More than 100 years ago, before this part of the country was Cardinal red, it was brown, as in the St. Louis Browns.
If you’ve heard of the team or were a fan, you may think of them as “lovable losers,” but for the first 20 years or so that they were in St. Louis, the Browns were a really good team — better than their hometown rivals, the Cardinals, said Ed Wheatley, who is co-author of a 176-page coffeetable book on the Browns, “St. Louis Browns, the Story of a Beloved Team,” published by Reedy Press.
Wheatley will be in Washington Thursday, June 14, for a booksigning at Neighborhood Reads Bookstore, 401 Lafayette St., in Downtown Washington at 5 p.m., followed by a presentation on the Browns at 6:30 p.m. at Washington Public Library across the street from the bookstore.
The Browns came to St. Louis from Milwaukee for the 1902 season and played here until 1953, when they moved to Baltimore and became the Orioles.
For the first two decades, the Browns were so good that they “were the toast of St. Louis,” Wheatley remarked. “St. Louis was a Browns town.
“And in the 1920s, with George Sisler, one of the greatest ball players ever, they had some of the best teams in the history of baseball. They were very, very good.”
Unfortunately for the Browns, they had to compete against “the mighty New York Yankees, who had Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig at that time,” said Wheatley.
“It was also that time that Branch Rickey started the farm system for the Cardinals, and the Cardinals started their run in all those World Series.”
So in the late ’20s, as the Browns were aging, the Cardinals had a surge of young talent.
“And the town turns from brown to red, because of it,” said Wheatley. “You go with the winners, right? The Cardinals are in the World Series almost every year or every other year from the late ’20s to the ’40s.
“Slowly the Cardinals own the town, and the Browns take a back seat.”
The Browns are still able to compete, and they have loyal fans, but they are considered the underdogs, said Wheatley. Then in 1944, with World War II raging, the Browns make it all the way to the World Series.
Who do they have to play? Their hometown rivals, the Cardinals, who had just won the World Series in ’42 and played in it in ’43.
The Browns lost the ’44 World Series, and from that point things only got worse for the team.
“Every year after that, if you are a good player on the Browns you are probably traded or sold for money,” said Wheatley. “They slowly fall into the bottom division of baseball.”
Then Bill Veeck, who had been a minority owner of the Cleveland Indians when the team won the World Series in ’48, came to St. Louis and bought the Browns in 1950 thinking he could run the Cardinals out of town, said Wheatley.
Three years later, it was just the opposite.
Frank Saucier, a World War II and Korean War veteran who is described as “one of the best athletes to come out of Washington High School,” was recruited by Veeck and signed a contract with the Browns for 1951.
He ended up only playing 18 games with the team due to his late signing and also because he was called back into active duty with the U.S. Navy during spring training in 1952.
An extensive six-part story of Saucier’s service in the Navy and his career as a baseball player appeared in The Missourian’s monthly Senior LifeTimes paper from December 1997 through April 1998.
Saucier’s brief time with the Browns is remembered by many for a stunt that Veeck pulled during an Aug. 19, 1951, game against the Detroit Tigers. Veeck sent Eddie Gaedel, a little person who was just 3 feet, 7 inches, to the plate to pinch hit for Saucier.
Gaedel reached first base on a walk, at which point regular outfielder Jim Delsing came in to run for him.
Wheatley recounts the story in the book with images of Gaedel at bat, in the dugout and the Browns jersey Gaedel wore (1/8 was his number).
That was one of just several stunts Veeck pulled, which led to the Browns being sold and moved to Baltimore, and also a big reason why the Orioles didn’t want to claim the team’s St. Louis history, said Wheatley.
Browns Are Still Beloved
Wheatley, who wrote the “St. Louis Browns” book with Bill Borst and Bill Rogers, said even though it’s been 65 years since the Browns left St. Louis, the team is just as beloved today as it was then — despite its losing record and Veeck’s stunts.
He hears from many people at booksignings and presentations who gush over their memories of the team.
“ ‘Oh, this was my dad’s team!’ or ‘Oh, we remember this . . . ’ or ‘I want to know all about them, because that’s all (Mom) used to talk about,” said Wheatley.
At one presentation a man wanted to show him his “Brownie Brigade” card, which were given to students
“He’d been carrying it in his wallet since seventh grade, and he’s in his mid-80s now. That’s the kind of love people have for the Browns,” said Wheatley.
All three authors of the book are members of the St. Louis Browns Historical Society and fan club, which includes around 500 members nationwide. The group holds quarterly events quarterly as well as an annual reunion luncheon, which this year will be July 12.
“A lot of the Browns and other people from baseball come, and we generally have a full hotel ballroom,” said Wheatley.
“What’s amazing is there have been other teams that have relocated — the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Philadelphia Athletics, the Boston Braves, and their fan clubs are defunct, but we still have one that will have 200 to 300 people come to our luncheon in July, so there is this passion for the Browns,” said Wheatley.
