In sharp contrast to previous Major League Baseball work stoppages, there is a decidedly anti-ownership fervor that had been largely absent. While those who have sided with the Major League Baseball Players Association will occasionally fixate on those who side with ownership (or, as is more often the case, those who posit false equivalencies between the locked-out players and the billionaires who unanimously instituted the work stoppage that will deprive fans of at least one week and probably more of the 2022 baseball season), this is the first case in which public sentiment is not overwhelmingly on the side of ownership. There are probably several reasons for this–the fact that the work stoppage is a lockout and not a strike, the very transparent fact that team payrolls have decreased despite record revenues within the league, the fact that Rob Manfred is extraordinarily bad at the public relations aspect of his job, a general uptick in public disapproval of the extraordinarily wealthy–but regardless of why, the what is considerably different than, say, in 1994, when newspapers would publish letters from children who would scorn the players without the slightest bit of consideration that perhaps small children do not have much grasp of the nuances of a labor negotiation.
How Bill DeWitt Jr., the current owner of the St. Louis Cardinals, factors into the discussion is a little bit tricky, because the grievances levied against him are so varied. Ultimately, do I like DeWitt? No, not really. Do I think he has St. Louis’s best interests at heart? Not compared to his own self-interest, no. But I also want to compare DeWitt not to my idealized version of a sports team owner, a version that exists entirely between my ears, but to other owners, not as a way to exonerate his sins but to contextualize them. But I also do not want to compare, say, running a team payroll that I suspect is at least ten or twenty million dollars lower than it could be to some of the more egregious sins of professional sports ownership.
I generally adhere to a belief that there are three classes of major sports owner–the despicable, the bad, and the less-bad. I tend to think of DeWitt in the middle group, while perceiving, say, current St. Louis Blues chairman Tom Stillman as in the latter group. I do not want to overly valorize the Stillmans of the world, but I also don’t think a blanket “all owners are bad” statement is particularly useful when some are certainly more bad than others.
I think Tom Stillman is certainly one of the better St. Louis sports owners, and thus he is easily removed from the following list, of the ten worst St. Louis sports owners of all-time. Congratulations to him.
Dishonorable mention: Georgia Frontiere
The reason Frontiere gets only a peripheral mention here is pretty simple–she was a great owner from a purely St. Louis perspective. But if one is going to issue grievances against what happened to the St. Louis Rams, and obviously you know that’s going to happen eventually, I think it is only fair to acknowledge the original sin of the franchise’s move to St. Louis. The story sounds like it was generated by a Mad Lib–Frontiere, a St. Louisan, inherited the team because her sixth husband, Carroll Rosenbloom, acquired the Los Angeles Rams because he traded ownership of the Baltimore Colts with Bob Irsay in 1972, and then she spent fifteen years trying to extort a taxpayer-funded stadium out of Los Angeles (including a relocation to the suburb of Anaheim), only to move to St. Louis when she was gifted a free stadium by a city eager to get an NFL franchise back after the league approved the relocation of the NFL’s Cardinals away from St. Louis, a relocation which Georgia Frontiere voted in favor of. One can rationalize the Rams’ move to St. Louis as rectifying a wrong, but this doesn’t mean that Georgia Frontiere was doing so out of the kindness of her heart.
10. Gussie Busch
Gussie Busch is revered, and “his” number 85, the age he was at the time it happened, is retired by the Cardinals. And one could easily argue that the one big grand thing that August Anheuser Busch Jr. did as St. Louis Cardinals owner–buy the team in the first place, thus sparing the franchise from probable relocation to Houston (more on that later)–outweighs any negative thing he did. This is probably a fair assessment. But if you think Bill DeWitt Jr. is an anti-union vampire, you can rest assured that he is the most pro-player owner the Cardinals have had in the last seventy years. While Busch deserves some credit for his relatively progressive views on race, his aggressive rebuffing of the institution of free agency and of Curt Flood in particular is evidence that while he may have wanted players to be treated the same regardless of race, that sameness was still pretty terribly. He was an active participant in owner collusion in the 1980s–the Cardinals were sued in the 1990s by Jack Clark over Busch’s orchestrated refusal to offer the first baseman a well-deserved raise. The best that can be said in multiple events with Busch is that he was a byproduct of his circumstances, but his circumstances also enabled him the wealth needed to purchase a Major League Baseball team, so I’m perfectly content letting him deal with the less pleasant part of an extremely privileged life.
