Brooklyn notwithstanding, some sports teams are so renowned that the possibility of their forsaking their home town is inconceivable. Certainly one such team is the St. Louis Cardinals. Imagine, if you can, the Cardinals forsaking the Mound City and henceforth being referred to as… what? The Las Vegas Cardinals? The Buffalo Cardinals? The Orlando Cardinals? How about the Houston Cardinals?
Whoa, podnuh (as Dizzy Dean might have said)! Houston already has a team, you say? As vast as metropolitan Houston is in the year 2012, surely it isn’t big enough for a second team? No, it isn’t, but in the early 1950s, many Bayou City bigwigs though they were ready for their first major league team, and the St. Louis Cardinals were a troubled franchise in a two-team city.
The St. Louis Cardinals troubled? Yes, there was a real possibility that the Cardinals would head south and leave St. Louis to the Browns. But everyone knows the St. Louis Browns were a bunch of humpty-dumpties, so how could they ever drive the Cardinals out of town? Well, before we explore that possibility, let’s set the stage with a quick recap of St. Louis baseball history up to that point.
Today it seems obvious that St. Louis could never be a two-team city, but in the late 19th century, St. Louis was one of the five biggest cities in the United States and the growth rate showed no signs of slowing down. That potential was what lured the last-place Milwaukee Brewers to St. Louis following the American League’s inaugural season of 1901. This was the last MLB franchise shift until 1953, when the erstwhile Boston Braves brought major league ball back to Milwaukee. Certainly the nickname Brewers wouldn’t have been out of place in St. Louis, but the franchise adopted the abandoned 19th century nickname of Browns.
The original Browns (a shortened version of Brown Stockings) were actually the predecessors of the Cardinals, but the continuity was somewhat ragged. From 1876, there were various American Association and National League franchises in St. Louis. The glory years were in the 1880s, when the Browns won four straight pennants. But the franchise was threadbare by1898, when a ballpark fire resulted in hundreds of injuries and no small number of lawsuits.
When the team was purchased out of bankruptcy, the new owners, Frank and Stanley Robison, gutted the roster of the Cleveland Spiders, another team they owned, and brought the best players to St. Louis. The franchise nickname was changed to the Perfectos (perhaps as a kind of friendly one-upmanship vis-à-vis the Brooklyn franchise, which had adopted the name Superbas). The team record was hardly perfect, but it was a huge upgrade (84-67) over the year before (39-111).
In 1900 the Perfectos, whose primary team color was now red, formally adopted the enduring nickname of Cardinals. The post-1901 American League Browns were always known by that nickname, though from 1906-1908, there was an unsuccessful attempt to change the nickname to the Ravens.
So we can establish that the Cardinals had a head start but it didn’t count for much after the Browns hit town. The newby Browns immediately raided the Cardinals’ roster (a common practice in the late 19th century and opening years of the 20th century), spiriting off their best players, including future Hall-of-Famers Bobby Wallace and Jesse Burkett. With that infusion of talent, the Browns seriously contended in 1902 before finishing second.
After that impressive debut, it was all downhill. Owner Robert Lee Hedges was nicknamed Tail-End Bob, but that only tells half the story. True, the Browns’ record was dismal during his ownership (till 1915), but they were profitable. Hedges, however, devoted the money to improving the ballpark, not the roster.
The Cardinals, meanwhile, weren’t exactly lighting up the National League. They didn’t finish above .500 till 1914. In fact, the only historically significant franchise highlight of the early years of the 20th century was in the front office: The Cardinals were the first franchise to be owned by a woman, Helene Robison Britton, who inherited the team from her uncle, Stanley Robison, in 1911 and was in charge till 1916.
The competition between the two teams intensified in 1920, when both the Cardinals and the Browns occupied Sportsman’s Park. From that point on, the competition was almost like a controlled experiment, as neither team had an advantage in terms of facility or location. For better or worse, there was no territorial rivalry, such as the North Side/South Side split in Chicago, or the Bronx/Manhattan/Brooklyn borough rivalry in New York. To be sure, there were differences in the attractiveness of the visiting National and American League teams, but for the most part, the popularity of the home team was a reflection of its fortunes on the field.
