This article was written by Joan M. Thomas
Following the absorption of the American Association by the National League in 1892, the St. Louis franchise moved to a new ballpark. After seeing his club earn four American Association pennants at the first Sportsman’s Park at Grand and Dodier during the 1880s, the colorful owner Chris Von der Ahe sought greener pastures for his Browns. Mound City baseball enthusiasts witnessed the sport since its infancy there, but the German-born entrepreneur yielded to an offer he couldn’t refuse. The city’s largest streetcar company offered to bear the cost of the move to a location further north. So, as the Lindell Street Railway Company planned to replace horse and mule drawn cars with electric cars, in April of 1892 the baseball magnate signed a lease on a prime piece of property.
Located directly across the street from a popular city park called Fair Grounds Park, the site for the new ball grounds occupied the estate of a wealthy St. Louis real estate broker, Jesse G. Lindell. While the city west of Grand Avenue experienced urban development, Von der Ahe eagerly accepted a fifteen-year lease with terms of $1500 per year for eight years and $2000 per annum for the remaining seven. After his enterprise, the Sportsman’s Park Association, obtained approval for a building permit for a frame grandstand and pavilion with an estimated cost of $45,000, the ballpark reached completion by the spring of 1893.
The new ball yard lay just south of Fair Grounds Park, directly across Natural Bridge Road, and one block west of Grand Avenue. With the other bordering streets of Prairie Avenue on the east, Vandeventer Avenue on the west and Lexington to the south, it consumed two city blocks. As with sports arenas of most any era, it opened with much fanfare and high expectations.
On Thursday, April 27, 1893, a parade started at the then-prestigious Lindell Hotel (named for Jesse Lindell and his brother Peter) downtown. Led by the Italian American Calvary and accompanied by a coach driven by four of Adolphus Busch’s finest black steeds, Gus Busch (son of Adolphus and father of Gussie, who years later owned the Cardinals) handling the reins, the procession arrived at New Sportsman’s Park, heralding a fresh and prosperous era of St. Louis baseball.
Billed as “one of the most beautiful base ball and athletic parks in America,” the new facility met with approval from the assembly of 12,230 baseball devotees. During the opening ceremonies, copies of the day’s local newspapers and The Sporting News were buried beneath home plate. Situated between Natural Bridge and Vandeventer, home plate faced a deep center field, reported to be 500 feet. Most historians state 290 feet for right field and 470 for left – a mightily lopsided outfield for sure.
The local architectural firm of Beinke and Wees designed the park so that the main entrance was a covered structure next to the park’s office near the corner of Vandeventer and Natural Bridge. Patrons could reach the grandstand from one of four winding stairways. Three private boxes situated on the roof served the press and officials. A wooden structure supported by steel beams and arches, the grandstand was separated from adjoining pavilions on either side by tall fences. At the rear of the grandstand, a handsomely fitted ladies toilet room accommodated the women. And, a beer garden beneath the grandstand satisfied the locals’ thirst for the foaming beverage during the muggy St. Louis summers.
Open seating (bleachers) along Lexington, Prairie and also Natural Bridge could be reached through another entrance at the corner of Prairie and Natural Bridge. Outside the park, on Vandeventer, the Lindell Railway Company had constructed a streetcar track going north and looping at Natural Bridge to head back south. This allowed fans easy transport directly to and from the main entrance of the park.
The first game played at New Sportsman’s Park sent St. Louis ball fans home happy. Their Browns defeated the Louisville Nationals 4 – 2. At the time, no one could have predicted that the club would never capture a pennant there, nor would they guess that in time it would return to the old lot at Grand and Dodier that retained the name Sportsman’s.
After a few years following the park’s christening, Von der Ahe drew harsh criticism from both the fans and the press. His team consistently hovered near last place. And, adding to the media’s disgust, he installed a horse race track around the playing field in 1895. Alterations were necessary to the bleachers and grandstand to make allowances for this attraction. Accusing him of prostituting his enterprise, local writers charged that the races brought seedy gamblers onto the sacred baseball grounds. They felt that such activities would spell the demise of the national game in St. Louis. Calling him Von der Ha Ha, they named his park the Coney Island of the West when he added a thrill ride called the shoot-the-chutes in the outfield. When not used for baseball, the park also hosted other events such as dog racing, Wild West shows and boxing. In 1896, the great orator William Jennings Bryan spoke there during his bid for the presidency.
In spite of his wheeler-dealer spirit, the man often called “der Poss Bresident” finally lost his baseball holdings. On April 16, 1898, a serious fire in the stands occurring during a game with Chicago spelled disaster. Some 4,000 spectators witnessed a commotion they at first believed to be a fight erupting among fans. Their curiosity turned to horror when they saw the flames. After the fire department extinguished the blaze, the grandstand and left field bleachers remained only charred embers. At least 100 people suffered serious burns, and one death resulted. Miraculously, the occupants of the boxes on the roof escaped without serious harm. That night a crew of men, including ballplayers, worked to repair the burned fences and construct temporary stands for the following day’s game.
