Sportsman's Park (St. Louis)
In baseball history there have been certain street corners that through the years have become synonymous with the ballparks located at them. At the corner of Michigan and Trumbull was Detroit’s Tiger Stadium. 21st and Lehigh was Shibe Park in Philadelphia. Findlay and Western was Cincinnati’s Crosley Field. On the South Side of Chicago, 35th and Shields was Comiskey Park. Today, Clark and Addison carries on this tradition with Wrigley Field. To old-time baseball fans in St. Louis, there is another hallowed corner that can be added to the list: Grand and Dodier. From the days when amateur baseball clubs first laid out a rough diamond there in the mid-1860s until the Cardinals played their final game at Busch Stadium a century later, the fabled corner on the north side of St. Louis was witness to some great baseball.
In the 19th century several teams called Grand and Dodier home. The first professional circuit, the National Association of Professional Baseball Players, had a St. Louis entry in 1875, known as the Brown Stockings. They played at a park called the Grand Avenue Ball Grounds, which was really nothing fancier than a single grandstand for the paying customers. The league folded after that year.
The park’s name was changed to Sportsman’s Park in 1876 with the arrival of the St. Louis Brown Stockings, a charter member of the new National League. After the 1877 season, the Brown Stockings went bankrupt, and the city was without a professional baseball team for four years.
In 1882 the new American Association was formed, with yet another St. Louis Brown Stockings team. Soon the name was shortened to Browns. The team fielded some of the strongest teams of the decade, finishing first from 1885 through 1888. They were led by young player-manager Charles Comiskey. The team’s owner was German-American saloonkeeper Chris von der Ahe, who renovated Sportsman’s Park. By keeping ticket prices low, the Browns were annually among the league leaders in attendance, and their fans were left over with more money to spend on beer at games. Von der Ahe was a born promoter. In an effort to sell even more brew, he put up a beer garden in the right-field corner at Sportsman’s Park, which, oddly enough, was in play. Eventually the rules were changed so that a ball hit into the beer garden was a home run.
The American Association folded after 1891, and the Browns rejoined the National League. Grand and Dodier, however, sat vacant for the remainder of the decade, as the Browns moved to another location in the city.
With the dawning of the new century came an upstart new “major” league, Ban Johnson’s American League, which featured an entry in Milwaukee called the Brewers. After struggling their only year in the Cream City, 1901, the franchise moved to St. Louis, changed its name to the Browns, and played at the newly refurbished Sportsman’s Park at Grand and Dodier.
Like most venues of the era, Sportsman’s Park was a wooden structure, susceptible to fires. But in the winter of 1908-09, the Browns’ ballpark underwent an extensive renovation, and by Opening Day of 1909 it featured a double-decked (and fireproof) concrete and steel grandstand. A covered single-deck grandstand extended down the left-field line. The outfield was ringed by single-decked wooden bleachers. The seating capacity was listed as 24,040. That same summer two new ballparks built of reinforced concrete and structural steel opened: Shibe Park in Philadelphia and Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. Within the next few years, many new teams would build comparable modern stadiums. The era of the Classic Ballpark had begun.
Also calling Sportsman’s Park home during this time was the St. Louis University football team, under legendary coach Eddie Cochems. Football historians will quickly identify him as the originator of an offense built around the forward pass, which revolutionized the game. In 1906 the team finished with an 11-0 record, taking advantage of the forward pass to outscore its opponents, 407-11.
The National League’s St. Louis Cardinals, the descendants of the Brown Stockings, had for years played at League Park, an outmoded and inadequate facility (the last wooden park, in fact, used by a major-league team). In July 1920 the Cardinals and Browns owner Phil Ball worked out an arrangement that allowed the Cardinals to move into Sportsman’s Park as tenants. The Cardinals’ offices were located at 3623 Dodier, the Browns’ around the corner at 2911 North Grand. Both teams called Sportsman’s Park home until the Browns left town for Baltimore after the 1953 season. As a result of the constant use, the field was perennially one of the worst in baseball.
