Sam Breadon

This article was written by Mark Armour

In the long and successful history of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball club, few people have been more important than Sam Breadon, who owned the team for 27 years and presided over nine league pennants and six World Series titles. Much of the club’s success has been attributed to Branch Rickey, the team’s genius general manager, who built baseball’s first and largest farm system, revolutionizing the relationship between the major leagues and minor leagues and turning the Cardinals organization into a model of player development and instruction. But Breadon and Rickey worked together, and it was Breadon who funded Rickey’s farm system and lobbied for its legality. Breadon sold the Cardinals in 1947, and there have been very few baseball owners who left such a legacy of success.

Samuel Breadon (pronounced BRAY-din), one of eight children, was born on July 26, 1876, to William and Jane (Wilson) Breadon. “I was born in New York and grew up in the old Ninth Ward in old Greenwich Village,” recalled Sam. “Near the docks. Nothing fancy, a tough neighborhood. You had to be able to handle yourself, or you did not do so well.”1 His mother was Scottish, and his father an Irish drayman who died when Sam was a young boy. After finishing grammar school Sam dropped out to help his mother, and as a young adult he held a steady job as a bank clerk on Wall Street, earning $125 a month. In his youth he played basketball and football and boxed.

About 1902 Breadon moved to St. Louis to join two New York friends, brothers, who had gone west to open an automobile dealership and garage. It was somewhat of a risk, but young Breadon was attracted by the possibilities of the new industry. Within a year or two the brothers got wind that Breadon was looking to open his own shop, and they fired him. Some fast talking got him a concession to sell popcorn at the 1904 World’s Fair, held in St. Louis. This earned him enough money to open up his own garage. A wealthy customer, impressed with his work and honesty, offered him an executive position in the Western Automobile Company, and Breadon worked his way up to the very top, buying the business himself. By 1917 Breadon and a partner owned a distributorship of Pierce-Arrow automobiles, which he held for the next 20 years.2

Meanwhile, Breadon had become a rabid fan of the St. Louis Cardinals, a generally struggling club in the National League. He bought into the club in the mid-1910s, and gradually increased his stake to help the struggling ownership group. In early 1919 he was on the board of directors, and that fall he was named president. As a condition of accepting this position, he worked on his partners until he was able to purchase enough stock to get 51 percent of the club. He planned to run the team, not just the board. The Cardinals had joined the National League in 1892, but had finished as high as third place just twice in their first 29 years in the league. They were also heavily in debt. At the time of Breadon’s ascension, Rickey was the club’s president, while serving the club as both field manager and business manager, essentially also acting as what we now call a general manager. Breadon left Rickey in the latter two positions, while also offering him a piece of the club and naming him a vice president. After the club finished sixth in 1924 and started the next year 13-25, Breadon removed Rickey as manager, leaving him to run the club off the field. “In time, Branch, you will see that I am doing you a great favor,” Breadon told a disappointed Rickey. “You can now devote yourself fully to player development and scouting.”3

The two men worked together for more than two decades, turning a struggling club into one of the more successful in the game. Their relationship grew more contentious over the years, but there can be little doubt that they needed each other. As historian Lee Lowenfish wrote, “Under their arrangement, there was no doubt that Breadon was the boss who controlled the purse strings and Rickey was the employee who engineered the baseball transactions. However, unlike many baseball owners who get so intoxicated with their power that they think they understand the mechanics of the game itself, Breadon deferred completely to Branch Rickey on the nuts and bolts of player development.”4

Breadon’s first important decision after taking control in 1920 was to sign a lease to play in Sportsman’s Park, as a tenant of Phil Ball’s St. Louis Browns. Cardinals Park, formerly Robison Park, had been the Cardinals’ home since 1893 but was both a firetrap and in danger of collapsing. “The building inspector, who was a friend of mine, said he was afraid he couldn’t let us go another season with those stands. I couldn’t blame him,” Breadon said.5 He dismantled the ballpark, and sold the property and land for $275,000, which got the club out of debt and provided operating capital for the years ahead. “It was the most important move I ever made on the Cardinals,” Breadon later said. “It gave us money to clean up our debts, and something more to work with. Without it, we never could have purchased the minor-league clubs, which were the beginning of our farm system.”6

As the new Cardinals manager, Breadon named 29-year-old Rogers Hornsby, their great second baseman, who had been the best player in the National League for several years. Hornsby made Breadon look smart right away, as he rallied the club to a more respectable fourth-place showing, all the while hitting .403 and winning his second Triple Crown. The next year Hornsby led the club to a first-place showing, and a seven-game triumph over the Yankees in the World Series. It was the first championship for the Cardinals since their days in the American Association in the 1880s.

Late in the 1926 season, Breadon and Hornsby got into an argument about a series of in-season exhibition games Breadon had arranged, which Hornsby thought was more than his tired players needed. During a heated disagreement, Hornsby apparently used choice words to insult his boss. Not forgetting the slight, after the season Breadon traded his pennant-winning hero-manager to the New York Giants for star second baseman Frankie Frisch and pitcher Jimmy Ring. Though Cardinals fans were livid, they soon learned that Breadon and Rickey were generally willing to trade the team’s most popular players if they thought they were nearing the end of their peak years. After Hornsby, the Cardinals later dealt Dizzy Dean, Joe Medwick, Jim Bottomley, Chick Hafey, Johnny Mize, Mort Cooper, Walker Cooper, and many others. Rickey was able to find young replacements with their careers ahead of them, and the pennants piled up.

