1902 – 1953
The old expression about the St. Louis Browns was, “First in shoes, first in booze, and last in the American League.” In their 52-year history, the Browns finished in the cellar 14 times, and seventh 12 times. They made only a dozen appearances in the first division. Once, in 1944, they treated their fans to a pennant. After the 1901 season, the Milwaukee Brewers, charter members of the American League, moved to St. Louis and became the Browns – a name that recalled the glorious history of Chris von der Ahe’s Brown Stockings. In their first St. Louis season, the Browns finished second. After years of prosperity at the gate, in 1916 owner Robert Hedges sold the team to Philip Ball, who had owned the St. Louis Terriers of the defunct Federal League. Ball’s tenure, lasting until 1933, was one of failure. Ball’s first major blunder was allowing Branch Rickey, the resident genius in the Browns’ front office, to jump to the Cardinals because of a conflict of egos. In 1920 Sam Breadon, who had just purchased the Cardinals, beseeched Ball to allow his team to cohabit the Browns’ home, Sportsman’s Park. Breadon put the money from the sale of the Cardinals’ Robison Field into the minor league system, which eventually produced a host of star players that brought the Cardinals far more drawing power than the Browns.
The 1922 Browns excited their owner by almost beating the Yankees to a pennant. The club was boasting the best players in franchise history, including future Hall of Famer George Sisler, and an outfield trio – Ken Williams, Baby Doll Jacobson, and JackTobin – that batted .300 or better in 1919-23 and in 1925. Ball confidently predicted that there would be a World Series in Sportsman’s Park by 1926. In anticipation, he increased the capacity of his ballpark from 18,000 to 30,000. There was a World Series in Sportsman’s Park in 1926 – with the Cardinals upsetting the Yankees. St. Louis had been considered a “Browns’ town” until then. The Browns drew only 80,922 fans for the entire 1936 season – the first year of Donald Barnes’ ownership. The downward spiral reached its nadir in 1939; from 1937 to 1939, the Browns compiled a 144-316 record. The franchise was developing a hard-luck aura; in 1941 Barnes tried to move his team to Los Angeles. The league meeting for approval was held in Chicago one day after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Understandably, Barnes was denied. With the arrival of manager Luke Sewell in 1941, the Browns began a rebuilding program that culminated in their only World Series appearance, in 1944.
It took two home runs by outfielder Chet Laabs against the Yankees on the final day of the season to clinch the pennant. After leading the Cardinals two games to one in the Trolley Series, the Browns lost the final three contests and the World Championship. Due primarily to WWII, the 1940s have been described as a time when “even the Browns” won a pennant, demeaning their only legitimate success. One-armed Pete Gray was employed in their 1945 outfield, further enhancing their negative legacy. The owners that followed the 1944 pennant, Richard Muckerman (1945-49), and Bill and Charlie DeWitt, were caught in a spiral of rising inflation and sagging expectation. The Browns had to sell off players to pay their bills; when attendance dropped as a result, they were forced to sell more talent. In 1951 Bill Veeck bought the noncontending Browns with the expressed purpose of driving the Cardinals out of town. Cardinals owner Fred Saight had income tax troubles that resulted in a prison term, but August Busch restored order by purchasing the team. To draw fans, Veeck gave them “fun ‘n’ games,” including midget Eddie Gaedel. The stunts so angered the other owners that Veeck was forced to sell the club to Baltimore interests in 1953, putting an end to the St. Louis Browns.