By Glen Sparks
The very idea seems ridiculous now. Just so preposterous. Impossible. Of course, this is more than 60 years later.
But back in the early 1950s, the baseball Cardinals nearly packed up and left St. Louis. They were bound for Houston, Texas, and taking Stan Musial with them. Fortunately, a beer baron intervened.
This story should properly start with a gentleman named Sam Breadon. Originally from New York City, Breadon moved to St. Louis in the early 1900s. He bought up several Pierce-Arrow auto dealerships and quickly made himself into a millionaire. Breadon purchased a small share of the Cardinals in 1917 and a majority share in 1920.
Back then, the Cardinals had not yet locked into their winning ways. In fact, they finished as high as third place just two times between 1900 and 1920, stuck in mediocrity. Branch Rickey changed all that.
Rickey jumped from the St. Louis Browns to the Cardinals in 1919. Breadon hired Rickey to manage his ballclub. And, following several listless seasons, fired him in the fall of 1925. Rickey was heartbroken.
“You can’t do this to me, Sam,” Rickey pleaded, according to an article on the St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame web site. “You’re ruining me.”
Breadon disagreed with his now-ex skipper. In fact …
“I am doing you the greatest favor one man has ever done to another,” Breadon pronounced.
Breadon had no intention of getting rid of Rickey. He really wasn’t even firing him. He was re-assigning him. The owner knew that Rickey had a talent for discovering and developing talent. He told Rickey to run the team’s front office.
St. Louis won its first World Series in 1926, with Rogers Hornsby as manager. Meanwhile, Rickey began building baseball’s first farm system. Out of that came the talented and fabled Gashouse Gang. “Ducky” Medwick, “Dizzy” Dean, “Daffy” Dean and “Pepper” Martin played pranks and won pennants. Later, the Redbirds added Musial, Enos Slaughter and Marty Marion.
From 1926 to 1942, St. Louis won six National League pennants and three World Series. Rickey left the team following the ’42 season to lead the Brooklyn Dodgers. (Some say Breadon pushed the influential and opinionated Rickey out the door.) That didn’t stop the winning. The Cards took three more pennants from ’43 through ’46 and two more World Series (1944 and 1946).
Breadon, facing mounting tax issues and in ill health, sold the Cardinals in November 1947. Attorney and investor Fred Saigh bought the club. The Saigh story didn’t end well. In fact, for the purposes of this story, it ended with a federal indictment.
The federal government charged Saigh with failing to pay $49,260 in taxes due to Uncle Sam from 1946 through 1949. Saigh pleaded no contest to two charges in January 1953. The judge sentenced him to 15 months. With good behavior, Saigh was a free man by Thanksgiving.
Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick wanted the Redbirds sold before Saigh left for prison. Incredibly, Saigh could not find a buyer. Finally, a group of Houston businessmen came calling.
This would have been easy. The Cards’ Texas League team, the Buffalos, played in Houston. Ergo, St. Louis owned the major-league rights to the city in southeast Texas. They were free to go.
Enter August Anheuser “Gussie” Busch Jr. The head of Anheuser-Busch brewery and the grandson of the company’s founder, Gussie was quite the baseball fan. He also knew that baseball fans liked to drink beer, especially on hot, humid afternoons in St. Louis.
Busch bought the Cardinals on this date in 1953 for $3.75 million and owned the team until his death at age 90 in 1989. St. Louis won championships in 1964, 1967 and 1982. Lou Brock, Bob Gibson and, later, Keith Hernandez and Ozzie Smith (“Whiteyball”), led the way.
The brewery no longer owns the Cardinals. The team, though, is in good hands, and counts on more than three million fans every year to pass through the turnstiles. The Cards have won 11 World Series, second only to the New York Yankees (27). Once nearly gone, no St. Louis institution is more beloved than the one with the birds on the bat.