VEB theme week is coming to an end and I think my companions and I have done the theme provided by SB Nation well. We’ve covered 2004 from the analytics to personal reminiscence and everything in between. 2004 is the best team I’ve seen that didn’t win a championship. It’s the best team I’ve seen period. 1985 is probably next on my personal list, but at seven years of age, I just didn’t have the same attachment and day-to-day engagement with that club.
There’s a problem here, though. Those dates – 2004 and 1985 – made me stop and question our process. The Cardinals are a franchise with a long and storied tradition that stretches back into the earliest days of professional baseball. We have a history as long as any franchise and richer than any other in the National League. The two best clubs to not win a championship have both come in my lifetime?
Hmmm…. recency bias might be at work here.
That’s fine because you, our faithful readers, probably suffer in the same way. What we’ve seen forms what we know and we tend to stick with what we know over what we don’t. There’s some Saturday morning philosophy for you. It did get me wondering about other great Cardinal teams we overlooked.
So, I went back. WAY back. And I found a group of great teams that played long before any us who played some of the best baseball (by era) that St. Louis has ever seen – the 1885-88 St. Louis Browns. One team stands out from that era as the best pre-modern era club to not win a championship.
Before the St. Louis Cardinals were the Cardinals they were the Browns, a barnstorming club that made it into the American Association as a charter member in 1882. In the late 1800s, the AA champion would play the victor of the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs (the NL) in a precursor to what would become the World Series.
The 1885 Browns finished the season with a 79-33 record and a .705 winning percentage that is still the highest in franchise history. Charlie Comiskey managed the club while also playing first base. Tip O’Neill was the best player on that club that I’ve heard of and he produced a .350/.399/.466 slash line – a 166 OPS+ — but only played in 52 games that season. That club had just three pitchers – Dave Foutz, Bob Caruthers, and Jumbo McGinnis.
Over in the NL, the Chicago White Stockings emerged as champions with an amazing 87-25 record and a .777 winning percentage. (Speaking of best teams to never win a championship, the 1885 New York Giants went 85-27 and didn’t win their league).
One of the odd things about olde-timey baseball is that original franchises often changed their names and expansion franchises borrowed the previous names of current teams to lend some credibility to their new clubs. The St. Louis Browns would later become the Cardinals. After the turn of the century, the American League St Louis Browns that you might be more familiar with borrowed that name for themselves, even though they were from Milwaukee. They eventually became what is now the Baltimore Orioles. Are you confused yet? Well, it gets better. The Chicago White Stockings of 1885 were obviously a precursor to the White Sox, right? Nope. The White Stockings would become the Chicago Cubs and the White Sox would borrow that name decades later.
There’s your history lesson in franchise names. Back to 1885. A St. Louis Browns (Cardinals) club with the best winning percentage in franchise history faced off against a Chicago White Stockings (Cubs) club with one of the best winning percentages in baseball history in a 7-game series to decide the fate of the baseball world. The craziness doesn’t stop at franchise names.
Game one of the series was played at Congress Street Grounds in Chicago and ended after the 8th inning in a tie because of darkness. A tie in the World Series! And modern baseball fans are still upset about a tie in the All-Star game. It was the only game the entire series played in Chicago.
Game two moved to Sportsman’s Park in St Louis the next day. With Chicago leading 5-4 in the 6th, Comiskey pulled the Browns off the field to protest a ruling by the umpire. Chicago won the game by forfeit.
Games three and four would continue over the next two days at Sportsman’s, with the Browns winning each 7-4 and 3-2.
Have I said it yet? Baseball in the 1800s was crazy? For some reason, game five was moved to Pittsburgh and played five days later in terrible weather with the White Stockings winning 9-2 when the game was called again because of darkness.
For some reason, Game 6 was moved to Cincinnati the next day where the two clubs actually managed to complete a game. The Stockings won, taking a 3-2-1 advantage in the series.
Game 7 remained in Cincinnati (presumably, Scranton and Osh Kosh were unavailable?) and St. Louis won 13-4 behind stellar pitching from Dave Foutz.
And that was it. The series ended in a 3-3-1 tie. The two clubs went home with no champion and had to split the $1000 prize.
1885 started an amazing streak for the pre-MLB Cardinals franchise. The Browns would make the Series the next three years, winning in ’86 and losing in both ’87 and ’88. The club carried a winning percentage of .683 from ’85-‘88. Just for reference, a .683 winning percentage in today’s game would be 111 wins.
After this era, the Browns would eventually join with the NL and change their name to the Cardinals. The franchise would not see the postseason again until 1926. Then, a Cardinals club led by Rogers Hornsby and Jim Bottomley, would win the first World Series that the club counts.