Lawsuits resulting from the inferno forced Von der Ahe into bankruptcy. Though he tried legal maneuvers to maintain control of his baseball concern, a court order forced it to be sold at public auction. The Browns then became the property of the owners of the National League Spiders, the Cleveland team. The Robison brothers, M. Stanley and Frank DeHaas Robison, of that city took over the St. Louis franchise and effectively switched the members of the two clubs. St. Louis benefited by the acquisition of the better players, including the now-legendary Cy Young.
After the Robisons acquired the St. Louis National League franchise, Frank became its president, and made many changes. Improvements to the park took priority, and J. L Wees (of the firm that designed the original structure) presented a plan for alterations. With the bleachers being rebuilt and moved in closer to the field, and restructuring of the grandstand, the new seating capacity reached approximately 15,200. Also, the clubhouse in centerfield was rebuilt with the addition of steam and vapor baths. The scoreboard remained at its original spot in center in front of the clubhouse.
When the park opened under the new management in April 1899, enthusiastic fans thronged to see the reinvented club managed by Pat Tebeau. At first called Pat’s Perfectos, the team drew capacity crowds for the first two days. Reporters applauded the revamped arena, and referred to it as simply League Park. But by the following season, the new ownership resulted in the designation of Robison Field.
In a short time, the name Perfectos also changed, and a new, permanent club name arose with the new century. Robison changed the color of the team’s stockings from brown to Cardinal red, giving rise to the title St. Louis Cardinals that prevailed into the next century. It is a lesser-known fact that the St. Louis Cardinals’ name was derived from a color, and not the bird. The bird on the bat logo came later.
Despite the propitious debut of the new owners, problems continued to plague the ballpark on Natural Bridge. Early in May 1901, another fire during a game erupted in the grandstand, to the right of the press box, near President Robison’s private box. As before, the consternation in the stands appeared to many as a fracas among fans. By the time firemen arrived, the flames, thought to have been ignited by a discarded cigar, engulfed the grandstand, pavilion and office. Although the north fence and part of the east and west fences were destroyed, firefighters managed to salvage the bleachers.
Because the stairs to the grandstand were wider and straighter due to reconstruction since the first fire, fans were able to get out unharmed. Moreover, owing to occupants of the rooftop boxes narrow escape from death during the 1898 fire, those boxes had not been rebuilt. Consequently, the damage in 1901 was mostly confined to property.
Having insurance coverage, which Von der Ahe had not, Robison set to work applying for a building permit, estimating $16,000 as the cost of a new frame grand stand and pavilion. When the Cardinals returned from a road trip on June 3 that year, they found the new construction completed, although the stands were not yet painted.
With the lease on the property soon to expire, the Robisons purchased it for $60,000 from the Jesse Lindell estate in June of 1906. Frank De Haas Robison died in 1908, leaving his brother as president of the organization. In 1909 Stanley made much needed renovations to the ballpark. As the cost of about $6,300, he added sections made of steel and concrete to either end of the grandstand. It extended the southern end by 50 feet and the other end by 60 feet. This increased the seating capacity to at least 20,000. Some sources indicate a total of 21,000. Regardless, after that the aging ballpark never again received more than necessary repairs.
When M. Stanley Robison died in 1911, he left his St. Louis baseball enterprise to his niece, daughter of his deceased brother Frank. In the beginning, the press scoffed at the idea of a woman taking over the reins. Yet, Mrs. Helene Hathaway Robison Britton of Cleveland made clear her intentions of doing just that. The 32-year-old wife and mother of two small children became the first woman to own a major league baseball franchise. Eventually she moved her family to St. Louis, and served actively as head of the Cardinals for six years.
No stranger to the sport, Mrs. Britton had often accompanied her father and uncle on baseball trips. So as time passed, Cardinal fans adjusted to the novelty of a female owner, and Helene gained respect among her peers. Appointing her attorney husband, Schuyler as president of the Cardinals in 1913, she held her own as a club owner. During her tenure, the club earned a better record than achieved during either her father’s or uncle’s regime. Yet it was not without difficulty. She faced competition from both the American League Browns, playing at the old Sportsman’s Park since 1902, and the Federal League Terriers, who gave the city’s baseball enthusiasts a third club to follow during the 1914 and 1915 seasons. An astute businesswoman, Helene tried various promotions, including schemes to lure more women to the park. She instituted a lady’s day that allowed free admission to women with male escorts. But eventually the club suffered financially, and the park fell into disrepair.
