Today, the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers are rivals in the National League Central Division. Sixty years ago, Milwaukee appeared to be a rival in trying to lure the Cardinals from St. Louis.
How close the Cardinals came to moving to Milwaukee in February 1953 is unclear, but Anheuser-Busch wasn’t willing to take any chances. The St. Louis-based brewery stepped forward and bought the Cardinals from Fred Saigh when it appeared Saigh was willing to sell to a Milwaukee syndicate.
On Jan. 28, 1953, Saigh, who had owned the Cardinals since 1947, was sentenced to 15 months in prison and fined $15,000 for federal income tax evasion.
“This means, of course, I will have to dispose of the Cardinals,” Saigh said in addressing the court. “There is no way I can stay in baseball.”
Saigh, an attorney who had invested in commercial real estate, had entered a plea of no contest to two counts of evading $19,299 in taxes. Judge Roy Harper apparently viewed a no-contest plea as being essentially the same as a guilty plea.
Addressing Harper in court after the sentence was announced, Saigh said, “I think you’ve been too tough with me.”
Replied Harper: “You plead that you are guilty to those essential elements, and if you were not guilty, you should have stood upon a plea of not guilty. Don’t come in and plead before me and then ask me to say you are wrong.”
Saigh and former Postmaster General Bob Hannegan had purchased the Cardinals from Sam Breadon in 1947 for about $4 million. But, the Associated Press reported, “by what Saigh termed a ‘gimmick’ in the tax law, he and Hannegan were able to buy the club and its widespread minor-league holdings for a cash outlay of only $60,800.”
Hannegan sold his stake in the Cardinals to Saigh in January 1949.
Four years later, facing jail time, Saigh put a price tag of $4.5 million on the Cardinals, according to the Associated Press. Several media outlets reported that Bill Walsingham, a Cardinals executive and nephew of Sam Breadon, was the leading candidate to buy the club. Joe Reichler of the Associated Press wrote: “Bill Walsingham Jr. probably will be the new owner of the St. Louis Cardinals.”
By Feb. 1, The Sporting News reported, Saigh had received 30 to 40 bids for the franchise. Quietly, Anheuser-Busch indicated to Saigh it might be interested in buying the Cardinals.
Saigh claimed the best offer he received was in excess of $4 million from a Milwaukee group that planned to move the Cardinals to Wisconsin.
“When it became apparent that an out-of-town group was ready to purchase the Cardinals at a price which I felt was a fair value for the club, I informed Mr. (August) Busch and his associates of the impending sale,” Saigh said in a statement.
The Sporting News reported the Milwaukee businessmen had the “inside track” to buy the Cardinals. Saigh was “about to close a deal with a Milwaukee group,” wrote the Associated Press.
On Feb. 20, 1953, Saigh announced he was selling the Cardinals to Anheuser-Busch for $3.75 million, less than what he could have gotten from the Milwaukee buyers, he claimed.
Wrote the Associated Press: The St. Louis Cardinals, close to being transferred to Milwaukee a week ago, counted themselves as one of the money clubs today with solid financial backing in the old hometown. Anheuser-Busch Inc. bought the club for the announced purpose of keeping the Cardinals in St. Louis.
Anheuser-Busch representatives told reporters Saigh had “made several important concessions to keep (the Cardinals) here and deserves sincere appreciation.”
R.G. Lynch of the Milwaukee Journal reported a much different version. In a piece picked up by The Sporting News, Lynch wrote Saigh had hyped the notion of a Milwaukee offer in order to drive up the purchase price from Anheuser-Busch. Wrote Lynch:
There’s a big chuckle in the St. Louis baseball deal. It involves the Milwaukee offer, which Fred Saigh says he turned down in order to keep the Cardinals in St. Louis. There was no Milwaukee offer. All Saigh ever had was an inquiry from Fred Miller, Milwaukee brewer, as to how much he wanted for the property. The answer was $4 million-plus, and that was the end of it.
Saigh was forced to sell and every potential buyer knew it. So he grasped at this straw and built it into a scarecrow.
Whether or not this maneuver helped Saigh to get a better price, no one will ever know, except the Anheuser-Busch people, and they won’t tell.
Fearing he couldn’t compete with the financial resources of Anheuser-Busch, Bill Veeck, owner of the St. Louis Browns, tried moving his club to Milwaukee but the American League blocked the deal. In March, Milwaukee got its team when the Braves moved there from Boston just before the start of the 1953 season.
Saigh died at 94 in December 1999. In an obituary, the New York Times reported: Saigh was released from prison in November 1953 after serving six months and soon began buying shares in Anheuser-Busch. He was said to have become the largest single owner of the brewery’s stock outside the Busch family, at one point with holdings worth about $60 million.
Previously: The story behind Stan Musial’s $100,000 contract