October 1, 2014

At Home with the Browns

January 10, 2011 by · 2 Comments 

Hello. My name is Jeff and I’m a certified Brownsaholic.

Browns uniformDon’t ask me why. The star-crossed franchise hasn’t existed in its St. Louis form since 1953, when the club was sent packing to Baltimore to become birds. George Sisler may be the only Brown that your average baseball fan can name. And I’m from New England.  So why do I love reading anything I can get my eyes on about this largely forgotten team?

Is it the colors of those two handmade Cooperstown Ballcaps of mine, brown with orange trim and white with brown trim?  There’s just a warmth to them. Earthy, almost.  And the name Browns, rhyming with frowns and clowns, a built-in sadness I can empathize with. It certainly isn’t because of their uniform logo, which at times was either the knight Saint Louis on a horse or some kind of diabolical pixie.  Nor their talent, because they never won a 20th century championship, and their sole pennant in 1944 largely happened because every other roster in the league was emptied by the War.

The Browns were very unlike the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn, the Giants leaving New York, the A’s leaving Philadelphia, or the Senators leaving Washington.  Those teams moved but their names went with them, or in the Senators’ case, returned in expansion form.  The Browns’ sorry legacy is forever embedded in what for many decades was baseball’s “other” two-team town, on the banks of the Mississippi.  All I know is that I’ve daydreamed about kicking back on a broiling 1930s afternoon at Sportsman’s Park with a lemonade, cigar, and 596 other fans, and that I’ve replayed three entire Strat-O-Matic seasons largely to see how Roy Cullenbine, Elam Vangilder and Baby Doll Jacobson would fare.

But the good news is: I’m not alone.

The St. Louis Browns Fan Club (or Historical Society, for long), has over three hundred members, 36 of them actual surviving Brownies. Club President Bill Rogers organizes yearly luncheons and dinners in St. Louis, complete with speakers and memorabilia exhibits, and is constantly looking to bring new and possibly younger members into the fold.  With Browns lore receding into the public mind a bit more each year, though, this is not an enviable task. Rogers is especially proud of his July banquet last year, when Bob Costas arrived unexpectedly to announce Tommy Lasorda as featured speaker in a last-minute coup.  (Lasorda is considered an “almost Brownie” merely for going to spring training in 1953 with the team.)

Rogers had the pleasure of attending nearly two dozen Browns games at Sportsman’s Park between 1948 and 1950.  In one, he even saw Joe DiMaggio launch three line drive homers off the giant scoreboard in left.  Although the Browns often got hammered by their better opponents, his memories—and autographed scorecards—are here to stay.

There was a time, though, far, far in the past, when the Browns were the ones doing the hammering. Between 1885 and 1888, the team won four straight American Association championships for their boisterous saloonkeeper owner, Chris von der Ahe. But it was a short-lived reign.  Ten years later, a devastating fire in the park’s grandstand injured spectators and forced von der Ahe to cover the many lawsuits by auctioning off the team.

When the American League began in 1901, the Milwaukee Brewers moved to town to become the new Browns, and the National League made it a party by bringing in another starving and wretched team called the Cleveland Spiders—who would be renamed the Cardinals.  The Browns let the Cardinals rent Sportsman’s Park from them, but neither team was anything to do cartwheels over.

After Branch Rickey became the Browns manager in 1913, though, the club began to improve.  The Cardinals nabbed Rickey away in ’17, when new Browns owner and ice business mogul Philip de Catesby Ball tried to sue him for breaking his contract, but Rickey’s influence on the club had already taken shape. In 1922 the Browns battled the Yankees for the pennant most of the season, and dropped two out of three tough games on the final weekend to lose out by one game. Still, they drew 713,000 for the season, a huge number for them.  Ball expanded the park’s seating, but his co-tenant Cardinals were the ones to benefit, winning pennants in 1926, 1928, 1930 and 1931 and becoming the city’s baseball darlings forevermore.

During the Depression, the Browns quickly became the urchins.  In 1936 they drew a grand total of 80,992 for the entire SEASON, an average of a little over a thousand souls per game. Their ’44 pennant gave them a boost, but after losing in six to the cross-town Cards in the Series, they sank into wretchedness again, and even despite Bill Veeck buying the team and inserting a one-armed outfielder and midget into the lineup, the Cardinals were not to be knocked off their local perch, and a franchise move was inevitable.  The Browns finished .433 all-time while in St. Louis, worst in the league, with a losing record against every other team except ironically the 1902 Orioles, soon to become the Highlanders/Yankees.

“Our fans didn’t boo us much,” said pitcher Ned Garver to Bill Rogers once, “because we often outnumbered them.”

Bill is already working on this year’s May luncheon, hoping to get Mike Veeck as a speaker.  He’s also been in prolonged “negotiating” discussions with club member Barry Blank, who has a wonderful personal collection of Browns memorabilia out in Arizona.  Barry already has uniforms, scorecards and hundreds of autographed balls, and is bidding with someone on Don Gutteridge’s 1944 World Series ring.  Bill has made Barry assorted offers to purchase some of these Browns heirlooms, but Barry says as long as he’s alive, he’d rather not sell.  “I just enjoy getting up every day and looking at them,”  he says.

It’s hard to argue with that.

Bill Rogers of the St. Louis Browns Historical Society/Fan Club can be contacted at stlbrowns@swbell.net

And here’s his recommended brownucopia of Web sites:

http://www.thestlbrowns.com

http://thestlbrowns.blogspot.com

http://stlbrownsmuseum.blogspot.com

http://brownsmerchandise.blogspot.com/

http://stlbrowns.qbstores.com

Jeff Polman’s fictional replay blogs of the 1924 and 1977 seasons can be visited at http://1924andyouarethere.blogspot.com and http://funkyball.wordpress.com, respectively. He is also managing the 1931 Philadelphia A’s in the Seamheads/Strat Anniversary League, and enjoying his investment in Al Simmons.

Comments

2 Responses to “At Home with the Browns”
  1. Southpaw says:

    Nice article.

    One quibble – Bill Veeck didn’t play the one armed outfielder – Pete Gray. He played for the Browns in 1945, six years before Veeck bought the team.

  2. Jeff Polman says:

    Thanks for the quibble, sir!

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