A popular make of soap in the Mound City has been named after the champion St. Louis Browns, whose portraits and that of their genial president Chris Von der Ahe, grace the boxes containing said soap.
-New York Clipper, January 1, 1887
This has to be a reference to the soap box we see in the above photo, right? There can't possibly be two different kinds of Browns Championship Soap.
The St. Louis Club has made a great deal of its success through its indefatigable and hustling secretary, George Munson. Munson is a first class newspaper man and is very popular with baseball writers. There are few clubs that get more newspaper mention than the St. Louis Browns, and no magnate whose name is kept more constantly before the public than that of President Von der Ahe.
I love the above picture of George Munson and will use any excuse I can come up with to post it. It's just a great picture that captures the character of the man.
I also love this little squib from the Clipper because it is absolutely true that no team and no owner got mentioned in the papers during the 19th century more than the Browns and Von der Ahe. While I have a great deal of respect for Munson and can't argue with the Clipper's take on all of this, I would point out that winning four straight championships will get you a little of bit of ink.
While in Philadelphia Chris Von der Ahe, president of the St. Louis Browns, noticed the popularity of the game of shuffleboard, and had one put up at his place on Grand avenue. It is now the rage with the ball-tossers of St. Louis.
I can just picture the Gleason brothers, Ned Cuthbert, and the boys playing shuffleboard and drinking lager beer at Von der Ahe's saloon.
Boy, this was a bad club. The 1898 St. Louis Browns lost 111 games and I guess their best player was probably Lave Cross or maybe Jack Stenzel. The battery of Jack Clements and Jack Taylor wasn't completely horrible but they didn't have much beyond that.
The significance of this club lies in the fact that it was Chris Von der Ahe's last club. 1898 was the last year he owned the team and it was, to say the least, a difficult year, with the team in receivership and Von der Ahe struggling to pay the players. This team represents the end of one of the most important eras in St. Louis baseball history.
Here's a nice team picture of the 1895 St. Louis Browns that I thought you might like. The 1895 Browns were one of those forgettable and rather terrible Browns clubs of the second half of the 1890s. They did have Roger Connor and Ted Breitenstein but they were also playing guys like Bones Ely and Tom Brown. They had three players who had an OPS+ of -100 and lost 92 games. It was one of those seasons where things got so bad that Chris Von der Ahe felt it necessary to take over managing duties, although, to give him his due, he did go 1-0 as the skipper.
Charles A. Comiskey, owner of the Chicago White Sox, on the night of Monday, February 17, gladdened the heart of his old employer, Chris von der Ahe, who has a secure niche in base ball history as President of the famous St. Louis Browns, four-time pennant winners in the old American Association. Comiskey came from Chicago to visit Von der Ahe. He was met by Chas. C. Spink, who tried to inveigle him to a banquet. "I came down to see Chris von der Ahe," said Comiskey, "take me to him." Spink whisked Comiskey to Von der Ahe's home. "That's the same house in which Chris lived when he first signed me to play ball at $75 in 1882," said Comiskey, as the car drew up in front of a stone house Chris built in his palmy days. "This is the proudest moment of my life," said Von der Ahe, who physicians say is stricken with an incurable malady. "It certainly makes me feel good to think that you came here just to spend three hours with your old boss." "How are you fixed," asked Comiskey. "I've got a lot and a nice monument already built for me in Bellefontaine cemetery," replied Chris as the tears began to fall. Comiskey brushed away a tear too, and into the hand of his old "boss" the magnate slipped a check. Von der Ahe wept like a child and a physician signified that the visit must end. Comiskey will plan a benefit for Von der Ahe if the old boss is spared until the White Sox return from California.
The really interesting thing about this deathbed meeting between Von der Ahe and Comiskey is the mention of the statue at Bellefontaine Cemetery. We have no real idea when the statue was built and when it got to Bellefontaine. There are all of these stories about the statue standing outside of Sportsman's Park or New Sportsman's Park back in the 1890s but there is no contemporary evidence supporting that. It's likely just a myth. But here we can show that the statue was already at Bellefontaine Cemetery in 1913.
Ned Cuthbert has got up a team, and a strong one it will be if the boys stick together. His nine are as under: McSorely, pitcher; Baker, catcher; Bowles, McDonald and J. Gleason on the bases; W. Gleason, short-stop; and Morgan, Cuthbert and Kreymeyer in the outfield; Overbeck, substitute. It is expected that the two teams will play some very pretty games together this season, as both are evenly matched. It will be noticed that six of the original Browns remain with the old organization, while the other four have joined Cuthbert's crew. The new team will play at the Red-stocking Park, on Compton avenue.
I posted the first half of this article yesterday and give you the rest of it here today. The "two teams" mentioned are Von der Ahe's Brown Stockings and Cuthbert's new club.
All of this raises some really interesting questions:
-When, exactly, did Von der Ahe get involved with the Brown Stockings? We know that he was involved with the Grand Avenue Club by 1876, at the latest, and that he picked up the lease to the Grand Avenue Grounds after the 1880 season. I think the conventional wisdom is that Von der Ahe's involvement with the Brown Stockings began when he picked up the lease on the grounds and formed the Sportsman's Park and Club Association. But, obviously, this information from the Clipper shows that he was the president of the club in 1880. What was he doing between 1877 and 1880? Was he still involved with the Grand Avenues? Was he involved, in some capacity, with the minor, independent, Interregnum Brown Stockings during that period? I don't have answers to any of these questions but, if I had to speculate, I'd guess that Von der Ahe's involvement with the Brown Stockings predates 1880.