Rumors of an impending sale of the Cardinals began as early as January 1916. In December of that year, when the annual National League meeting took place in New York, Nathan Hall, former president of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen, who lived in the ward where Robison Field stood, arranged for a letter to be presented to the assembly. His dispatch urged the organization to take immediate steps to improve National League baseball conditions in St. Louis, referring to “the inadequate and unbeautific Robison Field stands.” (Hall Demands Improvements 1916)
Sometime prior to that New York meeting, Helene separated from Schuyler, filing for divorce and taking over as club president. The local media continued to issue criticism of the state of the deteriorating park, and questioned Helene’s capability as club president. In March of 1917, Mrs. Britton sold her baseball interest to a group of stockholders for $350,000. Of this figure, $250,000 was placed as the value of the franchise, and $100,000 for the property.
During the season following the sale, the new Cardinal owners instituted the promotion of the Knot Hole Gang. Offering a free pass for one boy with the purchase of shares in the club, they gained revenue and good will. As time passed, the club issued free passes to local community organizations like the YMCA. During the First World War in 1918, the IRS got into the act, demanding that recipients of the passes pay a five-cent war tax.
That same year, the club’s president, Branch Rickey, denied rumors that the Cardinals planned to move to a new site. He insisted that after the war, the club would “have a field…equal of any in the country.” (New Field After 1918) Called Cardinal Field by then, the park needed more than just repairs.
When club stockholder Sam Breadon became the president of the Cardinals in 1920, one of his first decisions was to move the club to a different, existing, park. Stating that it would cost close to a half million dollars to make Cardinal Field fit for habitation, he arranged for the Cardinals to share old Sportsman’s Park, which by then boasted larger, sturdier stands, with the American League Browns.
On Sunday, June 6, 1920, the Cards played their last game at Cardinal Field, alias New Sportsman’s Park, League Park and Robison Field. That day they took their third consecutive game from the Chicago Cubs, winning 5 – 2. About the event, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported “the largest crowd of the season at Cardinal Field witnessed the contest, nearly 15,000 persons turning out.” (Schupp Displays Perfect 1920)
After returning from a long road trip, the club opened its next home stand at old Sportsman’s Park further south at Grand and Dodier on July 1, 1920. Both the Cardinals and the Browns called that park home until the Browns moved to Baltimore after the 1953 season. The Cardinals remained there until May 1966, when they moved to a new downtown stadium, first called Civic Center Busch Memorial Stadium. Today the Herbert Hoover Boys and Girls Club occupies the site vacated by major league baseball.
In 1922, the grounds on Natural Bridge and Vandeventer that hosted National League baseball from 1893 to 1920 became the property of the St. Louis Board of Education. Beaumont High School which still serves that area of the city, was built then. In June, 2006, a committee from the Bob Broeg chapter of SABR dedicated a stand-alone marker on the grounds of Beaumont High, denoting the location and significance of Robison Field for the benefit of generations to come.
Allen, Lee. The National League Story. New York: Hill and Wang, 1965.
Cox, James, Old and New St. Louis. St. Louis: Central Biographical Publishing Co., 1894
Lampe, Anthony B. “The Background of Professional Baseball in St. Louis.” Missouri Historical Society Bulletin 7, No. 1 (October, 1950): 5-34.
Missouri Republican, February 14, 1887.
New Sportsman’s Park Official Score Book, Missouri Historical Society Archives.
St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat. April 27, 1893. p4, col. 5. December 12, 1916, p.9.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch. January 28, 1909. P.14, col 3. April 22, 1909. p16 col.1 & 2. March 24, 1911. p1. March 26, 1911 p9. April 5, 1916 p17 col2. June 4, 1901 p11 col2 June 7, 1920 p16 col4. April 1, 1918 p18. col2. April 5, 1918 p22 col3 & 4. April 24, 1918 p22 col 1. March 29, 1911 p7 col2. June 6, 1913 p8. April 11, 1912 p17 col 2.
St. Louis Republic, October-December 1889, January 19, 1913.
Spink, Alfred H. The National Game. St. Louis: National Game Publishing Co., 1910.
The Sporting News. April 22, 1893. April 8, 1899. December 10, 1914 p1 col. 6 & 7. April 8, 1899 p4 col3. May 11, 1901 p4 col3. April 6, 1911 p4. July 27, 1895 p1 col 5. December 7, 1895 p4 col3. February 21, 1913 p2.
“Hall Demands Improvements Be made at Robison Field.” St. Louis Globe-Democrat. 12 December 1916. P 9.
“New Field After The War.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch. 24 April 1918. P22 col 1.
“Schupp Displays Perfect Control and Tames Cubs.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch. 7 June 1920. P 16.