HISTORY OF A DIFFERENT HUE BEFORE PEARL HARBOR, ST. LOUIS BROWNS WERE L.A.-BOUND.
Dec. 7, 1941, like Sept. 11, 2001, did not really change everything about American life. But the Pearl Harbor attack, like this year's terrorist hijackings, did change little things in big ways.
One of the little things that Pearl Harbor altered dramatically - 60 years later we can only speculate on precisely how - is the course of sports history in Los Angeles.
The story begins in St. Louis with a baseball team called the Browns, affectionately referred to as the saddest major-league franchise ever. The Browns were the club that let front-office genius Branch Rickey get away, that used one-armed outfielder Pete Gray, that sent up 3-foot-7 pinch hitter Eddie Gaedel.
``First in Shoes, First in Booze,'' boasted St. Louis, which was big in those industries, ``and Last in the American League!''
From their inception in 1902 (formally christened the Brown Stockings) through the 1930s, the Browns had the distinction of never winning a pennant while finishing as high as second place only twice. In 1936, sharing the threadbare Sportsman's Park field with the vastly more popular St. Louis Cardinals, they drew only 80,922 fans all season. In 1939, they finished 64 1/2 games out of first, the worst showing in baseball's past 92 years.
``Have you ever watched a baseball game in absolute silence?'' said Bill Miller, 71, a St. Louis University history professor who is an officer in the 600-member St. Louis Browns Historical Society. ``That's what it was like.''
In the summer of 1941, the Browns remained frustrated observers as baseball enjoyed the drama of Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak and Ted Williams' .406 batting average, marked such milestones as Lou Gehrig's death and Stan Musial's debut, and ushered in the eras of ballpark organ music and batting helmets.
Sometime in the middle of that season, Browns owner Donald Barnes reached a momentous decision. In a vicious circle of weak rosters and low revenue, Barnes decided the only way out of the trap was to move the club out of St. Louis.
For the Browns' new home, Barnes had his eye on Los Angeles.
If he was tired of competing for the professional sports fan's dollar, Barnes was planning to come to the right place. In 1941, Walter O'Malley's Dodgers were 17 years away from moving out of Brooklyn and Gene Autry's Angels would not throw their first pitch for 20 years. The Rams would be in Cleveland for five more seasons and the Lakers would be in Minneapolis for 19 more years.
A major-league baseball team on the West Coast in the 1942 season would have been a pioneering move.
``He (Barnes) was way ahead of Walter O'Malley,'' said Bill Borst, a St. Louis author and radio host who founded the Browns Historical Society.
It was all set to happen, too, according to ``The Spirit of St. Louis,'' Peter Golenbock's 2000 oral history of baseball in that city, a book that deals with the Browns-to-Los Angeles plan in three of its 650 pages.
The Cardinals were to pay the Browns $350,000 to get out of town. The Browns were to purchase Los Angeles' Wrigley Field, then the home of the Pacific Coast League's Angels, for $1 million. An American League schedule was in the works that would allow for cross-country train trips.
Air travel was not yet a fact of life for professional athletes: The Browns arranged to transport their players to Los Angeles two at a time on 21 TWA flights because they thought putting the entire roster on one plane would risk wiping out the franchise.
The plan to move was ``an open secret,'' Miller, the history professor, said by phone from Mansfield, Mo.
But Bud Kane, 71, another old Browns fan, said from Webster Groves, Mo.: ``I would have been shocked if I'd known they were thinking about moving.''
And Eldon Auker, a submarine-style right-hander who finished his career with the Browns in 1940-42, remembers that he had to read about the plan in the newspapers.
``The players didn't know anything about it,'' Auker, 91, said from his home in Vero Beach, Fla. ``But I think it would have been a good move for the Browns.''
To become official, the transfer of the Browns to Los Angeles needed only the rubber stamp of the major-league owners. Their meeting was scheduled in Chicago for Dec. 8, 1941.
``Perfectly horrible timing,'' Borst said, ``which is symptomatic of how things went for the Browns.''
When news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor reached Chicago and World War II became inevitable, the owners were too worried about the future of major-league baseball to deal with the cares of one little franchise. The Browns' move was tabled.
The episode is a provocative footnote in sports history. File the Los Angeles Browns under ``People and Things That Might Have Been.''
We know what became of the Browns. Ironically, during World War II, the Browns enjoyed their greatest on-the-field success, winning the pennant behind shortstop Vern Stephens in 1944 while more talented teams' stars went off to fight. Unfortunately, the Browns earned few new fans because their opponents in the World Series were the Cardinals, who won the ``Street Car Series'' 4 games to 2.
Bill Veeck bought the club and flirted with a move to Los Angeles in 1953 but sold out instead and allowed the Browns to become the Baltimore Orioles in 1954.
We don't know - but we can have fun wondering - what would have become of L.A. sports if the Browns had landed here in 1941.
Would the Dodgers have come to Los Angeles in 1958? Would they have come sooner? Or not at all? Almost certainly, the major-league Angels would never have come to be.
Would stars such as Jim Palmer, Brooks Robinson and Cal Ripken Jr. have spent their careers as Los Angeles Browns instead of Baltimore Orioles? Would Los Angeles have swept the 1966 World Series instead of seeing the Dodgers get swept by the Orioles?
Would a manager such as Tom Lasorda have claimed to ``bleed Browns brown''?
This is for sure: Dec. 7, 1941, is a date that lives not just in infamy but in Los Angeles sports history.
ST. LOUIS BROWNS ALL-TIME TEAM
--MGR Rogers Hornsby
--1B George Sisler, George McQuinn
--2B Del Pratt
--SS Vern Stephens, Red Kress
--3B Harlond Clift
--LF Ken Williams, Chet Laabs
--CF Baby Doll Jacobson, Pete Gray
--RF Jack Tobin, George Stone
--C Rick Ferrell, Hank Severeid
--PH Eddie Gaedel
--SP Urban Shocker
--SP Jack Powell
--SP Ned Garver
--SP Harry Howell
--SP Lefty Stewart
--RP Satchel Paige
--RP Carl Weilman
--RP Nels Potter
--RP Bob Holloman
2 photos, box
(1 -- color) If not for the events of Dec. 7, 1941, Eric Karros could be wearing L.A. Browns brown.
Photo Illustration by Shane Michael Kidder
(2) St. Louis Browns owner Donald Barnes, right, made plans to move his team West and play at Wrigley Field in L.A.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch File Photo
ST. LOUIS BROWNS ALL-TIME TEAM (see text)
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|Publication:||Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)|
|Article Type:||Statistical Data Included|
|Date:||Dec 7, 2001|
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