While this two-team competition covers roughly the first half of the 20th century, that 50-year-plus period can be divided into two eras of roughly equal duration. During the first quarter of the 20th century, both teams were also-rans. Each team finished last five times through 1918. Neither team was a big draw, but the Browns were profitable and held a modest edge in attendance.
The early 1920s supplied some entertainment, as two of the greatest hitters of all-time, Rogers Hornsby of the Cardinals and George Sisler of the Browns (who seriously contended in 1922), were in their prime. In 1922, Sisler won the AL batting crown at .401 while Hornsby, won the NL title with .424, the only season both batting champions were above .400, and the only time both batting champions played their home games in the same ballpark. (The 1922 season also marked the debut of the famed Cardinal uniform logo, the two redbirds perched on a baseball bat.)
Nevertheless, for the first quarter of the 20th century, there were no pennants fluttering above the grandstands of any ballparks in St. Louis. As sportswriter Bob Broeg characterized this era, “You never knew what the two teams would do, except that it wouldn’t work.”
In 1919, the year before the Cardinals moved in with the Browns, their fortunes were at a low ebb. In fact, the Cardinals were so poor…
How poor were they?
They were so poor…
They held spring training in St. Louis because they had no money to travel to warmer climes.
They were so poor…
They did not purchase new uniforms but just patched up the old uniforms from the previous season.
They were so poor…
They had to sell their ballpark to the city to pay off their debts.
This sale of Cardinal Field (formerly known as Robison Field, it was just six blocks from Sportsman’s Park) was actually a boon to the franchise, even if it may not have seemed like it at the time. After the debts were paid, the remaining proceeds were used to initiate Branch Rickey’s famed farm system. By leasing Sportsman’s Park, the Cardinals could finally play their home games in a modern concrete-and-steel facility. It was far superior to Cardinal Field, the last of the old wooden firetrap ballparks, and it was about to get better. The Browns, encouraged by their 1922 season (the attendance of 712,918 was their best to date and was never bettered), doubled the seating capacity of the park in 1925.
An interesting sidelight to the years preceding this era was the short-lived Federal League, which placed a team, the Terriers, in St. Louis, so the city had three teams for the 1914 and 1915 seasons. The Federal League didn’t last long, but it did have some long-lasting effects. The best known is Chicago’s Wrigley Field, which was actually built for the Federal League Chicago franchise. Another was the purchase of the Browns by Phil Ball, ice house magnate and former owner of the Terriers. This seemingly insignificant change of ownership had one very significant ramification.
Branch Rickey had served with the Browns as a player, a manager, and a front office executive. He did not get along with Phil Ball and went to work for the Cardinals. Rickey’s job change arguably had a greater effect on the subsequent fortunes of the two St. Louis franchises than any other event, though only a gifted psychic could have foreseen the implications.
With the Cardinals, Rickey was no great shakes as a field manager, but his establishment of a farm system and his other front office dealings began to bear fruit in the 1920s. He was replaced as field manager in mid-season 1925 in favor of a player-manager, Rogers Hornsby, and local baseball fans started to shift more and more attention towards the Cardinals.
In 1926, the Cardinals won the pennant and World Series, defeating the New York Yankees in seven games, highlighted by Grover Cleveland Alexander’s legendary relief appearance in the final contest, which ended in puzzling fashion with Babe Ruth being thrown out on an attempted steal.
While the Browns enjoyed a modest advantage during the first quarter of the 20th century, the Cardinals were hands-down victors in the second quarter battle for the hearts and minds of St. Louis baseball fans. The Cardinals won additional pennants in 1928, 1930, 1931, 1934, 1942, 1943, 1944, and 1946 (with additional World Series titles in 1931, 1934, 1942, 1944, and 1946)—a record of excellence surpassed only by the Yankees. From 1926 to 1946, it was all Cardinals at Sportsman’s Park, save for 1944 when the Browns won their only pennant (fittingly, no one on the roster had World Series experience).
