The long name implies a debutante or a woman in a higher social class. What does someone with a name like that have to do with Cardinals baseball, you ask? Plenty, for Helene Hathaway Robison Britton was the first woman who owned a major league franchise, and she owned our beloved St. Louis Cardinals from March 1911 to 1918.
Helene was born in 1879 in Cleveland, Ohio. Her father Frank and her uncle owned a local streetcar business, and her father’s wealth allowed her to attend private school, where she learned not only the typical school subjects, but class and sophistication. She enjoyed fashion and music, especially the theater. Her father taught her to play billiards, which was unheard of in those days. In 1888, Helene’s father bought a Forest City Baseball Club franchise called the Spiders. Helene traveled along with the team on road trips, and attended many home games. She learned how to keep score. This began her lifelong interest in baseball. The Spiders eventually joined the National League.
In 1898, a syndicate owned by John Brush purchased the St. Louis National League franchise, then known as the Browns. Brush arranged to have Frank Robison take over the club and bring his players from the Spiders from Cleveland. Frank maintained his residence in Cleveland but spent time during the baseball season in St. Louis. On March 28, 1900, the team’s name changed from the Browns to the Perfectos. The Perfecto name faded out during the season and the team name changed once again to the Cardinals, thanks to the local newspaper writers who named the team after the shade of red on their stockings, a common practice at the time.
Helene married Schuyler Britton on October 29, 1901, a date chosen so as not to conflict with the baseball season. Obviously, the baseball season then was not as long as it is now. The American League finally had a team in St. Louis starting in 1902 – the Browns. The Cardinals lost a couple of players to the Browns, but Helene gave birth to her first child in 1903, a son. Frank Robison changed his will to give his wife half his estate and one quarter each to Helene and her uncle. Helene gave birth to another son in 1906, but the child died at eleven weeks old. In 1907, Helene gave birth to a daughter.
Frank Robison died in 1909 and his brother Stanley took over as president of the Cardinals. Stanley worked hard to try to bring fans back to Cardinals games from the Browns games. He swiped Roger Bresnahan from the Giants to manage the team. On March 21, 1911, Stanley died from what was thought to be blood poisoning.
Helene grieved her uncle’s death. They were very close. Stanley was a bachelor, so with a will written on Cardinals letterhead, he left everything he had to Helene and her mother, 75% to Helene and 25% to her mother. The will was written so that Helene’s husband, present or future, would not be able to control the team. The press speculated about whether Helene would sell the team, or at the very least, install her husband as president of the team.
But Helene insisted on keeping the team under her ownership. She had ideas as to how the team should be run. She eliminated the sale of alcohol at the park. She showed her knowledge of baseball and the Cardinals. The Cardinals’ board of directors elected Edward Steininger, a local building contractor, as president of the club instead of Helene’s husband. Helene and Schuyler’s marriage was troubled, however, and on June 14, 1911, Helene filed for divorce, claiming cruelty. Helene also had a restraining order drawn up against Schuyler. However, she dismissed the divorce suit in August of 1911 and Helene and Schuyler reconciled.
In 1913, Schuyler was elected president of the club. The Brittons moved to St. Louis, and they purchased a home on Lindell Boulevard. Schuyler’s visibility increased, while Helene’s decreased. The Federal League began in 1914, and they fielded a team in St. Louis named the Terriers, led by formal Cardinals president Edward Steininger. The Terriers picked up several Cardinals and Browns players. In 1914, because of the player raiding, there was speculation that Helene would sell the team.
The Federal League folded at the end of 1915. In early 1916, at a meeting of the National League owners, Helene was intimidated into trying to sell the team, but she didn’t give in. Helene had financial difficulties and she sold off some of her personal possessions. On November 17, 1916, Helene once again filed for divorce from Schuyler, this time in the Circuit Court of the City of St. Louis. Schuyler resigned from his position as president, and Helene took over.
In 1917, Helene sold the Cardinals for $350,000. She remarried in 1918 and eventually moved to New York City. She was a frequent visitor to her son’s home in Philadelphia and attended games there. Helene died on January 9, 1950 at her son’s home in Philadelphia.
Helene’s career as a baseball team owner dovetailed nicely with the women’ suffrage movement. Not only were women petitioning to vote, they were proving that they could work outside the home as well.
I hope you have enjoyed reading about Helene Britton. See you next time!
Bibliography: Baseball’s First Lady: Helene Hathaway Robison Britton and the St. Louis Cardinals by Joan M. Thomas, Reedy Press, LLC, 2010.