The end of World War I brought an attendance boom to baseball in the early 1920s. To make room for more fans, Ball spent $500,000 to renovate the old ballpark. By the end of 1925 the park had taken on the form that it would assume for the rest of its days. The second deck now ran all the way down both foul lines. The old wooden bleachers in the outfield were replaced by concrete stands, including a covered pavilion from the right-field foul line to the center-field bleachers. The outfield distances were 351 feet to left field, 426 to dead center, and a mere 310 feet to right. The seating capacity was listed as 30,500. Sportswriter Red Smith called it “a garish, county fair sort of layout.” The short distance to the right-field fence necessitated the addition in 1929 of one of the quirkiest features of the park: A 25-foot screen atop the 11½-foot wall that extended 156 feet toward center, ending at the 354-foot mark in right-center. A batted ball that hit the screen was in play. (Years later, Cardinal great Stan Musial described the effects of the screen: “[It] made it much more interesting. The ball would fly out there and the runner didn’t know if it was going to hit the screen, go over it, or how it would bounce.”1) Because of the short distance to right, outfielders tended to play shallow, and thus had a better shot of throwing out runners at third or home on singles.)
The move by the Cardinals to bigger and better digs was the catalyst that forever changed the landscape of professional baseball in St. Louis. It was perhaps the most fortuitous decision the Cardinals franchise ever made. For the first two decades of the 20th century, neither the Browns nor the Cardinals fielded particularly competitive teams. After their second-place finish in their inaugural American League season in 1902, the Browns never placed that high again until 1922. The Cardinals, meanwhile, didn’t fare much better, never topping third place from 1900 to 1925. But relocating to Sportsman’s Park allowed Sam Breadon, the owner of the Cardinals, to sell League Park, the club’s former home. Branch Rickey, the team’s manager at the time, used the money to create baseball’s first farm system. By being able to develop homegrown talent on minor-league teams that they owned, the Cardinals became one of the more progressive teams in baseball. As a result, the fortunes of the two St. Louis teams went in opposite directions. From 1926, when the Cardinals went to their first World Series, until early in the 1966 season, when they abandoned the Sportsman’s Park neighborhood, the club went to the fall classic ten times, winning seven times. The Browns, meanwhile, became a byword for futility, a franchise that seemingly fell off the baseball radar for decades.
The Browns came close to a pennant in 1922, but lost out to the Yankees by one game. They never seriously contended again during the decade, but featured some exciting players. Slugging left fielder Ken Williams led the league in home runs (39) and RBIs (155) in 1922, and hit .326 in his ten years as a Brown. Center fielder Baby Doll Jacobson was a consistent .300 hitter and RBI man in these years. On the mound, the Browns had one of the best baseball names ever, in Urban Shocker. The right-handed Shocker was a fine pitcher for the club from 1918 to 1924, winning 126 games, with four straight 20-win seasons. But the biggest star ever to don a Browns uniform was first baseman George Sisler. Gorgeous George played with the Browns from 1915 to 1927 (he missed 1923 with illness), hitting .344 during those years, twice topping the .400 mark. His 1922 season was stunning: He led the league in average (.420), hits (246), runs (134), triples (18), and stolen bases (51). His OPS (on-base average plus slugging average) was 1.061. Sisler was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1939.
While the Cardinals never led the league in attendance in their years at Sportsman’s Park, they did draw over a million fans in 13 different seasons. They annually outdrew their landlords by large margins. The highest single-season attendance for the Cardinals at Sportsman’s Park was 1,430,676 in 1949, when they missed the pennant in a tight race with the Dodgers. The Browns, meanwhile, never topped the million mark at Grand and Dodier. Their highest single-season total was 712,918 in 1922. In a four-year stretch from 1933 to 1936, they drew fewer than 100,000 fans in a season three times, with a ridiculously low 80,922 in 1935. Even in the pennant-winning year of 1944, they attracted 508,644, fifth out of the eight American League teams.