In 1944, the Browns won the first nine games of the season, but aside from that, they didn’t really blow away the competition. Their big advantage was their roster, which was barely affected by the military draft (they had 18 players with 4F classifications). In typical Brownie fashion, they didn’t win the pennant till the last game of the season, and even then they had the lowest winning percentage (.578, reflecting a record of 89-65) of any American League pennant winner to that date.
This was the only season from 1926 through their last season in St. Louis that the Browns actually drew more fans than the Cardinals (508,664 to 461,968), though they didn’t overtake the Cards till the last weekend of the season.. It was fun while it lasted, but the World Series re-affirmed the Browns’ second-class status—at least in St. Louis, if not in the American League—as they lost to the Cardinals in six games.
The years immediately after World War II were as cruel to the Browns as the years immediately before the war. From 1946 to 1953, they finished last or next to last, surging to sixth place just once in 1948. Not to be outdone by the “First in War, First in Peace…” mantra in Washington, the Browns had one of their own: “First in shoes, first in booze, last in the American League.” A sad refrain, indeed especially when one considers that we don’t make shoes in the USA any more.
Now there’s no point in wallowing in Brownie underachievement factoids, but a few should be admitted as evidence just to illustrate the discrepancy between the two franchises. For example, the lowest season attendance in MLB during the 20th century occurred in 1935 when the Browns attracted a total of 80,922 fans. That’s an average of barely more than 1,000 people per game.
Two years before that, their Texas League affiliate in San Antonio surpassed their attendance by more than 20,000. I don’t think we can put all the blame on the Great Depression for these dismal showings. Second division finishes were second nature to the Browns during the 1930s. Total attendance for the decade failed to reach a million.
During their entire tenure in St. Louis, the Browns finished last 10 times; they only finished above .500 seven times; and only once (1922) did the team win as many as 90 games. Eight times the team lost 100 games—a stigmatic status today, but even worse during the first half of the 20th century, as this was when the 154-game season represented eight fewer potential losses than contemporary teams have.
As early as the 1920s, doubts were arising about the future of two-team baseball in St. Louis. The Depression, of course, was not a propitious time for franchise shifts. Even so, the Browns had quietly made plans to move to Los Angeles. The done deal was undone by the date selected for American League owners to vote their approval: December 8, 1941.
Now if one is given to pondering whether or not certain franchises are jinxed, this incident might offer convincing proof regarding the Browns. For the few fervent fans of the St. Louis Browns, however, December 7, 1941 was not necessarily a day that would live in infamy, as it postponed the Browns’ departure, not to mention the arrival of major league baseball in Southern California.
Given their legacy of scant success on the field and sparse fan support, one would think the Browns had very little leverage in this two-team death match at mid-20th century. But the Cardinals’ fortunes were deteriorating, though they hadn’t melted down to the status of the Browns. Changes in the Cardinals’ won-lost records were a reflection of changes in the front office.
Branch Rickey’s contract with the Cardinals had expired at the end of the 1942 season. He had been with the franchise since 1919. A year later, Sam Breadon, who made his money in automobile dealerships, became majority stockholder. Thus Breadon was Rickey’s boss for more than two decades. Despite Rickey’s many contributions to the Cardinals’ success, Breadon became embarrassed by some of Rickey’s farm system chicanery, which resulted in 100 Cardinal farmhands becoming free agents, courtesy of a ruling form Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis.
The Cardinals still had enough momentum to keep them going through the war, but Rickey took his front office acumen to the Dodgers, where he proceeded to sign up as much youthful (i.e., not old enough for conscription) talent as possible, while simultaneously scouting Negro League talent. Since his predecessor, Larry MacPhail, had left the Brooklyn franchise in pretty good shape before the war, Rickey’s task was nowhere near as difficult as it was when he went to work for the Cardinals.