9. Bill Veeck
Bill Veeck is mostly remembered today for the more whimsical elements of his story–he was the guy who had fans in the stands act as manager for a game (which the St. Louis Browns won) and who spearheaded Disco Demolition Night as owner of the Chicago White Sox. But his actions also led to the exodus of a Major League team from St. Louis and, had he gotten his way, would have led to the exodus of the other one. After acquiring the St. Louis Browns in 1951, Veeck launched an assault on the more popular Cardinals, banishing any Cardinals signage at their shared stadium, Sportsman’s Park, and hiring Cardinals greats Rogers Hornsby and Marty Marion as managers. Veeck prohibited other American League teams from broadcasting Browns games as a poorly-constructed stroke of revenge against his desire to force other teams (mostly the Yankees) from splitting their broadcasting revenue. And when all else failed, Veeck sold the team to investors from Baltimore, who relocated the team and renamed them the Orioles. In the grand scheme of things, I think the relocation of the Browns is certainly the most defensible exodus of a team from St. Louis–it would be really weird for a city the size of St. Louis to still host two MLB teams–so I give Veeck quite a bit of leeway on his apathy to St. Louis as a whole. But he was still a pretty lousy owner.
8. Harry Ornest
Not unlike Gussie Busch, Harry Ornest deserves to be recognized in part for the headline of his ownership–he bought the St. Louis Blues at a time when their long-term future in St. Louis was very much an open question, and when he later sold the team, he did so to local ownership that was committed to keeping the franchise in town. Ornest, however, was comically unqualified to own a major sports team–he was arguably the stingiest major sports owner in St. Louis history, spending the three years of his ownership siphoning off some of the team’s best players, including selling off goalie Mike Liut and his team-high $900,000 salary mid-season while the team was in first place in their division, and cajoling employees to take deferred salaries so that he could avoid actually having to pay the brunt of them. One could argue that the ends justify the means in this case, but Harry Ornest was in way over his head.
7. Bill DeWitt Jr.
In an era of sports franchise ownership where any facade of civic duty has crumbled, replaced by the most soulless and vapid approach to sports possible, Bill DeWitt Jr. has acted as a perfect representative of the movement. A second-generation baseball executive whose father worked alongside Bill Veeck, DeWitt Jr. is a far more subtle figure, rarely making outlandish public gestures but allowing his front offices to shoulder as much public scorn as possible. DeWitt has seen his initial investment of $150 million increase fifteenfold while consistently maintaining payrolls which rank lower than the Cardinals’ rank among franchise values. Although his thriftiness pales in comparison to the true great offenders of the baseball world–say, Bob Nutting of the Pittsburgh Pirates–DeWitt is a major public-facing voice of what is effectively an ownership strike, one which has been widely ridiculed for preposterous assertions that owning a professional sports team in the twenty-first century is not an overwhelmingly great investment, and shepherding a work stoppage that will likely sully the final acts of the careers of Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright, two of the most beloved lifelong Cardinals in franchise history.
6. Fred Saigh
Aside from flirting with moving to the Metro East prior to the construction of the current Busch Stadium, the idea of the Cardinals moving out of St. Louis is inconceivable through a modern lens, but thanks to Fred Saigh, this nearly happened. The prospective move, to Houston, was not a direct result of Fred Saigh’s malice but rather his incompetence. Saigh had bought the Cardinals in 1947 and his tenure as the team’s owner was relatively uneventful until 1952, when Saigh was indicted on federal tax evasion charges. Once sentenced to fifteen months in prison, Saigh was forced to sell the team, and the hurried rush to put the Cardinals on the market led to little local interest, hence the very real possibility that the team about which this blog focuses its attention would have been relegated to historical footnote. Ultimately, in a mild act of redemption, Saigh sold to Gussie Busch for a slightly below-market price tag because Busch promised to keep the team in St. Louis, but Saigh proceeded to criticize Busch’s ownership of the team, infamously proclaiming that the Cardinals were “demoralized” in a 1964 open letter right before the Cardinals made a ferocious comeback to win that year’s National League penannt and eventually World Series. And because this is America and you can never keep a rich creep down for too long, Saigh lived to be 94 years old and was worth half a billion dollars when he died.
5. Ben Kerner
Ben Kerner was a notoriously cheap owner of the National Basketball Association’s Buffalo Bisons, Tri-City Blackhawks, Milwaukee Hawks, and St. Louis Hawks, a team whose perpetual relocation is partly a reflection on the relative instability of that era’s NBA but also of Kerner’s lousy ownership even relative to the era. As an evaluator of talent, Kerner oversaw the drafting and subsequent trading of Bob Cousy and Bill Russell, two of the most important basketball players of all-time, before they ever played a single game for his franchise, not to mention running Hall of Fame coaches Red Holzman and Alex Hannum out of St. Louis over financial matters. And although Kerner’s demands for a refurbished arena in St. Louis weren’t as unreasonable as they seem today–in the 1960s, one could legitimately claim that professional sports ownership carried some financial risk–his efforts were insincere. Kerner demanded a state-of-the-art arena which could fit five-figures of attendance, he stumbled by complete accident into one when the St. Louis Blues came to town and thus the formerly dilapidated St. Louis Arena was refurbished to high standards, and Kerner still sold the team to Atlanta business interests, thus single-handedly ending a formerly strong run of St. Louis as an NBA city.
