“First Lady” Helene Britton Takes Over Cardinals

Helene Britton inherited the St. Louis Cardinals from her uncle in 1911.

Helene Britton inherited the St. Louis Cardinals from her uncle in 1911.

By Glen Sparks

St. Louis Cardinals owner Stanley Robison died on this date in 1911, a week shy of his 57th birthday. His death, reportedly due to blood poisoning, shocked the team. What Robison dictated in his last will and testament shocked the sports world.

Robison left 25 percent of the Cardinals to his sister-in-law Sarah Robison. He left the rest to Sarah’s daughter, Helene Britton. The young woman from Cleveland, Ohio, was the first female owner in major league baseball history.

And, boy, did that cause a stink with some people. (Historical perspective: Women in the United States did not get full voting rights until Congress ratified the 19th Amendment in August, 1920.) This was a man’s game after all. Surely, Mrs. Britton would sell the team.

Helene Britton, 32 years old, married with two children, said she had no such intention. Her dad, a Cleveland businessman, had once owned the major league Cleveland Spiders. She knew something about business and baseball.

The new owner turned down at least one offer to buy the club. That’s not what Uncle Stanley would have wanted. She would keep the team in the family. (A little history: Brothers Stanley and Frank Robison bought the St. Louis Brown Stockings, the forerunner of the Cardinals, in 1899. Frank died in 1908. Stanley never married.)

Predictably, the newspaper guys loved it. Ironically. Britton wasn’t a baseball “magnate.” She was a baseball “magnette.” Maybe she’d redesign the team uniform to include bloomers, some writers joked. … Maybe these guys just wouldn’t shut up.

Roger Bresnahan was managing the Cardinals. Like the owner, he was an Ohio guy, from Toledo. During his playing days, he caught for several teams, most notably the New York Giants. Toward the end of his career, he served as player-manager in St. Louis.

He and the owner really didn’t hit it off. The Cardinals struggled in the standings, barely making it to .500 in 1911 (75-74) and not coming close in 1912 (63-90). One argument led to another. They argued at the ballpark and at Britton’s house. Finally, Bresnahan said that magic combination of words that got him fired: “No woman can tell me how to run a ball game!”

The Cardinals began 1913 with a new manager. Britton hired Miller Huggins, future skipper of the New York Yankees during the fabulous era of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. And, another Ohio guy. Huggins hailed from Cincinnati. Britton also hired a new president, her husband, Schuyler Britton. Some of the owners undoubtedly appreciated the move (Mr. Britton would attend the league business meetings), but it was hardly nepotism. Schuyler just needed something to do. Helene Britton was still in charge of the Cardinals.

Not that baseball’s only female owner didn’t face any problems. Robison Field, the team’s home ballpark, needed fixing up. Several Cardinal players jumped to the city’s new rival Federal League team, the Terriers,  in 1914 and ’15.. And, Schuyler Britton drank too much.

Helene and Schuyler divorced in 1917. The following year, Helene Britton sold the Cardinals to Sam Breadon, who had made his money by building a line-up of Pierce-Arrow auto dealerships. The team, under the guidance of president Branch Rickey, turned from a perennial underachiever into a baseball powerhouse, winning multiple pennants and World Series. Breadon sold the team in 1947.

Eventually, Helene re-married and died in Philadelphia in 1950 at the age of 70. She was for a time, some said, baseball’s First Lady.


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