Helene Hathaway Robison Britton - Baseball's First Lady
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Source: Joan M. Thomas, Baseball’s First Lady; Helene Hathaway Robison Britton and the St. Louis Cardinals, Reedy Press, LLC, St. Louis Missouri, 2010.
It was a simple telegram, dated March 24, 1911, stating that the St. Louis Cardinals owner, Stanley Robison, died that morning. That passing set the stage for major league baseball’s first female owner.
Helene Robison Britton had been willed seventy-five percent ownership of the St. Louis Cardinals by her bachelor uncle, Stanley Robinson, following his death. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that while “all of Robison’s legal heirs are women … it was made clear soon after the announcement of his death that the Cardinals will not be owned or controlled by women.” The press speculated that Mrs. Robinson would either sell the Cardinals or have her husband take over control. Some even questioned the legality of her ownership.
The 32-year-old Helene assumed the club’s presidency and intended to run the team. She had always been interested in baseball and planned to appoint her managers and direct the purchase of new players. Helene became an active owner at a time when society dictated that a lady should not attend a baseball game without a male escort.
At the end of Helene Britton’s first season as the club owner, the St. Louis Cardinals finishing fifth with their first winning season in a decade. The club more than doubled attendance that year. The Cardinals showed a profit, and the club was no longer in debt.
On February 11, 1915, Helene Britton made history by attending a meeting of the National League owners held at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, stunning her male peers by delivering a speech and astounding those in attendance with her astute comprehension of all aspects of baseball.
A woman owner over a male-dominated sports franchise was a startling situation for the general public and the press, struggling to accept her authority over decisions usually made by men. With her confidence to meet the task given her by Uncle Frank, Helene maintained a strong character and refused to be bullied. Every year, Helene attended the National League owner’s meetings, where her colleagues encouraged her to sell the club. Every year, she returned to St. Louis as the owner.
It should also be noted that Helene Britton, like all women, did not have the right to vote until the ratification of the nineteenth amendment on August 18, 1920.
Helen Robison was born on January 30, 1879, in Cleveland, Ohio, to Frank DeHass and Sarah Robison. Britton's father and uncle had a keen interest in professional baseball and owned the Cleveland Spiders and the St. Louis Cardinals.
During her childhood, Helene was raised in a baseball family listening to her father and uncle Frank talk about the game and franchise business. Moreover, she attended many home games and even joined road trips to serve as team mascot in the 1890s for her father’s franchise, the Cleveland Spiders. By following the Spiders during those years, Helene developed a real interest in the sport and was a knowledgeable fan of the game.
She married Schuyler Pearson Britton on October 29, 1901. The wedding was planned to avoid any conflicts with the baseball schedule. Schuyler Britton, also from Cleveland’s high society, was the brother of Charles Schuyler Britton, who lived at 10229 Lake Shore Boulevard. Schuyler, four years Helene’s senior, worked for his brother at the Britton-Gardner Printing Company.
Helene and Schuyler two children: Frank De Hass Britton named after her father and Marie who was born in 1907.
In addition to her new role as a team owner, Helene had a private struggle with her husband. On June 14, 1911, Helene first filed for divorce in Cleveland and had Schuyler served with a temporary restraining order. By August, she dismissed the divorce petition, and in February 1913, Schuyler was elected president by the Cardinals’ board. However, at the end of 1916, Helene still owned the Cardinals and had again taken action to divorce, finally ending the unhappy marriage in 1916.
Despite facing serious domestic problems throughout her tenure as owner, she proved herself worthy of her uncle’s trust. After six years, Helene received an offer that finally convinced her to sell. Known to be strong-minded, Helene Britton was a woman in charge of her destiny, choosing to sell in her own time and on her terms in February 1917. She remained a fan of baseball, and particularly the Cardinals, due to the great legacy of the Robison family ownership years.
Shortly after selling the club, Helene remarried to Charles Sulyard Bigsby and “retired” from business to enjoy her family. She died on January 9, 1950, in Philadelphia and buried in Lakeview Cemetery.