Major League Trailblazer

Helene Britton was the first woman to own and operate a major league team

March 12, 2012
(NBHOF Library)

Helene Hathaway Robison Britton grew up in a baseball family. Her father and uncle, Frank and Stanley Robison, owned the Cleveland Spiders and later purchased the St. Louis Brown Stockings – later changing the team’s name to Cardinals.

Upon the death of Stanley Robison in March 1911, Britton inherited a controlling interest in the Cardinals. At a time when American women did not yet have the right to vote in most places, the 32-year-old mother of two became the first woman to own and operate a team in Major League Baseball history. 

Fellow owners, fans, and the media initially believed that Britton would sell her interest in the team. However, she defied expectations as she not only retained ownership of the Cardinals, but chose to play an active role in team operations.

During her first year as team “magnette,” she assumed the role of vice president, allowing team manager and future Hall of Famer Roger Bresnahan a great deal of decision-making freedom. After a successful 1911 season, Britton rewarded Bresnahan with a lucrative five-year contract and 10 percent of the club's profit. A losing record in 1912, and Bresnahan’s refusal to consider her opinions, caused Britton to regret making such a generous deal. She eventually fired Bresnahan, settled his contract, and installed future Hall of Famer Miller Huggins as the Cardinals new manager.

Newspaper writers for the most part viewed Britton as a novelty in the male-dominated world of professional sports. When writers reported on major team decisions, they downplayed her involvement. Yet Britton attended every Cardinals home game and attended winter meetings. She also championed a variety of innovative ideas such as Ladies’ Days when all "fanettes" accompanied by male escorts were admitted to the grandstand free, and between-inning musical entertainment.

Between 1913 and 1916, Britton faced a variety of challenges as a team owner. Attendance at games declined due to the Cardinals’ poor on-field performance and a stadium badly in need of repair. Team revenue took a further hit when the Federal League added a third baseball team to St. Louis. Rumors about offers to purchase the team appeared in the news, and on multiple occasions National League owners tried to persuade Britton to sell the Cardinals. It is not clear how many of these offers Britton seriously considered, but she held her ground and refused to be forced into any agreement.

In 1917, Britton sold the Cardinals and the ballpark on her own terms. The team originally purchased by her father and uncle for $40,000 was sold for $350,000 to a local investment group. Although Britton owned the Cardinals for only six years, she made an impact on baseball.

Britton faced challenges with dignity, made her own decisions, defended her rights, and proved that a woman could run a sports franchise. About her experience as an owner she said, "All I ever needed was the opportunity. That's all any woman needs."

Emily Voss is the school programs associate for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum