Posts Tagged ‘Stanley Robison’

My Top List of Terrible Owners

September 19, 2011

Where these guys belong

Baseball is full of terrible players and coaches. I guess it’s not fair to call any player who makes it to the Major Leagues “terrible”, but there’s definitely a lot of players that are at best marginal. And coaches and managers can be real duds. But somehow owners tend to get overlooked by casual fans. Most people don’t seem to pay much attention to the impact of ownership. Well, baseball has had some really awful owners too. Here’s my Mount Rushmore (4 guys) of terrible owners in no particular order.

Charles Comiskey: The only owner who ever had his team mutiny to such an extent it was willing to dump a World Series. Ultimately the players themselves must take blame for their own actions, but Comiskey did more than his share to help them along with their choices. Comiskey was cheap, but so was Connie Mack. What Comiskey lacked was a shred of respect for his players, and that makes him lower on the ownership scale and thus higher on the Rushmore scale. And I’m not sure I understand it exactly. Charles Comiskey was a former player, actually a pretty good one. He was first baseman and manager of the St. Louis Browns team that won pennant after pennant in the 1880s. Having been a player, having seen the tussles with ownership and the league offices, I find it strange he seems to have had no sympathy at all for the plight of his players. Maybe it was an “I went through it, so can you” attitude. Maybe he was just a jerk. Whatever it was he gets a spot on my Mount Rushmore. And for what it’s worth, although Clifton James doesn’t look at all like Comiskey, his portrayal of the White Sox owner in “Eight Men Out” is pretty close (except that the flat champagne episode occurred in 1917, not 1919).

The Robison Brothers: Because there were two of them, the Robison brothers occupy two spaces on Mount Rushmore. Frank was the older brother. He married the daughter of the man who ran the Cleveland, Ohio streetcar company, Charles Hathaway. Today that doesn’t sound like a way to make a great deal of money, but in an era without subways, cars, or buses, the streetcar was the quickest, easiest way for someone to get across town to see the doctor or go to work or whatever. So the Robison’s made a lot of money, a whole lot of money. Very early on Frank brought in younger brother Stanley to help run the business. Between them they got very rich. Frank Robison was also a baseball fan (as was Stanley to a lesser degree). He decided that Cleveland should have a big league team and in 1887 he started up the Cleveland Blues, later renamed the Spiders. They joined the National League the same year. Mostly they weren’t very good. In 1892 that changed. Among other things, they picked up (the year before) a youngster named Cy Young who seemed to have some potential. It was the year of the first split season. Cleveland won the second half, then lost the playoff to Boston. In 1895 and 1896 they played for the Temple Cup, winning in ’95. It was the apex of the team and so far so good for the brothers as owners. But the Robison’s had a plan to make more money. In 1898 the National League forced St. Louis owner Chris Von Der Ahe to sell the Browns. The Robison’s bought the team. In 1898 it was legal to own two teams. It was called “syndicate baseball” and there were three of them, including the Robison’s. With St. louis being a much larger market (4th largest US city at the time),  the Robison’s immediately began stripping the Cleveland team of its best players and sent them, Cy Young included, to St. Louis. The Browns didn’t do any better and the Spiders were awful. At the end of the year, the NL shut down the team. Frank died in 1908, leaving Stanley in charge. In 1905 Stanley had tried his hand at managing the team. He went 19-31 (which was better than Ted Turner’s foray into managing). Now in charge, Stanley proceeded to watch his team continue to flounder. He died in 1911, leaving the team to Frank’s daughter.

The Robison’s make my Mount Rushmore because of their callous disregard for the fans and the city that made them, Cleveland. They had gotten rich off Cleveland and then they caused the town to lose its team and its finest players. Did it bother them? Apparently not. And they didn’t make St. Louis any better in the long run. The team went from last to fifth (but they had two rosters, theirs and Cleveland’s to use), but then stagnated topping out at fourth in 1901. About the only positive thing the Robison’s did was to change the uniform color from brown to cardinal red, thus giving the team its current nickname, Cardinals.

