Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor 80 years ago not only ensured the United States’ entry into the second world war. It inadvertently but categorically changed baseball history.
One day after the attack, Major League Baseball’s owners were expected to approve the move of the American League’s St Louis Browns 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 scheduled a press conference in Los Angeles to announce the move on the afternoon of Monday 8 December 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 move, at the Browns’ insistence.
Had the owners approved the move, it would have changed the landscape of American professional sports, and might have generated more sweeping social, cultural and economic shifts.
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 as high as sixth place. In 1937, the Browns lost 108 games. Two years later, they dropped 111. No American League team would exceed either total until 2003.
Fans responded by staying away. Through 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 in the entirety of the 1933, 1935 or 1936 seasons.
The Browns were losing so much money that they dropped five of their minor-league squads, laid off their four scouts and needed a $25,000 grant from the league to survive.
Meanwhile, the 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 lower than fourth between 1926 and 1941. During that period, such future Hall of Famers as Dizzy Dean, Joe Medwick and Johnny Mize helped the Cardinals attract nearly three times as many fans.
So Harry Arthur, a Californian on the Browns’ board, persistently suggested moving them to Los Angeles, then the nation’s fifth-largest city and the biggest without major-league baseball. With the club having just lost $100,000 (nearly $2m in today’s terms), owner Don Barnes asked Arthur to go west to solicit interest.
“Well, the result floored me,” Barnes told the Sporting News in 1957.
AP Giannini, the Bank of America’s board chairman, agreed to provide major financing. The Los Angeles junior chamber of commerce guaranteed an annual attendance of 500,000 a season for the first five years, with financial compensation for any figure less than that.
“That was all I wanted to know,” Barnes told the 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 move only to cities where they owned minor-league teams. Since just 10 markets had major-league baseball, however, several large cities offered enticing opportunities.
Barnes solved his first problem when he met potential investors in Los Angeles. While there, he talked with Philip K Wrigley, the chewing gum magnate 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 the Sporting News, “for he felt, even at that time, that Los Angeles deserved 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 $1m (almost $19m today) to Barnes, who would transfer the PCL franchise to nearby Long Beach. Barnes would pay $250,000 down, followed by $30,000 a year for 25 years.
“His terms of payment were very fair,” Arthur said. “You couldn’t have asked for a fairer deal!”
When Cardinals owner Sam Breadon learned Barnes wanted to move the Browns, he committed $250,000 to get his competition out of town.
Even with Breadon’s and Wrigley’s support, Barnes had to solve the problem of transcontinental travel at a time when railways predominated and air travel was primitive.
Team presidents “were concerned over the safety of their players should the shift of the Browns to Los Angeles require their clubs to make trips out there by air,” Barnes told the 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 allowing for two transcontinental trips by rail and one by air, with enough off days to make travel viable. The Browns would partially compensate other clubs’ travel expenses and would provide $1m in travel insurance for their own players.
Negotiations concerning every aspect of the move were so secret that Barnes signed all pertinent documents as “Mister X”.
“Everyone was sworn to secrecy, for we realized that a leak might wreck the Coast League and, at the same time, ruin our own plans to move the club,” Barnes said in 1957. “It was remarkable that with so many people involved in the negotiations over a period of several months, nobody broke our confidence.”
With their logistics in place, Barnes, general manager Bill DeWitt, travelling secretary Charlie DeWitt and manager Luke Sewell arrived in Chicago to present the proposed move at the Winter Meetings, which would take place 8-10 December. Arnold stayed in Los Angeles to organize a press conference scheduled for 1pm Pacific time on 8 December.
“While we were worried a bit about some of the owners, we had definite commitments from others,” Barnes said. “In fact, all of the owners were sympathetic with our situation in St Louis and seemed willing to help us.”
But while attending an NFL game on 7 December, Barnes and his party heard about Pearl Harbor over the public-address system.
“Our dream was shattered,” Barnes said in 1957. “With the scare of a West Coast invasion, we realized at once 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 oncoming war. The other 15 owners agreed.
Ironically, the Browns then enjoyed their most successful period ever. With other teams’ stars fighting overseas, the Browns stocked 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 woebegotten ways. Nevertheless, they still had the chance to be the only team standing in St Louis.
The Cardinals were in financial trouble. Owner Fred Saigh had to sell the team after pleading no contest to federal tax evasion that January. A group from Houston offered to buy the Cardinals and move them to Texas. But just before he accepted that 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 Anheuser-Busch had the resources to overwhelm his club. The 1953 season became the Browns’ last. Four days after their final game, Veeck sold them to a group from Baltimore that moved the club and renamed it, “Orioles”.
Given the success each team would have in ensuing decades, imagine a World Series between the Los Angeles Browns and the Houston Cardinals.