Perhaps, pining for what was is not as difficult as longing for what never comes.
For fifty-two years, the St. Louis Browns and their fans sat in a pumpkin waiting for it to turn into a royal carriage, but it never happened.
Most Cinderella stories in sports regale that one moment of triumph, however fleeting – that one instant when the years of futility and disappointment are washed away with one perfect wave. Unfortunately, that glass slipper never found its way onto the foot of the chambermaid living in the grand shadow of Sportsman’s Park and of its perennially successful co-tenants, the Cardinals. And no one sat more patiently or deserved that splendid carriage ride more than the Browns’ greatest player, first baseman George Sisler.
However, such was the curse under which Sisler played baseball. Though there have been decades of hand wringing over the notion of billy goats and bambinos hexing franchises in Chicago and Boston, the St. Louis Browns had it worse. From 1902 to 1953 – the fifty-two seasons the Browns plied their trade in St. Louis – their supposed ill-fated brethren in Chicago and Boston captured sixteen pennants and seven World Series titles between them. In contrast, the Browns won precisely one pennant in all of that time and never sipped championship champagne.
Instead, they lost so consistently and so thoroughly the drumbeat of those defeats paced their movements on the field. They butchered the sport with the brutal consistency of men in leather smocks separating porterhouses from sirloins. Still, amongst all of that carnage on the diamond, George Sisler played beautifully. He was a top-tier superstar, a true jewel of the game, buried under an avalanche of misery.
Consider the 1920 season.
During that remarkable year, he batted .407 with a league-record 257 hits. He also lashed out 49 doubles, 18 triples, and 19 homers, drove in 122 runs, and stole 42 bases. The man they called “Sizzler” scorched that small patch of Missouri real estate like few others ever had or ever would. And Sisler’s record for hits was so stunning that it would last for another 84 seasons until Seattle’s Ichiro Suzuki eclipsed it with the rather mind-boggling total of 262.
As if to punctuate his unshakeable hold over the baseball world that year, he even collected a save on the final day of the season by striking out a pair of batters without yielding a hit.
Yet, the Browns finished fourth in the American League, 21 ½ games behind the pennant-winning Cleveland Indians.
Through it all, Sisler played with disarming modesty and admirable effort, nobly unfazed by his circumstances and powered, almost entirely it would seem, by his devotion to the game and to his craft. Despite another lagging and morale draining finish in 1920, there was hope stirring in St. Louis, because help for the team’s resident superstar finally seemed to be on the way. And that hope hinged on a trio of outfielders who were finally making good.
Aside from an odd nickname, center fielder William “Baby Doll” Jacobson had surprising nuance to his game. At 6’3″ and 215 pounds, the burly Jacobson had the build of a power hitter but relied on punchy contact rather than the long ball to do his damage at the plate. And in 1920, he maximized that approach as never before, hitting .355 with 122 RBI’s.
Although right fielder Jack Tobin was the physical antithesis of Jacobson – at 5’8” and 145 pounds, a mere water bug – they both played remarkably alike. However, for Tobin, the approach fit his appearance like a glove. Pesky, slashing liners led to wild dashes on the bases, and his .341 average produced its share of scampering, along with 94 runs.
However, the left fielder ended up being the true catalyst of the bunch. He was a wiry, deceptively powerful hitter from Grants Pass, Oregon and an odd physical blend of his two outfield mates. At 6’0″ and 170 pounds, Ken Williams was taller and heavier than Tobin but not nearly as beefy as Jacobson. The three made for a strange baseball version of “The Ascent of Man.” However, Williams was the most evolved player of the three – power, speed, and high average, all in the same dangerous package. While he had a solid year in 1920, it took him two more seasons to become the snarling, fang-bearing slugger that George Sisler so desperately needed as a complement. And, in 1922, Williams howled at the moon all season long.
Batting a robust .332, the lanky Oregonian led the American League in homers with 39 and RBI’s with 155. He also stole 37 bases to become the charter member of what has become the exclusive marker of speed and power in the game, the “30-30 club.” In fact, Williams would remain the only player to record such a combination for another 34 years. And it took a true legend, Willie Mays – arguably, the greatest blend of power and speed to ever play – to finally join him in 1956.
