Watching a baseball team die is no more fun than sitting at the deathbed of an old friend. It's no different with the demise of the fan club of a long-dead baseball team. Last Thursday life was draining out of the St. Louis Browns Historical Society.
The 21st annual and supposedly final meeting of the Brownies fan club was held at Joe Hanon's restaurant in a St. Louis suburb to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the woebegone team's arrival from Milwaukee. If the organizers had waited a year, they could have celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Browns' deportation from St. Louis. After the 1953 season, as if in a witness protection program, the players on a pitiful 54-100 team were moved to a new town ( Baltimore) and given new identities ( Orioles).
The banquet was billed as the "final" meeting, "because we've done it all," said Erv Fischer, who has organized all of the 21 get-togethers, and though he's threatened to call it quits before, he insists this time he's serious. "I'm 77 years old, and I'm kind of worn-out myself."
The dinner drew 197 loyal Browns fans, which would have been considered a good crowd at Sportsman's Park. "Sometimes the players outnumbered the fans," said Don Gutteridge, a Browns second baseman from 1942 to '45. He wasn't kidding: Thirty-four fans showed up for a '33 game. "Some days I knew everybody in the ballpark on a first-name basis. You could have fired a shotgun into the stands and not hit anyone."
Almost every speech was like a dispatch from some emergency room describing the decline of a failing monarch. The Browns were not quite a monarchy among franchises; in 52 inglorious seasons they finished in the cellar or a floor above 22 times, prompting the famous St. Louis slogan: First in booze, first in shoes and last in the American League.
The Browns are better known for their one-armed outfielder ( Pete Gray, in 1945) and midget pinch hitter ( Eddie Gaedel, in '51) than their Hall of Fame first baseman ( George Sisler, who hit .407 in '20 and .420 in '22) and lone pennant, in 1944, when the majors were overrun by players as unfit to play ball as they were for the armed services. (A record 18 members of the team were classified 4-F and thus deferred from the draft.)
Last Thursday each old Brownie got to say a few departing words. In the case of Jim Delsing, the outfielder who pinch-ran for Gaedel, a few small words. "Jimmy ran for the midget," chuckled Ned Garver, the Browns' ace from 1948 to '52. "What a distinction!" Garver's own claim to fame is being the only pitcher ever to win 20 games for a last place team that lost 100 or more.
The 92-year-old Bob Poser reminisced about getting signed by manager Rogers Hornsby while on a break from medical school. "All the Browns could afford to give me was $200," said Poser. "I would have paid $200 to play."
In his four-game career with the Browns, Poser faced nine future Hall of Famers. "How'd you pitch to Lou Gehrig?" asked the great Stan Musial, whose Cardinals beat their crosstown rivals in the 1944 Series.
"Carefully," said Poser, using a line almost as old as he is. "When I was young, I never imagined I'd be in this position." When you grow old, you find people's memories grow short. These days no one much remembers the Browns.