Though Breadon gave Rickey a fair amount of authority, he followed the team closely on a daily basis, and often left to himself the decision to hire and fire the Cardinals manager. In fact, he had a quick trigger in this area. Besides Hornsby, he replaced Bill McKechnie just a half season after he had won a pennant, and then Gabby Street a year and a half after Street’s team had won two more pennants. Not counting interim managers, Breadon presided over nine managerial changes in 27 years despite tremendous on-field success.

It was Rickey who first conceived of the idea of operating a farm system, but it was Breadon who paid for it. Rickey convinced his boss that the club could save money by signing and developing its own players on its own minor-league clubs rather than paying the high prices demanded from independent minor-league teams. And it was Breadon who had to fight for the right to operate the farm system in the major-league boardrooms, a fight that occasionally grew contentious since Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis was adamantly opposed to the idea.

By 1940 the Cardinals owned or had working agreements with 32 minor-league teams, controlling more than 600 players. One of the brilliant side effects of this extensive system was that Rickey could both sell the developed players the Cardinals did not need, and also sell Cardinals stars once they hit their early 30s, knowing he had other players ready to step in. Breadon and Rickey traded the 28-year-old Dean to the Cubs in 1938 for $185,000 and three players – Dean had hurt his arm the previous year after altering his pitching motion due to the foot injury he had suffered during the 1937 All-Star Game, and Rickey thought he might not return to his old self. Most importantly, Rickey had convinced Breadon that the system could produce new players. It always had, and it would again. During their long run of success from 1926 to 1949, when they finished first or second 18 times, the Cardinals never purchased a player from another organization.7

Rickey generally got all the credit for the moves that worked out well, but he also developed a reputation from his players and the press for being cheap or heartless. But Breadon, who gave little indication that he desired more attention for himself, deserves to share both the credit and the reputation – he set the salary budgets and approved the ballplayer sales Rickey was praised or derided for. “There was never a decision made in which I didn’t have the final say,” Breadon later said. “Many of Rickey’s moves I approved, others I rejected.”8

By the late 1930s, Breadon had sold his auto business, making the Cardinals his sole business interest. Coincidentally, after winning five pennants in nine years, in 1935 the Cardinals began a seven-year pennant drought. During this period Breadon began to meddle a bit more in the affairs of the team, including the firing of a few Rickey protégés in the farm system, causing a gradual deterioration of their relationship. In 1938 Commissioner Landis freed more than 70 Cardinals farmhands, claiming that the Cardinals controlled players on more than one team in some minor leagues, allowing the Cardinals to affect their pennant races. Breadon was apparently embarrassed by this decision, while Rickey was upset that Breadon did not fight it. In 1939 Breadon, who prided himself on maintaining great health and physical appearance, suffered a severe spinal injury when he was thrown from a horse. His recovery was difficult and slow, and Lowenfish opined that Breadon never completely recovered physically or emotionally from the accident.9

In February 1941, Breadon informed the board of directors, which included Rickey, that he would not be renewing Rickey’s contract after the 1942 season. His stated reason was that the current economic climate, including America’s possible entrance into a world war, made Rickey’s large salary ($50,000, plus large bonuses for his share of player sales) an unwanted burden. This was likely part of Breadon’s reasoning, but the two men’s deteriorating relationship and the club’s failure to win pennants for the previous six years were surely factors as well. The Cardinals lost a tough pennant race to the Dodgers in 1941, and then won the World Series in 1942, with Rickey still running the team. Rickey moved to Brooklyn to run the Dodgers, with more historic accomplishments ahead of him. In their remaining years as rival executives, the two men always spoke kindly of each other, at least publicly.

While the Cardinals were having another great year in 1943, Breadon fended off any attempts to mitigate Rickey’s previous contributions. “I don’t want to be placed in a position of ‘crowing’ about the way things are going in the wake of Rickey’s departure,” Breadon said. “After all, we had a good foundation built. But I’ve seen all angles of the game for the last quarter of a century and if I didn’t know something about running a ballclub now, I’d be pretty damned dumb.”10

Breadon’s reputation as a tight-fisted owner only grew once he became more the public face of the team. Brothers Mort (pitcher) and Walker (catcher) Cooper held out in 1945 before capitulating just before Opening Day. Walker was soon in the armed forces, but Breadon traded Mort to the Boston Braves in late May. When Jorge Pasquel of the Mexican League plucked several major-league players in 1946, in defiance of the long-held reserve clause, it was the disgruntled Cardinals who suffered the biggest losses – star pitcher Max Lanier, pitcher Fred Martin, and infielder Lou Klein.

