SABR

Frank Robison

This article was written by Joan M. Thomas.

After achieving status as a prominent builder of street railways, gregarious sports enthusiast Frank De Hass (sometimes spelled de Hass or De Haas) Robison added the designation of baseball magnate to his credit in 1887. That was when he invested in an American Association team for Cleveland. Soon, he acquired a National League franchise for the club, calling it the Spiders. The Spiders captured the Temple Cup in 1895, and four years later Robison seized the opportunity to purchase the wretched National League St. Louis club. In a questionable move, he switched the members of his two teams, bringing three future Hall of Famers to his new acquisition. The swap effectively doomed the Spiders to become the worst baseball club in major league history, terminating NL baseball in Cleveland just prior to the dawn of the twentieth century.

Though promising at first, Robison’s St. Louis club failed to maintain a first-division standing during his tenure as owner. Beset by financial woes that began when earlier he gave up his street-traction dealings, and culminating with the failure of the St. Louis baseball club to prosper, he finally withdrew from public life after the season of 1906. He died two years later, but his legacy thrives. The club that adopted the name of Cardinals during his regime grew to become one of the most venerated institutions in organized baseball.

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on November 16, 1852, Frank De Hass Robison was the second of four children, all sons, born to M.S. (Martin Stanford) Robison and Maria Allison Robison. The family, including the oldest son, John Howard, and the third child, Martin Stanford Jr. (called M. Stanley or simply Stanley), moved to Dubuque, Iowa, in the late 1850s. There, the youngest child, Ellsworth, was born. Mr. Robison operated a farm-supply business in Dubuque for many years, so Frank essentially grew up there, where the burgeoning game of baseball was an intrinsic part of the culture. Then, after briefly attending Delaware University, he married his hometown sweetheart, Sarah Carver Hathaway, whose family came to Dubuque from Philadelphia when she was a child.

The couple was married in a private ceremony in Philadelphia on January 7, 1874. Upon their return to Iowa, Frank’s parents hosted an elegant reception for them, a notable social event for the city of Dubuque. Following his marriage, Robison worked at his father’s business for several years. Then, he joined his street-railway builder father-in-law, Charles Hathaway, forming Hathaway and Robison, Street Railway Contractors and Builders. The firm was established in Cleveland, and Frank and Sarah Robison set up residence there by 1877. Within the next six years, their three children, Marie, Helene, and the youngest, Hortense, were born.

Before long, Hathaway and Robison’s business dealings extended throughout the United States and into Canada. That afforded Robison the ability to procure an American Association franchise for a Cleveland baseball club in 1887. His brother Stanley, by then a partner in his traction business, also invested in the new baseball acquisition. Some sources show that club’s name as the Forest Citys, and others dub it the Blues. Whatever its handle, Frank Robison built a ballpark for the team at Payne Avenue and East 39th Street in Cleveland, where one of his streetcar lines passed. That served the dual purpose of promoting patronage of his railway as well as his baseball arena. And, although the team fared poorly, in 1889 Robison managed to secure a NL franchise for it by replacing Detroit. Then the team name changed. Owing to many of its members’ thin and gangly build, it was called the Spiders.

Combining his love of baseball with his traction business, Robison had become a wealthy man. That allowed him to purchase a 19.5 acre lakefront estate just outside of Cleveland in 1891. It lay in an area that eventually became the charming municipality of Bratenahl. The property Robison bought came replete with a Federal/Italianate-style mansion, a water tower, carriage house, and stable. The Robisons planted California privet hedges around its perimeter by Lake Erie, naming their manor Villa Hedges. At first it was the family’s summer home, but eventually they made it their main residence. His parents soon lived there too, having moved to Cleveland after a fire destroyed the business in Dubuque. At Villa Hedges, Robison frequently entertained friends and acquaintances with lavish parties, gaining his reputation as a big-hearted spender.

The same year that the Robisons acquired the lakefront estate, the Spiders moved to another new park that he built for them. Simply called League Park, it was located along another one of his cable-car lines, at Lexington and East 66th. The club played there for the remainder of its existence. In its inaugural season, pugnacious outfielder Patsy Tebeau took over as manager. The Spiders then earned the designation of the rowdiest team in baseball. Tebeau’s brawling style of play fit well with the club owner’s persona, as although Robison generally seemed jolly and good natured, his volatile temperament could easily be provoked. Nonetheless, when at one point a dispute over bringing outfielder Harry Blake up from Fort Wayne erupted between the manager and the owner, Tebeau got his way. Under his direction, the team began to climb up in the standings, taking second place in 1895 in the sole major league then, the 12-team NL. The Spiders went on to capture the Temple Cup in four out of five games from first place Baltimore that year.

