Friday, March 4, 2016

Island of Lost Teams (Part II--The St. Louis Browns)

The St. Louis Browns began their existence as the Brown Stockings in the American Association. During their inaugural season of 1882, they finished out of pennant contention. Their fortunes changed dramatically soon afterward as the club appeared in four consecutive World Series from 1885 through 1887. Prior to 1903, all postseason games were considered exhibitions and the number of games played varied widely. In 1886, the Browns won four of six meetings against the Chicago White Stockings. The following year, they lost ten of fifteen contests against the Detroit Wolverines.

The American Association folded after the 1891 campaign and the Browns (as they were known by then) joined the National League. Aside from Hall of Fame first baseman Roger Connor, they carried few stars on their roster, placing ninth or lower in the standings for seven straight seasons. Before the 1898 slate, Cleveland Spiders owners Frank and Stanley Robison, bought the ailing St. Louis franchise from eccentric proprietor Chris von der Ahe. Believing that a team in St. Louis would generate higher attendance, the Robisons raided the Cleveland roster, transferring their best players to the newly purchased Browns, which they renamed the Perfectos. Thirty-two year old Cy Young won 26 games that year and Hall of Fame shortstop Bobby Wallace had one of his best seasons at the plate as the newly christened Perfectos compiled a respectable 84-67 record. As predicted, their attendance was second best in the league. Meanwhile, the pitiful Spiders posted the worst record in major league history at 20-134. Unable to draw fans to the ballpark, they played most of their games on the road. The Spiders were ousted from the league along with three other teams before the 1900 slate. The Perfectos survived, though their name was changed to the Cardinals.  

When the American League was elevated to major league status in 1901, the Browns were not among the original lineup. After posting a miserable 48-89 record and attracting few spectators in '01, the Milwaukee Brewers moved to St. Louis and borrowed the Perfectos discarded moniker. During five decades of play, the "new" Browns lost more than 100 games eight times and finished last during ten seasons. The club made just one postseason appearance--in 1944 when more than 300 players were serving in the military. Facing the rival Cardinals, with whom they shared a stadium, they lost the Series in six games. The Browns fielded their best team during the early-'20s. In those days, the outfield was manned by a trio of stars--Ken Williams, Jack Tobin and Baby Doll Jacobson, who topped the .300 mark together in five consecutive campaigns. St. Louis's first baseman--Hall of Famer George Sisler--set a record for hits in a single season (since broken) with 257 while topping the .400 mark at the plate twice. With Sisler, Tobin, Williams and Jacobson all in their prime, the Browns won 93 games and finished one game behind the powerhouse Yankees in 1922. It was their highest order of finish until the dubious pennant run of '44. 

In 1951, the flamboyant Bill Veeck purchased the club. He renovated Sportsman's Park, changed the team's uniforms and began signing talented players, among them Negro League legend Satchel Paige. Despite Veeck's strenuous efforts, which included wild promotional schemes such as the infamous midget at-bat gag, the Browns floundered in the standings. Veeck considered moving to Milwaukee but the Braves beat him to the punch. He then set his sights on Baltimore, but the American League rejected his bid. Out of viable options, the maverick owner sold the Browns to a Baltimore lawyer named Clarence Miles. With Veeck out of the picture, the AL endorsed a move to Baltimore in 1954. The Browns have played as the Orioles ever since.  

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