For many fans of the Baltimore Orioles, it feels as if the history of the team started in 1954 when the team moved from St. Louis to become the Orioles we know and love today. But, there is a lot not spoken of about those days in St. Louis, when the team was known as the Browns, and that is probably for the best.
Going around Camden Yards, all of the references to the past pertain to the team in Baltimore and almost nothing to do with their ties to St. Louis. This is mostly because the Browns were a failed organization due to the Cardinals sharing the town at the time and being the obviously better team.
One day, I decided to research the history of the Browns and find out why the Orioles never make note of this time period.
The most obvious reason is that the so called “Browns” never played in Baltimore and have no ties to the city whatsoever. One thing I compare this to is how the Washington Nationals have references to the Senators, both teams, throughout their ballpark but limited Expos references. Another example is how former Baltimore Colts, now the Indianapolis Colts, are remembered in the Ravens’ Ring of Honor but nobody from the days when the team was in Cleveland is referenced.
The weird twist with the Colts is that players that played in Baltimore for them have their numbers retired by the Ravens and Colts, but that is a very odd example.
But, not of this truly answers the question as to why the Orioles never reference the St. Louis Browns. The main conclusion I can come up with is that the Browns were a huge embarrassment of an organization.
Let us dig into the history of the almost forgotten franchise.
In 1902, the Milwaukee Brewers moved to St. Louis under a brand new owner: Robert Lee Hedges. Since he moved the team into a city that already had a baseball team, the Cardinals, he tried to do everything to ensure that their stay there would be welcomed. He went as far as to sign former Cardinals players and rebuild Sportsman’s Park, the former home of the Cardinals.
The Browns had a successful season for their first one, going 78-58 which was good enough for second in the American League, behind the Philadelphia Athletics.
From 1910 to 1912, the Browns posted three straight season all with more than 100 loses with 107 each in ’10 and ’11 and 101 in 1912. Since moving to Baltimore, the Orioles only have two years with 100 or more losses: 1954 and 1988.
We get our first bit of scandalous activity in 1910 with the Ty Cobb batting title incident. On the final day of the season, Ty Cobb led the league in batting and sat out the day because he had a decent lead.
The only hope of catching Cobb was Nap Lajoie, who happened to be playing against the Browns that day. The Browns manager at the time, Jack O’Connor, hated Ty Cobb so to try and strip him of the batting title, he intentionally played his third baseman back, hoping Lajoie would get an infield hit to ensure he would win it. Lajoie would get on base with an error in the game but not be able to get another hit, awarding Cobb the title. O’Connor and another coach, Harry Howell, tried to bribe the official scorer to change the error to a hit. O’Connor and Howell were fired by the Browns and subsequently banned from Major League Baseball.
In 1916, the team owner Robert Lee Hedges sold the team to Philip DeCatesby Ball, who makes Jeffrey Loria look like a genius.
Ball would fire Branch Rickey, who was brought on to manage the team in 1914 and was soon promoted to general manager. Rickey went on to join the Cardinals and help turn them into a powerhouse team.
Ball also allotted the Cardinals to share Sportsman’s Park, allowing the Cardinals to sell their old park and use the money to develop the first farm system in baseball history.
In a move that would surely be unheard of today, Ball predicted a World Series matchup at Sportsman’s Park in 1926 and added more seats to the stadium, upping it from 18,000 to 30,000. Ball did correctly predict a World Series being in Sportman’s Park; it just so happens that it was with the Cardinals who would go on to beat the Yankees.
In 1941, under a new owner named Donald Lee Barnes who bought the team following Philip DeCatesby Ball’s death in 1933, the Browns looked to leave St. Louis, citing Barnes being convinced there was no money to be made there.
Barnes received interest from Los Angeles citizens who were willing to help an MLB team move out to L.A. for the first time. This prompted him to ask other American League owners if he could move his team to L.A. in 1942 and he got a tentative approval. The deal was all set for final approval on December 8th with league officials but was cancelled due to the attack on Pearl Harbor the day before on December 7th.
With travel restrictions put in place for people going to Los Angeles, the league scraped the idea and unanimously revoked the idea of moving a team to L.A. for the time being.
The Browns would win their first and only pennant in 1944 which many called a fluke due to many of the best ballplayers at the time serving in the military during WWII while many of the Browns players were excused from military service for one reason or another.
They would meet with their rivals, the Cardinals, in the World Series but eventually lose to them in six games. The fun side note from this World Series is that it was the last time a World Series was played on a neutral or shared field.
Skipping ahead to 1951, the team was bought by Bill Veeck and the best way to describe him as an owner is to compare him to if a nine year old was to own a team.
One of the most notorious things he did as owner was order Browns manager Zack Taylor to send Eddie Gaedel, who was 3′ 7″ and weighed 65 pound, to pinch hit. Wearing the number “1/8”, Gaedel was ordered not to swing and walked due to the fact that his strike zone was pretty much non-existent. Following the game, the American League president Will Harridge voided Gaedel’s contract.
Another notable stunt Veeck pulled was when fans attending a game were handed cards that said “take”, “swing”, “bunt”, etc. The manager complied and let the fans decide what would happen and the Browns actually ended up winning the game.
Later on in his time as owner, Veeck tried to do everything he could to get the Cardinals to move out of St. Louis, leaving the Browns as the only team in the city. He started this process by getting former Cardinals players to join the Browns in a number of roles. He got Dizzy Dean to be an announcer and Rogers Hornsby to manage the team while signing both Vern Stephens and Harry Brecheen to the team. Veeck also oversaw taking down anything referencing the Cardinals at Sportsman’s Park and replaced it with Browns memorabilia.
The Cardinals’ owner at the time, Fred Saigh, was convicted of tax evasion in 1952 and was forced to sell the team, which would have started the end of the Cardinals in St. Louis. However, after almost moving to Houston, Saigh ended up selling the team to Anheuser-Busch which ended up being a lower bid. The brewery’s president Gussie Busch bought the team to keep them in St. Louis.
Veeck realized that this more than likely meant the end of the Browns in St. Louis due to Anheuser-Busch’s wealth and ties to the city. Veeck ended up selling Sportsman’s Park to the Cardinals and by 1953, the Browns had went 54-100 on the season and were all set to move to Baltimore.
The team was bought by a group of investors lead by Clarence Miles, an attorney from Baltimore. While Veeck still had some stock left in the team, he ended up selling it for $2.5 million before the Orioles even played in a game in Baltimore.
Before the 1954 season, the Orioles general manager Paul Richards orchestrated a 17 player trade with the New York Yankees to rid the team of some of the players left from the Browns. That trade remains the largest in baseball history.
After learning all of this, it comes as no surprise to me why the Orioles have tried to distance themselves from this past. With over 63 years now in Baltimore, the Orioles have enough history of their own to fill a ballpark with and to teach the younger generations, like myself, about. But, it can be fun to learn sometimes of a world where the Orioles did not exist yet and the team that they were back then would be the laughing stock of the league today.
If you want to read more about the history of the St. Louis Browns, I encourage you to check out the Browns Historical Society website which tells more details about their history and actually includes the good parts, for how sparing they were.