Tuesday, July 22, 2008


Probably the least successful major league franchise in history was the old St.Louis Browns, although the old Philadelphia Phillies could have competed for that dubious honor. But the Phils are still around and popular despite 10,000 losses (KENSUSKINREPORT Aug. 18, 2007), whereas the Browns morphed into the Baltimore Orioles who did everything possible to erase the losing legacy of the Browns.

The American League was started in 1901, and a year later, the Milwaukee Brewers franchise moved to St. Louis. They revived the name of the successful St. Louis team of the 1880's. The similarity ended there. Over the next 52 years of the Browns' stormy existence, they finished last or next to last 26 times, and they had only 12 winning seasons. First in shoes, first in booze and last in the American League. was the fans derisive slogan for the team. For most of those years, they shared a stadium (Sportsmen's Park) with the more successful Cardinals, and although the Browns actually owned the ballpark, the success didn't rub off on them.

In the early years, they hired the brilliant Branch Rickey to manage the team. It was his first job in baseball. Three years later, the team was sold to Phillip Ball who owned the St. Louis Terriers of the defunct Federal League. In a clash of egos, Ball made a colossal blunder by firing Rickey. Rickey then accepted the General Manager job with the cross town Cardinals where he built a dynasty. In 1920, the Cardinals ownership decided to sell their ball park and rent from the Browns. They used the money from the sale to allow Rickey to create a minor league farm system which became the most successful in baseball and the prototype for what every team does today. Rickey proved to be a baseball visionary in other areas also, later signing the legendary Jackie Robinson and after that, Roberto Clemente.

Meanwhile, through dumb luck or whatever, for a couple of years in the early 1920's the Browns challenged the New York Yankees for the pennant, always falling short. They had Hall of Famer George Sisler who set a record with 257 hits (recently broken by Ichiro Suzuki) and Kenny Williams, the first player to hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases in the same season. He was not believed to be related to Chicago White Sox General Manager Kenny Williams. Wheather he was or not, the St. Louis Kenny Williams beat out Babe Ruth for the home run title in 1922.

Their brief success was fleeting and the team degenerated into mediocrity and worse. Marketing was not their strong suit, and the fans stopped coming to the games. Of course the reduced income made it difficult to sign good players. In the 1936 season, for example, they drew less than 81,000 fans for the whole season (77 home games). For quite a few games in the 1930's, the paid attendance was less than 100, and on one occasion, only 33 fans turned out for the game. They were consistent--they lost over 100 games almost every season. In 1941, their owner tried to move the team to Los Angeles. The Browns' bad luck continued--the league meeting to approve the move was scheduled for December 8th. When the league scheduled the meeting, Pearl Harbor was not on the agenda. The Browns' move to the West Coast was denied.

During World War II, baseball carried on but team rosters were depleted, placing the teams on somewhat equal footing which benefited the penurious Browns. Most major league players went into the armed forces and baseball had to sign whatever players they could find--often teenagers, older major leaguers who had previously retired, and other players with various disabilities which rendered them ineligible for military service. The 1944 Browns pieced together a group of alcoholics and 4-F's which turned out to be one game better than the Detroit Tigers, and they won their only pennant.

They had guys like catcher Frank Mancuso who injured his spine at Fort Benning, Georgia in a parachute jump. He could not look straight up without passing out. If an opposing player hit a pop up, someone else had to catch it. Then there was pitcher Sig Jakucki, who was signed after being out of baseball for 4 years. He worked in a defense plant during the week and pitched on weekends. He won 13 games, plus another in the World Series against the Cardinals in the "Trolley Series". The Cards, who still had some of their stars like Stan Musial and Enos Slaughter, blew past the National League and then beat the Browns in the World Series 4 games to 2.

The wartime Browns lost more players in 1945, and were forced to use the one-armed outfielder Pete Gray as a regular player. He lost his right arm in a farming accident as a kid. Gray batted .218 and stole 5 bases, but in the outfield, although a good fielder and athlete, it took him an extra moment to take off his glove and throw the ball, allowing alert base runners to take the extra base. That fact alone was believed to cost the Browns several victories in close games.

After the war, the Browns bad luck continued. The team was sold a couple of times because of poor attendance and eventually purchased in 1951 by showman Bill Veeck. Veeck pledged to drive the Cardinals out of town, and for awhile that looked possible. The Cards' owner Fred Saigh was convicted of tax evasion and sent to the Federal pen. But Augustus Busch of Budweiser fame stepped up to buy the team and keep it in St. Louis. The writing was on the wall for Veeck. No way Veeck could drive Anheuser Busch out of town.

A fan once called Veeck on the morning of a game to ask what time the game started. Veeck reputedly answered, "What time can you be here?"

But he made a lot a noise to generate fan enthusiasm. He hired midget Eddie Gaedel to play. Gaedel was 3'7" tall. He came to bat once against Detroit and walked on four pitches. Jim Delsing, the answer to a trivia question, was sent in to pinch run for Gaedel. The American League president banned Gaedel and any other midget from baseball, a move which would be illegal today under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Browns lost 102 games that year, but incredibly they had one good pitcher, Ned Garver who won 20 games and lost just 12. The Browns were the only team in 100 years to have a 20 game winner on a team with over 100 losses. Garver also batted .305 with a .365 on base percentage. The following year he won only 7 games and was traded to Detroit and never duplicated his 1951 success.

To drum up more fan support, Veeck signed the legendary pitcher Satchel Paige, in his mid-40's, ready for the rocking chair. Paige won 3 and lost 4 with a respectable earned run average. The following season, the 46 year old Paige was the Browns' best pitcher, going 12-10 for a team that lost over 90 games. In the Browns' final season, 1953, the most significant event occurred when rookie pitcher Bobo Holloman pitched a no-hitter in his first major league start. He didn't follow it up and found himself back in the minors to stay a few weeks later.

Veeck wanted to move the team to Los Angeles or Milwaukee, but his promotional stunts angered the stodgy fellow baseball owners. They refused to allow him to move the team unless he sold it. Eventually, he had to do so, and the owners quickly approved the move to Baltimore in 1954.

I recall, years ago, visiting Ric Riccardo's Restaurant on Rush Street in Chicago which had a room devoted to the St. Louis Browns past glory (if one could call it that). Riccardo was also part owner of the famous Uno's and Due's pizzerias in Chicago and one of the few Browns fans around.




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