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Today in Baseball History: Helene Britton becomes the first woman to own a team

Helene Britton2

Stanley Robison was a streetcar magnate who, along with his brother Frank, became baseball moguls as well. They were the founding owners of the Cleveland team that would become the Cleveland Spiders. They, infamously, sold the Spiders and purchased the St. Louis Browns -- who would become the St. Louis Cardinals -- swapping out Browns and Spiders rosters, which resulted in the 1899 Browns becoming the worst team in baseball history before their eventual demise.

Frank ran the show in St. Louis, but he died suddenly in 1906, leaving Stanley as sole owner. The Cardinals were a terrible club during Stanley’s sole ownership, finishing in last or second-to-last place in all five seasons he was solely at the helm. In late 1910 Stanley’s health began to decline. On March 24, 1911 Stanley -- a bachelor with no family of his own -- died of heart failure and blood poisoning while visiting his brother’s widow, her daughter, Helene, and Helene’s young family in Cleveland.

Stanley’s death was something of a shock, but it was nothing compared to the shock delivered at the reading of his will: he had bequeathed controlling interest in the St. Louis Cardinals to his niece, Helene. The remainder of the shares went to her mother, Frank’s widow. As a result, Helene Hathaway Robison Britton became the first woman to own a major league baseball team.

Helene Britton

Photo: Library of Congress

The media descended soon after the news of her inheritance became public, fascinated that a woman -- a woman! -- could own a baseball team. In April 1911 a story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch described her thusly:

She is small and round and trim, with decided chic. Her mourning costume [for her uncle] failed to subdue certain lively touches that indicate a love of life and gayety.. . . her attitude is ever alert.

It was widely speculated that, rather than actually run the Cardinals, Britton would sell the team. She put that speculation to rest, saying “I shall feel it my duty as well as my pleasure and advantage not to shrink from doing everything in my power to further the interests of the Cardinals. And the team is not for sale.”

Privately, however, Britton and her mother at least considered selling the Cardinals to Chicago lunch counter king Charles Weeghman. Weeghman offered $350,000 for the second division club, which was probably a fair price at the time, but Britton declined. Weeghman would be alright, of course. He’d go on to help establish the Federal League, building what would become Wrigley Field for his Chicago Whales and, eventually, purchasing the Chicago Cubs.

Not surprisingly for the time, Britton was doubted and even mocked by the press, the public and the baseball establishment. They referred to her as a “magnette” as opposed to a “magnate.” A newspaper cartoon portrayed Cardinals players wearing bloomers instead of trousers. Newspaper stories described Britton as a “militant suffragette,” which, in the context of the era, was not praise of her belief in a woman’s right to vote, but rather a misogynistic sentiment, meant to cast he femininity and temperament in doubt. Britton generally took the high road in response to all of this, doing no more than voicing her belief that women could excel in traditionally male-dominated fields if given the chance.

After the initial flurry of press interest passed, Britton got down to running the Cardinals. It was a business she knew pretty well. As a girl she had developed a love for baseball by virtue of her father and uncle’s ownership of the Spiders. She learned to keep score while attending Spiders games, describing scorekeeping as a “better mental exercise than anything.” After her father and uncle sold the Spiders and the team was subsequently eliminated from the National League, she would frequently accompany them on Browns/Cardinals road trips. She was not the babe in the woods the press assumed.

At first she gave a vote of confidence to Cardinals manager Roger Bresnahan, whom her uncle had hired before the 1909 season. But while the results improved in her first year as owner -- the Cardinals jumped up to 5th place -- Britton and Bresnahan’s relationship quickly deteriorated. Despite the improved club, gate was down and, at the time, that was something for which managers were considered responsible. Britton accused Bresnahan of disinterest. She also took issue with his detire to trade away second baseman Miller Huggins, whom Britton admired. Things came to a head late in the 1912 season when Bresnahan reportedly shouted at Britton that “no woman can tell me how to run a ball game!” Britton fired him and hired Huggins to manage the Cardinals. It was Huggins’ first job as a big league skipper. He’d later go on to greater fame as the manager of the Babe Ruth Yankees in the 1920s.

