…The Akrons and the Browns are to play a series of three games, the first to-day, the next to-morrow and the final on Monday. It will undoubtedly be one of the most interesting series of the season. The park has been improved for the occasion, an immense row of open seats extending from the north end of the grand stand north for over 100 feet has been erected, a new fence has been put up where once the wire fence stood, and other conveniences have been arranged.
-St. Louis Globe-Democrat, August 27, 1881
I think that the fact that SPCA was putting money into the park in August of 1881 speaks to how profitable the season had been to that point. Von der Ahe and the SPCA had gotten control of the club when August Solari had given up the lease on the grounds and the park, at the point, was rather dilapidated and rundown. The SPCA had spent money at the beginning of the season to fix up the ballpark and it looks like they were reinvesting some of their profits to do so again in August.
There will be a meeting of the Brown Stocking ball-tossers at Christ Von der Ahe's, on Grand avenue, to-night.
And here we get to the heart of the matter. At the old site, I wrote the following about this meeting:
In October of 1881, Chris Von der Ahe staged a coup against the St. Louis Baseball Association and seized control of the Brown Stockings as part of a plan to enter a St. Louis ballclub in a new major league...
Having had more time to think about this, I guess it's possible that this was simply a players only meeting and it was a coincidence that the meeting was held at VdA's saloon. There is really nothing in the text that says it was a meeting between VdA and the players. However, given what would happen in October, which we'll get to, I still stand by my original interpretation of the source material.
I think this was the moment when VdA began to get involved in the operation of the Brown Stocking club and began a plot to seize control of the club from the St. Louis Base Ball Association. It appears that the players were active participants in this coup and it is entirely possible that players on the Brown Stockings originally approached VdA about getting involved.
I recently had a conversation with Jon Cash, author of Before They Were Cardinals, and he reminded me of the fact that VdA later credited Ned Cuthbert with getting him involved with the Brown Stockings. Now, I always dismiss the story about Cuthbert getting VdA involved as one of the Von der Ahe Myths and the way the story has come down to us over the years is, indeed, a myth designed to denigrate VdA. Having said that, there is some truth to the myth and we can see some of that here.
If this was, as I believe, a meeting between the players and VdA, regarding the future of the club, I have no doubt that Cuthbert was instrumental in organizing the meeting. Cuthbert and VdA were friends and Cuthbert worked , or had worked, in VdA's saloon. VdA had been involved in running the Grand Avenues in the second half of the 1870s and was, in 1881, involved in running the ballpark. He had been involved in the game for at least five or six years by 1881, was a successful businessman, and had friends on the Brown Stockings. I don't think it's out of the realm of possibility that Cuthbert would identify VdA as someone who would make a good baseball magnate.
What I reject is the general myth and I reject it because the evidence doesn't support it. The stories about how VdA got involved in the game have been handed down to us by gentlemen such as Bob Broeg and Bob Burns, men who I have the utmost respect for. I wouldn't be doing this if it wasn't for the influence that Broeg and Burns had on me. My love of the history of the game is a direct result of reading those two men while I was young. But, in many ways, they were raconteurs. They were telling stories to entertain and they were passing along the stories that they had heard about the early history of the game. They weren't doing historical research - they were telling stories that they heard from Fred Lieb, who heard them from J.G. Taylor Spink, who heard them from his father Charles Spink, who ran a severely anti-Van der Ahe editorial policy with The Sporting News in the 1890s. Broeg and Burns, through no fault of their own, were pushing the Von der Ahe Myth that had originated in the pages of TSN and in the stories of Ted Sullivan and Arlie Latham. And, for the most part, I reject those stories. They're ridiculous and reek of anti-immigrant, anti-German bigotry.
And let me be clear about what I'm talking about here. I reject what I call the Von der Ahe Myth or the Von der Ha Ha Ha stories.
I reject the idea that VdA was stupid. I reject the idea that he was an ignorant buffoon. I reject the idea that he was so dumb that he didn't know what was happening across the street and down the block from his saloon, where the Grand Avenue Grounds happened to be located. Was there a point in time when VdA didn't know what baseball was all about? Certainly. He was a German immigrant and there was a lot of things he had to learn about his new home. But he was a good, smart businessman and I'm sure he quickly figured out the relationship between his volume of business and games played at the Grounds. Was it Ned Cuthbert who explained it to him? Possibly. But it had to have happened by 1876 when VdA was on the board of directors of the Grand Avenue Club.