As a result, the 1946 season marked a changing of the guard, as the Dodgers and Cardinals tied for the pennant. Though the Cardinals won the one-game playoff, this was their last pennant till 1964. Meanwhile, the Dodgers became the dominant team in the National League over the next decade, winning pennants in 1947, 1949, 1952. 1953, 1955, and 1956, and losing the 1950 pennant to the Phillies on the last day of the season, and the 1951 pennant to the Giants in the famous playoff series climaxed by Bobby Thomson’s home run.
Three months before Thomson’s renowned clout, Bill Veeck purchased the Browns. To assert that the Browns were at their lowest ebb would be questionable, as they experienced many low points during their existence. At any rate, when Veeck took control, the Browns were 23½ games out of first place. This was hardly shocking to Browns’ fans. Expectations were low. After all, the year before, they had suffered a doubleheader loss by scores of 20-4 and 29-4. As sportswriter John Lardner (son of Ring, if you’re wondering) noted, “Many critics were surprised to know that the Browns could be bought because they didn’t know the Browns were owned.”
The post-war Browns were so bad that 37-year-old Dizzy Dean, the team’s broadcaster, boasted he could don a Browns uniform and do better than nine of the ten Browns’ pitchers (though he didn’t mention any names, my guess is the only pitcher he approved of was lefthander Sam Zoldak, who finished the season at 9-10 with a 3.47 ERA). On September 28, 1947 (the 17th anniversary of his MLB debut), Dean was as good as his word, as he pitched four scoreless innings against the White Sox in the last game of the season. It was his first appearance on a major league mound in six years, and had he not pulled a muscle while running the bases, there’s no telling how long he could have gone.
Yes, the Browns were that bad, but the Cardinals were not on easy street. Veeck knew that one team was going to move and he had already unpacked his bags—indeed his apartment was inside Sportsman’s Park. So what gave Veeck the idea he had the upper hand? For one thing, the Browns still owned Sportsman’s Park and the Cardinals were still tenants.
One may well wonder why the Browns never evicted the Cardinals by simply allowing their lease to expire. One reason is that the Browns needed the rent money. Six straight months of baseball with few off days took its toll on the playing field, but otherwise the Cardinals’ tenancy was not a big burden.
At the same time, one may wonder why the Cardinals never built their own park. For one thing, Sportsman’s Park suited their needs and was more or less comparable to other major league ballparks at the time. For another, the great concrete-and-steel building boom of classic ballparks was over. No new major league baseball parks were built after Yankee Stadium opened in 1923. A semi-exception is Cleveland, where the city constructed mammoth, multi-purpose Municipal Stadium in an unsuccessful attempt to attract the 1932 Olympic games. The Indians, however, did not totally abandon their “classic” concrete and steel League Park until after the 1946 season.
In 1909, the Browns opened their concrete and steel version of Sportsman’s Park (baseball games had been played at the North Grand Avenue site since 1866). Much like the Polo Grounds in New York, there were different ballparks, with different configurations and footprints over the years.
When the Cardinals moved in, on July 1, 1920, it marked the beginning of a 34-season dual occupancy, the longest at any major league ballpark, roughly twice the duration of the Phillies and A’s (1938-1954) at Shibe Park/Connie Mack Stadium (as in St. Louis, the original home team was the team that ended up leaving town). And if you’re keeping score, third place belongs to the Yankees and Giants, who shared the Polo Grounds from 1913 through 1922.
In those pre-public funding days, ball clubs built their own homes, so if the Cardinals were to have their own home, they would have to do it on their own dime. Since Rickey’s contract called for him to receive a percentage of the profits, he would be the last man in St. Louis to encourage owner Breadon—hardly a spendthrift himself—to spring for new digs. Given the Depression and World War II, a new home for the Cardinals was just not on the front burner, though Breadon had quietly did some preliminary homework on the matter and even set aside some funds.
