In the early 1890’s Chris Von der Ahe’s empire was under a great deal of stress. “Real estate values collapsed in the late 1880’s,” Jon David Cash wrote in Before They Were Cardinals, “leaving (Von der Ahe) overextended and heavily indebted to the Northwestern Savings Bank of St. Louis. To pay his debts, Von der Ahe resulted to selling the services of many talented players.” While the Browns had an enviable depth of talent, over time the team was unable to absorb these losses and remain competitive. During the last seven years of Von der Ahe’s ownership, the Browns never finished higher than ninth.
At the same time that Von der Ahe’s financial and sporting fortunes took a turn for the worse, the United States suffered one of the greatest economic downturns in its history. The Panic of 1893 began, according to Ohio History Central.org , when “the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, one of the United States' largest railroad companies and employers, ceased operation. Soon thereafter, the National Cordage Company also closed its doors. As a result of the failure of these two companies, a crisis broke out on the stock market. Hundreds of businesses had overextended themselves, borrowing money to expand their operations. As the financial crisis struck, banks and other investment firms began calling in loans, causing hundreds of business bankruptcies across the United States. Banks, railroads, and steel mills especially fell into bankruptcy. Over fifteen thousand businesses closed during this crisis…Unemployment rates soared to twenty to twenty-five percent in the United States during the Panic of 1893. Homelessness skyrocketed, as workers were laid off and could not pay their rent or mortgages. The unemployed also had difficulty buying food due to the lack of income.” Just as this economic crisis began, Von der Ahe decided to build a new ballpark.
The new Sportsman’s Park, a major real estate investment, was built in 1892 at the corner of Vandeventer Avenue and Natural Bridge Road and was a testament to both Von der Ahe’s imagination and extravagance. According to the Illuminations And Epiphanies website, “Von der Ahe constructed ‘the Coney Island of the West,’ which not only contained the ballpark but included a beer garden, a chute-the-chute water ride, an outfield track for night time horse racing, and an artificial lake.” In order to finance his new sports complex, Von der Ahe took on a great deal of debt in the form of bonds.
By 1898, the national economy had still not fully recovered and Von der Ahe’s financial situation had become desperate. In 1895, his wife sued him for divorce and the resulting settlement was costly. His team was floundering on the field and at the gate after a last place finish in 1897. He was awash in debt and forced to turn to shady money lenders to stay afloat. Handling money as if it were “peanuts to feed to monkeys,” buying champagne for “his numerous army of flatterers and hanger-ons” and keeping multiple mistresses, according to Cash Von der Ahe continued to live the lifestyle of a successful sportsman even as his empire collapsed.
Fire Destroys Stands At Sportsman’s Park
Ball Players Heroically Snatch Spectators From The Seething Flames
During the last half of the second inning of the Chicago-St. Louis game on Saturday April 16, fire broke out in the grandstand at Sportsman’s Park.
-The Sporting News, April 23, 1898
The 1898 season opened with the Browns hosting their Chicago League rivals on Friday, April 15. Coming off the worst season in franchise history, the Browns dropped their opener by a score of 2-1. The next day saw over four thousand people come out for a Saturday afternoon game between the two teams.
Sometime in the second inning, a spectator sitting in the grandstands dropped a lighted cigar. The cigar fell beneath the grandstands onto a pile of canvas bags and a small fire broke out. Those in the immediate vicinity began to move away and the game was halted as the umpire investigated the source of the disturbance. The majority of the spectators at the game were unaware of what was happening and cries of “Sit down” and “Play ball” could be heard. Many believed that the commotion in the grandstands was the result of a fight having broken out.
Once the umpire became aware of what was happening in the grandstands, the game was called. As the players left the field, many began to shout at the fans, trying to inform them that a fire had broken out and that they needed to leave the ballpark. Most of the spectators were still sitting in their seats in “bewildered amusement” and hoping that the game would continue. As they became aware of the fact that the game had been called due to a fire, some of the fans “slowly started for the exits, exchanging opinions as to how soon the fire department would appear to put the ‘damn thing out.’”
“The progress of the fire was slow at first,” The Sporting News wrote, “but as it spread, it gained in fury…(and) terrified men and women…sought safety in flight.” Most tried to escape by way of the exits. “As the heat from the burning structure increased in intenseness, the people hastened their efforts to escape. Hundreds rushed up the exit from the grounds between the club and saloon only to find the gate closed.” A frenzy ensued amidst the “furnace like heat and smoke” and the crowd battered the gate down. Many fans were pulled onto the field by the players of both teams, who showed “commendable courage” in helping people to escape the grandstands. The cool demeanor of the players helped to calm a crowd that was beginning to panic “and prevented them from trampling each other to death.”
Over 100 people were injured in the fire. At least three of the injuries were described as “serious,” including a woman “who’s life was feared for”. Another person seriously injured both knees when they jumped from the grandstands. Other people suffered burns and blistering to their hands, back, and neck. Luckily, their were no fatalities.
In the immediate aftermath of the fire, thought was given to transferring the remainder of the series to Chicago but the idea was rejected by Browns manager Tim Hurst. Instead, that night, “a gang of men were set to work…and the fences repaired and temporary stands erected ...” Hurst and his players assisted the workers Saturday night “under electric lights” and enough was accomplished so that a game was played on Sunday as scheduled. Before a crowd of 7,000 people, the weary Browns lost to Chicago by a score of 14-1.
The Sporting News concluded their report of the fire by stating that “(the) grandstands and clubhouse at Sportsman’s Park will be rebuilt at once, and it is expected that work will be completed by July 4.” Von der Ahe used what cash reserves he had to rebuild a scaled down version of Sportsman’s Park. Gone were the saloon and the cycling track and the water ride. The latest version of Sportsman’s Park was a modest creation that sported only a baseball field and a grandstand.
As a result of the Sportsman’s Park Fire of 1898, Von der Ahe’s prominence in the baseball world would come to a quick end. Cash wrote that “the fire hounded (Von der Ahe). Some spectators, trampled in the rush to flee the burning ballpark, filed personal injury lawsuits against him. Confronted by too many creditors, Von der Ahe declared bankruptcy.” On August 10, 1898, the club was forced into receivership and would have new owners by March of 1899. Although Von der Ahe would not go quietly, the era of Der Boss President was over.