Cardinals History – A Look Back

Today we will be taking a look at the first stadium the St. Louis Cardinals played in. The ballpark was Sportmans Park, the physical street address was 2911 North Grand Boulevard.

1881 structure

Baseball was played on the Sportsman’s Park site as early as 1867. The tract was acquired in 1866 by August Solari, who began staging games there the following year. It was the home of the St. Louis Brown Stockings in the National Association and the National League from 1875 to 1877. Originally called the Grand Avenue Ball Grounds, in 1876 it was re-named Sportsman’s Park. The first grandstand–one of three on the site–was built in 1881. At that time, the diamond and the grandstands were on the southeast corner of the block, for the convenience of fans arriving from Grand Avenue. The park was owned by the then-major American Association entry, the St. Louis “Brown Stockings,” or “Browns”. The Browns were a very strong team in the mid-1880s, but their success waned over time. When the National League absorbed the strongest of the old Association teams in 1892, the Browns were brought along. Soon they went looking for a new ballpark, finding a site just a few blocks northwest of the old one, and calling it New Sportsman’s Park, which was later renamed Robison Field. They also changed team colors from Brown to Cardinal Red, thus acquiring a new nickname, and leaving their previous team colors available, as well as the old ballpark site.

1902 and 1909 structures

When the American League Browns moved from Milwaukee in 1902, they built a new version of Sportsman’s Park. They initially placed the diamond and the main stand at the northwest corner of the block.

This Sportsman’s Park saw football history made. It became both the practice field and home field for St. Louis University’s football team, coached by the visionary Eddie Cochems, Father of the Forward Pass.  Although the first legal forward pass was thrown by SLU’s Bradbury Robinson in a road game at Carrol College in September 1906, Sportsman’s Park was the scene of memorable displays of what Cochems called his “air attack” that season. These included a 39-0 thrashing of Iowa before a crowd of 12,000 and a 34-2 trouncing of Kansas witnessed by some 7,000. Robinson launched an amazingly long pass in the game against the Jayhawks, which was variously reported to have traveled 67 or 87 yards in the air. HOF coach David M. Nelson called the pass extraordinary, “considering the size, shape and weight” of the fat, rugby-style ball used at that time. Sports historian John Sayle Watterson agreed. In his book, College Football: History, Spectacle, Controversy, Watterson described Robinson’s long pass as “truly a breathtaking achievement”. St. Louis finished with an 11-0 record in 1906, annihilating its opponents 407-11.

In 1909 , the Browns moved the diamond to its final location, at the southwest corner, in the shadow of a new steel and concrete grandstand — the third such stadium in the major leagues, and the second in the American League (after Shibe Park). The previous wooden grandstand was retained as left-field bleachers for a while, but was soon replaced with permanent bleachers. The Cardinals came back to their original home in mid-1920, as tenants of the Browns, after abandoning the outdated, mostly-wooden Robison Field.

After nearly winning the American League Pennant in 1922, Browns owner Philip Ball confidently predicted that there would be a World Series in Sportsman’s Park by 1926. In anticipation, he increased the capacity of his ballpark from 18,000 to 30,000. There was a World Series in Sportmans Park– but it was the Cardinals, not the Browns, who took part in it, upsetting the Yankees in a memorable seventh game.

Although the Browns had been the stronger team in the city for the first quarter of the century, they had never been quite good enough to win a pennant. After the previously weak Cardinals had moved in, the two teams’ situations had started to reverse, both on and off the field. The Cardinals’ 1926 World Series victory more or less permanently tipped the balance in favor of the Cardinals. From then on, the Cardinals were clearly St. Louis’ favorite team, while still tenants of the Browns. The 1944 World Series between the Cardinals and the Browns, won by the Cardinals 4 games to 2, was perhaps a good metaphor for the two clubs’ respective situations.

By the early 1950s, it was clear that the city could not support both teams. Bill Veeck, by then owner of the Browns, fancied that he could drive the Cardinals out of town through his promotional skills. He caught an unlucky break when the Cardinals’ owner, Fred Saigh,  pleaded no contest to tax evasion. Faced with certain banishment from baseball, he sold the Cardinals to Anheuser Busch in 1953. Veeck soon realized that the Cardinals now had more resources at their disposal than he could hope to match, and decided to leave town. As a first step toward moving the Browns, he sold Sportsman’s Park to the Cardinals. He would have probably had to sell the park anyway, as the Browns could not afford to make repairs necessary to bring the park up to code. Busch had the money, and the ballpark was soon renovated. Meanwhile, by the next year, the Browns were in Baltimore.

The brewery originally wanted to name the ballpark Budweiser Stadium.  Ford Frick,  vetoed the name because of public relations concerns over naming a ballpark after a brand of beer –an ironic stance, given all baseball clubs’ significant revenues from beer sales. However, the Commissioner could not stop Anheuser-Busch president August Busch, Jr. from renaming it after himself, and so he did; however, many fans still called it by the old name. Although the ballpark’s final name was Busch Stadium, it was known for most of its history as Sportsman’s Park, and that is the term normally used to refer to it most often.

Sportsman’s Park / Busch Stadium was the site of a number of World Series contests, first way back in the mid-1880s, and then in the modern era. The 1964 Series was particularly memorable, and was also the park’s last Series. The Series featured brother against brother, Ken Boyer of the Cardinals and Clete Boyer of the Yankees. The Cardinals’ triumph in seven games led to Yankees management replacing Yogi Berra with the Cardinals’ ex-manager Johnny Keane (he had resigned after winning the Series), an arrangement which lasted only to early 1966. The stadium also hosted MLB All Star Games  in 1940, 1948, and 1957.

Sportsman’s Park / Busch Stadium was replaced early in the 1966 season by Busch Memorial Stadium, during which time much was made of baseball having been played on the old site for more than a century. The 1966 stadium was in turn replaced by the new Busch Stadium in 2006.

The Sportsman’s Park site is now home to the Herbert Hoover Boys and Girls Club. While the grandstand was torn down in late 1966, the diamond was still intact at the time the structures were cleared. The field is now being used for other sports.

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