After Veeck took over the Browns, he immediately started redecorating Sportsman’s Park to make sure the fans knew it was the home of the Browns and they just let the Cardinals play there. But Veeck understood the PR value of beloved former Cardinals. So he hired Rogers Hornsby as his manager for the 1952 season, then hired Marty Marion, who had been fired as Cardinals manager, as a player-manager after Hornsby didn’t work out. He also brought in pitcher Harry Brecheen as a player-coach, and re-hired Dizzy Dean, who had been working for the Yankees, as a radio broadcaster.
Could Bill Veeck actually pull it off? Well, the results on the field were not stellar (64-90, good for 7th place), but the 1952 attendance figures, reflecting Veeck’s first full season, were encouraging. On April 20th, the Browns drew a crowd of 27,910 for a doubleheader with the White Sox. This was the largest regular season crowd since the last game of their 1944 pennant season.
True, the Browns were last in the American League with 518,796, but that was almost double their 1951 total, and their best showing since 1944. At the same time, some of Veeck’s most memorable stunts, such as the Eddie Gaedel incident and the fans voting on managerial decisions, occurred during his brief ownership of the Browns.
Clearly, Veeck wanted to position the Browns as the underdog upstart team in St. Louis and the Cardinals as the stuffed-shirt establishment team, not unlike the branding of the Mets and Yankees in New York during the 1960s. Veeck’s strategy seemed to be working. It appeared the tide was starting to turn… but then it went out again.
By the time Veeck bought the Browns, longtime Cardinal owner Sam Breadon had sold his team. Breadon was fighting prostate cancer and wanted to dispose of the team personally, not to have it disposed as part of his estate. Also, he was worried about $5 million he had set aside for a ballpark fund. He was nearing the end of a five-year deadline to build the ballpark or declare the money as income, and he still hadn’t settled on a site.
The new majority owner, Fred Saigh (pronounced Sigh) was an attorney and real estate investor, who assured Breadon he would have no tax liability if he sold the team. Saigh’s partner, Robert Hannegan, a minority owner, was a highly connected politico, having been a U.S. Senator from Missouri, the head of the Internal Revenue Service, the head of the Democratic National Committee, and at the time of the Cardinals’ sale, the Postmaster General. Of course, having the ear of Harry Truman, a Missouri politician who had ascended to the highest office in the land, was another plus for Hannegan.
Breadon had presided over the Cardinals during their best seasons, so when he sold the team, it was indeed the end of an era. Saigh was surely interested in long-term ownership but fate had other plans. As it turned out Saigh’s tenure from 1948 to 1953 was little more than a hyphen between the Breadon (27 years) and Gussie Busch (36 years) regimes.
Saigh had no background in baseball, other than being an ardent Cardinal fan. Veeck sensed a vulnerability and exploited it, harassing Saigh and the Cardinals in a number of petty incidents. He didn’t do anything illegal, he merely exercised his authority as a landlord. Then along came the knockout punch—but it wasn’t delivered by Veeck but to him.
Fred Saigh’s minority partner, Robert Hannegan, became sick and died in 1949. Saigh was then solely in charge and found that the Internal Revenue Service had put him under the microscope. The investigation appeared to center around what could or couldn’t be considered income. The harassment of Saigh appears to be largely political, due to the fact that his late partner had made enemies at the IRS and there were other tax crackdowns centered in the St. Louis area at the time. It was too late to get back at Hannegan, so they did the next best (or worst) thing and went after Saigh and other influential cronies in St. Louis.
The IRS eventually charged Saigh with income tax evasion, but he was assured that if he pled nolo contendre, he would be fined but would not have to serve any jail time. So he pled no contest to two counts involving $19,000 in unpaid taxes. As an attorney, Saigh certainly should have known better. In the words of Samuel Goldwyn, Hollywood’s answer to Yogi Berra, “A verbal agreement isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.”
Even though Saigh had friends in high places (including the White House), the judge gave him a 15-month sentence, of which he served five months before being paroled for good behavior. Of course, if the prosecution was politically-motivated, then he might have been targeted because of, and not in spite of, his political connections. It certainly wasn’t the first or last time the Internal Revenue Service was deployed for political purposes.
