Why Do Teams Leave their Host Cities? Major League Baseball in St. Louis as a Case Study


Sportsman's Park in St. Louis, where both the Cardinals and the Browns played baseball for many years in first half of the twentieth century.

Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, where both the Cardinals and the Browns played baseball for many years in first half of the twentieth century.

Between 1902 and 1954 the American League and the National League franchises in St. Louis competed for control of the fans in the city. The National League’s Cardinals eventually won that competition, forcing the Browns to leave for Baltimore where they became the Orioles. During that period the Cardinals became a powerhouse team, winning the World Series in 1926, 1928, 1931, 1934, and 1942, 1944, and 1946. They won several additional pennants during the era. The Browns took one pennant, 1944, and suffered defeat at the hands of a dynastic Cardinals rival. Throughout this time the Browns and the Cardinals shared a shrinking demographic fan base and this was one of the reasons the Browns eventually left the city. Not only did the pie not expand as time passed, it actually got smaller. That meant that it was only a matter of time before one or the other of the two teams would have to depart the city. Because of demographic shifts since the 1960s one may legitimately speculate as to whether St. Louis remains a major league city as the twenty-first century dawns, since there are so many other larger population centers in the nation, many of them without major league representation.

The Browns dugout in the 1940s.

The Browns dugout in the 1940s.

Second, because of a stagnant population base, the two teams had to compete mightily for the limited dollars available for major league baseball in St. Louis. Competition took place on a broad front. Since baseball is essentially a part of the entertainment industry, delivering a good time to the spectators is critical to the success of a franchise. This can most effectively be accomplished through high quality play on the field. Without question the Cardinals ruled in this arena, at least after 1926, and they accordingly captured the majority of the baseball fans’ loyalties in the city. In 1926, for instance, the Cardinals won the pennant and had an attedance of 506,000 for the season. The Browns’ attendance was a woeful 81,000. To demonstrate this further, in 1935 the Browns averaged 1,051 per game. Until the Cardinals, buttressed by the brilliance of Branch Rickey’s farm system, began to dominate the National League, the Browns competed very well for the baseball dollar in St. Louis. Even without fielding a great team, attendance at games could be enhanced by offering other types of attractions. Browns owner Bill Veeck was a master of this, as had been Chris Von der Ahe before him. Veeck’s maxim that more people will pay to see a bad team play ball if other entertainment also takes place than will pay to see a poor team play ball is appropriate. And in 1952 he doubled Browns attendance by offering “bread and circuses” along with a woeful Browns game. The Cardinals also froze the Browns out of the extended family of supporters in the Midwest and the South. Radio began to make an impact on the sport as early as 1920s, and the Cardinals were an early proponent of the new media’s use to expand its market. The team found that its use of radio significantly expanded its fan base. Routinely broadcasting recreations of its games since the latter 1920s, in 1934 the Cardinals decided not to broadcast regular games that season. Despite an exciting pennant winning team, the gashouse gang led by Dizzy Dean, season attendance fell 283,000 below that of the last pennant winner, the 1931 team. Accordingly, the Cardinal front office believed it had to restore its regular season radio broadcasts.

A department store window in downtown St. Louis at the time that the Cardinals played the Browns in the 1944 World Series.

A department store window in downtown St. Louis at the time that the Cardinals played the Browns in the 1944 World Series.

By the time of the Cardinals dynasty of the 1940s the Cardinals boasted a regional network of 120 stations in nine states, anchored by the powerful KMOX station in St. Louis. From the Great Plains to the Deep South the St. Louis Cardinals became the team most of the heartland identified with, and they rewarded the franchise by making thousands of bus trips to St. Louis to see Cardinals games. The voice of the Cardinals for most of those years was the irascible Harry Caray and millions tuned in every day to hear his stirring accounts of the boys in red. The Browns were late in adopting radio, and it never drew the listeners of the Cardinals. One of the questions that must be asked about these two teams is if there is any evidence that certain groups followed one or the other of the teams? What was the ethnic, class, or other demographic loyalty for the St. Louis teams at various periods? From the very earliest time, both teams were largely Irish-American and they were embraced by the large German/American constituency in the city. That close relationship remained throughout the Browns/Cardinals era. None of these teams, furthermore, gained much of a following from the African-American community, who reserved their loyalty for the Negro league teams. But there was more to this than ethnicity. The Cardinals became the embodiment of the American heartland in a way the Browns never did. They were hayseeds, just like most of the people who supported them. They represented rural America—simplicity, rusticity, small towns, Protestant beliefs, and hard-working commoners—and the fact that they won against the representatives of the big city, the New York Giants and Yankees, placed them in good stead with their fans. And their best players personified those perceived virtues. Dizzy Dean was a southern hick who beat the best anyone had to offer. Is it any wonder that once his playing days were over he could prosper as a broadcaster for the Cardinals cross-town rivals, selling homespun humor and hardcore American values?