By the middle of the 1920s, the Cardinals were beginning to come into their own as a franchise. Rogers Hornsby had emerged as perhaps the greatest right-handed hitter of all time. Certainly you cannot argue against a lifetime .358 batting average and 301 home runs. In 1926, with Hornsby as player-manager, the Cardinals reached the World Series for the first time, prevailing in seven games over the New York Yankees. In Game Four at Sportsman’s Park, Babe Ruth hit three home runs, one of which cleared the pavilion roof in right field. Two years later the Babe had another three-homer game at Grand and Dodier, in Game Four of the 1928 Series, which the Yankees swept. A second Cardinals world championship followed in 1931, capping a season in which the club topped 100 victories for the first time.
Perhaps no Cardinals team is as fondly remembered as the Gas House Gang of 1934. Depression Era America fell in love with this colorful collection of hard-nosed, rough-and-tumble players who always seemed to have the dirtiest uniforms on the field.
The player-manager of the Gas House Gang was second baseman Frankie Frisch, known as the Fordham Flash for his having attended Fordham University, and his speed while starring in collegiate sports. At shortstop was scrappy Leo Durocher, a player as famous for his propensity for wearing flashy suits as for his refusal to back down from anyone who challenged him. He wasn’t much of a hitter at the dish. Babe Ruth, in fact, had referred to him as the All-American Out. The batting order also boasted first baseman Ripper Collins, a Triple Crown winner in 1934 with a .333 average, 35 homers, and 128 RBIs; future Hall of Famer Joe “Ducky” Medwick also topped 100 RBIs, and added 18 home runs and a .319 average; and Pepper Martin, the hustling third baseman.
But the biggest star of the Gas House Gang was a farmboy from Lucas, Arkansas, Dizzy Dean. With a blazing fastball, the 24-year-old Dean won 30 games that year, the last National League pitcher to do so. His brother Paul Dean won 19. Dizzy’s meteoric career was cut short by injury, but it nonetheless warranted election to the Hall of Fame in 1953. He was brash, confident, and talented. But he also had a country-boy charm about him, and could tell a tale with the best of them, a quality that later helped him to forge a long career as a baseball broadcaster.
The Gas House Gang won 95 games in 1934, edging the New York Giants by two games. Their American League opponents in the World Series were the Detroit Tigers. One of baseball’s most amusing fables emerged from this postseason. In Game Four, at Sportsman’s Park, Dizzy was inserted as a pinch-runner at first base in the fourth inning. Trying to break up a double play, he was plunked in the forehead by the baseball on the relay throw to first base. A collective groan could be heard through Sportsman’s Park as Dean lay unconscious for several moments on the field. He was carried off and taken to the hospital, before eventually being released. According to legend, a newspaper headline the next day ran, “X-Rays of Dean’s Head Show Nothing.” Game Seven was noteworthy for the near-riot that occurred at Navin Field in Detroit after a hard slide by Medwick into Detroit’s third baseman, Marv Owen. The Gas House Gang won the last game in a blowout, 11-0, to take the world championship. The Dean brothers each won two games.
After the Depression, more and more ballparks were being outfitted with modern public-address systems. But not so at Sportsman’s Park. For years announcers had to make the best of it by shouting into a megaphone while dashing around the perimeter of the field. Finally, in 1937, Sportsman’s Park installed an electronic public-address system, one of the last ballparks to do so.
Starting in the 1930s, radio station KMOX began broadcasting Cardinals and Browns games. Because it was a 50,000-watt clear-channel station, games from Sportsman’s Park could be heard throughout the Midwest and much of the South. This helped the Cardinals (they and the Browns were at the time the westernmost major-league teams) to develop a strong fan base throughout the nation’s midsection. In 1945 broadcasting legend Harry Caray began calling games from his perch in the broadcasting booth behind home plate at Sportsman’s Park. He would go on to call Cardinals games for 25 seasons before going to the White Sox and then the Cubs. One of the primary sponsors of the St. Louis broadcasts was locally brewed Griesedieck beer.
People attending games at Grand and Dodier in the 1930s would not have been able to avoid noticing the park’s loudest fan. Mrs. Mary Ott, known as the Horse Lady, would tug at her ears and let out a neigh at the top of her lungs, much to the chagrin of umpires, opposing players, and the unfortunate people sitting in front of her.