The Cardinals finished the 1946 regular season tied with the Dodgers, forcing a three-game pennant playoff. At a banquet held after the final regular season game, Breadon was chided from the lectern by writer Roy Stockton. “It looks, Sam,” said Stockton, “as if you sliced the baloney too thin this time.”11 Breadon shrugged it off, and the Cardinals went on to beat the Dodgers and then the Red Sox in the World Series. It was Breadon’s sixth championship.

In November 1947 Breadon sold his majority share (75 percent) of the Cardinals to a group headed by his longtime friend Robert F. Hannegan and Fred Saigh, Jr. , a prominent St. Louis attorney. The price for Breadon’s shares was reported to be $3 million, the highest such figure in baseball history, and a pretty fair return on his initial $2,000 investment. “This is not a pleasant day for me,” Breadon said, “but every year I am less sufficient and at my age it is time to quit.”12 He later told Dan Daniel, “I am seventy years of age [actually 71]. I am in fine condition. As far as I know I might live to be ninety. But I felt that, in justice to my family, I should put my estate in order. This meant selling my stock in the Cardinals.”13

Despite his reputation as a tight-fisted owner, Breadon could be very generous. One of the stars of his first World Series team was the great pitcher Pete Alexander, whom the Cardinals got off waivers in June 1926 only to see him return to stardom for a few more years. Alexander had a difficult life after his career was over, and at the time of his death in 1950 it was revealed that the Cardinals (under Breadon) had for many years paid him $50 per month, which Alex thought was a pension, to allow him to live a little better.14 In 1948 Mort Cooper, having washed out of baseball soon after Breadon discarded him, was arrested for passing three bad checks. Breadon, who was retired, paid his bond, and later talked the Cubs’ Phil Wrigley into signing Cooper and giving him one last shot.15

Breadon’s marriage to Josephine in 1905 yielded a daughter, Frances. He married Rachel (Ray) Wilson in 1912, and the couple adopted their own daughter, Janet. Breadon was said to be the life of many parties in his younger days, and he earned the nickname “Singing Sam” because he often sang in barbershop quartets. Before his accident on his horse in 1939, he was an avid swimmer and horseman, and worked out by taking groundballs during the Cardinals’ spring-training season. By the time he reached middle age he was more interested in golf and retiring early so he could read in bed.16

Breadon succumbed to cancer on May 8, 1949, at age 72. He had been a patient at St. Joseph’s Hospital in St. Louis for several weeks. He was survived by his wife and daughters. At his request, there was no funeral service, and his ashes were dropped from a plane over the Mississippi River. Branch Rickey, who worked for Breadon for two decades, said he was “deeply grieved over the passing of one of the game’s finest sportsmen and outstanding businessmen. We always got along splendidly, even after I returned to Brooklyn.”17

In the ensuing decades, Breadon’s role as the head of one of baseball’s best organizations has been often overlooked. The most recent attempt to rectify this came in 2012 when Breadon was on the ballot considered by the Hall of Fame’s Veteran’s Committee, though he was not elected. The Cardinals have had much success in their history, and their 11 World Series victories are topped only by the New York Yankees. But it is worth remembering that their success began when Sam Breadon bought the club, and that six of the 11 titles came during his reign.

 

This biography is included in the book "The 1934 St. Louis Cardinals: The World Champion Gas House Gang" (SABR, 2014), edited by Charles Faber. 

 

Notes

1 Daniel M. Daniel, “Sam Breadon Left Indelible Imprint on Baseball Operation,” Baseball, July 1949, 261.

2 Lee Lowenfish, Branch Rickey – Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009), 120.

3 Lowenfish, Branch Rickey, 150.

4 Lowenfish, Branch Rickey, 122.

5 John Kieran, “How to Buy a Ball Club,” New York Times, undated clipping in Breadon’s file at the National Baseball Library.

6 Mark Tomasik, “Top 5 reasons why Sam Breadon should be in Hall,” retrosimba.com, November 15, 2012.

7 Warren Corbett, “Eddie Dyer,” SABR’s Baseball Biography Project, sabr.org/bioproject.

8 Fred Lieb, “Flashbacks – Sam Breadon,” The Sporting News, November 18, 1943.

9 Lowenfish, Branch Rickey, 298.

10 Dick Farrington, “Breadon Nixes ‘Mr. Brain’ Idea as Birds Soar Without Rickey,” The Sporting News, June 24, 1943.

11 Bob Broeg, Memories of a Hall of Fame Sportswriter (Champaign, Illinois: Sports Publishing LLC, 1995), 157.

12 Associated Press, “Not Pleasant, But It Is Time to Quit,” New York World Telegram, November 24, 1947

13 Daniel M. Daniel, “Sam Breadon Left Indelible Imprint On Baseball Operation,” Baseball, July 1949, 261.

14 Jan Finkel, “Pete Alexander,” SABR’s Baseball Biography Project, sabr.org/bioproject.

15 Gregory H. Wolf, “Mort Cooper,” SABR’s Baseball Biography Project, sabr.org/bioproject.

16 J. Roy Stockton, “Singing Sam, the Cut-Rate Man,” The Saturday Evening Post, February 22, 1947, 140.

17 “Baseball Mourns Breadon,” New York World Telegram, May 11, 1949, page unknown.