VdA got to St. Louis around 1867 and, by 1872, was the sole owner of a grocery store and saloon. By about 1873, he had moved his business to Grand Avenue and we know that by 1876 (and possibly as early as 1875) he was involved with the Grand Avenue Base Ball Club. Let's just say, for the sake of argument, that Cuthbert was the person who introduced VdA to baseball and that he was the person who explained the relationship between the saloon's uptick in business and baseball at the Grounds. Cuthbert didn't get to St. Louis until 1875. That would mean that VdA was so ignorant of his own business operations and the city that he lived in that he didn't understand what was happening in 1874, which just happened to have been the biggest and most exciting baseball season St. Louis had ever seen.
I just don't believe that is possible. As someone who's in the restaurant business, I'm very aware of events that are happening around town and I know the impact that they'll have on business, whether for good or ill. Von der Ahe was a much better businessman than me and I just find it difficult to image that he wasn't aware of the impact on his business that events around the Grand Avenue neighborhood would have on his saloon. He moved to that area for a reason. He moved to Grand Avenue because he believed it would be a better location for his business. He believed he would make more money on Grand Avenue. It was a calculated decision and I have to believe that one of the calculations he made regarded the impact that a baseball crowd would have on his sales. That's just smart business and VdA was a smart businessman.
The point I'm struggling to make here is that things didn't go down the way the Myth tells us it did. It just couldn't have happened that way. Now Jon Cash wrote something really interesting in Before They Were Cardinals. He wrote that "Cuthbert had...spent months urging Von der Ahe to promote baseball." I have no reason to doubt that this is true and it makes sense. I don't doubt that Cuthbert was involved in getting VdA to invest in the Brown Stockings, take control of the club, and manage its operations. I don't doubt that the two worked together to stage the coup against the StLBBA. As we'll see, everything was contingent upon VdA having the support of the players so it makes sense for Cuthbert to be involved. My evaluation of VdA's actions in 1881 is in no way meant to slight Ned Cuthbert's role in the history of St. Louis baseball. But part of the Von der Ahe Myth is the idea that VdA was just a frontman for the smart baseball people like Cuthbert, Ted Sullivan, or Charlie Comiskey. And I don't believe that that is true.
Von der Ahe was hardly perfect. He was a flawed man, like all of us. But his historical reputation has been formed by this mythology that was a result of the editorial policy of The Sporting News in the 1890s and the stories told by people like Sullivan and Latham. TSN made a conscious decision that an anti-VdA editorial policy would sell papers and they attacked the man without mercy for a solid decade. Sullivan and Latham, both of whom had personal issues with VdA, made a career telling stories about the guy that always portrayed him as a fool. That mythology seeped into the early histories of baseball and into the work of Lieb, Broeg, Burns, and others. Von der Ahe the fool, who didn't know anything about baseball and bankrupted his club, is the conventional historical wisdom and it just doesn't accurately portray who and what the man was.
I'm going to get into this a lot more as we move along and most of the important events regarding the reconstitution of the Brown Stockings under VdA's leadership and the formation of the AA take place in October of 1881. So we're going to get to all of that. But what I want to get across here today is two simple points. First, I think that the seeds for everything that happened in October 1881 were planted at this meeting in August. Second, the Von der Ahe Myth does not adequately explain the events of 1881 and is contradicted by the source material. Therefore, the Myth must be rejected. It's myth and storytelling, not history. Is there some truth in the Myth? Of course but it's still myth.
I've updated the Fall of Von der Ahe archive to include the final three posts of the series and, to the best of knowledge and ability, all sixty-two posts are now linked at the archive page. The series was, for the most part, chronological, except for the times I backtracked to include information I either forgot or that I wanted to include because I thought it would be useful, and I listed the posts in the same order that I put them up here on the blog. Essentially, you're getting the daily stuff from around January 1898 through Opening Day 1899, with some older stuff thrown in to try and make sense of Von der Ahe and the club's financial situation.
