ST. LOUIS – What might St. Louis look like without the Cardinals? It’s hard to imagine, but for a brief time more than half a century ago, that was a possibility.
A changing of the guard 70 years ago proved essential to keeping the Cardinals in St. Louis. The history behind it all doesn’t get unpacked all that often, but sports and culture contributors at Defector.com and Nine PBS recently dove into what happened.
In 1953, August “Gussie” Busch Jr. officially purchased the St. Louis Cardinals franchise from Fred Saigh Jr. for $3.75 million.
Leading up to that, St. Louis was home to two MLB franchises – the Cardinals and the St. Louis Browns. While the Cardinals generally performed better than the Browns, and held bragging winning a head-to-head World Series matchup in 1944, a few factors put them in a tough spot financially.
In the 1930s and 1940s, the Cardinals weren’t quite kings of attendance, drawing average crowds as low as 4,000 fans in some seasons surrounded by the Great Depression and World War II. The Cardinals had also shared an aging Sportsman’s Park with the Browns, who had owned the venue since 1902 and collected annual payments from the Cardinals.
The future of the Cardinals grew uncertain when Saigh was sentenced for income tax evasion in 1952. A federal court found that Saigh did not report all of his income from 1944 to 1950, which included around $330,000 in business revenue from the Cardinals. In today’s world, that would be an inflation-adjusted cost of around $4 million.
Along with a 15-month prison sentence, Saigh would need to follow an order from the MLB Commissioner’s Office and sell the Cardinals. He only had a handful of months to make a deal.
Initially, Saigh had received more interest from out-of-state bidders who considered moving the Cardinals to Detroit, Houston or Milwaukee. Some were willing to purchase the team for upwards of $4.25 million.
As the deadline to sell came closer, St. Louis-raised businessman Gussie Busch learned that Saigh was seriously considering selling the team to one Milwaukee-driven investor. On behalf of Anheuser-Busch, where he served as president and CEO, Busch entered the bidding war and made his best offer at $3.75 million.
During the process, Busch convinced Saigh that the St. Louis Cardinals franchise would best prosper if it was maintained through local interests. He also expressed a desire to renovate Sportsman’s Park and build a strong partnership between the Anheuser-Busch brand and the Cardinals.
Busch officially acquired the rights to the Cardinals on Feb. 20, 1953. According to newspaper archives, Warren Giles, who approved the sale as president of the National League, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “The sale of the Cardinals was appropriate and beneficial to St. Louis, the Cardinals and the National League.” The report also revealed that Saigh’s main goal in selling the team was to acquire around $2.5 million in net income, which the Cardinals deal offered.
By the end of 1953, the Browns decided to sell the rights to Sportsman’s Park to the Cardinals knowing the new ownership would equip them for more success in St. Louis. The Browns relocated in 1954, and the franchise history has been carried on by the Baltimore Orioles ever since then.
Busch and his ownership team later renamed Sportsman’s Park in 1955 and moved the team to Downtown St. Louis in 1966. The Cardinals have only changed ownership one time since then, when a group led by current Cardinals executive William DeWitt Jr. purchased the franchise in 1995.
The Society for American Baseball Research explains the ownership history of the St. Louis Cardinals and changes more in-depth on its website.