Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor 80 years ago not only secured America’s entry into World War II. It inadvertently but categorically changed the history of baseball.
A day after the attack, Major League Baseball owners had to approve the American League’s St Louis Browns move to Los Angeles for 1942 – 16 years before Walter O’Malley’s former Brooklyn Dodgers played their first season on the West Coast. The Browns felt so confident that they even held a press conference in Los Angeles to announce the move on the afternoon of Monday, December 8, 1941.
But in the aftermath of the attack in Hawaii 24 hours earlier – and with the radio broadcast of US President Franklin D Roosevelt’s declaration of war resonating vividly in the nation’s consciousness – the owners unanimously rejected the decision, on the insistence of the Browns.
If the owners had approved the move, it would have changed the landscape of American professional sports and could have generated more radical social, cultural and economic changes.
Ten weeks before Pearl Harbor, the Browns had completed their 12th consecutive losing season. Between 1933 and 1941, the club finished last three times in the eight-team American League and only twice reached sixth place. In 1937, the Browns lost 108 games. Two years later, they were down 111. No American League team would surpass either total until 2003.
Fans responded by staying away. Until 1941, the Browns had finished last in American League attendance every year since 1926. Not even 100,000 fans bothered to go to Sportsman’s Park to watch the Browns for the entire 1933 seasons. , 1935 or 1936.
The Browns were losing so much money that they dropped five of their minor league teams, fired their four scouts, and needed a $25,000 grant from the league to survive.
Meanwhile, Browns tenants at Sportsman’s Park dominated the city. The Cardinals won five National League pennants and three World Series, took second place five other times, and never finished below fourth between 1926 and 1941. During this period, future Hall of Famers such as Dizzy Dean, Joe Medwick and Johnny Mize have helped the Cardinals. attracts nearly three times as many fans.
So Harry Arthur, a Californian Browns board member, constantly suggested moving them to Los Angeles, then the nation’s fifth-largest city and the largest without major league baseball. With the club just down $100,000 (nearly $2 million today), owner Don Barnes asked Arthur to go west to solicit interest.
“Well the result surprised me,” Barnes told Sporting News in 1957.
AP Giannini, Chairman of the Board of Bank of America, agreed to provide major financing. The fledgling Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce guaranteed annual attendance of 500,000 people per season for the first five years, with financial compensation for any figure below that.
“That was all I wanted to know,” Barnes told Sporting News.
But Barnes faced two problems. First, he had to get the territorial rights to Los Angeles. At the time, major league clubs could only move to cities where they had minor league teams. Since only 10 markets had major league baseball, several major cities offered interesting opportunities.
Barnes solved his first problem when he met potential investors in Los Angeles. There, he spoke with Philip K Wrigley, the chewing-gum mogul who owned the Chicago Cubs and their top farm team: the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League.
“Wrigley was very cooperative,” Arthur told Sporting News, “because he felt, even then, that Los Angeles deserved the major league ball.”
Wrigley agreed to sell the Angels, their ballpark (also known as Wrigley Field, like its Chicago counterpart) and most of their roster for $1 million (nearly $19 million today ) to Barnes, which would transfer the PCL franchise to nearby Long Beach. Barnes would pay $250,000 down payment, followed by $30,000 per year for 25 years.
“His payment terms were very fair,” Arthur said. “You couldn’t have asked for a fairer deal!”
When Cardinals owner Sam Breadon learned that Barnes wanted to move the Browns, he committed $250,000 to get his competition out of town.
Even with the support of Breadon and Wrigley, Barnes had to solve the problem of transcontinental travel at a time when railroads predominated and air travel was primitive.
Team presidents “were concerned about the safety of their players if the transfer from the Browns to Los Angeles required their clubs to make trips there by air,” Barnes told Sporting News in 1949.
After consulting with Trans World Airlines (TWA) and the Santa Fe Railroad, which operated a route between Los Angeles and Chicago, the Browns devised a schedule that allowed for two transcontinental trips by train and one by plane, with enough days off. rest to make the trip viable. . The Browns would partially offset other clubs’ travel costs and provide $1 million in travel insurance for their own players.
Negotiations regarding all aspects of the move were so secret that Barnes signed all relevant documents as “Mr. X”.
“Everyone was sworn to secrecy, as we realized that a leak could destroy the Coast League and, at the same time, ruin our own plans to move the club,” Barnes said in 1957. “He was remarkable that with so many people involved in the negotiations over a period of several months, no one has broken our trust.
With their logistics in place, Barnes, General Manager Bill DeWitt, Traveling Secretary Charlie DeWitt, and Manager Luke Sewell arrived in Chicago to present the proposed move at the Winter Meetings, which would take place December 8–10. Arnold remained in Los Angeles to hold a press conference scheduled for 1 p.m. PT on December 8.
“While we were a bit worried about some owners, we had specific commitments from others,” Barnes said. “In fact, all of the owners were sympathetic to our situation in St Louis and seemed willing to help us.”
But while attending an NFL game on Dec. 7, Barnes and his group heard about Pearl Harbor through the public address system.
“Our dream was shattered,” Barnes said in 1957. “With fear of a West Coast invasion, we immediately realized that Los Angeles was no place for the Browns.”
The next day, Barnes made his presentation but asked the owners to reject it due to the impending war. The other 15 owners agreed.
Ironically, the Browns then had their most successful run ever. As other teams’ stars battled overseas, the Browns filled their roster with militarily ineligible players. As a result, they not only compiled winning records in three of the next four years, but won their only pennant in 1944. In a twist of fate, they faced the Cardinals in the World Series, losing in six games , all at Sportsman’s Park.
By 1953, the Browns had returned to their unhappy ways. Nevertheless, they still had the chance to be the only team standing in St Louis.
The cardinals were in financial difficulty. Owner Fred Saigh had to sell the team after it pleaded no contest to federal tax evasion in January. A group from Houston offered to buy the Cardinals and move them to Texas. But just before accepting this offer, Saigh sold the club to the Anheuser-Busch brewery, keeping the team in St Louis.
Bill Veeck, the maverick promoter who owned the Browns, realized that Anheuser-Busch had the resources to overwhelm his club. The 1953 season became the Browns’ last. Four days after their last game, Veeck sold them to a group from Baltimore who moved the club and renamed it “Orioles”.
Given the success of each team over the following decades, imagine a World Series between the Los Angeles Browns and Houston Cardinals.