Emil Fuchs: Fuchs was the Giants attorney. In 1922 he joined with Christy Mathewson in buying the Boston Braves. Mathewson’s ill-health put Fuchs in charge. He proceeded to run the team into the ground. He knew nothing about baseball other than what he’d picked up as attorney for the Giants, couldn’t evaluate talent, couldn’t be bothered with the small details of keeping up a stadium. In 1928 he bought Rogers Hornsby as manager, found a way to make money, and sold Hornsby the next season to the Cubs. With no manager, he tried his hand at running the team on the field himself. They finished dead last. In 1935, out of money, unable to pay rent on the stadium, he bought Babe Ruth from the Yankees. He promised Ruth a vice presidency, a managerial job, and a share of the profits. Well, there were no profits, the vice presidency was nominal, and Fuchs admitted he wasn’t going to fire his current manager, Bill McKechnie  (who ended up a Hall of Fame manager). Ruth, not unreasonably, quit. At the end of the 1935 season, broke, short of players, out of options, Fuchs sold the team back to one of the men he’d bought it from in 1922.

So there they are, my four Mount Rushmore lousy owners. There are a lot of other people available; Arthur Soden who destroyed the great Beaneaters dynasty of the 1890s, Arthur Freedman who almost managed to destroy the Giants before John McGraw got there, Harry Frazee who sold away a rejuvenated Red Sox, Earle Mack who almost destroyed his dad’s Athletics, Frank McCourt who is currently destroying the Dodgers, the guys who’ve run the Royals and Pirates into the ground. And a host of others too. But for my money, these four are the guys I’d least like to see run my team.

“Damn, the Boss is a Girl”

August 24, 2011

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.

A Dozen Things You Should Know About Roger Bresnahan

August 22, 2011

Roger Bresnahan in gear

1. He was born 11 June 1879 in Toledo, Ohio.

2. Graduating from High School in 1895, he joined the Ohio State League in 1896, both pitching and catching.

3. In 1897 he made it to the National League with the Washington Nationals (not the same club as today) as a pitcher. He threw a six hit shutout in his first game 27 August, went 4-0 in his pitching assignments, hit .375, asked for a raise, and was cut at the end of the season (which should help explain why Washington never won a NL pennant).

4.  He spent 1898 and 1899 in the Minors, resurfaced briefly in the National League in 1900, then jumped to the American  League’s Baltimore Orioles (now the Yankees, not the modern Orioles) where he met John J. McGraw. In 1902 he joined McGraw in jumping to the Giants in the NL.

5. Playing multiple positions, he became the Giants’ full-time catcher in 1905. As a catcher he experimented with a batting helmet, padded masks, and shin guards. The latter two became staples during his own career. There is a lot of question who invented each. Although he is sometimes given credit for inventing each, Bresnahan, as far as I can tell, never claimed to have done so.

6. In the 1905 World Series, catcher Bresnahan led off for the Giants (unusual for a catcher) and led the team with a .313 batting average. The Giants won in five games.

7. In 1906 he led the National League with an OBP of .419, again unusual for a  catcher of any era.

8. In 1908 he caught 139 games during the season. It was both his career high and an astonishing number for the era.

9. In 1909 he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals to be player-manager. During his tenure (1909-1912) he finished as high as fifth once. He got along well with Stanley Robison, Cardinals owner, but Robison died in 1911. He was replaced by his niece Helene Robinson Britton who became the first woman to own a Major League club (and who is certainly worth a post at some point). After an initial period of getting along (I resisted using “honeymoon” here for a reason), they quickly fell out. Part of the problem seems to be that Bresnahan didn’t like working for a girl (See what I mean about “honeymoon”?).

10. In 1913 he was sent to the Chicago Cubs where he was the backup catcher in both 1913 and 1914. In 1915 he was player-manager for the team. He didn’t do well as a manager, but made a lot of money.

11. He used the money to buy the Toledo Mud Hens Minor League team. He owned, managed, and occasionally played for the Mud Hens through the 1923 season.

12. He coached some for the Giants 1925-28, then for the Tigers in 1930 and 1931. Afterwards he held a series of  odd jobs that helped him get by but had nothing to do with baseball. In 1944 he ran for county commissioner. He lost the election and died of a heart attack on 4 December of the same year (I’m not about to speculate on cause/effect of politics and heart attacks at this point.). His death led to a spiking in interest about him and he was elected to the Hall of  Fame in 1945.

