On May 8, 1966, the Cardinals were off to a sluggish start to the season. At 8-13, they were much closer to last place than first. They took on the first place Giants in a sunny Sunday afternoon game at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis. The crowd size was middling- 17,503 in attendance, about 60% of capacity. The Giants jumped Cardinals starter Larry Jaster for five runs through the first three innings en route to a 10-5 laugher, but the score was only secondary to the larger storyline of the day. You see, it was the last game played at Sportsman’s Park, the venerable old ballyard at the corner of Grand and Dodier, known since 1954 as Busch Stadium. It had been the Cardinals home since 1920 and hosted the St. Louis Browns from 1902 to 1953. Some form of baseball had been played on the site going back to 1875.
The ballpark closed that day with much fanfare. According to SABR, the Cardinals honored the best players for both the Browns (George Sisler) and the Cardinals (Stan Musial) in a pre-game ceremony. Groundskeeper Bill Stocksick, who had originally placed home plate in 1909 at Sportsman’s Park, dug it up after the game and placed it on a KMOX helicopter. It was then flown to Busch Stadium II as the remaining fans serenaded the neighborhood with Auld Lang Syne. There was even a parade. The Missouri Historical Society has a spectacular video capturing the day.
The ballpark itself was quite modest compared to its pre-Concrete Donut Era peers. It didn’t possess the palatial facade of places like Ebbetts Field, Shibe Park, or Forbes Field, nor did it have the quirky dimensions of Fenway Park, the Polo Grounds, or Baker Bowl. In fairness, it did have one eccentricity. In the mid-1920s, the Browns installed a 25-foot screen atop the right field fence to dampen homeruns caused by the ballpark’s cozy dimensions.
As for the dimensions, they barely changed after 1926. Here’s how it evolved, thanks to Andrew Clem’s eponymous site, Clem’s Baseball:
What it lacked in quirky charm and luxurious facades, it made up for by serving as the epicenter of some amazing baseball. The first Busch Stadium (neé Sportsman’s Park) hosted 10 World Series, three All-Star Games, and seven World Series winners. Titans of baseball history like Stan Musial, Rogers Hornsby, Dizzy Dean, George Sisler, and Bob Gibson had called it home, and it was the site of the famous Mad Dash in the 1946 World Series. Games were called on the radio by broadcasting legends Jack Buck, Harry Caray, and Dizzy Dean. If you were a St. Louisan and Cardinal fan from 1920 to 1966, you saw a World Series take place at Sportsman’s Park in over 20% of the seasons. Sportsman’s Park also hosted the only All-St. Louis World Series in 1944, with the Cardinals besting the Browns in six games.
Branch Rickey, the Gashouse Gang, and Stan the Man made it a destination for the quality of the product on the field. Bill Veeck’s tenure as owner of the Browns made it a destination for the quality of the entertainment. Because of Veeck, Sportsman’s Park was the site of Eddie Gaedel- all 3’7” of him- taking a turn at bat, wearing the uniform of the Browns’ bat boy at the time. That bat boy, Bill DeWitt, now owns the Cardinals. Veeck also held Grandstand Manager’s Night in 1951, a promotion that allowed fans in a section of Sportsman’s Park to weigh in on managerial decisions.
Veeck’s promotions greatly improved the attendance figures for the woeful Browns, but it wasn’t enough to give the Browns solvency. The Browns had owned the stadium through 1952, but the sale of the Cardinals to August Busch led Veeck to realize he couldn’t compete with the Cardinals newfound cashflow. He sold the ballpark to Busch for $800,000 early in 1953 to help accelerate the Browns’ move elsewhere. The franchise moved to Baltimore after 1953, but the league extracted their pound of flesh for Veeck’s quirks and cavalier attitude towards authority by forcing him to sell the franchise.
The Cardinals were the lone baseball tenant for the final 12 1⁄2 seasons, with the football Cardinals joining them in 1960. The final years of Sportsman’s Park were punctuated by the end of Musial’s career, a legendary pennant race in 1964 capped by a World Series title, and the emergence of franchise icons Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, and Curt Flood.
Despite renovations and rechristening it as Busch Stadium, Sportsman’s Park was well below increasingly modern standards. Rather than further renovations, Busch opted to leave the neighborhood and build a multi-purpose facility with a larger capacity close to the newly built Gateway Arch. The new stadium was somehow both cutting edge and just barely unique, but we’ll save the discussion about the late modern aesthetics of Busch Stadium II for another day.
The juxtapositon of the two styles of ballpark was quite symbolic for the half brutalist, half modernist efficiency of mid-20th century design. The older ballpark dated back to at least 1902, was stitched seamlessly into the south city neighborhood, primarily used for baseball only, and required several rounds of renovations to bring it up to safety codes. What it lacked in safety, it made up with charm. The new ballpark was a jewel near the waterfront, built next to Eero Saarinen’s clean arcing monument, intended for multiple uses beyond baseball, and reflected the design style and efficiency of the era. In font terms, the Cardinals had moved from the vintage, aged elegance of Caslon to the clean geometric mid-20th century efficiency of Futura.
Sportsman’s Park’s nearly century-long run as a baseball site ended on May 8, 1966 with the aforementioned pomp and circumstance. The move aided the franchise in countless ways, but still left room for nostalgia for an integral piece of St. Louis baseball history.