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'Birds on the Bat' were born in Ferguson

'Birds on the Bat' were born in Ferguson

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St. Louis Cardinals jersey from 1926

A 1926 St. Louis Cardinals regular season home jersey made by Rawlings is photographed at Busch Stadium on Tuesday, October 18, 2011, in downtown St. Louis. According to information provided by the St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame Museum, the jersey was worn by Grover Cleveland Alexander and is the earliest example of the birds-on-bat logo in their collection, even though that particular logo appeared for the first time on the front of the uniforms in 1922. Photo by Johnny Andrews, jandrews@post-dispatch.com

For the first two decades of the 1900s, St. Louis’ National League baseball club was known as the Cardinals not because of a bird perched on a bat but for the brilliant “cardinal” red trim of their logo-free uniforms.

That all changed the day Branch Rickey visited Ferguson.

The iconic “Birds on the Bat” that has adorned the Cardinals’ jerseys for nearly a century was born in early 1921 when the Cardinals general manager attended a meeting at the Ferguson Presbyterian Church. Decorating the tables at the Men’s Fellowship Club gathering were 82 cardboard cutouts of birds, each hand-colored bright red with a yellow beak and affixed to a brown piece of string, representing a branch. Rickey was inspired.

The Cardinals’ logo, which is featured on their jerseys and Sunday caps as well as letterhead and throughout Busch Stadium, has become ubiquitous around the region and as much an emblem of the city as the Gateway Arch, just more wearable. In the images of civil unrest and protests from Ferguson’s streets, the Cardinals’ logo and the team’s interlocking “STL” offer a recognizable reference, a visual compass that puts it in the St. Louis area.

The familiar Redbirds were born in that suburb.

A memo circulated the Cardinals office this week about Ferguson and stressing its important role in shaping the club's identity.

While the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Rickey would help integrate baseball by signing Jackie Robinson and bringing him to the majors in 1947. Before going to Brooklyn, Rickey built the Cardinals, creating the minor-league system and filling it with players that would eventually include Stan “The Man” Musial.

But before the minor-league network of teams and before the World Series championships, it was the meeting Rickey attended on Feb. 16, 1921, that launched one of the most famous logos in professional sports.

Allie May Schmidt, a member of Ferguson Presbyterian Church, took it upon herself to decorate the tables for that day’s baseball discussion. She gathered red carnations — as close to the “cardinal” red as possible — for the centerpiece and wanted to leave gifts around each one for the people around it. Looking out the window she saw a fresh blanket of snow and two bright red birds alight on a shrub’s branch. She connected the Cardinals to the baseball team and began to make the cutouts.

Her father, Edward H. Schmidt, sat at the same table as Rickey during the Men’s Fellowship Club’s meeting, and the two, intrigued by Allie May’s birds, began discussing a symbol for the team. Schmidt ran the art department at St. Louis’ Woodward & Tiernan Printing Co., and he later presented Rickey with several concept drawings.

The twig was replaced by a bat for a solo cardinal to perch, and another sketch had two birds balanced on a bat. In 1922, the team put the first birds and the first bats on their jerseys, at a cost of $3.75 each for 75 uniforms.

Rickey went to Ferguson for a meeting. He returned with a symbol that has meaning — for generations since and generations to come.

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