Saigh was wealthy enough that he could have paid the fine, done the jail time and returned to the Cardinals, but he agreed with Ford Frick that it was not good for the team to be owned by a jailbird, no matter how dubious the circumstances of his incarceration. So he put the team up for sale.
Despite the Cardinals’ many successful National League seasons, no one in St. Louis stepped forward with an offer. There were interested buyers, however, in Milwaukee and Houston. The Milwaukee offer was turned down by National League owners because Lou Perini, owner of the Boston Braves, already had territorial rights there and was obviously on the brink of moving his team. His 1949 attempt to move the Braves to Baltimore had fallen through but clearly revealed his intentions.
Houston, however, had interested buyers with serious bids. Houston was growing quickly and the metro area was arguably of major league status. Thanks to the Cardinals’ extensive radio network (far superior to that of the Browns), they had plenty of fans in Texas. The Houston Buffs of the Texas League had long been a successful Cardinal affiliate. As Fred Saigh had noted, the Texas license plates on parked cars around Sportsman’s Park on game day was a fairly accurate indicator of the team’s popularity south of the Red River.
If the Cardinals were going to move anywhere, Houston appeared to be a good choice. It would seem the only problem confronting National League owners would have been to pick which of the two Houston offers was better—had Gussie Busch and Anheuser-Busch not come along.
Gussie Busch was a beer man. He came from a family of beer men. He was not interested in owning a baseball team. But when a couple of local bankers took him aside and showed him how he could use the Cardinals to promote his beer, while using his beer to promote the Cardinals, he had a change of heart.
Fred Saigh, who wanted to keep the Cardinals in St. Louis, accepted the Anheuser-Busch offer of $3.75 million. This was about $750,000 less than the better offer from Houston, but Saigh felt strongly enough about keeping his beloved Cardinals in his hometown that he was willing to take the lesser offer. $750,000 was a tidy sum in 1953, and even today it isn’t chump change.
That Saigh was willing to forego that amount of money out of civic-mindedness created a spiritual debt that Cardinal fans could never repay. Author Peter Golenbock asserted the city should have built a statue for him. If he was willing to take a $750,000 haircut, it certainly calls into question his wrongdoing for a relatively piddling amount of money. He could have taken the highest bid, regardless of where it came from, but he couldn’t turn his back on his hometown. After all, his enemies were in Washington, not St. Louis.
But don’t feel too sorry for Fred Saigh. After he accepted the Anheuser-Busch offer, he felt that Budweiser sales would skyrocket. So he bought 28,000 shares of Anheuser-Busch stock, which grew to 1,089,000 shares by the time he died. He was the largest stockholder outside the Busch family. When he died in 2008 at the age of 94, he was worth half a billion dollars. $70 million from his estate went towards the establishment of the Fred Saigh Foundation, devoted to children’s education and health care in St. Louis.
Once the Anheuser-Busch deal was announced, Veeck knew he had lost the battle, so he immediately started looking into moving the Browns. Never mind that attendance was up by 300,000 in 1952 while the Cardinals went down by roughly the same amount. There was no way Veeck could compete with the resources of Anheuser-Busch. At the time, it wasn’t the biggest brewery in the national market, but as the years of Cardinal sponsorship rolled by, they became so.
Sportsman’s Park had degenerated badly since the Browns were too poor to keep it up and the Cardinals, as with any other tenant, were loath to spend money on a property they didn’t own. Consequently, Veeck sold Sportsman’s Park to the Cardinals for a mere $800,000. Once the Cardinals took over the property (it was renamed Busch Stadium after MLB nixed Budweiser Stadium), they turned around and spent $7,800,000 on renovations, and the park as it appeared during the 1954 season was more or less the way it would remain till May of 1966 when the Cardinals moved into Busch Memorial Stadium downtown. When Sportsman’s Park closed, it had hosted more MLB games than any other ballpark.