4. Ozzie and Daniel Silna
Brothers Ozzie and Daniel Silna were owners of the American Basketball Association’s Carolina Cougars, but relocated the franchise to St. Louis in 1974, renaming them the Spirits of St. Louis. The Silnas did so in part because they viewed St. Louis as a more likely market to be folded into a potential merger between the NBA and ABA, a not-unreasonable calculation, but ultimately, St. Louis did not get an NBA team out of the merger. Instead, the Silnas acquiesced to the six franchises that did join the NBA in exchange for a perpetual share of the league’s broadcasting revenue, which seemed like a moderate price in the moment but wound up being extremely lucrative for the brothers when the league exploded in popularity in the 1980s and 1990s. ESPN made an entire 30 for 30 documentary about the Spirits with an overall tone that it was actually really cool that these guys sold out a city in exchange for a straight financial gain, in case you’re interested in watching a sports documentary from the perspective of the kind of freaks who tweet fan mail at Elon Musk.
3. Bill Bidwill
After inheriting the St. Louis Cardinals of the National Football League from his parents, in that tried and true story of scrappy Americans pulling themselves up by their boot straps, Bill Bidwill ran his football team as cheaply as he could, with a wallet as tight as the stupid looking bowties he would routinely wear in public, presumably as a way of demonstrating that if you are a billionaire, you are immune from public ridicule. In the 1980s, Bidwill griped about Busch Memorial Stadium for reasons both fair (it was among the league’s smallest venues by capacity) and asinine (he didn’t want to sell beer at games, which is the hallmark of a truly brilliant businessman), and despite allegedly wanting to leave St. Louis because of a less-than-desirable stadium situation, his eventual relocation of the Cardinals to metropolitan Phoenix meant spending eighteen years as a tenant of Arizona State University at Sun Devil Stadium. After promising to support an expansion team in St. Louis, Bidwill instead voted to grant a new NFL team to Jacksonville, because even when it doesn’t particularly benefit them, sometimes you simply cannot stop liars from lying.
2. Ralston-Purina (William Stiritz)
In 1977, local pet food manufacturer Ralston Purina purchased the St. Louis Blues, renaming St. Louis Arena the very clumsily titled “Checkerdome” in the process. For the first four years of their ownership, things went mostly fine from a fan perspective, but the team was losing money–not hemorrhaging money, per se, but not profiting, and thus, following the retirement of Ralston Purina chairman R. Hal Dean, new chairman William Stiritz sought to sell the Blues, and with absolutely no regard for whether a new ownership group would keep the Blues in St. Louis–their sole goal was to maximize return on the sale. World Hockey Association founder Bill Hunter attempted to lead a purchase of the team and relocate them to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, but the NHL Board of Governors rejected the sale, fearing that the city was too small to support an NHL team. Because nobody forced Ralston Purina to take the L with dignity, they fired a majority of the Blues’ employees and went so aggressively scorched-earth that the team refused to send a representative to the 1983 NHL Draft and thus became the only team in modern major professional sports history to skip an amateur draft. The Blues were eventually sold to lesser-of-two-evils Harry Ornest, Ralston Purina later merged with Nestlé, and I’m at least a little uncomfortable with the fact that my dog eats their food.
- Stan Kroenke
For number one, I decided that I should change the formatting of how the infamous owner is listed, because Stan Kroenke is, of course, number one with a bullet. Kroenke essentially merges every bad quality referenced among previous owners–after purchasing the St. Louis Rams in 2010 in a last-second move to undercut the potential purchase by future Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan, Kroenke immediately set his sights on relocating the team, the sort of event that was predicted by nearly all onlookers given Kroenke’s diverse track record of sports ownership in other markets that made his purchase of an NFL team outside of Denver technically illegal (he relinquished ownership of the Nuggets and Avalanche to his son and wife, respectively). He refused meetings with St. Louis civic leaders, who had expressed interest in building a publicly-financed stadium for the Rams, in an act of bad-faith negotiations that would make current MLB owners blush. He hired Jeff Fisher, a demonstrable failure of an NFL head coach whose primary qualification for the job of St. Louis Rams head coach was that he had already overseen a relocating NFL team (he wouldn’t even make it through a full season in Los Angeles, because Kroenke’s sudden urge to stop stripping his team down to its studs unsubtly disappeared once the Rams relocated). The organization was routinely uncompetitive in free agency and trade markets, a fact made all the more stark by the organization’s sudden aggressiveness in both once the team arrived in Los Angeles. And it wasn’t even enough for Stan Kroenke to single-handedly steal the team–he gleefully dismissed the city (a city, which again, he voluntarily bought a billion dollar property in less than six years earlier) as lagging behind and unable to support an NFL team, while his lackey lieutenant Kevin Demoff, whose L.A.-based secondary education costs more than my house, would taunt St. Louis’s crime rate and credit rating.
All right, all right, that’s enough angst for one post. Time to pace around and wonder to myself how any person with the ownership history of a St. Louis sports fan could possibly land on siding with ownership on basically any dispute.