A Woman Owned the St. Louis Cardinals in 1911, and Society Wasn't Ready

Helene Hathaway Britton held onto the team for six years, despite immense pressure to sell

Oct 5, 2022 at 1:03 am
click to enlarge Helene Hathaway Robison Britton at the National League owners' meeting where the owners tried to pressure her to sell the Cardinals.
Library of Congress
Helene Hathaway Robison Britton at the National League owners' meeting where the owners tried to pressure her to sell the Cardinals.

At some point this month — or maybe into November if we're lucky — the lights will go out on what arguably has been the greatest year in modern Cardinals history. That's not a stretch for a season that saw the joyful race to 700 home runs by Albert Pujols; a record 328 starts, and counting, by Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina; and more than 3 million fans attending games at Busch Stadium.

The Cardinals are our family, St. Louis' glorious, messy, sometimes dysfunctional, sometimes-we-hate-'em-but-we-always-forgive-'em family, winners of 11 World Series titles, and home to a slew of Hall of Famers. The team gave us the Gas House Gang, El Birdos, Rogers Hornsby, Sunny Jim Bottomley, Stan the Man, Brock, Gibby, Whitey, Ozzie. Lou. Lou. Lou. And probably the most iconic moment in Cardinal's history just last Sunday when Pujols, Wainwright and Molina walked off the field for the last time together. Go crazy folks! We will see you tomorrow night.

Yet they weren't always the Cardinals, the National League's premier franchise with all the history, flags, trophies and retired numbers adorning Busch Stadium III like ornaments on a Christmas tree. The winning started with a 1926 World Series win over the New York Yankees. That's about the same time the official history of the Cardinals starts, too, because the folks who write books typically start with the good stuff.

But before they won that first title, the team we know and love as the Cardinals had been a professional entity in St. Louis for 45 years — 35 years in the National League. The franchise didn't even adopt the name Cardinals until 1900. A whole lot of early history has been overlooked — including that the seeds of Cardinal Nation were planted by a woman.

One hundred and eleven years ago, a brave, tenacious, pearls-wearing mother of two owned the Cardinals. A woman who couldn't vote, or even go to a game without a male escort, sat in the owner's box and kept score. A woman who had grown up in privilege but learned to love the game of "base ball" from her father and uncle.

Her name was Helene Hathaway Robison Britton, and she owned the Cardinals from 1911 to 1917 after inheriting the team from her uncle, Stanley Robison. Her inheritance made national headlines, most speculating that she would sell the team. Yet she had no intention of selling. Instead, Robison Britton held her own with her fellow owners at a time when she couldn't keep her maiden name if she wanted to, or even easily divorce her gambling, drinking and abusive husband.

Yet few have heard of her. That Helene Hathaway Robison Britton has been a footnote to history all these years is likely due to the Cardinals' mediocre performance on the field during her six years as owner. The team never finished higher than third. Despite having some supporters, each year she faced legal challenges, intense media scrutiny and outright bullying. But she never backed down, introducing measures that changed the atmosphere of the game.

She was "undaunted and determined," writes Joan M. Thomas, a writer and baseball historian from Le Mars, Iowa. Thomas wrote the seminal book on Britton, Baseball's First Lady: Helene Hathaway Robison Britton and the St. Louis Cardinals. Robison Britton's surviving relatives credit Thomas for first shedding light on the former owner's legacy. "She claimed her rightful inheritance despite everyone telling her she should back down," Thomas wrote, "and fearlessly accepted her responsibilities."

"She crashed the boys' club," says Amy Berra, manager and curator of the Cardinals Hall of Fame and Museum in Ballpark Village. "Her story lets young girls know women can not only like baseball, they can run it, too."

"Helene dared to do the unthinkable," says her great-granddaughter Candy Barone, an engineer and now leadership-development expert and executive coach in Austin, Texas. "She dared to set herself apart. For six years, she fought, she used her voice and she championed women's rights in the realm of sports. She played in a fierce good-ol'-boys' club and survived challenges and struggles.

"Yet, she showed up," Barone continues. "She chose to be brave. She chose to lead. And she made history."