A repeat series in 1896 ended in Baltimore’s favor, the Orioles taking it in four straight. That winter, Robison’s brother J. Howard, the Spiders’ business manager, died in Cleveland. With that and other misfortunes, the baseball and traction tycoon’s propitious destiny began to look doubtful. That same year, his political aspiration to win the Republican nomination for Ohio’s 21st district seat in Congress failed. Moreover, attendance at the Spiders’ games never measured up to his expectations, even during its best years. Worse, after a merger with another Cleveland railway concern, he discovered that his broker had embezzled proceeds from sales of his stocks. That resulted in a surfeit of legal complications, but he eventually recovered some lost revenue. Soured by the sordid experience, Robison finally gave up his railway interest and concentrated solely on baseball.

When in 1899, Chris Von der Ahe, the colorful owner of the NL St. Louis Browns lost his club to a sheriff’s sale, Frank Robison surfaced as the new owner. Once an annual frontrunner, the Browns had been mired in or near twelfth place since 1892. Von der Ahe’s final downfall began when a devastating fire broke out at the St. Louis ballpark during a game early in 1898. Faced with numerous lawsuits over property damage, a death, and a number of injuries caused by the blaze, he could not stop the sale of the ball club at public auction. In a clever business deal, the club ownership passed through several hands before Robison finally landed it for $40,000. Then, he and one of the club’s creditors formed a new corporation, the American Baseball and Athletic Exhibition Company. That replaced the old St. Louis Sportsman’s Park and Baseball Club, founded by Von der Ahe. By creating the new entity, Robison avoided responsibility for the old club’s outstanding debts. And although some of the other NL owners vehemently opposed the arrangement, it was finally approved. Starting afresh as the new owner and president of the St. Louis club, Robison placed his brother Stanley in charge of the Cleveland franchise.

Fed up with poor attendance at the Spiders games despite their fine performance, Frank Robison brought most of the Cleveland players to St. Louis, and saddled the Spiders with the dismal group of former Browns. Wanting to launch a new era of baseball in the Mound City, as St. Louis was called, he changed the color of the team’s stockings from brown to cardinal red and called the club the Perfectos. The ballpark, New Sportsman’s Park, at Vendeventer and Natural Bridge since 1893, then became League Park. The new Perfectos lineup included Jesse Burkett, Bobby Wallace, and Cy Young, the latter two having begun their major league careers with Cleveland.

That year of 1899 was eventful for the Robison family. In January, Frank’s mother passed away at Villa Hedges. Several months later, his oldest daughter, Marie, died unexpectedly. As the youngest, Hortense, had died of pneumonia eight years earlier, that left the family with one remaining child, Helene. But despite his family and business losses, Robison looked to a successful era of baseball with his new club. That season ended with St. Louis jumping from twelfth place the previous year to fifth in the NL. Moreover, attendance at the Perfectos’ games was more than five times what it had been at basically the same team’s games in Cleveland in 1898. On the other hand, the Spiders of 1899 took the old Browns’ place in the cellar, winning a mere twenty games out of 154. Not surprisingly, attendance in Cleveland dwindled to a trickle. Destined to fail, the club earned the dubious label, Misfits, disbanding at season’s end.

Although the new St. Louis club showed real promise, the quarrelsome habits of the old Spiders accompanied its players in the team switch. Umpire baiting and fights in the stands and on the field were common, even requiring police intervention at times. In an attempt to displace blame, Robison targeted the umpires. The May 18, 1899, St. Louis Star describes his rancor over a game not being called due to rain in time to prevent a St. Louis loss. It clearly indicates his contention that dismissal of certain such officials would prevent “disorder or possible homicide” at his ballpark. But not everyone was convinced that the problem lay strictly with the umpires. Cries of action to stop rowdy baseball began to appear in the St. Louis newspapers late in the season. Even John T. Brush, owner of the New York Giants, commented in a published letter that expulsion of offending players seemed the only solution to the problem at League Park.

Putting aside the issue of unruly behavior at his park, Robison welcomed the onset of the twentieth century by bringing in new talent to St. Louis. He fortified his lineup of 1900 by signing third sacker John McGraw and catcher Wilbert Robinson from the Baltimore Nationals. Of course, he hung onto his team’s greatest asset, right-handed hurler Cy Young. With the Cleveland club out of the picture, Robison’s brother Stanley became the St. Louis club’s treasurer. However, the brothers’ hopes began to fade as the season wore on. That year, the number of teams in the league had been reduced to eight, and St. Louis slipped to seventh place by mid-August. The resultant clashes between Robison and his longtime manager culminated in Tebeau’s resignation that same month.

Robison begged team captain John McGraw to fill the open manager’s position, but Mugsy flat refused. So, in an unorthodox arrangement, the conniving owner appointed the club’s secretary, Louie Heilbroner, as manager. Heilbroner had no real baseball acumen, so he essentially became the team’s business manager. That left McGraw in the position of captain, allowing him to call all the shots on the field. Under his tutelage, the team by then called the Cardinals, climbed back to fifth place by season’s end.