‘The Browns Died, Are Buried in St. Louis’
St. Louis owns the Browns history basically because the Baltimore Orioles didn’t want it, said Wheatley. Unlike other teams that had relocated — the Brooklyn Dodgers, who moved to Los Angeles; the Boston Braves, who moved to Atlanta; and the Philadelphia Athletics, who moved to Oakland — and honored the great players from their past, the Baltimore Orioles do not recognize their tenure of the franchise in St. Louis, said Wheatley.
“They said the St. Louis Browns died and were buried in St. Louis. Their legend did not need to come east,” he remarked.
“So you don’t see a pennant for the American League Championship in 1944 in Camden Yards. There are no statues of the 15 men who are in the Hall of Fame who were with the Browns, or George Sisler, who was one of the greatest ballplayers of all time,” said Wheatley.
(Sisler, who was a local St. Louis boy and is buried here does have a statue outside of Busch Stadium III.)
So when Wheatley worked with the Nine Network to make a documentary companion to the book, they named the film “St. Louis Browns, the Team Baseball Forgot.”
“Because they were forgotten,” said Wheatley, “until we wrote this book. There had never really been a definitive book of this type.”
The 90-minute documentary, which is narrated by St. Louis native Jon Hamm, is scheduled to air on Channel 9 Monday, June 4, at 8:30 p.m.; Wednesday, June 6, at 11:30 p.m.; and Sunday, June 10, at 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.
Book Takes People Back in Time
The “St. Louis Browns” book has not only been popular from the day it was available last fall, it also has earned some prestigious recognition:
Sports Collectors Digest named it the best baseball book published in 2017, and it also was nominated by SABR (Society for American Baseball Research) for the Larry Ritter Award as the best baseball book published in 2017.
More than just a history of the Browns, the book is like a time capsule of the early 20th century.
“Baseball was a different world in those days,” said Wheatley. “We didn’t have video. We didn’t have 400 channels. Most of the time people didn’t even have television.
We had three wars — World War I, World War II and Korea. We had a Great Depression where people, day to day didn’t know if they had enough money for food for themselves,” he said. “But the one thing through all those simpler times, those ups and downs, there was baseball.”
Football and hockey weren’t popular sports yet. There was just baseball.
“You could walk around the house and there wasn’t air conditioning, so the windows were always open everywhere you went, and what did you hear? You heard the ballgame,” said Wheatley. “So we want to take people back in time.”
So included in the book, which has a foreword written by Bob Costas, are 300 “vignettes” and more than 700 images of players and memorabilia that help frame the story.
One example is a story of Dizzy Dean, who was the ace pitcher for the 1930s Cardinals, when they were known as the Gashouse Gang. But in 1947, Dean was working as an announcer for the Browns and the Cardinals. He announced both games because they played in the same stadium, Wheatley noted.
“(Dean) hadn’t pitched in the major leagues in six years and hadn’t been any good in 10 years because the last four years of his career he was hurt . . . but he was announcing, and he would talk about ‘these pitchers, they’re terrible. They can’t do anything . . . I could set these guys down today as a fat old man,’ ” said Wheatley. “Well, it caused an uproar in 1947 so on Sept. 29 he signed a one-day contract with the St. Louis Browns. He comes out and he throws shut-out ball. He even stretches a single into a double, but kind of wrenches his back sliding funny . . . so he had to come out of the game, but he was throwing a shutout.”
The scorecard and a ticket stub from that game are featured in the book, along with a team-signed ball with Dean’s autograph.
Wheatley felt strongly about including autographs whenever he could because for people who love baseball, “it’s a way of touching.”
Readers also will see scorecards with ads for products like Griesedieck Bros. Beer, Gem Blades and City Ice.
Wheatley already is working on a sequel to the book, which will focus on Browns memorabilia inspired by the stories he’s hearing from Browns fans at book presentations.
Wheatley has seen people cry and get choked up over their memories of the Browns. One of the most touching stories he’s heard was about a man who gave the book to his father, a Browns’ fan who now has Alzheimer’s.
“I gave him your book, he popped it open and just starts rattling off this player, that player, telling stories about games he watched,” the man told Wheatley.
Bring Your Browns Stories, Memorabilia
Wheatley expects his presentation here Thursday, June 14, at Washington Public Library will run around 30 to 45 minutes with more time allowed for questions, stories and show-and-tell.
There will be a PowerPoint presentation with commentary, and Wheatley said he will let the audience guide the discussion.
“I want to let the people tell their stories too,” he said. “These are the people who it means so much to, and they have golden memories and golden stories . . . People who were at the ’44 World Series, ‘and look, I brought my ticket stub!’ You want to make sure they have the opportunity to share that. I want them to go away feeling really pumped up.”
Neighborhood Reads Bookstore is sponsoring Wheatley’s presentation and has books available for purchase now. The store also will be selling books during the signing from 5-6 p.m. at the bookstore and at the library presentation.
Wheatley’s newest book, the soon-to-be-released “Incredible Cardinals,” is a rhyming children’s book highlighting the greatest St. Louis Cardinal players. The author will be back in Washington at Neighborhood Reads Bookstore Saturday, June 30, to read the new book and sign copies from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Watch The Missourian for more details.