I often wish one of the great play-writes like Moss Hart or Arthur Miller, or a screenwriter like Billy Wilder, had been bigger baseball fans, as the game would often make a very funny script.
If I had a mind to write one, I would set the plot in St. Louis, at the height of the Second World War. Baseball had a large presence there, and for plenty of seasons including the war years, the Gateway City was home to two major league ball teams.
The National League entry had played in St. Louis since 1892, as one of the surviving franchises from the American Association, which had failed financially the year before. The Brown Stockings took their name from their hose color in the best 1890s baseball tradition. The team changed their name in 1899 to Perfectos and in 1900, mercifully changed it again to Cardinals.
The American League entry arrived a bit later, beginning play in St. Louis in 1902, just a year after their formation. They had been known as the Western League prior to that season, but made the jump to big league status by fielding teams in Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia to compete directly with the National League.
By 1902, two American League franchises that did not fair well at the box office decided to relocate to existing National League cities and further escalate the competition with the Senior Circuit. This occurred with the Baltimore franchise shifting to New York, eventually becoming the Yankees, and the Milwaukee Brewers franchise moving to St. Louis. (It does seem ironic that the city of Milwaukee lost a Brewers ball club after only one season, and then in 1970 gained a Brewers ball club after the Seattle Pilots franchise failed after only one season in that location.)
The new St. Louis entry called themselves by a familiar name in the area, the Browns. The team, over the years, used the crusading knight figure of Saint Louis himself as a mascot. Later a pixie or an elf was used as the representation of what a “Brown” or “Brownie” was.
The St. Louis Browns acquired the former ballpark of the Cardinals, which was located along the streetcar line on Grand Boulevard (let your mind’s eye go to that image of Judy Garland and the ringing trolley bell). This location was known as Sportsman’s Park, and was located in the city’s rapidly developing north side. The Cardinals had already built a new ballpark about five blocks away, which was called Robinson Field.
The Browns were a gate success in St. Louis, and made a continuing investment in Sportsman’s Park, developing it into a two-tier concrete stadium, with covered bleacher seats that wrapped entirely around the outfield fence. The Cardinal ownership, in the person of Sam Breadon, ran into financial difficulties and, in an effort to save the franchise in 1920, sold Robinson Field and moved his team to Sportsman’s Park, as tenants of the Browns.
That sets the general scene of my one-act play in St. Louie, and I suppose you would need to add in some of the privations that occurred on the home front during World War II, such as gasoline and tire rationing, scrap drives, and saving your oven pan drippings for munitions production and your old newspaper provided shipping dunnage.
President Franklin Roosevelt made a landmark decision that was contrary to these home front strictures, in allowing major league baseball to continue during the war. The President rationalized that baseball broadcasts and box scores reaching fighting Americans overseas would buoy morale and provide a sense of purpose. The quality of baseball play itself was not really at a major league caliber during the war, with so many of the regular players having shed their flannels and donned military uniforms.
Another wartime shortage that would further define the period was the housing shortage, which has largely been forgotten. This particular shortage, brought on as the country ramped up for the incredible production requirements of wartime, was prevalent across the nation. This led to some creative uses of housing and created what may now be perceived as comical domestic situations to cope with the issue.
To further set the scene, by autumn of 1944 the Allies were pushing across France, after succeeding in North Africa and Italy. The island-hopping campaign in the Pacific was moving ever closer to Japan, and the St. Louis Cardinals had won the National League pennant.
The Cards were fairly dominant during wartime play, reaping the harvest of Branch Rickey’s farm system; this was their third straight pennant. Rickey was demonstrating his often stated theory that “luck is the residue of design.”
The Cardinals roster included the legendary Stan Musial as well as pitcher Mort Cooper, and his little brother Walker a catcher, forming a brotherhood battery. The Redbirds ran away with the 1944 season, finishing 14½ games ahead of the second place Pirates and 43½ games ahead of the last place Phillies.
In the American League, a four team race came down to the final week of the season, with the Yankees and Red Sox in their traditional contention, along with the Detroit Tigers and their reliable southpaw Hal Newhouser winning 29 games, and the surprising Browns.
It was widely reported that the entire Browns infield was classified 4-F (ineligible for military service due to physical limitations), and most of the rest of the team disqualified militarily, due to their age. But the Browns got hot at the right time, beating the Yankees in five games during that final week and outpacing the Tigers by a single game.
Luke Sewell, who had been a fine defensive catcher with many teams including the Indians, Senators and White Sox, was the winning manager of the Browns. After being released by the Brooklyn Dodgers prior to the 1939 season, Sewell became the pitching coach for the Indians. His experience as a catcher and a coach put him in position to replace Fred Haney as manager of the Browns in 1942.
Due to the wartime player shortage, he reactivated himself for the remainder of the 1942 season, often managing the team from behind the plate. Sewell imparted on his players his many years of baseball experience through his thick southern drawl. The pitching squad he assembled in 1944 secured the only pennant the St. Louis Browns would ever win.
The Cardinals’ manager was Billy Southworth, a former journeyman major league outfielder. Southworth was seasoned as a manager at the Cardinals top farm team, the Rochester Red Wings, for several years.
The major league schedule makers have always had to make special consideration for the cities with more than one big league team, in order to prevent the clubs from playing at home on the same day. This is still true in cities like New York, where the Mets and Yankees are rarely at home simultaneously.
In 1944, this was especially necessary in St. Louis, with both clubs sharing Sportsman’s Park. This schedule allowed manager Sewell and manager Southworth to share an apartment, maximizing housing use due to the chronic shortage.
This shared apartment would be the set for our play, during the week of the 1944 World Series between the Browns and the Cardinals. Can you imagine losing the coin toss for the bed? Unfortunately, I can’t write humor; too bad Neil Simon wasn’t aware of this situation. I am sure he would have found a way to develop an excess of humor with this odd-ball couple.
There have been numerous “subway series” in New York with the various clubs over the years, and in 1906 there was an “all Chicago” World Series, and the Oakland-San Francisco series also comes to mind. However, there will never again be another St. Louis “street-car” Series.
Following the 1953 season, the Browns sold Sportsman’s Park to the Cardinals (which they renamed Busch Stadium) and relocated to Baltimore, where they continue as the Orioles. Gone forever are the days when Big League ball clubs shared home fields, allowing their managers to share an apartment. I think it is hilarious to consider this ever could have occurred, but it did, and it only happened once.
By the way, for those who don’t know, the Cardinals won the St. Louis street car series.
Photos, from above: Billy Southwards heads home (Rochester Times Union); articles from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and New York Sun; and a postcard showing Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis.
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