With Jacobson and Tobin continuing to thrive and the emergence of 22-year-old second baseman Marty McManus as yet another offensive weapon, the Browns were, at last, taken seriously. They played magnificently in 1922, leading the American League in both batting average and runs scored. The moment finally seemed at hand for their pumpkin of a franchise to transform into something less gourd and more glory.
And Sisler, as always, made things go. In his finest season, amidst a string of stellar campaigns, he hit .420, drove in 105 runs, stole 51 bases, and was named the American League’s Most Valuable Player. That batting average is worth repeating, .420. It remains the seventh highest single-season average in Major League history and represents a 20-point markup over the gold standard for hitters everywhere.
From the very start of the season, St. Louis cut a swath of destruction through the American League with the fury and pent-up rage of the tormented finally able to turn the tables on their tormentors. By mid-June, they had claimed first place and started to take on the look of a ball club that believed in the substance of its success. However, the one team the Browns could not seem to shake, could not bludgeon away with their formidable offense, was the defending American League champs, the New York Yankees. And New York had this fellow named Ruth who, as the baseball world would come to discover, turned out to be one of the great equalizers in the game.
So, the Browns and Yankees stared each other down all summer long – paupers and princes warily sizing the other up, hoping to detect that one fatal, exploitable flaw. And it was a taut face-off, with only a game or two separating them nearly the entire time.
On July 25, St. Louis finally landed the one big punch they had waited weeks to slip through, beating the Yankees at home to take a 2 ½ game lead. After so many years of being vanquished and having to stare up at their conquerors, it must have been electrifying to finally have the opposite vantage point, if only for a moment.
However, the view didn’t last long. The next day, New York rose from the canvas – angrily. Ruth launched a pair of home runs in an 11-6 drubbing, and it didn’t stop there. Of the next nine games between the two, the Yankees won seven. After the Browns dropped three of four to New York in late August, they were sinking fast. And the sag to second was magnified even more by the circumstances – the season was fading quickly and the demotion had been administered directly by their unshakeable nemesis in front of a delighted enemy crowd.
However, Sisler and his teammates had come so far and were so close to redemption. They couldn’t let the opportunity simply evaporate, but their magical season was slipping away. Admirably, the Browns didn’t panic or wilt down the stretch. Instead, they reeled off six wins in their last seven games of the year and chased the Yankees with remarkable resolve all the way to the final out of the season.
In the end, they finished one game – perhaps a quirky hop or two of the ball – away from the American League pennant.
Still, their thrilling year had resonance. The idea of a Browns championship, laughable for nearly all of their lackluster history, now seemed starkly viable. And George Sisler’s lonely, unrequited baseball journey had finally taken a promising detour. If ever there was a time for the stars to align, 1923 was it.
However, the alignment of stars – or, more accurately, the mercurial blend of fate and fortune – is remarkably fragile, and the cold, hard truth of most of life’s events is not. So, a single incident can trump a multitude of harbingers.
For the Browns, the rosy outlook for the 1923 season gave way to just such a hard truth the day their best player literally could not see straight. Suffering from what was later believed to be a sinusitis – a severe nasal infection – George Sisler lost the one tool indispensable to a hitter, his perfect eyesight. The infection caused double vision and did not improve all year long.
So, St. Louis played without him. Of course, a team cannot subtract a .400 hitter from the heart of its lineup and expect a winning equation to stay intact. Baseball math simply doesn’t work that way. Subtracting a superstar from the roster requires the addition of an equivalent player to maintain mathematical equilibrium. However, finding a hitter of Sisler’s caliber throughout the history of the game would be difficult enough. Finding such a player among the Browns’ meager backups in 1923 proved impossible.
Nonetheless, Dutch Schliebner drew the short straw and, predictably, could not fill the void. Sisler’s absence left a crater, and trying to replace him with a 32-year-old rookie with modest ability only provided fractional back fill, if that. The remainder of that empty space became a vortex and pulled the rest of the lineup into it. Jacobson and Tobin both suffered sizable drop offs. Even Williams, whose stellar .357 average led the team, couldn’t match his output from the year before in virtually every other category.