I have some thoughts on the whole Muddle over at the archive page, introducing the series, but I'll include a few more here, while I'm thinking about it:
So that's it. We're done with the Muddle. Von der Ahe has fallen. Come back tomorrow and see what's next.
There was great cheering for the ballplayers along the line of March in Sunday's parade before the game. Just as the procession neared...Third Street Chris Von der Ahe, who had been standing in the doorway of an opened but unoccupied building, caught the strains of the brass band. He looked about and saw the eyes of the crowd about centered on him. His face flushed a deep crimson. For a moment he hesitated, thinking to brave it out but the struggle was too much for him and he retreated to the rear of the building. The sympathy of the crowd went out to him. It is said that the first complementary season book sent out by Messrs. Robinson and Becker was sent to Mr. Von der Ahe, but that he refused to accept it.
In the years that I've spent reading 19th century newspapers and researching 19th century St. Louis baseball, I've never come across a squib or article that stayed with me like this one. I originally posted it at my old website over six years ago and I've never forgotten it.
The reason it stays with me is that it created, in my mind, a vivid image of the fallen Chris Von der Ahe, standing in a doorway, alone, watching the thing that he had loved and lost, parading by.
We've all loved and lost. We've all had something precious taken from us. And we can all understand what Von der Ahe was feeling at that moment.
For me, the fall of Von der Ahe is all about that emotion. It's all about that moment when Chris retreated back into the building, trying to escape from the eyes of the crowd.
It's a powerful moment and, without a doubt, the most poignant moment in the history of St. Louis baseball.
Chris. Von der Ahe was allowed $150 by Judge Spencer Saturday morning for his services as trustee of the St. Louis Club. This was all that Chris. gets out of the wreck of his once profitable base ball property. Before Von der Ahe's claim was allowed he made a hot fight through his attorney, William Kinnerk, against the acceptance and final approval of Receiver Muckenfuss' report. Judge Spencer in conclusion spoke sharply for the first time during the entire litigation to Mr. Von der Ahe's attorney, stating that his objections had no weight. The receiver's report was approved and the Court ordered his discharge. Muckenfuss was allowed the sum of $1404.83 in addition to what he has heretofore been paid for his services as receiver.
Think for a moment about Chris Von der Ahe in October of 1886. He was on top of the world. His club had just won the World's Series against the hated Chicago White Stockings and he was rolling in the money. Everything was perfect and Von der Ahe, the German immigrant who came to the United States with nothing, was the toast of St. Louis. He was a major player and power-broker on the national baseball scene. His voice was heard and his utterances had weight. He was flush with cash and had more women than he knew what to do with. Chris Von der Ahe was living the American Dream in the Gilded Age.
A little more than a decade later, all he had was $150. And I image that his lawyer took that.
The action of the League in expelling the Sportsman’s Park and Club from the association and recognizing the new organization formed by Robison and Becker has aroused the greatest enthusiasm (in St. Louis) and the fans already see the pennant flying from the flagstaff at the ball grounds. The deal means the transfer to this city of the Cleveland Club in its entirety.
When the League met late in the day…St. Louis had no delegate and no proxy, and here is where another piece of political strategy came into play. Mr. Muckenfuss was absent but Mr. Becker was in attendance. The latter, however, did not enter the meeting, as he claimed he had no right to do so, not being an officer of the club, although it subsequently developed that he might have entered had he been disposed to do so by virtue of authority delegated by Muckenfuss. In the position assumed by Mr. Becker, St. Louis was left without anyone to offer resignation, as had been the supposed programme and this apparently made expulsion necessary, if the St. Louis muddle were to be settled then and there.
This was really the end of the line. Von der Ahe's fall was complete, as the League expelled the Browns and admitted the new St. Louis club.
One thing I've been thinking about and want to point out is that the St. Louis Cardinals date their existence to 1892, when the Browns joined the National League. Now, I've always said how stupid that was because they were dismissing a decade of the club's history, including four championships. Their reasoning, I believe, comes down to marketing and the difficulty of quickly explaining the American Association to your average baseball fan. It's easier to just print "1892" on a t-shirt than to explain the complexities of baseball in the 1880s.
