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Economy & Business

How Major League Baseball’s First Female Owner Came To Lead The Cardinals

Helene Britton in the baseball stands with her children, Marie and Frank DeHaas Britton. She sold the St. Louis Cardinals in 1918, before being able to pass the team to her son.
Missouri Historical Society Collections
Helene Britton in the baseball stands with her children, Marie and Frank DeHaas Britton. She sold the St. Louis Cardinals in 1918, before being able to pass the team to her son.

The majority women ownership group at the helm of St. Louis' new professional soccer team is continuing a line of female sports ownership in the region that extends to the early 1900s.

While many St. Louisans recall that the National Football League's Rams were owned by Georgia Frontiere for much of the team's time in the Midwest, they might not know the Cardinals also had a female owner.

And she just so happened to be the first female owner in Major League Baseball history.

Author Joan M. Thomas wrote "Baseball's First Lady: Helene Hathaway Robison Britton and the St. Louis Cardinals." Thomas spoke with St. Louis Public Radio's Wayne Pratt and told him she made the discovery about Britton while working on another book.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Helene Hathaway Robison Britton, shown here at the old Robison Field, owned the St. Louis Cardinals from 1911-1918.
Missouri Historical Society Collections

Joan M. Thomas: I was surprised that I had never heard that before. I started checking into it, and I thought wait a minute, she may have been the first woman to own a Major League Baseball team, and she was. When she inherited the Cardinals, that would have been in 1911, everyone assumed that she would sell or be a figurehead. Her uncle owned the Cardinals and the ballpark where they played at the time. In his will, her mother got 25% of everything he had, and she got 75%.

Wayne Pratt: Why do you think she did not sell?

Thomas: She felt it was her obligation, and she was a baseball fan. Her father was a streetcar magnate in Cleveland, and he originally owned a team called the Spiders. She was actually the club mascot when she was like 8 or 9 years old. She would travel and go on road trips with her father and her uncle. But she was quite sophisticated, very much into fashion. She loved music and dancing, and she was very ladylike. But she loved baseball, and when she inherited the club, she looked forward to being a club owner.

Pratt: I'm curious about how other owners in the league responded to her.

Thomas: From what I can determine, they treated her with respect. They may not have been real happy about the fact that a woman was attending the owners meetings, but from what I can determine there was never any real animosity between her and the other owners. They pressured her to sell a number of times. In fact, at one point, apparently somebody did make her an offer and she didn't feel like it was good enough, and she turned him down. And there was an article in, I forget which newspaper, and the headline said, "never tell a woman she must" because they told her she must sell for the good of baseball. So she didn't do it. I guess they attributed that to a woman. You shouldn't tell her that she can't do something.

Pratt: Eventually, she was forced to sell (in 1918).

Thomas: Yeah. Mainly it was a financial issue. She said many years later that she always kind of regretted selling because she wanted to pass the team on to her son. But of course that didn't happen. But she was just about broke at the time. She finally had to sell to a group of stockholders.

Pratt: Was she considered a good owner?

Thomas: I would say that she was. She had a lot of backlash, although nobody was ever really hostile to her. They treated her with respect, from what I could see. I think she was doing her best to have the Cardinals win a pennant. The Cardinals were starting to look good. At one point in 1915, they brought on a rookie by the name of Rogers Hornsby, who now is in the Hall of Fame. Probably one of the best ballplayers that ever lived. The following year, in 1916, everybody wanted to make a deal with the Cardinals for Hornsby. At that time, she was in dire straits. She really needed the money. She could have made more money if she would have traded Hornsby. But she refused to trade him. So I feel like she probably was as good an owner as she could be. She said she would rely on the managers and the scouts for her best advice. So she was no different than any other major league owner.

Pratt: What did she do after baseball?

Thomas: She left St Louis, and she remarried. She lived in New York for quite a long time. And she outlived both of her husbands. She died in 1950.

Pratt: Where do you see her place in baseball history?

Thomas: You know, I've pondered that quite a bit. First of all, it's important that she was the first woman to own a major league club and took on the task of being an active owner. Some people believe she should be in the Hall of Fame. I've never pushed on that, but I would love to see that happen.

Follow Wayne on Twitter: @WayneRadio

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