In 1913 Helene appointed her husband, Schuyler Britton, as team president. It was a move aimed at placating the other seven National League owners, who had voiced their discomfort at doing business with a woman, but it was a ruse. Schuyler would attend league meetings and official functions, but he was just a figurehead. Helene continued to run the show herself, telling Schuyler how to vote on league matters.

Meanwhile, she would institute a number of changes back in St. Louis. She invented the idea of “Ladies Day,” where any woman accompanied by a man was admitted to the game for free. In another move that would be later be widely adopted in baseball, she hired a singer to perform between innings. Her aim in all of this was to attract more women to ballparks and cause them to develop an interest in the sport as she had as a girl.

The Cardinals improved to third place in 1914 -- the best showing the team would have under her family’s ownership of the club -- but things were not so rosy on the business side of things. Her ballpark, the former League Park, which she had renamed Robison Park in honor of her late father, was falling into disrepair. Competition from the St. Louis Terriers of the Federal League was fierce as well. During the National League’s merger/buyout negotiations with the Federal League she considered selling the team and had a price in mind. She changed her mind, however, when the other National League owners demanded that she sell the Cardinals. It was one thing for her to choose to do so, but she would not be forced. A headline in a St. Louis paper the day after the meeting read “Never Tell Her She Must!” over a photo of Britton.

Things, however, were not great at home for Britton. Her marriage to Schuyler was strained by his drinking, his wasteful spending and his habit of disappearing from her and the family with no explanation of his whereabouts. Most seriously, she alleged in a divorce petition filed in 1917 that he mentally abused her and “frequently struck” her. Their marriage was dissolved that year. The following year, short of cash, Britton sold the Cardinals to one of the team’s minority owners, Sam Breadon, for the same $350,000 Weeghman had offered seven years earlier. Breadon would soon hire Branch Rickey to run the organization, changing the fortunes of the Cardinals, and of Major League Baseball, forever.

Britton would re-mary to a Boston electrical appliance salesman named Charles Bigsby and, for the most part, retire from public life. In later interviews she said that she still loved baseball and often regretted her decision to sell the Cardinals. About her own success she said, “All I ever needed was the opportunity. That’s all any woman needs.”

Helene Hathaway Robison Britton died on January 8, 1950, at age 70.

(thanks to the SABR biography of Britton by Joan M. Thomas of the Society of American Baseball Research for much of the information contained in this article)

Also today in baseball history:

1933: Babe Ruth agrees to takes a pay cut of $23,000 from his previous salary of $75,000. The Depression takes a bite of even the biggest stars.

1947: Commissioner Happy Chandler suspends Brooklyn Dodgers manager Leo Durocher for the entire 1947 season for “association with known gamblers.” The “known gamblers” included the actor, George Raft, who himself was well-acquainted with organized crime figures, and a story circulated that Durocher and Raft had rigged a craps game that took Detroit Tigers pitcher Dizzy Trout for a great deal of money. The Dodgers, thanks to new addition Jackie Robinson, win the 1947 pennant without him. Durocher will return for 72 mediocre games in 1948, at which point he, GM Branch rickey, and New York Giants owner Horace Stoneman reached a deal under which Durocher would be let out of his Dodgers deal and be allowed to take over as manager for the Giants.

1952: During a spring training game 21 year-old Cardinals pitcher Bob Slaybaugh is hit in the face with a line drive during batting practice, causing him to completely lose his left eye. Slaybaught will attempt comebacks in 1953 and 1954 before he retires from professional baseball. He never makes the big leagues.

1982: A year after “Fernandomania,” a Rookie of the Year Award and a Cy Young Award, Dodgers ace Fernando Valenzuela ends his three-week holdout. Valenzuela made $42,500 in his rookie year and had asked for a raise to $850,000. The Dodgers refused, instigating the holdout. When he returns the Dodgers renew him for $350,000.

1984: The Tigers trade utilityman John Wockenfuss and outfielder Glenn Wilson to the Phillies for reliever Willie Hernandez and first baseman Dave Bergman. Hernandez would go on to win the AL Cy Young and MVP Awards after posting a 1.92 ERA and saving 32 games for the eventual World Series champions.

2001: During an exhibition game against the Giants, Diamondback pitcher Randy Johnson’s throws a fastball that hits and instantly kills a dove flying in between the mound and home plate. The bird appears to explode. You’ve seen the video: