Monday, February 1, 2016

Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame the St. Louis Browns for Moving to Baltimore


The St. Louis Browns were bad. Historically bad. They existed for 52 seasons, 1902 to 1953. They won 1 American League Pennant, in 1944. They finished 2nd in 1902 (5 games behind the Philadelphia Athletics), 1922 (1 game behind the Yankees), 4th in 1908 (but just 6 1/1 behind the Detroit Tigers), 3rd in 1945 (6 behind the Tigers)... and that was pretty much it for their good seasons.

They won 93 games in '22, and 89 in their '44 Pennant season. Only 12 of their 52 seasons were winning seasons, including just 3 of their last 22 and none of their last 8; 8 times, they lost at least 100; 4 times, they lost at least 107; and in 1939, they bottomed out at 111 losses, an AL record 64 1/1 games behind the Yankees.

They didn't even get the benefit of a sports-underdog movie, like the Washington Senators got with Damn Yankees. It was said, "Washington: First in war first in peace, and last in the American League." Because of its brewing and leather industries, the Mississippi River town was "St. Louis: First in shoes, first in booze, and last in the American League."

They had Hall-of-Famers George Sisler and Bobby Wallace, but what they're most known for is 3 things: All their losing; played a one-armed man, Pete Gray, in 1945 due to World War II's manpower shortage; and team owner Bill Veeck trying anything to get fans to come out to Sportsman's Park, including sending Eddie Gaedel, a 3-foot-7 midget, up to pinch-hit in a 1951 game, drawing a 4-pitch walk and being immediately removed for a pinch-runner.

Still, they shouldn't have just up and left their loyal fans, should they? They shouldn't have just moved -- and east, no less, rather than west! Right?

Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame the St. Louis Browns for Moving to Baltimore

5. Demographics. The end of World War II should have meant that the troops would come back and resume their habit of going to games. But it also meant that they were taking advantage of the G.I. Bill, and buying houses in the suburbs.

And cars. This meant that it would be harder for fans to drive in to the city for the games. And while Sportsman's Park was on a trolley line, highway access wasn't very good: What's now Interstates 44 and 70 were the closest highways, and they weren't close.

Check out these per-game attendance figures for the St. Louis teams for the last 8 years of their coexistence, between the 1st postwar season and the last season that they were in St. Louis together:

Year Browns Cardinals
1946 6,749 13,613
1947 4,162 16,207
1948 4,330 14,434
1949 3,496 18,580
1950 3,209 14,294
1951 3,815 13,161
1952 6,694 11,859
1953 3,860 11,452

No, you're not reading that wrong: The Browns averaged three thousand, eight hundred sixty fans per home game in 1953. In 6 of their last 8 seasons, they didn't draw 5,000 a game. In none of them did they draw 7,000. The 2 St. Louis teams combined couldn't draw 16,000 a game, enough to half-fill the ballpark they shared.

And the economy was good at the time. And while the Korean War did take quite a few ballplayers (including the Yankees' Whitey Ford and Jerry Coleman, the Giants' Willie Mays and the Dodgers' Don Newcombe), it didn't take anywhere near as many men as did World War II, so that's not a viable excuse. And the Cards outdrew the Browns in every one of those seasons.

What makes it even weirder is that, until 1953, the Browns owned Sportsman's Park, which they built in 1909, while the Cardinals had been their tenants since 1920. The key year was 1917, when the Browns fired Branch Rickey as general manager and the Cards hired him. By 1926, the Browns were no longer the top team in town, and the Cards began a run of 21 seasons with 9 Pennants.

The Cards' average attendance went up in 1954, the 1st year they had the city to themselves, to 13,503, but stayed in the 11,000 to 15,000 range until the new Busch Memorial Stadium opened in 1966.

The population of St. Louis City was 857,000 in 1950, its all-time peak. Adjoining, but separate, St. Louis County had 406,000. But just 10 years later, The City was down to 750,000, while the County was up to 703,000. Today, the City's population is a little over 300,000, while the County's population is around 1 million. The combined metropolitan area has about 2.9 million. Contrast that with the 2-team markets of today: New York has over 23 million, Los Angeles over 18 million, Chicago just under 10 million, and San Francisco over 8 million.

No, St. Louis could never really support 2 Major League Baseball teams. Indeed, if the Cardinals hadn't become an iconic franchise through their radio network, long (but no longer) anchored by the powerful station KMOX, it's possible that the City might not even be able to support 1 MLB team.

4. Rivalries. St. Louis vs. Chicago is a good rivalry in baseball's National League, Cardinals vs. Cubs. It's a good one in hockey, Blues vs. Blackhawks. It could have been one in football, but NFL Cardinals vs. Bears and Rams vs. Bears never worked out. In the American League, Browns vs. White Sox was never truly a rivalry.

Ah, but Baltimore vs. Washington? That didn't last long, but, geographically, it made sense. Baltimore vs. Philadelphia? That only lasted 1 year. Baltimore vs. New York? Now, you're talking. The Orioles, not the Red Sox, are the Yankees' closest AL opponents. Baltimore vs. Boston? They're not a whole lot further apart than St. Louis and Chicago, and they've had September showdowns in a few AL Eastern Division races.

