Rural Missouri Magazine
The Bad News Browns
First in beer and last in the American League,
the Browns offered comic relief to fans of St. Louis baseball

by Jim McCarty

Members of the St. Louis Browns 1944 league championship team await their turn at bat in the dugout during the first game of the Streetcar Series against the Cardinals. While the Browns won this game, the Cardinals won the Series. This would be the last time the hapless Browns took part in post-season play.

St. Louis has long been a baseball town. But there was once a day when St. Louis fans bled Brown and not Cardinal red. Fans of the old St. Louis Browns remember the days when it was fun to root for the underdogs, as the Browns always seemed to be.

“They knew how to lose,” says former Browns first baseman Ed Mickelson, who drove in the last run before the Browns moved to Baltimore in 1954. “They had some pretty good teams but when you get to losing it goes from bad to worse.”

The Browns would finish in the American League cellar nine times. They would lose 100 or more games eight times, including the 1939 season’s 43-111 record that left them 64-1/2 games out of first place.

Despite their losing tradition, the Browns provided comic relief to all those who followed them. Some of the zaniest stories in baseball history involved the Browns, including the 1944 “Streetcar Series,” the team’s one-armed outfielder and a batter with a reported 1-1/2-inch strike zone.

Tracing the origins of the Browns can be confusing. In 1875 St. Louis had a team called the Brown Stockings. They belonged to the National League but folded after two years.

True characters of the game like one-armed outfielder Pete Gray made the Browns a fun team to follow even though the team lost 100 games or more eight times. Gray played just one year, 1945, with the Browns, proving his skills batting and in the field.

In 1882 the name returned as saloon keeper Chris Von der Ahe discovered baseball was good for business. His Browns would be part of the new American Association, which, unlike the National League of that era, approved of both Sunday play and beer at the games. Those Browns tore up the league, winning four consecutive pennants from 1885-1888.

In 1891 the team moved to the National League after the American Association folded. In 1899 they played as the St. Louis Perfectos until a woman commented on the lovely shade of Cardinal red that trimmed their uniforms. The next year the name changed to the Cardinals where it would remain forevermore.

The next incarnation of the Browns got their start in the Show-Me State after the 1901 season when the Milwaukee Brewers, charter members of the American League, pulled up stakes and moved to St. Louis. The new Browns lured away several Cardinal stars, including 1901 batting champ Jesse Burkett, shortstop Bobby Wallace and the Cards’ three best pitchers.

The Browns hit town with winning ways, finishing second in their first season in St. Louis. The team made money — until 1916 when owner Robert Hedges sold the team to Philip Ball. The sale started a slide that would result in one of baseball’s all-time worst ball clubs. Their slogan became “First in shoes, first in booze, last in the American League,” a parody of a tribute to George Washington.

Before they left St. Louis the Browns would set a bunch of dubious baseball records. On July 7, 1953, they set the league record for most consecutive defeats at home, dropping 20 straight. In 1950 the Browns set another league mark by having the most runs scored against them in a single game — 29 by the Boston Red Sox. They still hold the record for the most runs given up in a season opener, 21 against Cleveland in 1925.

The Browns’ biggest blunder was to let the Cardinals share Sportsman’s Park, shown here during batting practice in 1944.

The Browns were so bad that even when they won they had trouble drawing a crowd. In their only American League championship season — 1944 — the team would set the record for the lowest home game attendance when only 6,172 fans showed up.

Small wonder the Browns found themselves second-class citizens in a city devoted to the National League Cardinals. In stark contrast to the Browns single Series appearance, the Cardinals have 15 league championships and nine World Series championships, including the Subway Series in 1944 when they beat the hapless Browns in six games.

Second-class status wasn’t always the case for the Browns. In fact the team had some great years in the 1920s when the lively ball and the exploits of Yankees slugger Babe Ruth made the game the national pastime. Their best record came in 1922 when they won 93 games — one fewer than the Yankees, who would capture the American League pennant.

That team included pitcher Urban Shocker, who garnered 41 decisions and compiled a 24-17 record with three saves. The Browns also fielded first baseman George Sisler, who began his career as a pitcher but proved too valuable to leave on the mound. The slightly built Sisler swung a mighty 42-ounce bat on his way to a .420 batting average and 105 runs batted in. His stats include a 41-game hitting streak and a .340 lifetime average that ranks 15th in the major leagues.

The close finish to the Yankees that year led Browns owner Phil Ball to predict a World Series in Sportsman’s Park by 1926. Unfort-unately for Browns fans, it would be the Cardinals who saw post-season action.

The Browns fielded some of baseball’s legends like first baseman George Sisler, who batted .420 during the team’s best season in 1922.

One of the Browns’ biggest blunders was to let the Cards share Sportsman’s Park when their own Robison Park closed. The Cardinals sold the ball park and used the money to start a farm system that fed new talent into the team. It was Branch Rickey, who left the Browns after a falling out with the owner, who created the Cards’ farm club.

So the Browns found themselves playing second fiddle to a budding baseball dynasty led by their former manager. Small wonder the Browns never emerged from the Cardinals’ shadow.

Their best opportunity came in 1944, even with a typically mediocre club. Most of the league’s best players were fighting World War II. The Browns fielded only one .300 hitter, outfielder Mike Kreevich. They had one man with 20 homers, shortstop Vern Stephens, who also led the team with 85 RBIs and 109 runs. This unlikely combo led the Browns to a one-game finish above the Detroit Tigers to nab the AL pennant.

Meanwhile the Cardinals put together the best record of either league on the way to winning the National League title, their third straight. With the Cards ending the season 14-1/2 games ahead of second-place Pittsburgh, the stage was set for an all-St. Louis World Series.