However, if we want to be really honest about this, we should date the founding of the Cardinals to 1899, when the Browns were expelled from the League and a new St. Louis franchise was created. Von der Ahe's Browns ceased to exist after the 1898 season and were replaced by the Robisons/Becker Perfectos, who changed their name to the Cardinals after one season. But try fitting that on a t-shirt. Given that I've just spent a couple of months explaining the whole thing to myself, I could only imagine Mike Shannon trying to explain it to Cardinal Nation. Good luck with that.
The St. Louis muddle has at last been settled and settled just as Sporting Life, with its usual perspicuity and inside knowledge, said it would be settled. Mr. E.C. Becker purchased from the creditors syndicate the franchise and other property of the club. The consideration is not named but from the fact that Frank R. Tate, representing a local syndicate, offered $35,000 cash and agreed to pay the league dues…the price is thought to be about $40,000.
Well, the muddle wasn't completely settled. There was still a little matter of the official franchise rights to be dealt with but the League would take care of that.
One thing that I don't think I've really mentioned in all of this is the question of franchise rights. The reason for that is that the idea of a baseball franchise as a piece of property still didn't really exist in 1899. You could see that in the League constitution, which stated that franchise rights couldn't be sold. Franchise rights were something more along the lines of membership in the League, rather than something real that was owned.
VdA, I think, was trying to argue that the St. Louis League franchise was something that he owned, separate from the property of the SPCA. Nobody bought that argument. One of the reasons for this was that franchise rights was not something you owned but, rather, it was something granted to you. It was something given. It was something temporal and ephemeral.
I think a good area of study would be the development of the modern idea of franchise rights. I'm not the guy to do that but somebody should get on it. The Von der Ahe situation would certainly be something that would merit a look when trying to trace the development of all of that.
St. Louis, March 14.-Under the foreclosure of a deed of trust, Sheriff Pohlmann sold at public auction to-day the Sportsman's Park and Club, including the franchise held by the St. Louis Browns, to G.A. Gruner, one of the Directors of the club, for $33,000. Mr. Gruner is Treasurer of the Phil Gruner & Brother Lumber Company. After the sale he said: "I bought the property for the creditors and bondholders." Ramell & Muerch, attorneys for the bondholders, said: "This is a bona fide purchase of the property by the creditors who will probably run the club themselves."
St. Louis, March 17.-Edward C. Becker, a capitalist of this city, has purchased the St. Louis Browns from the creditors who bought the club's assets last Tuesday at Sheriff's sale.
Now that we reached the point where the club was sold at a public auction, it feels kind of anticlimactic. Regardless, it should be noted that the St. Louis Browns were owned, for a day or two, by Gustave A. Gruner.
We really are just about done with this and I'm going to try and wrap it all up soon. We're pretty much at the point where the club gets sold, the League creates a new St. Louis franchise and Von der Ahe is finally and completely out of baseball. But before I get to that, I want to take a step back and post some stuff I found in my notes the other day. This is really just a big information dump to make sure we obsessively cover all aspects of the subject.
President Von der Ahe, of the St. Louis Base Ball Club, last week elected his Board of Directors. Of course, the stock holders went through the form of an election, but as Mr. Chris Von der Ahe owns about seven-eighths of the stock the election was merely a matter of courtesy. Anyhow the following directors were elected for the ensuing year or rather as long as they do what is right with the great base ball interests of Mr. Von der Ahe: Chris Von der Ahe, J.W. Peckington, Charles Higgins, Benjamin Steward Muckenfuss and Edward Becker...
I can't remember if I posted this article from Sporting Life or not so I'm making sure I include it in this little series. This is an important piece because it gives a good look at the VdA's financial situation prior to the 1897 season and before things completely fell apart in 1898.
Things to note:
- Von der Ahe still had complete control of the Browns going into the 1897 season, controlling "seven-eights of the stock" and Edward Becker was already on board as a minority stockholder.
-The Browns were a profitable organization from a baseball perspective. The financial difficulties that pushed the team into receivership were a result of outside economic interests rather than a failure of the Browns to make money. Now this may have changed going forward and the club almost certainly lost money in 1897 and 1898. The lack of a positive cash flow from the ball club in those years exacerbated VdA's financial problems but I think we can state that the club's financial situation was not VdA's biggest problem.
