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The St. Louis Perfectos and the birth of modern baseball

The last time the franchise opened a season 19-6, they had a different name and were poised to enter a new era.

The 1899 St. Louis Perfectos. Cy Young in the lower left.
The 1899 St. Louis Perfectos. Cy Young in the lower left.
J.C. Strauss, Library of Congress

When the Cardinals defeated the Cubs Monday night to move to 19-6 on the year, Fox Sports Midwest quickly labeled it the best start in franchise history. That claim was soon amended, via Twitter and on-air, to "the best start since 1899." That's an understandable glitch, as 1899 was a real outlier year, both for the St. Louis baseball franchise and for professional baseball at large.

The 1899 season paved the way for the birth of the St. Louis Cardinals and really, the entire modern era of baseball as we know it today.

Prior to 1899, the team played as the St. Louis Browns. (You may remember the antics of owner and beer baron impresario Chris von der Ahe from The Summer of Beer and Whiskey.) Following a rough year which saw much of the ballpark burn down and von der Ahe briefly kidnapped, he sold the team to Frank and Stanley Robison, who also owned the Cleveland Spiders (also of the National League).

If you're thinking "owning two teams in the same league is a tremendous conflict of interest," you're right. But remember, this was The Gilded Age, when monopolies and conflicts of interest were as American as apple pie.

The Robison Brothers changed the name of the St. Louis team to "The Perfectos," and changed the team's color to red. In looking at their two franchises, St. Louis was the larger market, so they decided it should have the better team. They transferred many of the best players from the Spiders to the Perfectos, including future Hall-of-Famers Cy Young, Jesse Burkett and Bobby Wallace.

This stacked Perfectos roster was a juggernaut. They won their first seven in-a-row, nine of their first ten. But as good as the team was (at least early on), they never had more than a 1.5 game lead in the standings. The reason? A very similar situation was playing out on the east coast. The owner of the Baltimore Orioles became a part-owner of the Brooklyn franchise, renamed them "the Superbas" and shipped all of the best players from Baltimore to Brooklyn.

So the 1899 National League featured a couple teams stacked with superstars and a couple teams more-or-less designed to lose. It was kind of like the NBA.

While the Brooklyn/Baltimore collusion would lead the Superbas to a pennant and a sterling 101-47 record, the Perfectos sagged as the season went on, ultimately finishing 5th (out of 12) with a record of 84-67.

The impact in Cleveland was catastrophic. The Spiders would finish the season with a record of 20-134, which still stands as the worst in the history of professional baseball. Attendance dwindled to the point that teams refused to play in Cleveland, and the Spiders were forced to play 85 of their final 93 games on the road.

The Fallout

By any measure, the 1899 National League season was a disaster. A Chicago Tribune editorial from Oct. 1 bemoaned: "Twelve clubs have staid through the season by dint of switching dates, violating the schedule, and resorting to every possible means to help the financial end of the game to the detriment of the sport."

Four clubs were eliminated from the National League: The rotting husks of the Spiders and Orioles, along with the Washington Senators and Louisville Colonels. The Spiders, Orioles and Senators would all join the upstart American League, which just one year later would become the other "major" league. In 1903, that Orioles franchise would become The Damned New York Yankees.

So just two years after the debacle of 1899, baseball had two major leagues that looked very similar to how they do today:

National League

American League

Pittsburgh Pirates

Chicago White Stockings

Philadelphia Phillies

Boston Americans

Brooklyn Superbas

Detroit Tigers

St. Louis Cardinals

Philadelphia Athletics

Boston Beaneaters

Baltimore Orioles

Chicago Orphans

Washington Senators

New York Giants

Cleveland Bluebirds

Cincinnati Reds

Milwaukee Brewers

As for the legacy of The Perfectos, their greatest legacy is likely the result of their uniforms, which reportedly featured red trim with red striped stockings.

Willie McHale of the St. Louis Republic newspaper is credited as the first to put the name "Cardinals" in print, noting that he heard a woman at the ballpark remark of the Perfectos uniforms, "what a lovely shade of Cardinal." And while that woman's passing remark is a good origin story, it seems likely that "Cardinals" was already in common use among fans to refer to the team.

In 1900, the team officially changed its name to the Cardinals.