Major League Baseball, the Cardinals and the Browns, and the Challenge of “Small Markets”


Sportsman Park in St. Louis, where both the Browns and the Cardinals played their home games until the Browns left the city.

Sportsman Park in St. Louis, where both the Browns and the Cardinals played their home games until the Browns left the city.

Not until the 1960s did baseball executives begin to use terms like “small market” to describe the unique challenges of operating a successful major league franchise in an environment that did not generate the type of revenues available to teams in such cities as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Even so, one of the most successful teams in the National League has been the St. Louis Cardinals, a franchise operating throughout the twentieth century in an increasingly “small market” city with exceptional success. In 1900, St. Louis was the fourth largest city in the United States, behind only New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. Since then the city has experienced a gradual decline in population, and by definition also a gradual decline in market for its sports teams. In 1996 it ranked 47th in the United States.

Population of St. Louis Compared to Other MLB Cities, 1900-1960

1900

1910

1920

1930

1940

1950

1960

1 New York NY NY NY NY NY NY
2 Chicago CHI CHI CHI CHI CHI CHI
3 Philadelphia PHI PHI PHI PHI PHI LA
4 St. Louis STL DET DET DET LA PHI
5 Boston BOS CLE LA LA DET DET
6 Baltimore CLE STL CLE CLE BAL BAL
7 Pittsburgh BAL BOS STL BAL CLE HOU
8 Cleveland PIT BAL BAL STL STL CLE
9 Buffalo DET PIT BOS BOS WAS WAS
10 San Francisco BUF LA PIT PIT BOS STL

While New York and Chicago retained its place in the forefront of the American cities, St. Louis declined so significantly that its cross-state rival, Kansas City, actually overtook it in population by the time of the 1990 census and in 1996 ranked 33rd in the United States to St. Louis’ 47th place. Such non-major league cities as Nashville, Jacksonville, San Jose, and Columbus outranked it in population by 1980. A corresponding drop took place during the 1980s, to the extent that by 1990 St. Louis was ranked 35th, and the decline has not yet abated.

Compared to five other Midwestern cities—Cincinnati, Detroit, Indianapolis, Kansas City, and Milwaukee—St. Louis has also lost a great amount of ground as a major population center. Indianapolis, which has never been a major league baseball city, began ranking in the top 15 of U.S. cities by 1970 and by this measure should have received its own baseball franchise. From this chart, additionally, it looks as if both St. Louis and Cincinnati lost much of their porimacy in supporting major league franchises in the 1980s and that if decisions were made on that basis alone they should move elsewhere. Moreover, Milwaukee, which has always been considered a marginal major league city, should be able based to support a franchise very well based on population statistics. Of course, these population statistics only speak to the city itself, and the St. Louis metropolitan area has a base that is large enough to sustain its activities, but nothing compared to what Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and other major areas routinely demonstrate.

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century St. Louis supported two MLB teams, the Browns and the Cardinals. They were quite competitive through the middle 1920s insofar as their attendance was concerned. Neither team was stellar, but the Browns made a run at the pennant in 1922 and finished a close second. During the time of the two teams’ co-location, the Cardinals outdrew the Browns in home attendance—25,784,213 to 15,377,027—for the entire period that they shared the city of St. Louis between 1902 to 1953. For this 51-year period, the Cardinals averaged 505,573 per year to the Browns’ 301,510 average per year. But until the Cardinals began to dominate the National League with their first World Championship in 1926, the two teams were essentially even in their ability to draw fans. The Browns actually outdrew the Cardinals—8,353,058 to 7,073,290—through the 1925 season, the Browns averaging 363,176 attendees to the Cardinals’ 307,534 per year. For the period between 1926 and the last year the Browns played in St. Louis, 1953, the Cardinals averaged 692,989 spectators per year to the Browns’ average draw of 260,147.

Of course, during the period 1926-1953, the Cardinals won nine pennants (with seven World Series championships), and that certainly made a difference. Also, the Cardinals finished second or third 12 additional times. The Cardinals were an exceptionally strong team that competed well every year. During the same period, the Browns won one pennant (1944) and finished second or third only three other times. In 1935, with a team that finished seventh in the league, thank goodness for the hapless Philadelphia Athletics, the Browns drew only 80,922 spectators.

Cardinals-Browns Attendance

Nothing points up the lack of paying customers that the Browns experienced in the early 1950s better than a humorous story of Bill Veeck, who owned the Browns between 1951 and its move to Baltimore in 1953. When one of the Browns’ faithful asked Veeck what time the game was that day, Veeck supposedly responded, “anytime you want, what time can you be there?” In was not quite that bad, but close. Using his now famous stunts, give-aways, and hucksterisms Veeck boosted Browns’ attendance from 293,790 in 1951 to 518,796 in 1952. But it was a case of too little-too late, and for comparison the Cardinals drew over one million each of those years.

There was a direct correlation between the attendance and the won/lost percentage for both teams. The better the team on the field, the greater the likelihood of drawing large spectators. Interestingly, in 1944, the year that the Cardinals and the Browns both won their league’s pennants, the teams drew virtually the same numbers. But the Cardinals’ attendance exploded in the postwar era while the Browns’ turnstiles collapsed. Despite Veeck’s efforts to boost Browns attendance, stunts such as the dwarf Eddie Gaedel batting and the desegregation of the Browns in 1951 while the Cardinals waited until the end of the 1950s, nothing seemed to work.

It became obvious that the two teams could not remain in St. Louis together. One had to leave, and the Browns left for Baltimore where they became the Orioles. The Cardinals went on to remain a powerhouse in the National League, winning nine more pennants and five World Series between 1954 and the present. But the city remains a smaller market than many others. Through strong management the Cardinals have proven that success is not dependent on having money to burn. And burning money has not really been overwhelmingly successful for other franchises as well. Big spenders have more options, no doubt, but that alone does not guarantee success.

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