-Based on the information from the Republic, it looks like Von der Ahe over-expanded between 1892 and 1896 (the new ballpark, the racetrack, etc) and was unable to generate enough cash flow to cover the debt that he took on in that expansion. In January of 1898, the total liabilities of the club would be listed as $58,718 and most of that was what was owed on the ballpark bonds and money lent to the club by Becker in an attempt to keep Von der Ahe afloat. A total debt of $127,000 was listed for the corporation itself and that included the investments in the racetrack and the chutes as well as the debts of the club. If my math is correct (and assuming the chutes brought in another $10,000 in 1897), the investments in the ballpark, the racetrack, and the chutes alone were responsible for more than seventy percent of the debt of the SPCA. Becker's loans to the club (which were a direct result of Von der Ahe's over-expansion) amounted to about ten percent of the debt.
As The Sporting News goes to press, the stockholders of Sportsman's Park and Club are holding their annual meeting for the election of five directors, puruant to a warrant issued by Justice of the Peace Henry S. Harmon, at the request of E.C. Becker and B.S. Muckenfuss, two of the stockholders. The majority of the stock is held and will be voted by Mr. E.C. Becker, who acquired it from Chris Von der Ahe to secure advances. Neither Chris or any of his retainers will be elected to the Board and thus Von der Ahe will be without any claim to recognition from the League, should he attempt to represent the local club at the meeting.
Again, I can't remember if I posted this little squib but I'm putting it here because I want to compare and contrast the stock situation in January 1897 to that in February 1899. In two years, VdA went from holding almost all of the stock of the SPCA to being, at best, a minority shareholder. Also, compare this to yesterday's post, where VdA stated that it couldn't be proved that he didn't hold the majority of stock in the SPCA.
I want to say that there is no doubt that Becker was the majority shareholder but I'm not certain. He may have been the largest shareholder but I don't think he owned a majority of the stock. If he did, why didn't he just boot VdA out and why was he trying to purchase the club in the summer of 1898? If Becker was the majority shareholder in 1898, he, rather than VdA, owned the club. It doesn't add up. I think that VdA still owned a large number of shares in the SPCA and had enough friends and supporters among the other shareholders to have majority control.
That explains a lot about what was going on between VdA, Becker and Muckenfuss. VdA had lost clear-cut, majority control of the organization and Becker, by 1898, was the largest shareholder. VdA, however, still controlled the organization through the shares that he owned and those of his supporters. Muckenfuss' authority originally came from VdA, who had him named president of the SPCA, and then from the courts but he had no real authority because he didn't own the club.
The Major League magnates have arrived (in Baltimore) and will begin their spring session at the Hotel Rennert at noon to-day. Rumors of a sensational order are flying thick and fast. They involve the transfer of the Cleveland Club to St. Louis and the location of the Browns in that city...Von der Ahe, who arrived this morning, is accompanied by Mr. E.C. Becker, a St. Louis capitalist, who is regarded as Chris' "Angel." It is said that he has already secured 25 per cent of the Browns' stock and is here to protect his holdings in case Robison makes a deal for the Browns.
This is noteworthy because TSN is stating that the VdA and the Browns were in trouble after the 1896 season, which is probably the earliest mention of the situation that I have. Also, they give us a number for the amount of stock that Becker owned going into the 1897 season. As the situation got worse, VdA sold Becker more of his stock and borrowed more money from him, with even more stock used as security. Eventually it got so bad that VdA had to promise Becker all of the gate money in exchange for a loan to pay the players.
Late Wednesday afternoon Sportsman's Park and Club filed a chattel deed of trust securing liabilities in excess of $108,000. Chris Von der Ahe is named as trustee. He is also a preferred creditor in the aggregate of $91,000. Thirty other creditors are named with claims ranging from $100 to $3,075. The largest sum is due to the Anheuser-Busch Brewing Company.
The situation had deteriorated badly between January 1897 and January 1898.
There are two different sets of numbers in the article. The first comes from the "chattel deed of trust" establishing Von der Ahe as the club's primary creditor. The second set of numbers come from "the Muckenfuss statement." These numbers came out of "recent" negotiations between Von der Ahe and an Indianapolis syndicate regarding the potential sale of the Browns. During the negotiations, Muckenfuss "submitted to (the syndicate) an itemized statement of the club's indebtedness..."