In 1940 lights were installed at the ballpark. The Browns played the first night game there, on May 24, drawing a crowd of 24,827, their biggest home attendance of the season. The Cardinals played their first contest under the lights on June 4, in front of 23,500 spectators, also the most at home they would draw that year. With the sweltering hot, humid St. Louis summers, players and fans could appreciate the novelty (and the relief) of playing at night. On April 18, 1950, the Cardinals became the first team to hold their home opener at night..
From 1942 to 1946, the Cardinals experienced a stretch of excellence that saw them go to the fall classic four times, winning three of them. Their win totals in 1942, ’43, and ’44 were 106, 105, and 105. Stan Musial emerged as a star during this period, and the Cardinals were fortunate that he missed only one year, 1945, due to World War II. Stan the Man went on to have a long and storied career at Grand and Dodier, finishing with a .331 career batting average, 475 home runs, and what was then the most lifetime hits by a National Leaguer.
The war years were lean ones for baseball, as many stars of the game were called to serve Uncle Sam. As a result, teams were forced to fill their depleted rosters with castoffs, retreads, or unknowns who during normal times would most likely be toiling in the minor leagues. One-armed Pete Gray, who played for the Browns in 1945, came to be a symbol of wartime baseball. Despite (or because of) the roster attrition, however, the unthinkable happened in 1944. The St. Louis Browns, who had had only four winning seasons in the prior 20 years, won the American League pennant. They started strong out of the gate, winning their first nine games. They also got hot at the end, when they had to win, going 11-1 in their final 12 games, including a four-game sweep of the Yankees on the final weekend. It came down to the last game of the season at Sportsman’s Park. The Browns entered the October 1 game tied with Detroit for the top spot. Before a crowd of 35,518, the largest regular-season Browns crowd ever at Grand and Dodier, they prevailed over New York, 5-2, while the Tigers lost in Detroit to the Washington Senators. The Browns were the champions of the American League, with a record of 89-65. They wound up facing the Cardinals in the only All-St. Louis World Series ever. The Browns came up short, four games to two, in what was dubbed the Streetcar Series. It was the lone World Series appearance in the long history of the Browns.
One of the most famous plays ever at Sportsman’s Park occurred in Game Seven of the 1946 World Series, which featured the Cardinals against the Boston Red Sox. In the bottom of the eighth inning, with the score tied, 3-3, the Cardinals’ Enos Slaughter led off with a single. The next two batters made outs, then Harry “The Hat” Walker, who got his nickname because he would constantly tug at the bill of his cap between pitches, poked a solid hit to left-center. Boston center fielder Leon Culberson ambled over, fielded it routinely, and lobbed the ball to shortstop Johnny Pesky, neither of them expecting Slaughter to continue around third and run home. Pesky perhaps hesitated just a second before gunning the ball to catcher Roy Partee. The throw was a bit up the third-base line, but it didn’t matter. Slaughter slid into home safely. Many have speculated down the ages that Pesky’s slight hesitation allowed Slaughter to score. In the end, it proved to be the winning run of the World Series. Before the Series started, it had been billed as a showdown between the two biggest stars on either club, Ted Williams of the Red Sox and Stan Musial of the Cardinals. Neither hit particularly well in the Series, however. Williams batted .200, while Musial was slightly better at .222.
Sportsman’s Park was the last ballpark in the majors to maintain a Jim Crow section. Until the 1944 season black patrons could sit only in the right-field pavilion. But by 1947 the Browns became only the third big-league team (after the Dodgers and the Indians) to field a black player. The team had purchased two players from the Negro Leagues’ Kansas City Monarchs, infielder Hank Thompson and outfielder Willard Brown. The 21-year-old Thompson didn’t do much for St. Louis, playing in only 27 games with no home runs, but he did go on to have some good years with the New York Giants. Brown, who was 32, played in only 21 big-league games, hitting .179. In 2006, however, he was enshrined in Cooperstown for his achievements in the Negro Leagues.
