In 1934, the St. Louis Cardinals defeated the Detroit Tigers in an exciting seven-game World Series. They were known as the Gashouse Gang, a scrappy, hustling team of colorful characters led by Dizzy Dean, Frankie Frisch, Leo Durocher, Pepper Martin, and Joe Medwick, who captivated the imagination of Depression-Era America.
Did they almost become the Detroit Cardinals?
In a long-lost footnote in baseball history, the St. Louis Cardinals, with all their star power, actually flirted very briefly with the idea of picking up stakes and heading north to Detroit. While the whole scenario may have been nothing more than an offhand idea in an owner’s head, the possibility was there. Had that possibility turned into reality, the entire sports landscape of Detroit would have been radically altered.
It seems fantastical, doesn’t it? With 80 years of hindsight, it is easy to dismiss the whole idea as ridiculous. But the circumstances at the time argue that the idea isn’t as far-fetched as it may seem today.
1934 was the height of the Depression, and just about every major league team was struggling to draw fans in the terrible economy. Two factors made the situation worse for the Cardinals, however. First, St. Louis was a two-team city, with the Browns in the American League. Secondly, the Cardinals were paying rent to the Browns, who owned Sportsman’s Park. One would think that the Cardinals would have drawn well in 1934, but they only attracted 325,056 fans (an average of 4,222), good for only fourth out of eight teams (the New York Giants topped the National League with 730,851). The Browns also struggled at the gate, as only 115,305 passed through the turnstiles, but again, they had the advantage of being the Cardinals’ landlords.
The Cardinals had never drawn 1 million fans in a season, despite having won five pennants between 1926 and 1934. The Chicago Cubs, by comparison, had averaged around 1.2 million fans between 1927 and 1931. The opinion gaining traction in baseball (and one which would ultimately prove to be true) was that St. Louis was simply no longer capable of supporting two franchises. And increasingly, it looked like if any team from the Mound City was going to do the moving, it would be the team that wore red, not brown.
On March 28, 1935, a reporter buttonholed Cardinal owner (and president) Sam Breadon in spring training. He inquired about the rumor that the team would be interested in listening to overtures from other cities. Breadon was quoted as saying that he was favorable to a proposal that the Cardinals be moved to Detroit. The problem, of course, was Tigers’ owner Frank Navin, who would have to give consent to any such move, since he owned the territorial rights to Detroit.
“I think Detroit would be an ideal spot for the Cardinals,” Breadon ruminated, “and I would go there in a minute if Navin opened up the way for us to come in. But I doubt that he would want us.”
Before we go any further in the story, we have to ask why Breadon would even consider Detroit in the first place. But remember that the United States was a much smaller place in 1935. St. Louis was the westernmost city in the big leagues. If a team like the Cardinals wanted to move, their options were limited. Heading much further west was simply impracticable from a logistics standpoint, and would remain so until the coming of commercial jet travel, almost two decades into the future. Teams traveled by train in the 1930s, and as a result even such relatively-nearby possibilities as Florida, Minnesota, or Texas would have been a long haul. California? Forget about it.
Given those realities, why not Detroit? The Sporting News wrote in April of 1935, “Detroit, with its larger population and keen interest in sports, always has been named as the most likely location for another club, if any one-club city now in the majors was to be given two.” The Tigers had led the American League in attendance in 1934, and would do so again in 1935. This was the Motor City, and despite the Depression, it was still the industrial capital of the world. In fact, Detroit and Jersey City were often mentioned as being candidates for a new team (or a second, in Detroit’s case). For the record, Jersey City was considered the more likely, since it was considered an “open territory” by Organized Baseball.
To get an idea of how fast things had changed, it had only been a few years prior that the Tigers themselves were a mediocre team struggling to draw customers. Before the arrival of player-manager Mickey Cochrane, the club’s future in Detroit was far from a certainty. Cochrane’s injection of a winning culture changed all that, and by 1934 the Tigers had become one of the elite organizations.
But, of course, all talk of St. Louis, or any other team, moving to Detroit wasn’t destined to last long. Frank Navin likely never would have agreed to let a franchise horn into his territory. After Navin’s death in 1935 weeks after his Tigers won their first championship, Walter O. Briggs took over the club, which put the possibility to bed forever. Briggs would spend freely on his team and his ballpark, and wouldn’t be one to share the spotlight with any other franchise.
Still, history is filled with “what-ifs.” What if Breadon had made Navin (or Briggs) an offer he couldn’t refuse?
What if Detroit had wound up with two baseball teams? What if the city had two great outfielders, Al Kaline and Stan Musial, playing for the Tigers and the Cardinals in the 1950s? What if there’d been an All-Detroit World Series in 1968?
Let’s stretch our imaginations further. Had the Cardinals moved to Detroit, would they have played at Briggs Stadium? The likeliest scenario is that they would have eventually built a new stadium elsewhere in the city. Would the Cardinals have overtaken the Tigers in popularity? Would attendance at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull have fallen as a result? Or, when the population of Detroit began to gradually dwindle beginning in the 1960’, would both teams have struggled to draw fans, forcing one of them to leave? What if the Tigers had decided to abandon Detroit for another city, and today we rooted for the Detroit Cardinals?
Of course, it is all just an exercise in speculation. But still…