“I was ten. I honestly never realized they were so bad,” Gert Slama replied when asked why she had spent a lifetime of devotion as a fan of arguably the worst baseball team in history. No! This story is not about the Chicago Cubs though, as a lifelong Cardinal fan, I consider the Cubs the leading contender for that honor.
I grew up in a small town southern Illinois. One of my earliest memories is listening to Harry Caray broadcast Cardinal games on the radio. Occasionally, my father would take me into St. Louis to attend a game. In his younger days my father lived in Granite City, and told me stories of how he and his twin brother would take the train, or bus, into St. Louis and watch Cardinal games. Tickets were ridiculously cheap in the late 30s and early 40s. You might remember WWII was going on, or at least have read about it.
I always enjoyed games at Sportsman’s Park, which was located at the northwest corner of Grand Boulevard and Dodier Street, on the north side of St. Louis just across the river from Granite City. We always sat in the bleachers because those were the cheapest, and best place to watch a game, seats. In those days the players exited the park from one door, and my dad knew where it was. A couple of times my cousin Paul and I were fortunate to get some autographs. I still have the scorecard with Stan Musial’s signature.
I didn’t realize at the time but Sportsman’s Park was not only home to the Cardinals, but from 1920 to 1953 it was also home to the St. Louis Browns.
“Who are the St. Louis Browns?” my grandson Ben asked glancing at my computer while doing battle on his tablet. “I never heard of them. Are they better than the Cubs?”
“Definitely!” I answered. “Have a seat.”
Ben plopped onto my recliner, glanced at the old Cardinal pennant hanging on the wall above him and ignored the smaller picture frame to his right. I told him about the history of the lovable losers who won only one American League pennant in their entire history. It was in 1944 and their opponent in the World Series would be the team they shared the stadium with. The mighty St. Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals won the National League pennant by a large margin, and ended the season with a record of 105-49. The Browns squeaked past the Detroit Tigers by one game to win the pennant with a less impressive record of 89-65.
“Who won the series?” Ben asked while continuing to play on his tablet.
“The Cardinals, of course,” I answered. “Four games to two.”
“Were you at the games?”
“It was a few years before I was born,” I explained.
“Did the Browns have any good players? Anyone I would know?” Ben asked as he destroyed his opponent’s army.
I scratched my jaw as I tried to think of the most famous players to ever wear a Browns’ jersey. I came up with two.
“Do the names Pete Gray or Eddie Gaedel ring a bell?”
“Nope!” Ben shook his head and shouted, “Victory is mine!”
“Pete Gray had only one arm, and Eddie Gaedel was only three and a half feet tall.”
“Get out!” Ben hollered putting his tablet aside.
I explained why these players were memorable.
“A midget, huh?” Ben chuckled. “I know a kid at school who only has part of one arm. I’ll tell him about Pete Gray.”
“Have you ever heard of Mickey Mantle?” I asked.
“Yeah, but only because you showed me his baseball card.”
“He was one of the best outfielders I ever saw, but he played for the Yankees, so I wasn’t a big fan,” I said. “But history might have been a lot different if it wasn’t for a summertime thunderstorm one day in St. Louis.”
“Why?” Ben asked. “Care to explain, Papa?”
I smiled and answered, “The Browns were taking a look at Mantle, who was a young kid from Oklahoma. He was going to tryout for the team because it was close to where he grew up. The Cardinals and Browns were the only teams west of the Mississippi River at the time.”
“What does a thunderstorm have to do with it?”
“It happened the day of his tryout, and rained all day. The tryout was canceled, and he returned home to Oklahoma.”
“And then he signed with the Yankees, huh?” Ben said as he stood up and admired my framed and signed Mickey Mantle rookie card.
“He could have been the best player in Browns’ history,” I said with a sigh.