Aside from the change of ownership, the 1950s was pretty much a forgettable decade for the Cardinals. Veeck was right about the team being in decline. In 1951, the team had 81 wins, good for third place. The following year, while the Browns’ attendance was on the upswing, the Cards again finished in third place, as they did in 1953, the last year the Browns were in St. Louis, and the first time Cardinals’ attendance had dropped below 1,000,000 in seven years.
Then, once they had the city to themselves, the Cardinals finished 6th, 7th, and 5th from 1954 to 1956. In 1957, with the Dodgers and Giants in their lame duck seasons, they vaulted to a second place finish, only to fall back to 6th and 7th the next two seasons. This was in sharp contrast to the 1940s, when the Cardinals had a winning percentage of .623 (960-580).
Nevertheless, the Cardinals lived happily ever after… more or less… in Sportsman’s Park in the City of St. Louis, and the Browns… well, their exit from St. Louis was as sad as it was comic and seemed symbolic of their history.
Only 3,174 turned out for the Browns’ final game against the White Sox on Sunday, September 27th. The Browns lost the finale 2-1 in 12 innings, and that anticlimax gave them an even 100 losses on the season. The team ran out of pristine baseballs before the game was over, so the last game of the Browns’ least season was played partially with scuffed baseballs.
So the Browns passed into history as the American League’s worst franchise in the 20th century. They certainly had some competition from the Senators and the A’s, but at least those franchises could point to a few years of glory.
Once the Browns moved to Baltimore, the first decade was lackluster, but by the mid-1960s they were an elite team in the American League. That’s baseball history, but it’s impossible not to indulge the “what if” factor: In other words, how would baseball history have been different if the Cardinals had moved to Houston in 1954?
Well, it’s hard to imagine St. Louis losing both teams—though a few years later National League fans in New York would experience same—so let’s assume the Browns would have stayed put and Veeck would have remained the owner, much to the consternation of the other American League owners.
Of course, that would have meant no Baltimore Orioles—at least not in 1954. Had he not been forced to sell the Browns (American League owners refused to allow Veeck to move the team to Baltimore, but they would permit him to sell it to a Baltimore group headed by lawyer Clarence Miles). Had Veeck remained in St. Louis, his subsequent ownership of the White Sox would likely not have happened, so Chicago fans might have missed out on that 1959 pennant, not to mention that marvel of a scoreboard that shot off fireworks.
Had the Cardinals moved to Houston, they would have been the westernmost team in major league baseball. That wouldn’t have been such a big deal, as it is on more or less the same longitude as Kansas City, which acquired the A’s in 1955. But Houston was way farther south than the other teams in the majors. For MLB, southern exposure went no further than Cincinnati and Washington, D.C. Houston was so far south it was on the same latitude as some of the spring training sites in Florida. Of course, that was true in 1962 when Houston finally fielded a team in the National League. But would a decade have made that much difference? Possibly, for a number of reasons.
First of all, the Texas League had no integrated teams till 1952. How would the locals have handled regular visits from the Dodgers, the Giants, or other teams with prominent black players? Would the hotels have housed all the players or would the black players have sought out alternative lodging, as often happened during spring training in Florida? Would the arrival of the Cardinals (who had no black players through 1953) have made a difference, or would the town have been so glad to host major league ball that they would have cast aside the old mores? No one can say, but by 1962, that was more likely to be the case than in 1953.
Then there’s the little matter of where to play? The Houston Buffaloes played at Buffalo Stadium just south of downtown (the site is now occupied by a furniture store that houses an array of Houston baseball memorabilia). The park, built in 1928, had been used for Double-A Texas League ball and Triple-A American Association ball. It had even been the home for the University of Houston Cougars.
While it was a beloved venue in the Bayou City, its capacity of 14,000 was clearly inadequate for major league status. So if the Cardinals were coming to town, the park would have to be expanded. The result probably wouldn’t have been much worse—and could have been better—than Colt Stadium, the jerry-built ballpark that provided a mosquito-infested, sun-baked home for the Houston Colt .45s from 1962 through 1964. More than likely, a new home would be on the drawing board as soon as possible, and in the early 1950s, more than likely, that would not have included a domed, air-conditioned stadium.
