Baseball was absolutely being played in the area around St. Louis University in 1871 when the McNeary's moved to the neighborhood. One club, specifically, which we know was active that year and that is particularly relevant to the formation of the Red Stockings, was the St. Louis Junior Base Ball Club. According to E.H. Tobias, they played their home matches at the Veto Grounds on Compton Avenue.iii
Thomas McNeary, in the early 1870s, was living and working in a neighborhood with a great deal of baseball activity and must have been exposed to the game. Even while living on Spruce, prior to that, McNeary lived and grew up in an area just a few blocks away from places like Lafayette Park and the Ham Grounds were baseball was played.iv He came of age in a period when the New York game was first introduced to the city and when it experienced its first blush of popularity. He was still a young man during the great outbreak of baseball fever that occurred after the end of the Civil War. It seems impossible for McNeary to have been unaware of the game in the 1860s and early 1870s and it would not be shocking to find out that he and his brothers played the game during this period.
However, none of this tells us how and why Thomas McNeary became involved in the game in 1873. There are no sources that speak to those questions. What we know is that, in the early 1870s, McNeary was living and working in a neighborhood with a great deal of baseball activity. We know that he was running a grocery store and a saloon in the neighborhood. We know that, by 1873, he was the president of a new baseball club and, the following year, he opened a new baseball grounds. While we don't know exactly how it happened, McNeary's story does sound rather familiar to anyone with a general knowledge of 19th century, St. Louis baseball. It sounds rather similar to how Chris Von der Ahe became involved in baseball.
Von der Ahe, who, of course, was the president of the St. Louis Browns and the owner of Sportsman's Park, also ran a grocery store and saloon in a St. Louis neighborhood with a great deal of baseball activity. While McNeary was living and working in a neighborhood around St. Louis University, Von der Ahe was living and working in North St. Louis, on Grand Avenue. His grocery store and tavern were located just a block away from the Grand Avenue Grounds, the best and most popular baseball grounds in the city. By the middle part of the 1870s, Von der Ahe was on the board of directors of the Grand Avenue Base Ball Club and, by the end of the 1880 season, he was running the ballpark and the St. Louis Browns.
The story of Von der Ahe's beginnings in baseball is shrouded in myth and legend but most of those stories involve his tavern. There are many stories about how his customers were baseball fans and filled the place up before and after a game. Ned Cuthbert, who worked at Von der Ahe's saloon and played for the Browns, plays a central role in those stories and Von der Ahe, himself, credited Cuthbert with getting him involved in the game.v While Von der Ahe's early involvement in baseball is more complicated and interesting than the myths and legends, it does seem certain that Von der Ahe's operation of a saloon near a center of baseball activity was instrumental in getting him involved in the game.
Both Von der Ahe and McNeary were young entrepreneurs involved in the grocery and saloon business. Both operated businesses in parts of St. Louis where baseball was played at the club level. It is entirely possible that both became involved in the game for the same reasons. It is likely that a large part of the business at McNeary's saloon came from customers on the way to or coming from a baseball game at places like the Veto Grounds. It is likely that a number of his customers were baseball players who played for St. Louis University or the St. Louis Juniors. It is likely that McNeary, like Von der Ahe, had a general interest in the game and, looking about his saloon packed with baseball fans and players, decided that operating a club would be good business. Both he and Von der Ahe probably reached the same conclusion – there was money to be made in baseball and, at the very least, he could sell some beer and liquor.
Thomas McNeary became involved in baseball for a reason. He ran the Red Stockings and their ballpark on Compton Avenue for a reason. While the source material doesn't specifically tell us what the reason was, the comparison to Von der Ahe is interesting and sheds some light on what that reason may have been. It is hardly unique for a man to be motivated by pecuniary interests. Looking at McNeary's life, one sees a man who was motivated to improve his economic situation. We see him moving the family business, after years in the same location, to what must have been a better location. We see him expanding that business. Thomas McNeary was a businessman and entrepreneur. It does not seem out of character for him to take a chance on this new business of baseball that was developing in the late 1860s and early 1870s, especially if one assumes that a large portion of his saloon business was already being driven by baseball fans and players. Like Von der Ahe, McNeary saw an opportunity in baseball and seized it.
i 19th Century St. Louis Baseball Grounds; This Game of Games; http://www.thisgameofgames.com/19th-century-st-louis-baseball-grounds.html.
ii Missouri Republican, November 16, 1866.
iii The Sporting News; December 28, 1895.
iv 19th Century St. Louis Baseball Grounds; This Game of Games; http://www.thisgameofgames.com/19th-century-st-louis-baseball-grounds.html.
v St. Louis Globe-Democrat, February 7, 1905.