Changing the team’s name from Perfectos to Cardinals was actually prompted by the color of the trim on the new uniforms. It was not uncommon for a baseball team to be named for a color, and in those days, the term cardinal connoted a certain shade of red. In his book The St. Louis Cardinals, Fred Lieb mentions that Willie McHale, a writer for the St. Louis Republic, was the first to use the name Cardinals in print. That was in 1899, and the name was official by the close of the season of 1900. The cardinal bird on the bat logo did not come into being for another 20 years. But in 1901, Frank Robison’s chief concern lay with the team roster. That year, the newly organized American League entered the realm of the majors, vying for talent with the existing NL teams.

Early in March, Cardinal fans learned that the club’s crack pitcher Cy Young had signed with Boston of the new AL, taking three of his St. Louis teammates with him, including battery mate Lou Criger. Additionally, McGraw and Robinson, after only one year with the Cardinals, deserted to the AL Baltimore club. And although it was doubtful that then two-time batting title winner Jesse Burkett would remain with St. Louis, Robison closed the deal at the last minute. Future Hall of Famer Burkett, known as the Crab because of his antisocial demeanor, led off for St. Louis at the opening day game with Chicago at League Park. Irish-American lefty Patsy Donovan, acquired from the Pirates to play right the previous year, took over as player-manager.

That season started off well enough, the Cardinals at .500 by May 4 when another calamitous fire broke out at the St. Louis ballpark. It started under the grandstand during the tenth inning of a match with Cincinnati. However, unlike the debacle of 1898, no deaths or serious injuries resulted. Moreover, unlike his predecessor, Robison did carry insurance on the property. The team played the next day’s game at the site of the old Sportsman’s Park at Grand and Dodier, at that time called Athletic Park. Then, after a lengthy road trip, the Cardinals returned to a rebuilt League Park on June 3. They went on to end the season in fourth, despite a record-breaking heat wave that stifled St. Louis in July, and Burkett captured his third league batting title. However, Robison’s delight over the club’s progress was short-lived. The season to follow introduced an AL team to the Mound City. Both Burkett and Wallace defected to the new club that adopted the name of the old St. Louis Browns. The Browns settled in at the site of Athletic Park, reusing its original name, Sportsman’s Park.

With a less than mediocre team, the Cardinals fell to sixth in the NL in 1902. The following year, manager Donovan brought up some young talent, including a promising pitcher by the name of Mordecai Brown. Unfortunately, the club ended that season of 1903 at the bottom. Panicked by the situation, Robison then made a truly regrettable deal, trading Brown to the Chicago Cubs. Firing Donovan, he replaced him with pitcher Kid Nichols. But the Cardinals showed little improvement over the next few years. They finished in fifth in 1904, and the following year, after they lost nine of the first 14 games, Nichols was replaced by Jimmy Burke. Then, with fifty games left to play, Burke was replaced by the owner’s brother Stanley. The Cardinals ended that season of 1905 in sixth, with a .377 winning percentage. The next year, John McCloskey took over the manager’s chair, and the hapless Cardinals slipped to seventh. That season of 1906 proved to be Robison’s final as a baseball magnate. The lease on his ballpark, by then called Robison Field, was due to expire. So he purchased the property for $60,000. That was probably one of his last executive actions. Late that year he sold most of his interest in the St. Louis baseball enterprise to his brother Stanley, who took his place as club president.

Disheartened and disappointed over what he viewed as betrayal by the better players who abandoned him in favor of the AL, in addition to his own failure to build a winning St. Louis club, Frank Robison retired to his beloved Villa Hedges in Bratenahl, Ohio. There, he died of a stroke on September 25, 1908. He was survived by his wife, Sarah, his daughter Helene Hathaway Robison Britton, two grandchildren and his brother Stanley. He was buried at Cleveland’s historic Lake View Cemetery.

Three years later, Stanley Robison died, leaving majority ownership of the Cardinals and Robison Field to his niece Helene Britton, Frank’s daughter. The first woman owner of a major league club, she took an active role in that position until she sold in 1917, ending the era of Robison baseball in St. Louis.

Throughout his years as the owner of St. Louis baseball club, Frank Robison continued to maintain his Ohio residence. A thirty-second degree Mason, he belonged to a number of fraternal organizations there. When he died, it became known that his once legendary wealth had nearly vanished. At one point, he had borrowed a considerable sum from his father-in-law. Viewed by many as a jovial, blustery spendthrift, he was also considered a person who secretly supported worthy causes. Baseball was perhaps one of the greatest joys of his life. Were it that he could have foreseen the future of the club that still wears the color he ordained.

 

Sources

Frederick G. Lieb, The St. Louis Cardinals (New York: G P Putnam’s Sons 1944), 19 – 34.

Joan M Thomas, Baseball’s First Lady – Helene Hathaway Robison Britton and the St. Louis Cardinals (St. Louis: Reedy Press 2010), 9 – 46.

St. Louis Globe-Democrat

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The New York Times

The St. Louis Star

The Sporting News

Helene Britton family archives

The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

The National Encyclopedia of American Biography

US Census Bureau, 1870 US Census

Baseball-Reference.com

Jeffrey Britton, frequent email correspondence with the great-grandson of Frank De Hass Robison, 2009

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