The greatest Cardinal of them all, Stan Musial.

The greatest Cardinal of them all, Stan Musial.

The greatest Cardinal, Stan Musial, demonstrated more than anyone those simple virtues. From the backhills of Pennsylvania’s mining country Musial strode across the National League as a giant for more than twenty years, but one who never forgot that hard work, good manners, and honorable actions brought him to greatness. His streak of 895 consecutive games played, which stood as a National League record until broken by Billy Williams of the Cubs in 1970, was one record that Musial especially prized for it demonstrated his commitment to the working class value of coming to work everyday. There is a Hollywood formula for any successful war movie, and from The Sands of Iwo Jima to Saving Private Ryan it has been played out in most of them. They all have as members of small combat units streetwise punks from Brooklyn or Newark and farmboys from the Midwest and southern country boys and city slickers from New York. The audiences identify with these characters depending on background and familiarity. Similar dichotomies are at play in major league baseball. While the Dodgers represented working class urbanites, and the Yankees reflected the glitter of the upper class in the big city, the Cardinals symbolized the Midwestern farming culture and the southern backcountry. To the extent that they were successful, and they were very successful during the second quarter of the twentieth century, the Cardinals served to heighten those regions’ collective spirit. Finally, the Cardinals were able to force the Browns out of St. Louis because of two horrendously bad decisions made by the Browns ownership. First, in 1917 Browns owner Philip C. Ball pushed Branch Rickey out of his organization. Rickey, who was on the way to building a winner and whose efforts bore fruit in the 1920s, went across town to the Cardinals. There he employed the same strategies that he had undertaken with the Browns and the result was Cardinal domination of the National League for the next generation. Had Ball left Rickey alone the Browns might have become the big winners in town. Second, in 1920 the Cardinals wooden ballpark in St. Louis burned down. Branch Rickey persuaded Philip Ball to grant the Cardinals a long-term lease for the Browns state-of-the-art concrete and steel stadium, Sportsman’s Park. Henceforth, the Cardinals shared the park with the Browns for longer than any other two teams, until 1953. Had the Browns owner said no, the Cardinals, who had no ready capital with which to build their own ballpark, would have been forced to seek a home elsewhere, perhaps somewhere other than in St. Louis. In an irony too great to ignore, the Browns owner sowed the seeds of his teams own demise in 1920, although it took a half century for the team to reach its nadir. In the end, St. Louis was not big enough for both teams. The Cardinals forced out the weaker of the two teams that shared the St. Louis fan base. This story has been played out in several other cities over time. The Yankees forced the Giants and Dodgers to leave the region in the 1950s. The A’s departed Philadelphia in the 1950s when they could not compete with the Phillies. The Braves left Boston to the Red Sox for Milwaukee. We may see several other moves in the future. The most obvious move we might well see in the next few years is for the Oakland A’s to depart their home since the 1960s because of the Giants’ hold on the fan base in the bay area.

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2 Responses to Why Do Teams Leave their Host Cities? Major League Baseball in St. Louis as a Case Study

  1. _OM_ (@_OM_) says:

    …OF course, this book leaves out what all of the “why is sport X dying?” books leave out as a major cause – if not *the* major cause – for declining attendance: the ridiculous prices for admission, not to mention concessionals. The Minors have actually seen a rise in attendance over the last decade – especially where the local team is concerned – because they’ve kept ticket prices low enough for even the kids to attend at least two games a season without having to peek through the knotholes behind left field. And getting a Coke and a hot dog doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, especially if it’s a special promo day where they make up the discounts on the sheer volume.

    No, sorry, but thanks to both owner and player greed – especially where the despised player’s mafi…er, “union” is concerned, it’s just more justification for my boycotting the majors ever since the Centennial Strike. Good review of the book, tho. Too bad it doesn’t have a happy ending :(

    :OM:

    Like

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