After their World Series appearance in 1944, the Browns finished third the next year with a record of 81-70. It was the final .500 season in their history. In July 1951, in the midst of a 102-loss season, the team was purchased by one of baseball’s foremost impresarios ever, Bill Veeck. A master of promotion and theatrics, Veeck pulled off perhaps his most famous stunt on August 19, 1951, between games of a Sunday doubleheader with the Tigers. A big birthday cake was wheeled onto the field. Suddenly, a 3-foot 7-inch midget by the name of Eddie Gaedel popped out, to the delight of the crowd. Had the promotion ended there, it would have been forgotten. But it didn’t, and it wasn’t. When the second game got under way, Frank Saucier was scheduled to lead off the bottom of the first inning for the Browns. The fans were shocked to see Gaedel come trotting up to home plate as a pinch-hitter. When nonplussed home-plate umpire Ed Hurley asked Browns manager Zack Taylor what the big idea was, Taylor presented the man in blue with a standard player contract with Gaedel’s signature on it. Veeck knew the umps wouldn’t appreciate his sense of humor, so he had had the contract prepared beforehand and sent to the league office after it had closed. Hurley had to comply, and Gaedel was allowed to bat. Tigers pitcher Bob Cain threw four straight balls, and the midget took his base. Gaedel got a standing ovation from the crowd as he was removed for a pinch-runner. His uniform number, 1/8, is on display at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Veeck and his family lived in an apartment of his own making under the stands at Sportsman’s Park. He had high hopes that his promotional acumen would help to increase attendance and allow the Browns to compete with the Cardinals. Veeck himself was by no means a wealthy man, and the team operated on a shoestring budget. Among his other promotional stunts was Grandstand Managers Day, when fans in one section were given placards with words like “bunt,” “steal,” “swing,” and “pull the pitcher.” They would hold the cards up at strategic points in the game, and the players on the field had to obey the fans’ decisions.
Promotions aside, the Browns didn’t improve any on the field during Veeck’s reign. He did sign former Negro Leagues star Satchel Paige in 1951. Paige was in his mid-40s at the time. He pitched three seasons for the Brownies, winning 18 and losing 23.
In 1953 the Anheuser-Busch brewery, maker of Budweiser beer, purchased the Cardinals, with August “Gussie” Busch, Jr. becoming team president. Veeck knew he couldn’t compete with Busch’s deep pockets. He tried unsuccessfully to move the Browns to greener pastures in Milwaukee. When that didn’t work, he promptly sold Sportsman’s Park to Busch. The tables were now turned; the Cardinals were the landlords and the Browns were the tenants.
Busch wanted to change the name of Sportsman’s Park to Budweiser Stadium, but the league balked at having a ballpark named after a beer. Busch instead changed the name to Busch Stadium, after which the brewery introduced Busch Bavarian Beer in 1955. Thus, instead of naming the ballpark after a beer, they tried a different tack and named a beer after the ballpark.
By the 1953 season, it was a foregone conclusion that Veeck would be moving the Browns out of town the next season. The highlight of the year at Grand and Dodier came on May 6. Bobo Holloman, a 30-year-old career minor leaguer, pitched a no-hitter against the Philadelphia Athletics in his first major-league start, the only player ever to do so.
The final game for the Browns in St. Louis came on September 27, 1953. The club lost its 100th game of the season, in front of an intimate gathering of 3,174 fans. Jim Dyck hit a fly ball to center for the last at-bat ever by a St. Louis Brown. By Opening Day 1954, Veeck had sold the team, and the new owners had moved it to Baltimore. The Cardinals now had St. Louis all to themselves.
The old ballpark at Grand and Dodier may have had a new name, but by the 1950s Busch Stadium was in definite need of sprucing up. Years of hands-off stewardship by the Browns had left the place in a state of neglect. Gussie Busch spent over a million dollars to brighten up the ballpark. He closed the center-field bleachers and replaced them with more eye-appealing shrubbery. Every seat in the house was either repaired or replaced. Dugouts and clubhouses were renovated and expanded. Busch was also responsible for installing one of the more distinctive features of the park during its remaining years: an electronic Anheuser-Busch eagle perched atop the scoreboard in left field. After every home run, the eagle would flap its electronic wings.
Stan “The Man” Musial was the brightest star to shine at Grand and Dodier for more than two decades. From his first season, 1941, until he retired after the 1963 season Musial won no fewer than seven National League batting titles, finishing his career with the most (at the time) career hits in the NL (3,630). During his tenure, the Cardinals went to four World Series, winning three of them.
