Helene Britton: The Matron Magnate

This article was written by William A. Borst

This article was published in 1977 Baseball Research Journal

In the wake of the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970’s, some professions have remained sacrosanct. The country appears light years away from having a woman president. Baseball, with its archconservative leanings, has virtually negated the active role of women within its sacred domain.

It is ironic that both of these bastions of male chauvinism fell prey to female influence during the years surrounding World War I. As President Wilson lay in his bed, the victim of a stroke, his wife Edith unofficially acted in his stead for over a year. A few years earlier, Helene Britton had become the sole owner of the St. Louis Cardinals, at the death of her uncle Stanley Robison.

Mrs. Britton’s father, Frank DeHaas Robison and his brother Stanley had purchased the Cardinals from G. A. Gruner in 1898. In additon to owning the Cardinals, the Robisons also owned the Cleveland Spiders, also a National League entry. Baseball had been quite profitable for the Robisons in Cleveland. Their transportation lines carried many of the fans to and from the ball park. They expected to capitalize on the St. Louis market in a similar fashion.

In 1899 they shifted many of Cleveland’s star players, including Jesse Burkett and Denton “Cy” Young to St. Louis, completely decimating the Spiders. As a result the Spiders set an all-time record for diamond futility in a single season. With nothing but fringe players and upgraded minor leaguers, they finished the season with a 20-134 record, “good” for a .129 winning percentage. The team had become such a civic disgrace that they were forced to play most of their games on the road for fear of bodily harm from the few frustrated fans who saw them play. In St. Louis, the Robisons won 84 games, finishing a modest fifth under manager Patsy Tebeau.

The Robisons devoted most of their energies to their St. Louis team, as the Spiders quietly folded at the end of the season. They altered the pallid image of the Browns by changing the trim of the uniforms from Von Der Ahe’s brown to a cardinal red. This change gave rise to their current name of “Cardinals”. Frank served as president of the club until his death in 1905. Sole ownership went to Stanley Robison who succeeded his brother as president of the Cardinals. In 1911 he contracted blood poisoning and died in Cleveland on March 27, 1911, at the age of 54.

The bulk of the Robison estate, valued at $400,000, went to Frank’s daughter, Mrs. Schuyler Britton, the attractive wife of a Cleveland printer. Mrs. Britton was 32 at the time of her uncle’s death and really had misgivings about assuming ownership amid some of the “tricky baseball men of that period”. She did overcome her initial reluctance and became a very active owner, involving herself with a passion in league affairs.

During the first two years of her ownership, Edward A. Steininger, the president of the E.A. Construction Co. and for a brief time in 1912, her attorney, James C. Jones, acted as the president pro tem. Helene Britton contented herself with being the “man” behind the title. Though she often delegated the voting to her representatives, Mrs. Britton attended all of the league’s annual meetings, held at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York from 1911-1916. She listened attentively to all of the league proceedings and her answers were generally “sharp and straight to the point.” She always made it a point to sit in the first row for the meetings and for the group picture that was shot each year. Her very presence at these meetings irritated the likes of Charlie Ebbets of the Dodgers, Harry Hempstead of the Giants and William Baker of the Phillies. Most of her baseball colleagues resented the “petticoat rule” that earned her the title of the “matron magnate”.

Helene Britton was a warm and charming person who was affectionately known as “Lady Bee” to members of the press. Though she was a socialite, known for her lavish parties at her Lindell Boulevard mansion in the heart of “Millionaires Row,” she found time to support actively the women’s suffrage movement that was sweeping the nation at the time.

When her father and uncle had owned the team, it was usually mired deep within the second division. St. Louis then belonged to the Browns of Robert Hedges. During the first year of her ownership, the Cardinals rose to fifth place. What was more important was that the team ledgers showed a net profit of $165,000, which she used to pay off some of the franchise’s accumulated debts. She was so pleased with the team’s progress, both on the field and at the gate, that she rewarded her field manager, Roger Bresnahan, “the Duke of Tralee” with a lucrative five-year contract. This moment of generosity proved to be a very costly and unwise decision for Mrs. Britton.

As a star catcher with the New York Giants, Bresnahan had learned his manners in the “John McGraw School of Etiquette”. The Duke was fond of using every expletive known to the human ear. He was not the type to mince his words, even in front of his female boss. A serious rift developed between Bresnahan and the Cardinal owner that festered until his dismissal at the end of the 1912 season. He resented the fact that Mrs. Britton “interfered” with his management of the team on the field. After the Cardinals had blown a game in Chicago, Bresnahan exploded when questioned about his strategy during the loss. “No woman can tell me how to play a ball game!” Bresnahan’s Irish temper drove Mrs. Britton to tears. The Irishman also resented the maneuvering of the team’s scrappy little second baseman, Miller Huggins. Mrs. Britton was quite fond of Huggins, which ledBresnahan to believe that the “little snake is after my job.”

Bresnahan won a $20,000 settlement from the Cardinals out of court for the remainder of his five year contract. He then proceeded to manage the 1913 Cubs. In 1913 Mrs. Britton replaced Jones as president with her husband Schuyler, though she still continued to exercise most of the real authority.

At the conclusion of the 1914 season, it became apparent that Mrs. Britton had become disenchanted with the administrative aspects of the game. Most observers believed that she wanted to sell her interests. At the winter meeting in New York, her fellow owners attempted to force the issue once and for all. At first they attempted to “soften her up” with a pretty floral bouquet, delivered to her room. But the seven male chauvinists were not dealing with a typical woman of the early twentieth century. Helene Britton was a woman far ahead of her time. She was well aware of their ploy to force her out.

