Helene Hathaway Robison was born in Cleveland, Ohio on January 30, 1879. Her father Frank DeHass Robison, along with his brother Stanley, owned a street car business in Cleveland as well as the Cleveland Spiders of the National League. Since there were no rules against syndicate ownership at the time, her father and Uncle purchased the St. Louis Browns of the National League in 1899 and re-christened them the Perfectos. The Robison Brothers saw there was more money to be made in St. Louis. In a move worthy of George Steinbrenner or Charley Finley, they shifted some of their best players, including catcher Lou Criger and future Hall of Famers Jesse Burkett, Bobby Wallace and Denton True “Cy” Young to St. Louis. The Perfectos finished in the middle of the pack of the National League in 1899 with an 84-67 record. The Spiders? They faded into oblivion and finished dead last with a record of 20-134 for a .130 winning percentage and 84 games out of first place – the worst record in MLB history! After the 1899 Season, the National League decided to reduce their membership from 12 clubs to 8. the Spiders were one of the teams that were eliminated. The National League would remain in an 8 team alignment for the next sixty two years!
Helene Robison was a rabid baseball fan pretty much since the day she was born. She would often travel with her father and uncle to St. Louis to watch the Perfectos. It was in 1900 that the franchise got its present name, Cardinals. In a story that might be apocryphal, it was said to be Helene that gave the franchise its now legendary name. When the team introduced its new uniform socks, she reputedly remarked that they were “a lovely shade of cardinal.”
The 1900 Season promised to be even better than the last. One key addition that resulted from the contraction of the national league was Hall of Famer John J. (“Mugsy”) McGraw. However, a nasty spiking incident and boils kept McGraw out of action until June. Despite winning 20 games, Cy Young was the only starter on the staff with a winning record. The team slipped to a record of 65-75 and finished fifth, 19 games out of first.
The team’s fortunes improved in 1901 as they moved up one notch in the standing to fourth and 14.5 games off the pace. They posted a record of 76-64. However, it would be their last winning record for quite a while. In fact, the team hot bottom in 1908 when they posted a record of 49-105! On the bright side, it would be the franchise last 100+loss season to date. In the interim, Helene married attorney Schuyler Britton and they remained married until a divorce was granted in February, 1917.
Frank Robison died in 1908 and his brother Stanley died in 1911. Helene inherited three quarters of her uncle’s estate, including the team. This made Helene Robison Britton the first woman owner of a North American major league sports franchise. She faced a lot of pressure to sell the team because she was a woman. The board of directors elected Schuyler Britton President and Helene Vice President. Both James McGill, the President of the Western League’s Denver Dears and Chicago businessmen Charles Weeghman attempted to buy the Cardinals, but Britton resolved to keep them. It is interesting to note that Weeghman, the owner of the Chicago Whales of the Federal League would build a park that he originally named Weeghman Field after himself. After the demise of the Federal league following the 1915 Season, Weeghman became the owner of the Chicago Cubs, but lost control to chewing gum magnate William Wrigley, Jr. The stadium would later become known as Wrigley Field.
The Cardinals would have a strong season in 1911 under player-manager and Hall of Fame Catcher Roger “The Duke of Tralee” Bresnahan. They finished with a record of 75-74. Their first winning record since 1901! Bresnahan was rewarded with a five year/$50000 contract. Right away, it was established that Helene Britton ruled the the cardinals with an iron fist. Because of this, fans and sportswriters alike dubbed her “The Queen Bee”. On July 11 of that year, an unfortunate incident occurred that almost involved the Cardinals. The train they were riding from Philadelphia to Boston, the Federal Express, plunged down an 18 foot embankment outside of Bridgeport, Connecticut. Fourteen passengers were killed. The Cardinals avoided any serious injuries because they switched their car just before the train pulled out of the station. However, the team assisted with the rescue of any injured passengers.
1912 turned out to be another down year for the Cardinals as the team fell to Sixth Place in the standings. Things started going south almost as soon as the year began. Bresnahan moved to location of Spring Training without consulting Mrs. Britton. Then he became upset when Mrs. Britton vetoed a trade that would have sent Miller Huggins to the Cubs. Miller Huggins, as it turned out, was Helene Britton’s favorite player. The feud dragged the entire season and resulted in Bresnahan being fired and replaced, perhaps not coincidentally, as the new player-manager by…..Miller Huggins! After his firing, Bresnahan petitioned the national Baseball Commission for the remainder of his contract. Huggins skippered the team to a Third Place finish in 1914, but they then fell back to Sixth the next year and Eighth (and last) the year after that. Despite another Third Place finish in 1917, Miller Huggins was not retained as the Cardinals’ manager. He would leave after the season to manage the New York Yankees. He would solidify his Hall of Fame resume in the Big Apple managing the likes of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and leading the Yanks to three World Series Championships. One of the players Huggins helped develop during his brief managerial tenure in the Gateway City was Rogers Hornsby who would become the team’s starting Second Baseman in 1917.
Before the 1917 Season, the Queen Bee had decided to sell the team. This came on the heels of her divorce from husband and soon-to-be former team president Schuyler Britton. The Cardinals were sold to a syndicate led transplanted new York automobile dealer Sam Breadon and longtime baseball man and future Hall of Fame executive Branch Rickey. Once he took over as Cardinals’ President, Rickey developed a system of developing players through a farm system. This system would help provide talent foe the great cardinal teams of the 1930’s and 1940’s and the basic principles of Rickey’s system continue to be used by the Cardinals today.
Britton then moved to Boston and was married to electrical appliances mogul Charles S. Bigsby. They remained married until Bigsby’s death in 1935. Britton lived the rest of her life in New York City and Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. She died on January 8, 1950 and is buried in Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland. Because she was the first woman to ever own a North American major league sports franchise, there are some that say that Helene Britton merits induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.