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The uniforms that inspired the name ‘Cardinals’

A refreshed version of the 1899 ballclub led to a new uniform and a new name, but perhaps not in the way you’ve been told.

From St. Louis Cardinals Uniforms & Logos: An Illustrated History by Gary Kodner and Oliver Kodner.

If you’re going to look back at Cardinals uniforms, as we are this week at VEB, you have to consider the uniforms that actually inspired the team name itself. Those were the jerseys worn by the 1899 club, who ostensibly went by the name “Perfectos.”

But 1899 was a pivotal year for the franchise for many reasons beyond the laundry, so let’s back up and consider the context.

It was in 1882 that German Immigrant and Saloon Owner Chris Von der Ahe gained admittance for a St. Louis baseball club into the American Association. He developed the lots next to his saloon into a ballpark that would be called Sportsman’s Park, providing a home for the team and more importantly a vast new area to sell beer.

Reports differ on whether the name “Browns” came along with the semi-pro team Von der Ahe inherited or if it was christened by dint of the American Association’s custom of assigning different sock colors to each team. Regardless, “Browns” would remain the team moniker throughout Von der Ahe’s ownership.

Brown socks would remain a constant feature of the uniforms, often with white home and blue road jerseys. But there were a number of variants throughout the American Association years, including seasons where the club assigned different colored hats to players based on position, and an 1891 season where the league itself required that all teams where white at home and black on the road.

(All uniform images are from the incredible St. Louis Cardinals Uniforms & Logos: An Illustrated History by Gary Kodner and Oliver Kodner.)

Von der Ahe’s Browns quickly rose to become the class of the American Association, winning four straight pennants from 1885 to 1888, playing each year in the original “World Series” against the National League winner. The American Association went bankrupt in 1891, and while the Browns moved into the National League, their fortunes and Von der Ahe’s dwindled throughout the 1890’s. The team and all its assets were lost to bankruptcy in 1898.

That brings us to 1899. Edward C. Becker, a local businessman who had been part of the Browns ownership board since 1894, would purchase the team and its assets from creditors prior to the season. Becker’s partners were Frank and Stanley Robinson, two Cleveland businessmen who also owned another National League team, the Cleveland Spiders.

What happened next is a pretty well-known story: The Robinson Brothers transferred all of the good players from Cleveland to St. Louis, including Cy Young. The decimated Spiders team set an all-time mark for futility, going 20-134, and were removed from the league the following season.

Many reportings will cast this as chicanery by the Robinsons, and frame the elimination of the Spiders as punishment for the stunt. But the truth is more likely that the Robinsons were already aware of the league’s plan to eliminate four teams at the end of the season. Knowing their club was on the chopping block, they transferred their best player assets, and the Spiders even played many of their scheduled home games on the road that season.

In St. Louis, this meant that the baseball club would go into 1899 with new owners and an influx of new talent. Cy Young would come to St. Louis along with fellow future Hall of Famers Jesse Burkett and Bobby Wallace.

The makeover of the team continued by renaming the former Sportsman’s Park as “League Park.” And then there were the uniforms and the team name.

This illustration from the Kodner and Kodner book is the best and only iteration I know of what the color might have looked like that was dubbed “cardinal.”

Browns were the name and brown were the stockings throughout the club’s history. Heading into 1899, the owners kept the uniform design fairly similar to the variants worn in the past, with “St. Louis” across the chest, but changed the palette of the socks, belt and hat from brown to red.

And what about the team name? I said earlier the 1899 team was “ostensibly” called the Perfectos, and the reason is that team names of the late 19th and early 20th century were not necessarily the formalized, brand-identity monikers we know today.

Teams most often featured just their city name across their jerseys, while their nicknames were more informal. For example: A few players who left the Cincinnati Red Stockings would form a team in Boston in 1871 calling itself the Boston Red Stockings, a charter member of the National League. By the 1880s, the press more commonly called them the Beaneaters. In the first decade of the 1900s, the team was sometimes called the Doves and the Rustlers - both names that referred to team owners. The new American League team in Boston borrowed the uniform colors and called themselves the Red Sox, and by 1912 the National League club began referring to itself as the Braves.

According to one historian - and the story passes the smell test - the name “Perfectos” was only coined after the new St. Louis ballclub opened its season with 7-straight wins.

That etymology also dovetails with what we know of the atmosphere in St. Louis at the time. By all reports, the new ownership, influx of talent and general makeover rekindled the love affair between the city and its ballclub. As the St. Louis Globe-Democrat reported, “Never in the history of the sport, not even in the days of the old champion Brown Stockings, has the St. Louis public shown as much interest in baseball...”

So it seems likely that the sports writers of the day coined and popularized this new team name, “Perfectos,” to capture the spirit of the city and the energy created by that early winning streak. But that team would fade a bit as the season went on, ultimately going a respectable 84-67, but good enough for only 5th in the NL.

Put yourself in the shoes of a sportswriter of the day. How many weeks are you going to go calling your 5th place team the “Perfectos”? There are also records of the team being referred to as the “Tebeauites,” after their manager Patsy Tebeau. Not surprising that mouthful of vowel soup never caught on.

And so we come to the well-told tale of the origins of the St. Louis Cardinals name. It was also at some point in the 1899 season that sportswriter Willie McHale of the St. Louis Republic heard a woman remark, “What a lovely shade of cardinal,” in reference to the new uniforms. As the story goes, McHale would use the name in his column.

The story of McHale and the female fan is very well-told, and even mentioned on the club’s official timeline. Unfortunately, I can find no electronic record of its first use. Digital archives of the St. Louis Republic are only available beginning in 1900, though it’s clear the term was in common use at the Post-Dispatch and elsewhere by 1900. (If anyone’s aware of a primary source for that first use by McHale, let me know in the comments below.)

I have no doubt the name came into common use from a sportswriter, and there’s no reason to doubt it was McHale. As for the story of the woman at the ballpark... that feels a bit apocryphal to me.

I’m likewise skeptic of the supposed origins of “Stan the Man,” which sportswriter Bob Broeg credited to Brooklyn Dodger fans in 1946. Really? It would only be after 5 years in league and winning an MVP that someone realized that “Stan” and “man” rhyme? And they would be from Brooklyn? And in Broeg’s account, the Brooklyn fans weren’t even playing off the rhyme, they were just chanting “here comes that man.”

It is my firm belief that Broeg and McHale faced the same challenge sportswriters have faced since time immemorial: Having to crank out a story without repeating the name of the team 547 times. In an effort to add a little color, you get creative. You nickname a player after a rhyming word. You call the ballclub by an artful reference to the color on their socks. But it’s less striking to simply say “I was facing deadline and I pulled the name out of my ass.” So instead, we get names organically generated by unnamed fans in ballparks.

But regardless of who coined the term Cardinals, it absolutely stuck. By 1918, it was officially emblazoned on the jerseys themselves. And in 1922, the other meaning of the word led to a logo with two birds on a bat that would stick around to this day.