Accordingly, the Browns dropped nineteen wins from the prior year, slid to fifth place, and finished a full two dozen games behind the three-time American League champion Yankees. All the while, Sisler had to stand by idly as his team and the optimism of 1922 disintegrated. He also had to witness this painful regression not knowing if or when his eyesight would clear enough to allow him back on the field, let alone return to his former glory. And, at the age of 30, he had already lost one of his prime seasons – just after he put together one of the greatest years in the history of the sport. The abrupt halt of momentum and the nagging questions of what might have been for him and his team in 1923 must have been maddening.
And those questions never went away.
In 1924, Sisler was back on the field, but the long layoff was telling. Although he again crested .300 that year, there was something missing in his game. The aura that he carried while annihilating pitching in near record proportions in 1920 and 1922 was gone. Whether it was the sinus infection that had robbed him of it or merely the vestiges of athletic aging that eroded it, he had been pushed past the razor thin line dividing good from great. And whatever faint hope the Browns had in recapturing the magic of their thrilling chase of the Yankees seemed to die the moment Sisler crossed that line.
He played another three years in St. Louis and put together seasons that would have looked good on just about anyone else’s stat sheet. However, within the context of Sisler’s career – particularly at his peak, they seemed slightly hallow, ringing with the echo of his brilliant past and the uncertainty of what his lost season had truly cost him.
In 1927, he hit .327 with 97 RBI’s, but the Browns inexplicably decided they had seen enough. Although he was just 34, Sisler was unceremoniously let go that off season, sold to the Washington Senators. There was no gold watch for meritorious service, just a tepid handshake and a rather firm shove out the door. Business was, after all, business. So, management placed a $25,000 price tag on the heart and soul of their franchise and called it good enough.
The Senators, in turn, wasted little time in reinforcing the ruthless pragmatism of the business of baseball. After just 20 games, Washington sold Sisler again. This time, he went to the lowly Boston Braves of the National League, another historically awful franchise. Between the Browns and Braves, the legendary first baseman toiled for some of the worst teams to ever take the field and must have wondered what he had ever done to be subject to such lousy baseball karma.
As with most of his days in St. Louis, his three seasons in Boston were personally successful but competitively barren. He hit over .300 each year while the team failed to finish higher than sixth. Sisler’s tremendous career ended after the 1930 season but lacked commensurate closure. During his fifteen Major League seasons, he carried a .340 lifetime batting average with 2,812 hits. And had it not been for 1923, the year everything was turned upside down, he would have easily finished with over 3,000 hits. That his big league playing days ended with little to no fanfare on an invisible team did not seem at all fitting. However, such is the hard reality of sports. Happy endings are forever conditional to the unyielding forces of athletic competition.
In St. Louis, the Browns, too, were deprived of a happy ending.
They drifted listlessly through the remainder of the 1920’s and the entirety of the 1930’s, losing more games than they won in all but two of those seasons. Star players would occasionally wander through the locker room, mostly on their way to bigger and better things. The majority of St. Louis’ rosters were filled with mediocre talent, little more than sacrificial lambs for the lions of the game in New York, Philadelphia, and Detroit. The likes of Ski Mellilo, Beauty McGowan, and Stubby Overmire – colorful names with pedestrian games – were routinely annihilated by Ruth and Gehrig, Foxx and Grove, and Cochrane and Greenberg.
When an American League pennant finally did come in 1944, there was a caveat. There had to be. The team’s troubled astrology practically required it.
In 1944, World War Two was still raging and most Major League rosters had been depleted to assist in the war effort. Since nearly all of the game’s greatest stars had traded in their jerseys for fatigues, the remaining big league talent pool turned into an odd stew of those either past military service age (and their baseball prime), designated 4-F and unfit for military duty, or not yet drafted or volunteered. This patchwork approach to putting teams together that season left a lingering residue on the results. Although the Browns parlayed one legitimate star, shortstop Vern Stephens, and stellar performances by pitchers Jack Kramer and Nels Potter to finish first, there were whispers over who they had not beaten to get there rather than who they had.
