Part one: The American Association Browns, 1882-1891.
By 1898 the Browns, kings of the American Association, were NL bottom-feeders, and when a bereft Von der Ahe sold out to Frank and Stanley Robison there wasn't enough capital left in the name to avoid a change to the delightfully named fifth-place St. Louis Perfectos, the Frankenstein-ish result of an offseason heart transplant.
What's forgotten in the fin de siècle lament of the Cleveland Spiders, one of baseball's saddest stories, is that the reason they were so bad is that the team who they had their Face/Off moment with was as historically terrible as any non-Spiders team can be. The 1898 Browns went gave time to ten position players who hit worse, on the year, than their number one starter, the largely forgettable Jack Quinn. They had a few Real Players—Lave Cross, veteran third baseman and the only player of historical import of the lot; Jake Stenzel, a swift centerfielder who'd hit .374 in 1895 but would retire prior to the 1900 season; Jack Clements, a slugging catcher who'd began his career as a nineteen year-old in the Union Association. But in general the real players were old, and the young players were never seen again.
And at 39-111 they were somehow a major improvement on the 1897 team, which went 29-102. Von der Ahe was out of money, and it showed. For the poor Spiders it was like trading brains with a model skeleton. But even transferring Cy Young, Jesse Burkett, Bobby Wallace, Nig Cuppy, Cupid Childs, and Jack Powell to the newly christened Perfectos wasn't enough to turn those awful turn-of-the-century teams into pennant contenders. By 1900, the fans and ownership perhaps having gotten the message, Perfectos was traded out for something less ostentatious—we have finally reached the St. Louis Cardinals.
When the upstart American League started its own St. Louis franchise, the new Browns, the ex-Perfectos were hit with some poetic justice—future Hall of Famers Wallace and Burkett, among others, were lured away, and the team fell into the second division for a nearly uninterrupted twenty years of futility, one that wouldn't end until the team changed hands again and a young manager named Branch Rickey exercised his influence over the front office.
Here lie these transitional Cardinals' best hitters and pitchers:
(I don't normally run the hitters that far past a 100 OPS+, but I can't think of better baseball names than "Dots Miller" and "Rebel Oakes." It might not be the best time for Cardinals baseball, but it is certainly the only era in which most of its tenured veterans sound like refugees from a Thomas Pynchon novel.)
It is reassuring, isn't it, to see Rogers Hornsby appear at the top of a list, for once. 1920 was the first year of his decade-long dominance of the National League, though; this is apprentice Hornsby, attempting to play shortstop and only really good, instead of transcendent. For career value, your Greatest Cardinal of This Time is "Big Ed" Konetchy (weight: 195 pounds), who, according to Baseball-Reference's wiki, "has the most triples of any major leaguer not in the Hall of Fame."
I suppose somebody has to. But Konetchy was an excellent hitter, a fine baserunner, and a brilliant defender in an era that prized defense at first base more than any other. In 1914 he was traded to Pittsburgh for, among other players, Chief Wilson, who will forever hold the single season record for triples (36, against 19 doubles and 11 home runs), and in 1915 he was one of the high profile stars who moved to the upstart Federal League, the last of the third leagues to reach Major status.
Honorable mention goes to Slim Sallee, who lost one game for the Reds in the 1919 World Series; Miller Huggins, who in 1918 left his post in St. Louis to manage the Yankees, which was a fine career move; and Jesse Burkett, who played just three years for the Cardinals before bolting to the Browns but hit .376/.440/.509 as the top NL hitter in 1901, when Nap Lajoie was stealing the headlines as a .426 hitter in the American League.
It's lost to history, which is fine with me, but by the time the Cardinals won their first modern World Series in 1926 it was considered an absolute shock; reading contemporary St. Louis and New York papers for my article in last year's Maple Street Annual I quickly discovered that the Cardinals, young, inexperienced, unserious, reaching the World Series was about as novel for them as the 2008 Rays were for us. These teams, bumbling, Pirate-like in their consistent mediocrity, are the reason.