A telegram that changed baseball history

Written by: Matt Rothenberg

It is a simple telegram, dated March 24, 1911, stating that Cincinnati Reds owner August “Garry” Herrmann has been requested to be a pall bearer at the funeral of St. Louis Cardinals owner Stanley Robison, who died that morning.

Little did most people know at this time that the passing of Stanley Robison set the stage for the big leagues’ first female owner.

Several years earlier, Robison purchased the St. Louis club from his brother Frank, the two having made their fortune constructing and operating street car lines in Cleveland. In the late 1800s, the duo became owners of a major league franchise in the Ohio metropolis, but Frank purchased the St. Louis team and Stanley remained with Cleveland for its final National League season in 1899. Stanley Robison then joined his brother in the Gateway City.

Under the leadership of the Robison brothers, the newly renamed Cardinals turned from a middling team in the standings to scraping the bottom of the barrel in the National League.

When Stanley passed away, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported while “all of Robison’s legal heirs are women … it was made clear soon after the announcement of his death that the Cardinals will not be owned or controlled by women.”

Herrmann, who doubled as chairman of the National Commission, suggested that Robison’s heirs – as well as National League club owners – might wish to sell the franchise.

Sure enough, however, on March 28, Robison’s will was probated and Helene Hathaway Robison Britton, Frank Robison’s daughter and Stanley’s niece, was recipient of three-fourths of the estate, including all of the St. Louis club’s stock. The 32-year-old assumed the club’s presidency and intended to run the team.

Fred Abercrombie, executor of the will, told reporters that Mrs. Britton “has always been interested in baseball and she will control the team. She intends to appoint her own managers and direct the purchase of new players. No stock in the Cardinals is for sale. Mrs. Britton expects to keep it, and if possible to make it a first division team.”

Britton understood her unique position in the baseball world, but she believed a woman could be just as big a baseball fan as a man. She encouraged women’s interest in the sport by introducing a Ladies’ Day promotion in St. Louis and hired singers to perform during games. In an interview with Baseball Magazine, she said:

“I realize that my positions as the only woman owner in the major leagues is a peculiar one. And I don’t pretend to know the game as intimately from a playing standpoint as a man might do in my place. I appreciate the fact that baseball is a man’s game, but I also appreciate the fact that women are taking an increasing interest in the sport which I believe is a healthy and wholly commendable sign.”

Leaving a prediction for the team’s success to the its manager, Miller Huggins, Mrs. Britton acknowledged that team chemistry – and not free spending – would provide more beneficial results.

This telegram, informing Cincinnati Reds owner Garry Herrmann that Cardinals owner Stanley Robison had died meant that his niece, Helene Britton, was to become the first female owner of a professional baseball team. (Milo Stewart Jr. / National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)

“The expenditure of a fortune may indeed procure high salaried stars,” she said. “But the experience of owners who have made the costly experiment has shown that teams composed of stars do not, as a usual thing, become pennant winners.”

“If I had my choice between a group of players who were in perfect harmony … I would prefer such a club of players who were deficient in individual brilliancy to another team composed of stars who were mutually jealous, indifferent or lacking in that spirit of harmony,” she continued.

Though the Cardinals had a brief bit of success under Britton, reaching third place in 1917 under Huggins’ leadership and the star power of shortstop Rogers Hornsby, the team was struggling in its ledger books. Britton’s personal life was also in turmoil, and she ultimately divorced her husband Schuyler, who had taken over as Cardinals president two years into her ownership tenure.

In 1918, Britton sold the team and the ballpark to Sam Breadon, though she would later say she regretted doing so. Remarried and then widowed, Britton passed away in Philadelphia in 1950.

Matt Rothenberg is a freelance writer from Ossining, N.Y.

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