negro Leagues star Satchel Paige as a relief pitcher for the Browns. Ancient for a baseball player, Paige nevertheless pitched effectively for the Browns for three seasons and made two All-Star game appearances. Veeck played up the marketing angle: Paige usually sat in the bullpen on a rocking chair with a blanket across his lap while waiting to be called into the game.

Through the 1952 season, Veeck’s plan appeared to be working: despite continuing to lose, the team’s attendance increased by about 300,000 fans while the Cardinals’ dropped by around the same number. The battle for the hearts of St. Louis baseball fans seemed to be breaking Veeck’s way, especially after Cardinals owner Fred Saigh, convicted of felony tax evasion, was forced to sell his club at the end of the season. It seemed certain that the Cardinals would be purchased by a consortium of businessmen in Houston and moved to Texas, but at the eleventh hour Anheuser-Busch owner Augustus “Auggie” Busch bought the team and vowed to keep it in St. Louis. Knowing he could not compete with the financial resources of the country’s largest brewery, Veeck began to make plans to move the Browns. Late in the 1953 season, he thought the American League would agree to let him move the team from St. Louis, but a majority of the other owners, piqued by his showmanship and what they considered his lack of respect for the game, voted him down. A Yankee shareholder allegedly told Veeck, “We’re going to keep you in St. Louis and bankrupt you, then we’ll decide where the franchise is going to go.” Out of options, Veeck sold the club to a group based in Baltimore, and in 1954 the team began play as the Orioles. With the Browns’ departure, the Cardinals were left in sole possession of major-league baseball in St. Louis.

Further Reading

Borst, Bill, Bill Rogers, and Ed Wheatley. St. Louis Browns: The Story of a Beloved Team. St. Louis: Reedy Press, 2017.

Golenbock, Peter. The Spirit of St. Louis: A History of the St. Louis Cardinals and Browns. New York: HarperCollins, 2000.

Huhn, Rick. The Sizzler: George Sisler, Baseball’s Forgotten Great. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2004.

Kashatus, William C. One-Armed Wonder: Pete Gray, Wartime Baseball, and the American Dream. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1995.

Mead, William. Even the Browns: Baseball during World War II. Chicago: Dover Publications, 1978.

Veeck, Bill, with Ed Linn. Veeck as in Wreck: The Autobiography of Bill Veeck. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Wolf, Gregory H., ed. Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis: Home of the Browns and Cardinals at Grand and Dodier. Phoenix: Society of American Baseball Research, Inc., 2017.

Published September 16, 2021; Last updated September 29, 2021

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