Helene Britton versus Roger Bresnahan
Longtime catcher Roger Bresnahan wanted to be a manager but he was stuck behind the heralded John McGraw with the Giants in New York. McGraw promised that if Bresnahan caught for him again in 1908 he would help him secure a managerial post.
At the end of 1908 Bresnahan shopped himself around. In December, he was offered the field manager’s job with the St. Louis Cardinals. St. Louis had just finished last in the National League with a 49-105 record and consequently let manager John McCloskey go.
On December 12, the Cardinals traded for Brenahan – for a steep price, remitting catcher Admiral Schlei (from Cincinnati), 15-game winner Bugs Raymond and outfielder Red Murray to the Giants. They also sent pitchers Art Fromme and Ed Karger to the Reds to cover the Schlei deal.
In 1909 the Cardinals finished in seventh place with a 54-98 record and in 1910 they did the same with a 63-90 record. On March 24, 1911, Cardinals owner Stanley Robison died. Robison and his brother Frank, Cleveland street car magnates, owned the Cleveland National League franchise in the 1890s. They purchased the St. Louis Browns in 1900 and merged the two franchises. Frank had died in September 1908.
On March 28, 1911, Helene Britton (Frank’s daughter), a 32-year-old Cleveland resident and mother of two, was bequeathed controlling interest in the Cardinals at a reading of Robison’s will. She initially weighed an offer for the club by Chicago businessman Charles Weegham but rejected it. She then bought a mansion in St. Louis and moved to the city to oversee her club, becoming the first female active owner of a major league club in baseball history.
Britton was not unfamiliar within baseball. She had been an avid fan in Cleveland and had taken numerous jaunts to St. Louis to watch the games. She had also attended National League meetings, though not in any formal capacity. Britton was a fan of the Cardinals and a fan in particular of her manager Roger Bresnahan and his style of play.
National Commission chairman and Cincinnati Reds president Garry Herrmann was guarded upon hearing of the news that a woman would be running a major league club. His initial remarks consisted of a veiled hint that she shouldn’t take a lead role, commenting “Should Mrs. Britton ever attend a meeting…”
He also expressed himself directly, “…but I imagine that some time…there will be a change in ownership, or at least, in active management, that will result in a man becoming president of the St. Louis club.” Though Herrmann didn’t want Britton around, it’s amusing that he always seemed to be photographed sitting next to her at league meetings.
The Bresnahan and Britton got along well enough in 1911. She made a few changes to the club such as renaming League Park in honor of her father and uncle, Robison Field, and moving local ticket sales depots from saloons to drug stores so that they would be assessable to women; however, for the most part Britton allowed others to run the day to day operations. She took the title of vice-president but maintained control in the boardroom.
Britton soon developed a different opinion of Bresnahan and others within the business – seeing them on a day-to-day basis. She attended every home game and saw and heard things which she typically wouldn’t. Bresnahan, like many ballplayers, was crude and vulgar in his speech and over time he failed to clean it up around Britton.
To kick off the season in 1911, Bresnahan got into a verbal altercation and fist fight with Cincinnati’s Bob Bescher on April 18. The year went well though. At midseason, the Cardinals were actually threatening for first place. Ultimately, the team finished in fifth place but with a winning record, 75-74.
Perhaps just as important, the club turned a substantial profit, $165,000. Britton was so pleased that she gave Bresnahan a five-year deal on September 13 at $10,000 per plus 10% of the net profits. The deal made him one of the best paid men in the game, perhaps the highest.
Nineteen Twelve was a different story. The pair clashed all year. It all seemed to take a turn about the time Britton appeared in court in early May to confirm her control over the club. On the stand, she declared that Bresnahan had offered her $500,000 for the club and ballpark.
It was an innocent remark (she was only trying to establish the value of her investment) but it led some to suggest that Bresnahan was lying down, trying to lose games to force a transfer of the club. What wasn’t so innocent was Bresnahan’s repeated offers to purchase the club after being repeatedly denied.
Bresnahan had some other troubles in 1912. For one, he broke his kneecap in April and then came down with pneumonia. He only caught in 29 games after doing so in 59, 77 and 77 respectively over the three previous seasons, 1909-1911.
Bresnahan also fought a charge from Philadelphia Phillies president Horace Fogel that he didn’t field his best club when facing his old friends on the Giants (Fogel was banned at the end of the year by the National Commission). Worst still, the Cardinals never threatened to contend during 1912 and this led to a drop at the gate as well, from 404,000 to 342,000 .
Britton and Bresnahan weren’t seeing eye-to-eye on most issues. The manager flat out didn’t like answering to a woman. And as the losses piled up he had more and more to answer for. Part of the issue had roots in the Robison era. Stanley Robison bowed out of field decisions. He had made a deal with Bresnahan that the manager would have complete control over personnel and other related matters.
Britton had no such deal with her manager. She gave her opinion and she blocked proposed trades which irked Bresnahan. He even appealed to National Commission chairman Herrmann about the “interference.” On May 22 with a 13-20 record, he made a formal appeal to Herrmann.
What Herrmann was supposed to do is unclear. What is clear is that Bresnahan could not handle being told what to do by a woman. To go running to a league official only a month into the season over an internal team issue clearly shows Bresnahan’s frame of mind. Not only was it insubordination but it shows his lack of temperament for being questioned in performance of his duties, a luxury not afforded those outside ownership.
The picture took a darker turn when Britton blocked a proposed trade involving Miller Huggins in July. The writing was on the wall. Those close to the team suggested that Huggins may soon be replacing Bresnahan.
By the end of the year, Britton had had enough of Bresnahan. Supposedly at a meeting a Britton’s house, the manager went into a rage defending himself against charges of game-fixing from the Fogal issue.
On October 22, Britton, fed up, fired Bresnahan and released him – whatever the consequences. At the termination meeting the deposed manager became irate and verbally abusive with reports suggesting that he was on the verge of violence.
His termination letter read, “I have decided to make a change in managers and will not need your services any longer. I feel that you have not tried hard during the past year. The club has not made nearly as much money as it did in 1911. You do not seem to take much interest in the club.”
Britton had a problem though; Bresnahan still had four years left on his contract. He threatened legal action but first took the matter before the National League. The NL suggested an arbitration hearing which was agreed to by both parties. The sides weren’t close though in their expectations; Bresnahan was demanding $40,000 but Britton was only offering $2,500.
The arbitration proved unsuccessful but the two came to a settlement on January 4, 1913 on a $20,000 buy out of his contract. Within a week, Bresnahan, a free agent, signed a three-year deal with the Cubs for $10,000 a year.