“Damn, the Boss is a Girl”

Helene Robison Britton

As something of a follow-up to the Roger Bresnahan post, let me take you way back in the 19th Century when the Robison brothers, Stanley and Frank, a couple of  street car company magnates (not a “magnate” type job these days) and owners of the Cleveland baseball club, also bought ownership in the St. Louis club. They managed to destroy the Cleveland team, but St. Louis survived. In 1908, Frank died leaving the team to Stanley. Stanley hung on through the 1910 season. The team wasn’t very good, but he liked the game, he made money, and he thought he could make it a winner. In March 1911 he died. As sad as it might be, for our purposes it is important to note he was unmarried and had no children. In his will he left majority owenership of the team to his brother’s only child, his niece Helene Robison Britton. She thus became the first female owner of a Major League Baseball team. One of the players is supposed to have uttered the deathless line “Damn, the boss is a girl.”

Helene Robison was born in Cleveland in 1879, the child of wealth and privilege. With both her father and uncle baseball men she grew up liking the sport and learned to score the game early. When the Cleveland team folded and her father and uncle began running only the St. Louis team, she maintained an interest and accompanied them to St. Louis to watch her team play. One source says she first proposed changing the team uniforms from Brown to Cardinal Red thus giving the team its current nickname. I can find absolutely no confirmation of that and it probably isn’t true, but it makes a good story.

In 1901 she married Schuyler Britton, a n attorney and printer (strange combination, isn’t it?). They had two children (one of each). In 1911, as mentioned above, she and her mother gained ownership of the Cardinals (with Helene Britton getting the bigger share of the stock). She moved to St. Louis and began running the team. As you might guess there was a lot of opposition to a woman running a  baseball team in 1911. Helene Britton seems to have decided to run the team anyway and after a brief honeymoon had problems with manager Roger Bresnahan and some of the players who didn’t like taking orders from a woman. Fellow owners also didn’t want her in their meetings. It was, after all, a man’s world and a man’s sport. She solved that part of the problem by having her husband elected club president in 1913. That allowed him to attend league meetings while she still ran the team on a daily basis.

Frankly the Cardinals weren’t very good in her years as owner. They finished as high as third in 1914 (a Federal League year), but did not consistently win. She did manage to increase attendance by instituting “Lady’s Day” at the ball park. She also was smart enough to agree to the manager’s suggestion she sign an up and coming slugger named Rogers Hornsby in 1915.

She was having trouble at home, however. In 1916 she separated from her husband and began divorce proceedings in 1917. Claiming he was an alcoholic and abusive, she was successful in her petition. That left her, again, the sole driving force in the Cardinals front office. In fairness to her, Schuyler Britton was always more figurehead than president while she ran the team. Years later Effa and Abe Manley would do much the same thing in the Negro Leagues (although they never divorced).

In 1918 she sold the Cardinals for $350,000, a large sum in 1918 and a great profit on her father’s original $40,000 investment. She remarried, moved to Philadelphia, and died in 1950 mostly forgotten by baseball. Feminism hadn’t yet found her. A biographer finally did this year. Haven’t read it yet but it’s called “Baseball’s First Lady” and is written by Joan Thomas.

It’s really tough to assess Britton’s role in baseball. On the one hand she was way ahead of her time. She may have been a “feminist”, but was more in the Margaret Sanger mold than in the modern “feminist” role. She certainly did run the team despite great resistance from both players and other owners. She showed real intelligence by putting her husband in the president’s chair, thus cutting down on some of the opposition to her. On the other hand, the Cardinals didn’t do very well. Much of that can be laid at the feet of her dad and uncle who weren’t very good at running  a baseball team, but some of it has to rub off on her. The team got better briefly, but only marginally. Frankly, I think baseball is better off for having her, but her on the field impact is much less than her historical impact.

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