In the series opener the Browns eked out a narrow 2-1 victory behind George McQuinn’s fourth-inning home run, which would be the Brown’s one and only homer in World Series history.

The Cardinals would take game two in 11 innings, but the Browns weren’t dead yet. They nailed the Cards 6-2 to take a two-game lead. The next three games belonged to the Cardinals, however, who combined for eight runs while holding the Browns to just two. For the Cardinals it was the eighth World Series appearance in 19 seasons. For the Browns it would be the one and only Series in their 52-year history.

Legendary pitcher Satchel Paige’s talents were wasted on the 1952 Browns though his antics on the mound made him a natural with the team. Paige was known to pull all of his fielders in to sit behind the mound while he casually struck out a batter.

The Browns’ moment in the spotlight wasn’t over. In 1945 they found a spot on their roster for outfielder Pete Gray. Playing minor league ball for Memphis, Gray batted .333, hit five home runs and tied a league record with 68 stolen bases — with one arm.

Gray lost his right arm in a childhood accident, but learned to throw and bat with his left arm. After catching a fly ball, he would tuck his glove under his stump, roll the ball across his chest and throw in one quick motion.

Had the war not siphoned off most of baseball’s talent it is unlikely Gray would have had the chance to play with the Browns. But the determined Gray was capable of great feats. In one doubleheader at Yankee Stadium, Gray had four hits, scored twice, drove in two and was perfect on nine chances in the outfield.

He would play 77 games with the 1945 Browns, batting .218 with 13 RBI. But with the war’s end, Gray was sent back to the minors where he continued to play until the early 1950s. He died in 2001.

The Browns would sign some true legends of the game, including player/manager Rogers Hornsby, who captured seven batting titles and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1942. They would get Negro League pitcher Satchel Paige toward the twilight of his lengthy career.

But of all the Browns no one will be as famous as Eddie Gaedel, who took just one at-bat for the club. Gaedel’s appearance on Aug. 18, 1951, remains one of the most publicized stunts in baseball history.

Perhaps the most controversial person associated with the game of baseball was Browns owner Bill Veeck, who enraged American League officials with his many stunts.

On that night the Brown’s flamboyant owner Bill Veeck staged a huge celebration to boost attendance. He convinced sponsor Falstaff to let him celebrate the St. Louis brewery’s birthday party that night, even though no one could say when the true birthdate was.

Veeck turned Sportsman’s Park into a three-ring circus. In between games of a doubleheader with Detroit, a huge cake rolled onto the field from which emerged the 3-foot, 7-inch Gaedel wearing a Brown’s jersey sporting the number 1/8. But the grins left the faces of Detroit’s players when Gaedel came in to pinch hit.

The park went wild as Detroit’s manager stormed to the plate to protest. The Browns produced a legitimate contract for Gaedel and the umpire had no choice but to let him into the batter’s box. Detroit pitcher Bob Cain (who would later pitch for the Browns) and catcher Bob Swift held a conference on the mound to decide how to pitch around Gaedel’s 1-1/2-inch strike zone.

Cain, sporting a look of utter disbelief, actually tried to pitch to Gaedel, but walked him on four straight while Veeck sweated each pitch, afraid the littlest Brownie would try to swing. Gaedel took his base and was promptly replaced by a pinch runner.

Of course, the Browns wasted Gaedel’s “instant offense,” losing 6-2.

Desperate to find a way to attract fans, Browns owner Bill Veeck once sent 3-foot, 7-inch Eddie Gaedel to the plate to generate some “instant offense.” No. 1/8 for the Browns had a strike zone measured at 1-1/2 inches.

The midget stunt so enraged the American League officials that the league president tried to have Gaedel’s meager stats stripped from the record book. But with Veeck demanding a ruling on whether 5-footer Phil Rizzuto, a Yankee Hall of Famer, was a short ballplayer or a tall midget, the stats stood.

None of Veeck’s stunts did much to improve attendance for the awful Browns. Mickelson compares the Browns’ woes to problems the Montreal Expos have today.

“They bring up good players from the minor leagues and play them two or three years. The players want to earn some money and Montreal hasn’t got the money to pay them when they are drawing 5,000 a night. So they sell them to keep their heads above water.

That’s what the Browns had to do.”

At one point the Browns sold their ace pitcher Ned Garver, one of the few pitchers to win 20 games while playing for a team that lost 100. Other players, like pitcher Don Larson, would leave the Browns and find fame with other teams. In his rookie year with the Browns Larson went 7-12. As a Yankee, Larson threw the only perfect game in World Series history. He was the last former Brown to play baseball. His teammate Bob Turley also ended up with the Yankees, where he pitched in five World Series.

One of owner Bill Veeck’s stunts was to let fans vote on whether to steal or pull the pitcher during games.

When beer magnate August Busch bought the Cardinals the Browns’ fate was sealed. Veeck sold Sportsman’s Park to Busch and signed a lease with the city of Baltimore.

The other American League owners, who hated Veeck’s many stunts, refused to let him move the Browns unless he sold his interest in the team. On Sept. 28, 1953, the Browns played their last game in St. Louis. The next year they would become the Baltimore Orioles. Fittingly, the Browns lost their last game before a crowd of 3,174, giving them yet another last-place season.

If the Browns never found success in St. Louis, they did give their faithful a lot to remember. Today, banquets organized by their fan club draw as many as 200 people who come from all over the country.

“They still have a great following for being out of here for so long,” Mickelson says. “They won’t be back, and if they do it won’t be as the St. Louis Browns.”

Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

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