Sometimes I drive by the former site where Sportsman’s Park once stood on my way home. As a long time baseball fan and of the St. Louis Cardinals in particular, it hurts me to admit I don’t know as much about the history of the St. Louis Browns franchise as I did before my PBS affiliate, KETC Channel 9 premiered their new documentary: The St Louis Browns: The Team That Baseball Forgot.
Mad Men star and St. Louis native son Jon Hamm provides an eloquent and engaging narration to this special on the defunct franchise. Directed by Justin Tolliver, it details its various ups, downs and subsequent rivalry with the Cardinals during their existence. Why would anyone want to chronicle the past of a franchise that had over forty losing seasons in its five decades plus of activity? There’s more to the story of this team than one might assume.
The writers make some brief notes of St Louis’s history in the early 20th century, noting their booming economy, riverboats and bustling population- an ideal town to host two major league teams. They impress in their inaugural 1902 season and finish second, but generally spend most of the next two decades sucking pretty hard. But the Browns are able to outdraw the Cards at the gate, and form a cult following in St. Louis regardless. “It was a rivalry of the heart”, notes Browns Historical Society member Emmett McAuliffe.
But general manager Phillip Ball’s blunders proves to have disastrous effects for the fate of the Browns down the road. The Cardinals take advantage of their low rent in Sportsman’s Park, and Rickey is able to focus on developing the acclaimed farm system that would prove to be the backbone of their organization in their early years and beyond. The Browns are able to still string together impressive teams here and there, but the Redbirds are the first to bring St. Louis its first world championship. Sure enough, the town’s team support begins to shift.
The Browns were fairly strong in the 1920’s, most notably 1922 when they nearly catch the Bronx Bombers for the pennant. George Sisler in particular racks up some mindblowing statistics that might not have been as impressive as Babe Ruth’s, but are more than enough to earn him a Cooperstown induction. (The Cardinals were classy enough to give Sisler his own statue, though.)
But they can’t catch up to the emerging New York Yankees dynasty, and things take a bad turn for the worse in the 1930s as the play skill swoons and the attendance dips. In fact, in one season they fall 64 games out of first place. Undaunted, the team gets creative when they’re sold to new management, and Bill DeWitt Sr. (a familiar surname in St. Louis) gets to work on constructing his own farm system in the mild of Rickey’s.
When World War II breaks out, the Browns don’t lose too many players as major stars drift from other franchise to sign for the war effort, and the team suddenly takes off.
Soon, Manager Luke Sewell, star outfielder Mike Kreevich, and their surging Brown team are good enough to challenge their big brother Cardinals in a Cinderella World Series match for 1944. Even Stan Musial has to acknowledge that the Gateway City’s hearts are behind the Browns for the “Streetcar Series”.
Unfortunately, the Browns’ fortunes sour once more on the field, and new GM Bill Veeck steps in with some colorful publicity stunts to help boost the team’s trajectory.
He incorporates acrobats and clowns performing on the field, fans voting with “YES” and “NO” signs in the crowd (I kid you not, it looks like a Daniel Bryan match in the 1950s), and a legendary at-bat from a player with dwarfism named Eddie Gaedel that proved to be so controversial there was debate on whether it should even stay on the record books. Mind you, Disco Demolition night is still many years away and Veeck’s already a predecessor to the WWE’s Vince McMahon, unbelievably over-the-top in his business strategies.
Through some funny and interesting interviews (including the twelve Browns players currently living), good editing, nice archival footage from the Cardinals Hall Of Fame and strong research, this special for KETC is an entertaining chronicle of a chapter in baseball history that later generations may not be aware of.
If you’re interested in learning more about the history of the Browns, check out the historical society’s official page: https://thestlbrowns.com, or the print book this special was based on, St: Louis Browns: The Story of a Beloved Team here at Reedy Press. Recommended for any fan of baseball, or just classic sports in general.