During the offseason I will be taking a look at the past, giving readers a timeline of St. Louis baseball throughout history. The series started last week with “Baseball Beginnings in St. Louis.” This week we will look at the team from 1900-1905.
After Frank and Stanley Robinson bought the St. Louis franchise in 1898, they knew that changes had to occur. Chris Von der Ahe’s shoddy ownership had left the team in shambles, and in order to earn some respect back the new owners took swift action. Some of the changes were cosmetic, the name change, the uniform color, etc. They continued to play in League Park, as the Browns had, but most of the players on the roster were shown the door to make way for most of the Cleveland Spiders’ players. After purchasing the Browns, the Robinsons technically owned both teams, and decided that it would be in the best interest of the St. Louis club to bring talent into town.
The first wave of players that made the jump included future Hall of Famers Cy Young, Jesse Burkett and Bobby Wallace. Unfortunately, while the Spiders had been hugely successful in Cleveland during the early 1890’s (winning the 1895 championship), that success did not transfer to St. Louis, and the team finished in fifth place in both 1899 and 1900. However, to put things in perspective, the previous seven years had found the St. Louis club no higher than ninth out of twelve, finishing twelfth in both of the last two years before the Robinsons came on board. With that information, things did not look so bad!
The Cardinals had a horrible time holding on to the players that had come down from Cleveland, losing Young after just two seasons and Burkett and Wallace after three. Despite playing well in the Gateway City, none of the players seemed comfortable in Cardinal red, and for a time every large name that rolled in to town found a way to jump teams as soon as possible. Burkett and Wallace were so desperate to jump ship that they left after 1901 to join the new Browns team that had been jumpstarted to join the newly formed American League!
Sadly, these were not the only three big names to cycle quickly through the early rosters of Cardinal players. Frank Robinson had worked out a trade with Baltimore for John McGraw and Wilbert Robinson, two more future Hall of Famers (although for very different reasons). Both men were frustrated with the prospect of leaving their hometown, and Robinson had to coerce the two players to come to St. Louis by promising to let them out of their contracts after the 1900 season.
Both McGraw and Robinson hated playing for the Cardinals. They would intentionally get themselves ejected from games so they could leave early and head to the track. Neither could find even a moment of joy playing the game like they had in Baltimore. The Cardinals were not playing well, the city was not particularly interested in the team (their reputation was still too tarnished from the Von der Ahe age), and even when Frank Robinson offered McGraw the manager’s position in the middle of the season, McGraw turned it down, and the two men jumped ship at season’s end and took off for Baltimore. Wilbert Robinson’s playing career would finish two years later, and he then spent nineteen years as manager of the Baltimore Orioles and Brooklyn Robins. McGraw’s story was just getting started.
Had John McGraw been convinced by Frank Robinson to stay on as manager of the Cardinals, it is guaranteed that the team would have been more successful than they were in the early part of the 20th century. In three years with Baltimore and thirty-one years with the New York Giants, McGraw put together an astounding 2,583-1790 record, which still has him in second place on the all-time managerial wins list. (You might recognize the manager currently sitting 125 wins back of McGraw. He goes by the name LaRussa.) Oh yes, things most assuredly would have looked different for the Cardinals if they had been able to retain someone with the managerial smarts that McGraw possessed.
From the years of 1902 through 1905, the Cardinals put together no winning campaigns and finished no higher than fifth out of eight teams in the National League. To be fair, the teams did have some great names playing for them, such as Chappie McFarland, Doc Smoot, Spike Shannon, and future Hall of Famers Kid Nichols and Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown.
Nichols was actually on the downside of his career by the time he reached the Cardinals, having already pitched ten 20 win seasons before catching on with St. Louis in 1904. Kid had actually been out of professional baseball for two years before the jump to St. Louis, but just to prove that he still had it, his first year with the Cardinals he went 21-13 with a 2.02 ERA over 36 starts and 317(!!!) innings. Just two years later Nichols was out of baseball, but not before setting some records, including being the youngest pitcher to reach 300 wins, doing so by age 32. In need of a record even more intriguing? After baseball Nichols opened several bowling alleys in the Kansas City area, and became such a proficient bowler that he won a Class A bowling championship at age 64.
Mordecai Brown actually had more than three fingers, but lost most of two of them in a farming accident as a teen. Because of his disfigured hand, Brown found that he could create an interesting grip, and had one of the most astounding curveballs of the early 20th century because of it. The ridiculous amount of topspin he was able to create with his assortment of pitches made him one of the most extreme groundball pitchers in the history of the game (Dave Duncan on line one). Brown actually lasted just one year in St. Louis (his first, going 9-13) before moving on to Chicago, where he spent the next nine years and won 20 plus games six times in a row, solidifying a Hall of Fame career. If that is not an indication of how things went for the Cardinals in the first years of the 20th century, nothing else will come close.
Check back next week to learn about Rube Waddell, Sportsman’s Park, and how the Browns helped rig a batting title.