The Cardinals In Time: Branch Rickey Makes The Jump

During the offseason we have been taking a look at the past, giving readers a timeline of St. Louis baseball throughout history. Last time we learned about how Roger Bresnahan helped create catcher’s gear and Branch Rickey’s start in baseball.

In the executive branch of the Baseball Hall Of Fame there are many legendary baseball names. Some were commissioners such as Ford Frick and Kenesaw Landis. Some were owners such as Tom Yawkey and Walter O’Malley. However, if you as a baseball fan are unaware of the impact that Branch Rickey has played in baseball, you have missed a tremendous story. He is definitely worthy of his own story, but it is safe to say you readers will be reading his name a lot over the next few weeks from me.

"Gorgeous George" Sisler

In 1915, George Sisler, who had been signed with Rickey’s help and played in half of the season, was already showing signs of the player that was to come. He hit .285 that first year while also pitching 70 innings over 15 games (yes, he was also a pitcher his first two years in the bigs). Over the next five years Sisler emerged as one of the league’s top offensive threats.

1920 was an incredible season for Sisler. Not only did he bat .407 with 19 home runs (remember – this was the Dead Ball Era – home runs were not expected from anyone) and a 1.082 on-base plus slugging percentage, but he slapped 257 hits and picked up 399 total bases. In my research I was shocked to see that “Gorgeous George” did not pick up the 1920 MVP award. Then I caught on – the MVP was not awarded between the years of 1914 and 1922. Tricky!

Unfortunately for Sisler and the Browns, one great player does not a contender make. In fact, the Browns never broke 80 wins in this time period. Better days were ahead, but they would happen without their trailblazing general manager.

After the 1915 season a shake-up happened in the Browns front office. Robert Hedges sold his share in the team to Phil Ball, and Mr. Ball wasted no time making changes. His first act was to remove Rickey from his managerial position and relegate him to just working in the front office and working with purchasing and moving excess minor league players. Why the switch? The answer is prohibition.

Phil Ball was a former cowhand whose lifestyle never changed after he made his millions. Branch was a prohibitionist lawyer who had at one time toured the country in support of a national ban on alcohol. Ball was not going to have someone like that on his team, and said as much. Rickey was hidden away in the Browns front office for the entire 1916 season, and thought he was going to be stuck there forever until he received a visit from another attorney – James C. Jones, attorney for the St. Louis Cardinals.

Jones laid it out like this: the Cardinals had played miserably since their inception in 1899, finishing higher than fourth one time in eighteen years. Helene Britton, who had inherited the team six years ago, was looking to sell, and unless someone came up with the $350,000 that Mrs. Britton was hoping for, the Cardinals would probably be moved out of St. Louis. There was a plan in place, however, and if it worked it would make history. So Jones made it simple for Rickey – if it works and the team stayed in St. Louis, would he switch sides and take over as team president?

Rickey did not hesitate. It hardly mattered what this grand scheme was, because at that point all that mattered was getting out of the Browns’ front office and away from Phil Ball’s unwavering anger towards Rickey’s prohibition ways. As it was, however, the investors that were hoping to buy the team had a revolutionary idea that would change baseball, and they simply called it ‘the Knothole Gang.’ What would happen is that the public would be able to buy stock in the Cardinals, and in exchange for every two shares bought, a season ticket would be given to an underprivileged boy in the St. Louis area. The brilliance of this plan was that not only would the franchise would be able to stay in town, but with so many stockholders now based in St. Louis and all of the Knothole Gang tickets, the fanbase took a tremendous swing from watching the mediocre Browns to the abysmal Cardinals.

Rickey making the jump from the American to the National League St. Louis team did not provide the immediate boost that the Cardinals pretty desperately needed. Eventually the Knothole Gang idea took off, but it took a season to really get going. 1917 was not kind to the Cardinals, and things were made worse when the American League got its revenge for luring Rickey to the NL by snatching manager Miller Huggins away with a huge contract and a chance to manage the Yankees. To make matters worse, World War 1 called and stole away Rickey to train soldiers in the field of chemical warfare, thereby causing him to miss the entirety of the 1918 season. Luckily for the Cardinals, the war ended and Rickey returned to the team before the start of the 1919 season.

Rogers Hornsby

Before the 1919 season, the franchise was starting to circle the drain. The vultures gathered, offering exorbitant amounts for basically the only player on the team that had any kind of start power – Rogers Hornsby. The New York Giants called a meeting with Rickey and offered the Cardinals $150,000 – the exact amount of the Cardinals’ debt – in exchange for Hornsby. Rickey said no. Rickey then turned the tables and offered the Giants $50,000 for a youngster named Frankie Frisch. Charles Stoneham, owner of the Giants, was dumbfounded. Rickey didn’t have $50,000 for some kid that had just been signed and had zero experience in the majors. Rickey didn’t have a quarter for a meal!

Determined to land his man, Stoneham upped his offer for Hornsby – $300,000, take it or leave it. John McGraw, the Giants owner, told Stoneham he was out of his mind. No player was worth that much, much less a player that had yet to really earn any recognition. Rickey held firm. He wanted Frisch. Baffled and outraged, the Giants went to the papers, declaring Rickey and the entire Cardinals organization a bunch of fools. Rickey knew better. The Cardinals needed a savior. They needed money. They needed talent.

They needed a farm system.

Rickey launched his plan. He sold 4,000 more shares of stock in the team and raised $100,000 in capital. New majority owner and team president Sam Breadon had given Rickey full reign to do as he pleased with the team, and with that in mind went to work. The first order of business was to convince Phil Ball and the Browns to let the Cardinals rent Sportsman’s Park for home games so they could sell League Park and get out of the red. After the Board of Education and Public Service Corporation bought the land for a combined $275,000, the team was back in the black and ready to get busy with this new plan of purchasing a farm system.

After the 1919 season Rickey purchased half of the Fort Smith, Arkansas franchise in the Class C Western Association. With that agreement the organization said they would not sell minor leaguers out from under Rickey’s nose. The main problem was that this was a Class C team. What would happen when the players were ready to move up the ladder to the next level of the minors? It looked like Rickey needed to buy another team. Find out more about this one next week!

Angela Weinhold covers the Cardinals for and writes at Cardinal Diamond Diaries. You may follow her on Twitter here or follow Cardinal Diamond Diaries here.

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