St. Louis edged out Detroit by one game to capture the American League pennant. However, the Tigers were without their great slugger Hank Greenberg, who was halfway across the world serving in the Air Force. And Detroit wasn’t alone. The third place Yankees were missing Joe Dimaggio, and the fourth place Boston Red Sox played without the great Ted Williams in the lineup. Fair or not, it was as if the Browns had waited for the elite talent to leave the stage and then ambushed the understudies for their first and only pennant.
In the World Series, the Browns faced off against their stadium roommates, the Cardinals. In contrast, the Redbirds left little doubt as to their dominance of the National League, finishing 14 ½ games ahead of their nearest competition. And the Cards didn’t have any whispers to quiet, because 1944 marked their third straight pennant.
With the Cardinals considered prohibitive favorites, the underdog Browns stunned everyone by taking two of the first three games of the Series. Baseball’s eternal long shot was just a few furlongs away from the roses. However, there was still a sizable chunk of the home stretch ahead, and the Browns could hear something gaining on them – fast.
In Game Four, Stan Musial, who batted .347 for the Cardinals during the regular season, hit a towering two-run homer in the first inning. That single crack of the bat changed everything. With the lead in hand, the Cardinals trailed only once over the next twenty-six innings, winning all three games. Harry Breechen, Mort Cooper, and Max Lanier all threw gems, holding the Browns to a lonely pair of runs for the remainder of the Series.
Just like that, the long shot’s brief flirtation with winning was over. The Cardinals celebrated in the winner’s circle, and the Browns retreated back to the paddock, wondering how things went so wrong so close to the finish line.
And they never got that close to a championship again.
The following year their spiral out of contention was punctuated by an exclamation point that only the St. Louis Browns could have dotted.
All Pete Gray wanted to do was play baseball. And he did it well enough in 1944 to be named the Most Valuable Player of the minor league Southern Association. He should have been precisely the kind of player big league teams wanted when they skimmed the minors for talent during the war years. However, it wasn’t how well he played the game that anyone cared about. It was that he played the game at all that caused jaws to drop and scared them all away from giving him a chance, except the Browns.
A horrific childhood accident had required his right arm to be amputated above the elbow. So, he played the game – and conducted the entirety of his adult life – with one arm. To many, Gray’s mere presence in the Major Leagues represented triumph, an undeniable victory of the human spirit. The rare skill required to play the game well enough to succeed at any professional level was already impressive. That Grey was able to do so facing the monumental challenges mandated by his physical condition was athletically heroic.
Unfortunately, there was also an unsettling air of exploitation surrounding his presence on the roster – a one-armed ballplayer on a perennial doormat with chronic attendance issues. The only thing missing was the din of carnival barkers.
And Gray hated it. He had hoped that he could define his big league identity through his playing ability alone. That naivete quickly gave way to the realization that his one big chance, his dream opportunity, to play Major League baseball had only arrived because a flailing team in a talent-depleted environment needed a human curiosity piece to draw in fans. And the crowds watched him relentlessly, amazed that he could swing a bat with proficiency and field a ball smoothly. Routine things other players did on the field – the ambient noise of the game – were suddenly focal points when Gray performed them. And when the fans were unable to come to him, newsreel cameras brought him to the fans.
Some of his teammates resented the unwanted spotlight as well, and Gray’s taciturn demeanor didn’t help. For all of their struggles in the standings and for professional respect over the years, they still carried the pride of being in the big leagues. And Gray cheapened that. To them, he appeared little more than a walking publicity stunt who was given a shortcut to the privilege they had worked so hard to earn.
What they hadn’t realized was that Gray paid a penance as well. With every lingering stare and excitable whisper, each slight – intended or not – chipped away at his trust and his self-esteem. However, the further such things drove him into social exile the more he channeled that fury into the game. And if such a tumultuous exchange could be considered a shortcut, it would seem unimaginable that anyone would deliberately choose it or feel like a beneficiary because of it.