In its history Sportsman’s Park played host to three All-Star Games, in 1940, 1948, and 1957. The 1957 contest involved a ballot-box stuffing controversy. Overly zealous Cincinnati fans had voted all but one of the Redlegs’ position players to the game. The only non-Redleg to get voted onto the squad was Musial. Commissioner Ford Frick replaced starting Cincinnati outfielders Gus Bell and Wally Post with Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, and then decided that for future All-Star Games fans would not be casting any more ballots. Starters would now be decided by players, managers, and coaches. This policy lasted until 1970, when the vote was given back to the fans.
By the late 1950s, serious discussions began to take place about a new ballpark. Despite Gussie Busch’s improvements, the stadium had begun to deteriorate. The public perception of Busch Stadium was the same as that of many other urban ballparks during this period. For one thing, the neighborhood was become increasingly dangerous. Also, the United States was becoming a car culture; people preferred to drive to baseball games, rather than take buses or trolleys as they had in previous decades. Busch Stadium, with its lack of parking, could not accommodate them. In 1964 ground was broken for what would be the future Busch Memorial Stadium, in downtown St. Louis.
That same year the Cardinals captured the pennant by one game on the last day of the season after a thrilling three-way pennant race with the Phillies and the Reds. Thanks to Philadelphia’s classic late-season collapse, in which they blew the 6½-game lead they had with 12 games left to play, St. Louis went on to face the New York Yankees in the World Series. The seventh game featured Bob Gibson on the hill for the Cardinals at Busch Stadium. Gibson threw a complete game as St. Louis won by a final score of 7-5. This last championship team in Sportsman’s Park’s history was just on the cusp of greatness. Gibson would emerge as the most intimidating pitcher in an era filled with many of them. Lou Brock, Curt Flood, and Orlando Cepeda ignited the Redbirds’ lineup in the second half of the decade. The club returned to the World Series at their new downtown stadium in 1967 and 1968.
Grand and Dodier was also the home of the St. Louis football Cardinals starting in 1960, after the franchise relocated from Chicago. The NFL’s Cardinals never went to the playoffs in their six seasons at Busch Stadium. Bill and Charles Bidwill, the owners of the team, threatened to pull up stakes and move the team to Atlanta, having become disenchanted with the old ballpark and frustrated with the slow progress on the new stadium. The city eventually persuaded the Bidwill brothers to stay.
The Cardinals were scheduled to move into the new Busch Memorial Stadium for Opening Day 1966. But construction delays forced the team to continue to play at the old Busch for the first ten home games of the season. The end finally came on Sunday, May 8, an afternoon affair against San Francisco, which the Giants won 10-5. The final home run was hit by Willie Mays in the top of the ninth inning. In the bottom of the ninth, the Cardinals’ Alex Johnson made the last out, hitting into a double play. Considering the occasion, a surprisingly modest crowd of 17,503 showed up. The team had had a disappointing 1965 season, and was in eighth place and playing very poorly at the beginning of 1966, which probably led to the modest crowd. There was not much “final game” fanfare for Busch Stadium; the Cardinals had scheduled a downtown parade later that day to celebrate the new stadium, and was genuinely happy to get out of the Sportsman’s Park neighborhood. The ballpark area had become run-down and dangerous. A young fan was shot and killed during an armed robbery while he was hurrying to the 1964 opener. (After the May 8 game, home plate was dug up, and a few fans unbolted and carried out sections of seats, while many were content with a scoop of the outfield warning track to take home for a souvenir.)
Within six months the old ballpark at Grand and Dodier succumbed to the wrecking ball. After demolition, all that remained was the playing field. As a goodwill gesture, Gussie Busch transferred the real-estate title to the Metropolitan St. Louis Boys’ Club. At this writing the grass athletic field was being used by the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater St. Louis. A sign there noted the site of Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis.
This essay is included in "The 1934 St. Louis Cardinals The World Champion Gas House Gang" (SABR, 2014), edited by Charles F. Faber.
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The Sporting News
1 Ron Smith, The Ballpark Book: A Journey Through the Fields of Baseball Magic, 289-90.