The Spitter Baseball History – The First Bad, Bad, St. Louis Browns
When the American League moved to St. Louis in 1902, they took the name “Browns” as a tribute to the old juggernaut of the American Association. Yet, the AL Browns languished in the second division for most of their life in St. Louis, with only one pennant and two second-place finishes until they moved to Baltimore.
I believe the name was cursed, forever associated with the team that made the transition from the American Association to the National League and then morphed into the most infamous club in baseball history, the 1899 Cleveland Spiders.
Chris von der Ahe, a colorful beer baron who immigrated from Germany and built himself up from a grocery clerk, owned the Browns from their beginnings in the AA in 1882 to 1898 (technically), and at first they were the talk of the town and of baseball. But the Players League debacle and the departure of captain Charlie Comiskey left the team short of talent and leadership. Then, von der Ahe had the bright idea that he could take control of the operation – even managing the club on few occasions. He ran through managers at a dizzying pace. They even hired former NL umpire Tim Hurst as manager in 1898. Hurst was a known hothead and brawler as an ump, and that didn’t change either.
The result was a disaster. The Browns slowly eroded from perennial champs in the 1880s to a team that finished no higher than ninth in the twelve-team 1890’s NL. A team that finished over .400 twice in those seven seasons, and sunk under .300 in 1897 and 1898. Those last teams, combined with other business and personal disasters for von der Ahe, compelled the NL to take control of the squad. They sold the team to the owner of the Cleveland NL team, the Robison brothers, and during the syndicate ball year, most of the Browns were exiled to Ohio to finish 20-134.
Those Spiders didn’t become that awful overnight, it was a concerted effort by von der Ahe and the Browns to do everything a team could do to build an awful ballclub.
So who were the Browns of the 1890s?
From 1892-1894, the pitching staff of the Browns wasn’t that bad, really. Kid Gleason, Ted Breitenstein, and young Pink Hawley usually put up decent numbers and kept the otherwise defensively challenged Browns somewhat in games. But Hawley and Gleason were gone after 1894, sold or traded for scraps, and Breitenstein was sent to Cincinnati for operating capital after 1896.
Three other pitchers showed some promise at the end of the run in St. Louis. Coldwater Jim Hughey and Wee Willie Sudhoff at least had positive WARs in 1898. They were exiled to Cleveland just the same. “Brewery Jack” Taylor also pitched well-ish, but as his nickname said,, he was a fan of the suds more than sobriety.
After those three, you had garbage on the mound – hot, steaming, and ready to shovel. Most of the pitchers in that era had WARs under 0. Red Donahue, Bill Hart, and Bill Kissinger were almost guaranteed to bring home an “L”, and in a spectacular fashion. Kissinger gave up more runs than innings pitched in his career (and it wasn’t really a brief career either).
The Browns couldn’t pitch, and they couldn’t hit or field either. Their hitting star during that era was Roger Conner, a Hall of Famer that was traded from New York to St. Louis to play out the string. In 351 games, he earned 9.5 WAR, and yes, that was the most WAR any offensive player compiled for those Browns.
Lave Cross was probably the best player the Browns had on the diamond, but he played just 1898 with the team after a blockbuster trade with Philadelphia that rebuilt the Phillies. Aside from Conner and Cross, the Browns trotted out has-beens, never-weres, and other players not even worthy of of one of those cliches.
Typical Browns were Tuck Turner, who set the record for batting average for a switch hitter with the Phillies in 1894. Turner hit .191 at age 31 in his last season in St. Louis. Bert Myers played third base as a 22-year old rookie in 1896, hitting .250 and committing 62 errors. He played just 38 more games in the majors.
On paper, Frank Shugart had a great 1894 (.292/.349/.436) with 18 triples and 21 steals. Thanks to the crazy offense around the league that year, that was barely over replacement value. Add in his bad defense, and he was very much expendable, and was sent to Louisville (another long-struggling team) in 1895.
The two most respected pros were outfielders Dick Harley and “Buttermilk” Tommy Dowd and second baseman Joe Quinn. Dowd had the misfortune of playing from 1893 to 1898 in St. Louis, while Harley joined them for the last two seasons there. Dowd and Harley played the entire 1899 season in Cleveland, meaning the duo played through a three year stretch where their teams went 88-347. Quinn joined St. Louis in 1893, moved to Baltimore in mid-1896, but was returned back in mid-1898 and then moved on to Cleveland and became manager in mid-1899.
It should be noted that those three players weren’t over replacement value, but they showed up and played to their ability every day and were respected around the league. They weren’t lushers, or gamblers, or sullied the professional game except for their team’s woeful performance. That…that was something.
The other notable player for the Browns was Jack Clements. Clements was a catcher – tough, feared, and gave no quarter. Clements was also a lefty thrower, the last regular left handed catcher. Despite the stigma against lefty catchers, he was a defensive positive, and also was a tough out. In his one season in St. Louis, he compiled a 1.8 WAR, which was the 14th best total for that eight year stretch.
That factoid…I think that says it all about these St. Louis Browns.