Decimation of a Team

March 23, 2010

There was a policy in the 19th Century that one man could own interest in two different Major League teams. It started out innocently enough because some teams were struggling and it was in the interest of the league to keep them afloat. So an owner of one team would loan the other money to help the second team survive the season. In return he could claim a stake in the team. This began to spiral, other factors got involved, owners worked to set up cabals and partnerships, and by 1899 it had reached the point were certain individuals owned two teams. One such combination was St. Louis and Cleveland.

Frederick and Stanley Robison owned the Cleveland Spiders (not the same team as the modern Indians). By 1899 they had also gained a controlling interest in the St. Louis Browns (now the Cardinals). St. Louis provided a significantly greater baseball market than Cleveland (St Louis was the fourth largest market in the US in 1899), so the Robisons decided to put all their good ballplayers on one team and try to capture a pennant with the St. Louis team.

In 1898 the Cleveland starting eight were Patsy Tabeau (who also managed), Cupid Childs, Larry McKean, and Hall of Famer Bobby Wallace in the infield. The outfield was Hall of Famer Jesse Burkett, Jim McAleer, and Harry Blake. The catcher was Lou Criger, and three pitchers had double figure wins: Cy Young, Jack Powell, and Zeke Wilson. They finished fifth. By 1899 all of them except McAleer, who was out of the Major Leagues, were at St. Louis in 1899. With Tabeau again managing, they managed fifth place, the same place Cleveland finished the year previously.

The Spiders got what was the worst of the two rosters dumped in the same place, added in a few rookies, tossed in a couple of old-timers trying to hang on and attempted to create a viable team. What they got was a disaster. Third baseman Lave Cross took over as manager. Thirty-eight games into the season the team was 8-30 and Cross was hitting .286. He was promptly sold to St Louis where he took over much of the third base work. Backup outfielder Ossee Schreckengost hit .313 and took 43 games to end up in St. Louis where he settled in as a backup catcher. Starting catcher Chief Zimmer hit .342 and got out after only 20 games.

When Cross left for St. Louis, second baseman Joe Quinn got the managerial job. He stayed the entire year, despite hitting .286 with 72 RBIs and 176 hits (a sure call to St. Louis if Cleveland hadn’t needed a manager). The team hit .253, dead last in the league, was last in slugging, in RBIs (by more than 100), runs (by almost 200), hits, doubles, triples, home runs (although only by one homer), stolen bases, fans in the stands, hot dogs sold, and just about anything else you can think of.

If possible, the pitching was worse. Jim Hughey went 4-30, Charlie Knepper 4-22, Frank Bates was 1-18. The team ERA was 6.37 almost two full runs higher than the next team (Washington at 4.93). Harry Lochhead pitched 3.2 innings, gave up no earned runs, and became the only pitcher without a losing record. He went 0-0.

The last half of the season, Cleveland played every game on the road, even “home” games. No one was in the Cleveland park (except maybe the grounds crew) and the only way to pick up any money was to go on the road. Apparently on the rare occasions anyone showed up, the most common sound was “boo” and beer sales exceeded hot dogs and peanuts (Wouldn’t watching this team make you want to drink?).

They finished (hide your eyes if you’re squemish) 20-134, 84 games out of first. Their winning percentage was .130. By comparison the infamous 1962 Mets had a winning percentage of .250 and only finished 60.5 games out of first. The Spiders went 11-101 on the road and 9-33 in Cleveland. It was, as I said earlier, a disaster.

Fortunately it did change a few things. The National League had twelve teams and it was becoming increasingly evident that it couldn’t sustain that many and be profitable. So for 1900, four teams were eliminated. The Spiders were one of them. A handful of the players let go when the league contracted were pretty good. Western Association president Ban Johnson scooped up most of them and they became part of the nucleus of the American League in 1901. Because the other owners with two teams had done the same thing as the Robison brothers, all four eliminated teams were owned by other teams. This brought, by default, an end to dual ownership. As far as I can tell, that was unintended.

I’ve always felt a little sorry for the players. It must have been awful knowing you were going to lose every day. It had to have been a gnawing hurt for both managers, knowing that no matter what you tried, you just didn’t have the talent to compete. Mostly I feel sorry for the fans. They put out money to see competitive baseball and got the Spiders instead. After 42 games they just quit coming.

What happened in Cleveland was horrific. It is a great blackmark on baseball. There were bad teams before, there’ve been bad teams since, but nothing like the Spiders.