Before the age of multimillion-dollar salaries and lucrative athletic endorsements, the players on the St. Louis Browns struggled for just a little bit of respect.
They got it, of all places, in Burbank, where the feckless baseball team conducted spring training from 1949 to 1952 at Olive Memorial Stadium.
Hundreds of spectators, among them Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Dinah Shore and Nat King Cole, eagerly piled into the stadium to see the likes of pitcher Satchel Paige and Manager Rogers Hornsby in 1952, despite the fact that the Browns were arguably the worst team to ever play the game.
In a city that never had a professional sports team to call its own, the St. Louis Browns of the American League became just that.
“We were not all that good a team, but Burbank was just happy to have a major league team and the guys we had playing were just happy to be in the major leagues,” said former Browns infielder John Beradino, now a television actor who plays the chief of staff on “General Hospital.”
Forerunners of the Baltimore Orioles, the Browns will always be remembered by baseball buffs as the team that sent a midget to bat, used a one-armed outfielder and once finished 64 1/2 games out of first place.
The Browns’ proudest moment--the 1944 World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals--ended in embarrassing defeat, with a team batting average of .183.
Today, all that is left of Burbank’s only brush with the majors is a worn playing field and a 26-foot-high stadium that the city’s Parks and Recreation Department has recommended be demolished. Public support for preserving the site has all but faded.
As one vocal supporter of saving the stadium, Terre Hirsch, put it: “There’s no flame of fight left in this issue. It’s gone. It’s dead.”
Portions of the playing field are still used by softball teams. But the stadium’s locker rooms, dugout and concrete bleachers, which seat up to 1,110, have been closed to the public since 1989 for safety reasons.
These days, softball is the sport of choice in Burbank. Many, such as Parks and Recreation Director Mary Alvord, contend that Olive Memorial’s playing field should be split into four softball fields and that a new stadium should be built.
“The needs today are different than when the stadium was built,” she said. “This is an existing facility that is basically falling apart. The bottom line is something has to happen.”
Building a stadium is expected to cost $500,000, Alvord said. About half that money, she added, will come from a state grant that had been earmarked for preserving the site. The Burbank City Council is scheduled to consider additional funding for the project Oct. 18.
About the only piece of Olive Memorial Stadium that Alvord and others want to keep is a sculptured concrete column and a set of plaques that honor World War II veterans.
In 1946, as Burbank had prospered from the war effort and the city’s population began to soar, Olive Memorial Stadium was built for $64,425.
Postwar good times led to inflation and the eventual sale of the financially troubled St. Louis Browns to Baltimore in 1953.
To make ends meet, the team sold its best players for cash and as a result many fans stopped coming to the ballpark, said Bill Borst, author of the book “Still Last in the American Leagues: The St. Louis Browns Revisited.”
“The team’s tombstone should have read: ‘They died because there were not enough fans to go around. Towns couldn’t support two teams,” Borst said, referring to the Browns’ hometown rival, the Cardinals.
The 1899 Cleveland Spiders had the game’s worst season ever with 20 wins and 134 losses. But the Browns hold the worst overall record for a team: 3,414 wins and 4,465 losses in 52 years.
Beradino, now 77, played for the Browns on and off from 1939 to 1951, and never dwelt on losing.
“We were just tickled to death to be in the major leagues,” Beradino said. “I think most of the guys were playing for the love of the game.”
What Beradino loved about playing at Olive Memorial was the warm weather, the friendly fans and the appearance one day of a young starlet named Marilyn Monroe mingling with the Browns for publicity photos. “We got as much support as we could out of a city this size without a major league team,” he said of Burbank.
The Browns held spring training in Burbank for three to four weeks at a time before boarding trains for Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis. Along the way, they played exhibition games.
Without the benefit of lucrative contracts, most players held odd jobs in the winter--driving trucks, pumping gas or whatever they could find. Beradino studied drama.
“The players back then weren’t stars. They were more like common people, only more visible,” said Burbank dentist Joseph Dossen, a fan of the hapless team whose collection of Browns memorabilia is on display at the Burbank Historical Society.
The Parks and Recreation Board voted in March to tear down Olive Memorial Stadium on the recommendation of a citizens committee that had flip-flopped on the issue.
Studies by a consultant in 1991 and 1993 concluded that the stadium’s masonry walls were beyond repair and overall improvements to the facility would cost as much as building a new one.
One member of both the board and committee, Hirsch, was dismayed by the vote.
“My main issue is are we ever going to retain anything in this community for the people who follow us? What do we have left in this town to document our history?”