Or would it?
Famed industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes had already drawn up plans for a proposed new Brooklyn Dodgers ballpark with synthetic grass and a retractable roof. Referred to as “O’Malley’s Pleasure Dome,” a model was on display in the Dodgers’ office in Brooklyn. Would such a design have attracted attention in Houston after the project fell through in Brooklyn? Was it too fanciful, or was it technologically feasible in the early 1950s—and what about air conditioning, a must for any domed stadium in Houston? Would the Astrodome (of course, it wouldn’t have been called that before the manned space program was initiated) have been built earlier? Or would some other outdoor stadium have been constructed instead?
Assuming the Houston Cardinals had opened for business in 1954, how would that have affected future franchise shifts or expansion? If the Houston Cardinals went over big, then it’s possible the solons of MLB would have tried to place a team in Dallas to create a rivalry. After all, if Houston didn’t receive an expansion franchise in 1962, some other city would have.
Of course, that would mean the Dallas-Fort Worth area would have baseball long before 1972, which means the Washington Senators would have had to move elsewhere… but remember, if the Browns hadn’t moved to Baltimore, the Senators wouldn’t have had to share the Baltimore-Washington area with another American League team, and perhaps their fortunes would have improved, and… well, playing the game of “WHAT IF” is a lot of fun, but the farther away you get from the hypothetical pivotal event, the more speculative it gets.
In the last analysis, it is true that the Cardinals were not in a happy place in the early 1950s, and if they had moved to Houston, baseball as we know it wouldn’t be the same. Would the Cardinals have flourished as they did during their glory years in St. Louis? Or would they have been as disappointing as the Colt .45s/Astros?
Yes, in Texas, we’re still waiting for that first world’s championship, even though we’ve had three World Series played here in the last seven years. Can’t help but wonder if that would have held true if the Cardinals had GTT (Gone to Texas) in 1953.
References & Resources
Baseball Goes to War by William B. Mead, Farragut Publishing (no city given, 1985)
Baseball Memories 1900-1909 by Marc Okkonen, Sterling Publishing (New York, 1992)
Big League Ballparks: the Complete Illustrated History by Gary Gillette and Eric Enders with Stuart Shea and Matthew Silverman, Metro Books (New York, 2009)
Deadball Stars of the American League, David Jones, ed., Potomac Books, Inc. (Dulles, VA, 2006)
Deadball Stars of the National League, Tom Simon, ed., Brassdy’s, Inc. (Washington, D.C., 2004)
The Dodgers Move West by Neil J. Sullivan, Oxford University Press (New York, 1987)
Green Cathedrals by Phillip J. Lowry, Walker & Company (New York, 2006)
“Gussie’s Franchise” by Mark Stang, Mound City Memories – Baseball in St. Louis, ed. Bob Tiemann, Society for American Baseball Research (Cleveland, 2007)
Lost Ballparks by Lawrence S. Ritter, Penguin Studio Books (New York, 1992)
Professional Baseball Franchises: From the Abbeville Athletics to the Zanesville Indians, by Peter Fililchia, Facts on File, (New York, 1993)
Professional Sports Team Histories—Baseball, Michael L. LeBlanc, ed. Gale Research, Inc. (Detroit 1994)
Rogers Hornsby by Charles C. Alexander, Henry Holt (New York, 1995)
The Spirit of St. Louis: a History of the St. Louis Cardinals and Browns by Peter Golenbock, HarperCollins (New York, 2000)
Storied Stadiums by Curt Smith, Carroll & Graf (New York, 2001)
Take Me Out to the Ballpark: an Illustrated tour of Baseball Parks Past and Present by Josh Leventhal, Black Dog & Leventhal (New York, 2000)
Veeck as in Wreck by Bill Veck with Ed Linn, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, 2001)