3. Ballparks. There were several stadiums named Sportsman's Park, all of them made of wooden and rickety firetraps, until a concrete-and-steel one was built in 1909. It seated 30,804 people, which wasn't enough. The access situation was bad. The parking situation was bad. And, by the 1950s, as white flight turned the North Side of St. Louis into a black neighborhood, white fans didn't feel safe going there. The Cardinals eventually lobbied for, and got, a downtown stadium. The Browns didn't have any pull with City Hall.
Probably the best-known photograph of Sportsman's Park,
renamed the 1st Busch Stadium in 1953

In contrast, Baltimore was converting its 70,000 football facility, Municipal Stadium, into a 49,000-seat (eventually 54,000-seat) baseball-and-football facility, Memorial Stadium. It would open in its multipurpose configuration in April 1954, and was one of the few stadiums designed to host both sports that did well by both sports. And it had lots of parking (by the standards of the time).
Memorial Stadium in 1966, the year of the 1st Oriole Pennant

Moving to Baltimore gave the Browns/Orioles a city all to themselves (Washington is close, but they and Baltimore are not a single market), ready to love a major league team. And it gave them an up-to-date ballpark that fans could drive to. Okay, again, the highway access wasn't good, but nobody was afraid to drive there and park there.

2. Baltimore. Charm City had been a National League powerhouse in the 1890s, and one of the most successful minor-league towns. In 1944, the year the Browns played the Cardinals in the World Series, the International League version of the Orioles attracted over 50,000 fans to Municipal Stadium (which wasn't even designed for baseball, but they had to use it because their ballpark burned down on the 4th of July that year) for the Junior World Series. Fifty thousand people paying to watch a minor-league baseball game. That was almost twice as many as the real World Series was getting.

Shortly before the Orioles arrived, the Colts did; shortly after, they became back-to-back NFL Champions. Baltimore athletes would also fill the ranks of the football and basketball teams of the University of Maryland, which won a National Championship in football in 1953; and of the basketball team at Washington's Georgetown University. Baltimore is a city that loves its sports.

If the Browns hadn't moved to Baltimore for 1954, some team would have moved there in the next few years. They had the stadium. They had the fan base. They were ready.

Of course, something like this could have happened to the Cardinals, right? After all, their attendance and their stadium and parking situations weren't too hot, either. And they nearly did move: Owner Fred Saigh was imprisoned for tax evasion, and according to MLB's rules, he had to sell the team. He came very close to selling the Cards to a group that was going to move them to Milwaukee for 1953. And Bill Veeck thought he and the Browns would soon have St. Louis all to themselves.

Instead, a new owner was found:

1. Gussie Busch. August Anheuser Busch Jr., grandson of August Anheuser and Adolphus Busch, founders of the St. Louis-based brewing company that bears their names, didn't particularly like baseball. But he liked being a bigshot, which sports team owners are. And he wanted to sell beer. Someone told him that the Cardinals were for sale, and that their radio network, which reached all over the Midwest and into the South, could be used to sell Budweiser beer. That was all Gussie needed to hear: He bought the Cardinals from Fred Saigh, and then bought Sportsman's Park from Bill Veeck.

From that day onward, the Browns were doomed, because Gussie was rich as hell, and, like Tom Yawkey of the Boston Red Sox, and later George Steinbrenner of the Yankees, he wasn't afraid to spend big for big results.

He got them quickly. Not on the field, or at the box office. But in beer sales. In 1953, Budweiser was barely in the top 10 brands. By the time the Cardinals won their next Pennant in 1964, Bud was Number 1. Radio, TV and the Cardinals were what did it.

And, along the way, Gussie became a baseball fan. Eventually, on special occasions such as Opening Day or the postseason, he would ride around the field at Busch Stadium in the famous Clydesdale-driven beer wagon, waving his feathered Cardinal-red cowboy hat to the fans. He became that rare thing in sports: An owner who was beloved. (He had some nasty flaws, but most Cardinal fans didn't care.)
Dorrel Norman Elvert Herzog and August Anheuser Busch Jr.
-- Whitey and Gussie -- celebrate a Pennant.

Veeck? He knew the game was up. He applied to the AL to move the Browns to Baltimore for 1954. But the other owners hated his guts, and they voted to let the move happen, provided Veeck sold the team to a Baltimore-based group. Ironically, it was a brewery that bought them: Gunther Brewing Company, led by Jerry Hoffberger.

It took a few years, but the results worked out well for both cities. Between 1964 and 1987, the last time the Cards reached the postseason before Gussie died, a total of 24 seasons, St. Louis won 6 Pennants and 3 World Series, and Baltimore did the same. Since the move, the Cardinals have made the postseason 17 times, the Orioles 12.
The 2006 edition of Busch Stadium.
This was never going to be the home of the St. Louis Browns.

Today, both teams are strong on the field, financially secure, more popular than ever, and playing in exciting old-looking but relatively new downtown ballparks: The 3rd Busch Stadium, and Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
Yes, the Browns/O's are better off.

Oddly, since the '44 "Trolley Series" (as opposed to "Subway Series"), the Cards and O's have never faced each other in the World Series again. The closest call was in 1996, when each lost their respective League Championship Series.

Veeck did get back into baseball, buying the Chicago White Sox in 1959, winning a Pennant. He had to sell them just 2 years later, thinking he was dying. But he was misdiagnosed, then properly diagnosed, and recovered. In 1975, he bought the ChiSox again, and brought fun back to the South Side, but not enough winning. As was the case when he owned the Browns, he just didn't have the money to compete, and sold the Pale Hose in 1980.

Both the Cards in St. Louis, and the O's in Baltimore, have had their ups and downs since 1953. But the move worked out well for both teams. And while there is, to this day, 62 years after the move, a St. Louis Browns Historical Society, it's hard to argue that the franchise, or the City of St. Louis, would have been better off if the Cards had moved instead, and the Browns had stayed -- or if Veeck had tried to make a go of it there anyway.

VERDICT: Not Guilty.

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