Cardinals are king, but St. Louis athletics have rich history in five professional sports
In the professional sports world, St. Louis may be best known for predominantly being a baseball city. But one would be mistaken to assume that the city’s fans historically have cheered for just America’s pastime. From basketball and hockey to soccer and football, the Gateway to the West has offered five sports, all of which dominated the professional scenes at one point.
Diehard NBA fans in St. Louis may want to travel back in time between the mid-’40s and mid-’70s, when Mound City hosted three professional basketball teams—the St. Louis Bombers (1946-50), the St. Louis Hawks (1955-68) and the Spirits of St. Louis (1974-76). While the Bombers and Spirits struggled to establish themselves as competitive franchises, the Hawks created a memorable 13 seasons led by Hall of Famer and two-time NBA MVP Bob Pettit, who was drafted two years before the franchise moved to St. Louis from Milwaukee. Missing the playoffs only once, they remained contenders in the Western Conference throughout their tenure in St. Louis as they advanced to the NBA finals four times, all of which were against the legendary Bill Russell-led Boston Celtics. St. Louis celebrated the franchise’s one and only championship against the Celtics in ’58.
Despite the Hawks posting a franchise-best 56-26 record in the ’67-’68 season, owner Ben Kerner lost interest in the team and sold it to Georgia real estate developer Thomas Cousins and former Georgia governor Carl Sanders. While basketball fans hoped the ABA’s Spirits would bring some excitement back to the city, owners Ozzie and Daniel Silna weren’t interested in having the team merge with the NBA, leading to the team’s dismantling in 1976. Since then, St. Louis has remained basketball-less.
The Hawks’ last season in St. Louis also became the year that St. Louisans had another sport to root for: hockey. The St. Louis Blues, one of six teams added to the NHL in its 1967 expansion, quickly gained supporters with their quick success, appearing in the finals in their first three seasons. While the Blues have failed to reach the finals since, St. Louis has made the playoffs 37 times with 25 consecutive appearances from 1979-2004. With greats including Joe Mullen and Brett Hull to Al MacInnis and Keith Tkachuk, the Blues have enjoyed, for the most part, seasons of success, and despite a rebuilding process from 2005-10 characterized by sub-par records, the Blues have rebounded in the last two seasons with consecutive playoff appearances and have remained a huge piece of the city’s sports scene.
In the same year that hockey entered the professional sports scene, the St. Louis Stars arrived as the city’s first professional soccer team, part of the North American Soccer League. Recruiting players from the St. Louis area, the team started with a strong fan base, leading the NASL in attendance. While the Stars were mediocre in their decade in St. Louis, the team managed to reach the championship game in 1972, which it lost 2-1, and the Stars won the Central Division in 1975 before moving to Anaheim and being renamed the California Surf in 1977. Most recently, professional women’s soccer became part of St. Louis when the Athletica were established in 2008. Part of the Women’s Professional Soccer league, the Athletica finished their first season in second place, but a lack of financial support led to the franchise’s dismantling in 2010.
Football finally made it to St. Louis in 1995 when the Rams left Los Angeles after several disappointing seasons. It may be true that the Rams have been a disappointment as of late, but any sports fan in St. Louis will remember the years of the “Greatest Show on Turf” from ’99 to ’04, when quarterback Kurt Warner, wide receiver Isaac Bruce and Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk dominated the field offensively and hoisted the Rams’ first and only Vince Lombardi Trophy following the ’99 season. The Rams broke various offensive records, including the NFL record for points scored over the course of three seasons (’99-’01). Football has remained a strong presence among the fans in St. Louis ever since then, even though the Rams are still in search of their first playoff appearance since 2004.
There’s no arguing that the heart of the Gateway to the West will always run on its most ancient franchise, the St. Louis Cardinals. Since first being established as the Brown Stockings in 1882, baseball has been the most consistent sport in terms of fan base, production and success. Home to a number of famous players and managers, from Stan Musial, Bob Gibson and Albert Pujols to Tony La Russa and Joe Torre, the Cardinals have embodied greatness and respectability, with their 11 championships second all-time behind only the New York Yankees’ 27. Anyone who witnessed downtown St. Louis after the World Series in 2011 could feel that greatness and pride of the franchise as the city, overwhelmed with excitement, basked under the attention of the nation.