Mrs. Britton deeply resented their efforts to force her to sell. Behind closed doors they had conspired to auction off her team to a buyer, presumably, Phil Ball of the rival Federal League. She was aware that it was a “woman against men” situation, and as Sid Keener of the St. Louis Times reported, “she stood toe-to-toe with them and won the fight.” She thoroughly disagreed with their chief selling point that “it would be for the good of the game for her to get out of baseball.” Refusing to part with the club, she rightfully revoked her selling option and declared to the press “I have not sold the Cardinals and I’m not going to sell the Cardinals.” She returned to St. Louis, still in possession of Robison Field and the St. Louis Cardinals.

Husband Schuyler Parsons Britton was an affable man who presented a perfect public image for the Cardinals. He mingled quite well with the press, who affectionately called him “Skip”. Yet he continued to listen dutifully to the wishes of his wife. On one occasion she suggested that that the game needed some added attraction to bring more women to the ball park. She wisely realized that if more ladies were present, a larger group of men would also attend, even if the team were not doing so well.

She was an early advocate of “ladies day,” many years before the idea became popular among baseball promoters. She felt that “we just have to prevail upon more members of the fair sex to come out and see the Cardinals play!” She suggested to Schuyler that he arrange for a male singer to entertain between each inning. When they finally agreed on a successful candidate, he was so excited about singing before crowds that ranged from 5,000 to 20,000 people that he agreed to sing for nothing. One observer noted that “every day he parades in front of the bleachers, singing at the top of his voice into a large megaphone”. Britton added band music that turned Robison Field into a “baseball cabaret”. The experiment worked as more men and women attended Cardinals games.

In the 1914 Christmas Edition of Reedy’s Mirror, an internationally circulated St. Louis periodical, the editor and publisher, William Reedy, described Britton in flowery terms. The article commended him for his nobility of character in presenting his players with an incentive bonus at the end of the past season. In March of 1914, Britton had gone on record by promising his players a flat 20% increase in their salaries if they finished third or better. The offer “acted like magic” as the Cardinals won 81 games to finish in third place. Britton had lived up to his promise and gladly paid their bonus.

Publisher Reedy found this to be truly amazing, considering that the Cardinals were already the highest paid team in the league, though they were far from the best team in the league. Reedy regarded Britton’s overt act of generosity in serious contrast to the “taint of monopolistic greed and denigration which has blurred baseball’s escutcheon during the past few years . . . .” Reedy editorialized that the game of baseball would rise to “unparalleled popularity” if all owners were “as honest and fair-minded” as Schuyler Britton who possessed a “puritanic soul”. Even though in the past he had placed his confidence in men who were “rapscallions at heart,” and at a cost of a “pretty penny” (his wife’s money), Britton had never relinquished his “trust in his fellow man”.

There is great evidence that Reedy’s saccharine portrayal of Helene Britton’s husband was far from an accurate one. While he kept up his convivial image for the press and idealists like Reedy, his private life was in turmoil. Persistent rumors implied that there was a great deal of marital discord at 4215 Lindell. The everyday strains of having his wife looking over his shoulder at his every move became intolerable for the “Cardinal front”. Perhaps it was pride or the lack of a positive self-image. Whatever the case, Schuyler Britton began a strong flirtation with the bottle. He began to stay out to all hours of the night with extreme regularity. As his wife’s divorce petition testifies, their marriage was emotionally terminated in the early morning hours of November 7, 1916. Britton had returned home around 2 a.m., only to find that his wife had locked him out of their mansion. In a drunken rage he almost broke down the door. When she finally did admit him, she testifies that he “nearly set fire to the house” with his careless use of a cigar. After a heated argument, Britton packed some of his things and never came back. Later that morning Helene Britton assumed the title of President of the Cardinals, making her the first woman to openly hold such a title in the annals of baseball history.

With her own life now in a shambles, and with her two children to think about, she lost her enthusiasm for baseball. In a private meeting with Jones, her lawyer, and Miller Huggins, who had replaced Bresnahan as the Cardinal manager after his rift with the woman owner, Helene Britton quietly informed that she wanted “to get out of baseball”. She told only them because she reasoned that they might be interested in buying the club themselves. Huggins was very interested in her proposition. He agreed to purchase the team with a “verbal promise,” but was unable to come up with. enough money to meet Mrs. Britton’s asking price of $375,000, including Robison Field.

Jones was equally as interested. He recruited a “fan syndicate” from the city’s prominent businessmen that formed an army of stockholders. The project was promoted as an exercise in “civic duty”. Any buyer could purchase from $50 to $10,000 worth of stock. W. E. Bilheimer, a St. Louis insurance man, introduced the idea of a “Knot Hole Gang”. With each fifty dollars worth of stock purchased went one bleacher seat that was opened up free of charge for the city’s youth. Bilheimer cited the city’s rising rate of juvenile delinquency in the campaign plan. He believed that his idea would serve as a useful antidote in the eradication of crime among juveniles. In later years Branch Rickey would pick up on this idea that endeared thousands of youngsters to the Cardinals for life.

Helene Britton disappeared from the Social Register in St. Louis after the sale of the club. She later married Charles S. Bigsby, an electrical appliance distributor who died in 1935. Helene Britton-Bigsby died at the age of 71 on January 8, 1950, in the Philadelphia home of her daughter, Mary R. Britton. Her body was returned to Cleveland for burial. Thus ended the story of baseball’s “matron magnate.”