A baseball fan can travel to Busch Stadium and see Jackie Robinson‘s name and #42 nestled among the great Cardinals adorning the left field wall. It remains there (and in every stadium) as a tribute to a man who bravely challenged the color barrier in a sport meant to represent all of America.

However, few St. Louis fans know of the Cardinals’ part in the building of the racial divide that splintered the sport for more than fifty years prior to Robinson’s heroic stand.

Prior to 1900, the Cardinals were known as the St. Louis Browns (previously the St. Louis Brown Stockings). Even in those early years, the franchise was wildly successful; as a member of the American Association, the Browns won four straight pennants from 1885 to 1888. In ten seasons, the Browns had one of the best winning percentages in baseball at that time (782-433, a .644 winning percentage).

Unlike the rigid scheduling of modern baseball, leagues like the American Association were composed of loosely-arranged exhibitions around the country. The Browns were a popular attraction in many cities hungry for this thrilling new sport thanks to early stars like Bob Caruthers (who is still regarded as having one of the top winning percentages of any pitcher all-time), Dave Foutz, and Tip O’Neill. The team toured the country to large crowds and vast acclaim.

The Browns, in the midst of their greatest season ever (95 wins), were scheduled to play an exhibition game on September 11, 1887 against the New York Cubans. The Cubans, a team composed of black players, was one of the early attempts to desegregate the sport just twenty years after the end of the Civil War.

Sadly, the Browns refused to play against the Cubans that afternoon.

Led by O’Neill, Browns owner Chris von der Ahe was presented with a signed letter on September 10th stating that the team “does not agree to play against negroes (sic) to-morrow.” It went on to say that the team “will cheerfully play against any white people at any time, and think, by refusing to play, we are only doing what is right.”

The New York Times decries the refusal of the Browns to play against black men in 1887.

The New York Times decries the refusal of the Browns to play against black men in 1887.

The national media was stunned by the move. The New York Times headline called it “A Color Line In Baseball,” dismissively referring to the Browns as “world champions” (in quotations) while fingering them as “the men who have established the precedent that white men should not play with colored men.”

Locally, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat was less hysterical. Although repeating the Times’ use of “color line” to describe the situation, the Globe-Democrat painted a picture of a team in the midst of a moral dilemma. When asked about their decision, several players remained silent or could not comment on why they refused to play against the all-black team. Some were described as tongue-tied over the decision.

From the reporting of the Globe-Democrat, it appears that the racially-motivated revolt was instigated by third baseman Arlie Latham. The only player to openly address questions about the incident, Latham said this:

“We played every day last week, and and one day we played two games, and had to get up at three o’clock in the morning to catch a train. And then look at the team we’ve got (to play). It’s like a third-class amateur club. We did not want to go over there (to New York) on Sunday, especially, to play a nigger club, and we didn’t go.”

An exhibition game that would have been played before 15,000 fans in New York between white and black teams could have helped heal the racial wounds still festering after the War. Instead, the refusal of the St. Louis Browns to play in that exhibition helped seal the racial barrier in baseball for more than fifty years.

So the next time you visit Busch Stadium and see Robinson on the left field wall, remember the sad part St. Louis played in creating the ugly racial divide bridged only by Robinson’s talent and courage.

(newspaper sources courtesy of Baseball History Blog)