On the field, despite early difficulty adjusting to the speed and power of the Major Leagues, Gray was hitting over .250 by June, and his defensive play in center field was exemplary. Under the circumstances, it was a remarkable debut. However, the merciless nature of sport is predicated on finding weaknesses. Once found, those vulnerabilities are pressed and exploited until the weakened either correct them or can no longer protect themselves. Evolve or die.
Unfortunately, Gray knew what his greatest baseball weakness was but had no way to correct it. He could time his intricate one-armed swing to catch up to a fastball and could even hit an occasional breaking pitch. However, once he started his swing it was etched in stone. Other hitters could check their swings or make timing adjustments in the middle of them, using both hands to stop or alter those hacks. Ultimately, that difference doomed Gray.
Breaking pitches became the bane of his existence. His inability to check or change his swing ended any hope of a lasting stint with the Browns. He finished the year hitting .218 in 77 games and when the cadre of players returned from the military late in the 1945 season Gray’s Major League career was finished.
Just when it seemed like things couldn’t get any stranger in St. Louis, Bill Veeck bought the team in 1951 and they did.
Veeck, of course, was baseball’s greatest maverick, seemingly living for moments when he could turn baseball convention on its ear. Not surprisingly, he also had a penchant for showmanship. So, in many ways, the blank canvas that was afforded by owning the Browns was a perfect fit for a free spirit like Veeck. After all, dreamers dream big, and there was no more sizable aspiration in baseball than to turn St. Louis’ loveable losers into winners. But he had to increase the gate to provide the capital necessary to field a winning team.
So, Veeck did what he always did when he needed publicity. He opted for spectacle over substance, hoping that his brand of bread and circuses would be enough to feed the masses. And leave it to Veeck to find the smallest player in the history of baseball to cause one of its biggest uproars.
In August, 1951, he signed 3-foot, 7-inch entertainer Eddie Gaedel, and, before the league could void the contract, sent him into a game as a pinch-hitter against Detroit. Wearing a jersey with the fraction “1/8” on the back, Gaedel stepped up to the plate, and – depending on which side of the purist line one is on – drew the most famous – or infamous – walk in baseball history.
Veeck, of course, was delighted. The crowd roared its approval, and Gaedel stopped twice along the way to first base to take bows. After he was removed from the game for a pinch-runner, the little man with the unusual uniform number received a standing ovation.
Even the Tigers were good-natured about the whole thing. Pitcher Bob Cain merely chuckled. Really, there was little else he could do. After all, trying to throw a pitch in Gaedel’s microscopic strike zone was like trying to fit a baseball into a shot glass from sixty feet away. However, Detroit had the last laugh winning the game, 6-2.
American League president Will Harridge found no humor in the incident, though, and voided Gaedel’s contract the next day. As befitting a curmudgeon of his magnitude, he also attempted to have the diminutive player’s appearance removed from the official records altogether, as if Harridge believed he could actually unring a bell.
Ultimately, though, there was only so much Veeck could do to disguise how poorly the Browns played. They finished last in 1951 and next to last in 1952. No matter how much promotional makeup he applied, the simple truth remained that they were a bad team with a largely uninteresting roster. By 1953, time and money had run out on them.
After a miserable 100-loss, last place finish, Veeck sold the team to a group who moved them to Baltimore, where they were renamed “the Orioles.” In typical Browns’ fashion, the new team essentially disowned its Missouri roots. To make matters worse, it took the Orioles less than fifteen years in their new home to win the World Series. As further salt in the wounds, Baltimore won six pennants and three world championships from 1966-1983. Earl Weaver, Jim Palmer, Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, and Cal Ripken Jr. all achieved greatness for the O’s.
All the while, those who followed the Browns and suffered through the decades of struggle and mediocrity had to watch this embarrassment of riches from afar, knowing that all of those star players and those championship seasons could have been theirs.
Still, for all of the disappointment and historically bizarre moments, the St. Louis Browns did have one rare chapter of lasting greatness in an otherwise pedestrian chronology. They had George Sisler in his prime, smashing the rest of the league to pieces.
And that’s not a bad legacy to carry, even if there never was a championship carriage ride for them.