-What role did Cuthbert play in getting Von der Ahe involved in baseball? Now Von der Ahe, himself, said that Cuthbert got him involved in the game but, given his involvement with the Grand Avenues (which, I believe, predates Cuthbert's arrival in St. Louis), I think it's clear that Von der Ahe was involved in club management before he ever met Cuthbert. I've always taken Von der Ahe's statement to mean that Cuthbert was the guy who got him involved with the Brown Stockings. But is that even true? I don't know. Von der Ahe knew everyone involved with managing the Brown Stockings, from his time with the Grand Avenues, and it seems natural that this group of people (Solari, the Spink brothers, etc.) would value Von der Ahe's involvement, as they transitioned from running the Grand Avenues to running the Interregnum Brown Stockings. Cuthbert, of course, was part of that group, in 1878 and 1879, and his friendship with Von der Ahe could have been key in getting him involved with the club but Von der Ahe was already part of that milieu. It just seems natural for him to have joined Brown Stockings' management during this period. I don't mean to knock Cuthbert or his importance in the history of St. Louis baseball but the whole "Cuthbert got Von der Ahe into baseball" story just has very little to stand on, other than the statement Von der Ahe made decades after the fact. The more we learn about the period, the more we find the extent to which Von der Ahe was involved in baseball prior to 1881. He was already involved in the game prior to meeting Cuthbert and was a part of the group that was running things on Grand Avenue in the mid to late 1870s. Cuthbert was also a part of that and I think it's difficult to sort out what everybody's role was and who was influencing whom.
-What was Cuthbert doing in 1880? Why did he split from the Grand Avenue group? When Richard passed this information along to me, I think that this was his main question and he speculated that there was an attempt to form two clubs, create a rivalry, and gin up some much-needed excitement around the game in St. Louis. I didn't originally think that this is what was going on and speculated on the idea that Cuthbert was unhappy with Brown Stockings management and decided to strike out on his own. That makes some sense, given how things were going for the club financially. But, looking into it, Richard might be on to something. Jon Cash, in Before They Were Cardinals, writes a little bit about the 1879 season and specifically stated that one of the problems in St. Louis was the lack of competition for the Brown Stockings. He goes on to note that when the club was able to schedule a decent club, they drew a decent crowd. But scheduling was a problem and they had no real competition. This may very well have been an effort by the Grand Avenue group to create competition. But, if that's true, why were the Cuthberts playing their games at the Compton Avenue Grounds? If this was all part of a big plan, why wouldn't they play on Grand? If this was some kind of Machiavellian plot, who wouldn't the Grand Avenue group have their new club playing at the Grand Avenue Grounds? Why would they forfeit the gate money that they new club would generate and give it to the McNeary brothers? It doesn't make sense to me and I still lean towards the idea that Cuthbert was striking out on his own. The thing that I keep saying to myself and anyone that will listen is that, when it comes to history, things didn't have to happen the way they happened. Nothing was preordained. There was nothing inevitable about the rise of Von der Ahe and the Browns. The St. Louis baseball market was completely up for grabs and there is no reason why a guy like Ned Cuthbert couldn't have seized control of it, given the right circumstances. Now, the Cuthberts were immediately handicapped by playing on Compton Avenue. It wasn't a good location for the fans because, unlike the ballpark on Grand, it wasn't on the main streetcar line. So Cuthbert didn't have the right circumstances to succeed and, in the end, Von der Ahe did. But we could very easily be talking today about Cuthbert as a foundational figure in St. Louis baseball if things had gone differently in 1880. Von der Ahe could have just been a footnote in St. Louis baseball history. But, in the end, Von der Ahe succeeded and Cuthbert came back to the fold.
-This piece from the Clipper raises a lot of questions and gives me a lot of things that I need to look into. It's a great find by Richard.
"The St. Louis Browns have reorganized for 1880, applied to the National Association for a membership, got brand-new uniforms, and now are in fine playing trim. They are anxious to obtain games with National or League clubs, and feel confident that they can dive a good game to any club in the country. The nine are as follow: McGinness, pitcher; Decker, catcher; Croft, League, and McCaffrey on the bases; Redmond, short-stop; and Cunningham, Houtz and Schenck in the outfield; Pearce, tenth man. The officers of the club are C. Von der Ahe, president; Alex H. Schulte, treasurer; and August Solari, secretary and manager. Club wishing to visit St. Louis are invited to address the manager at the Grand-avenue Baseball Park. St. Louis is catching the baseball fever again."
I'm interrupting the series on the 1868 season to give you this information about the 1880 Brown Stockings. The other day Richard Hershberger sent along some information about the club that he found in the Clipper and I went to look up the whole squib, finding the whole thing extremely fascinating.
I'm going to give you the rest of this tomorrow but, for now, the main piece of information that we find here is that Chris Von der Ahe was the president of the Brown Stockings in 1880. That's something that I didn't know and it brings up a lot of questions about what was happening in the 1878-1881 Interregnum period. I'll get into all of that tomorrow because I want to show you what Ned Cuthbert was up to and how his activities bring into question a lot of what we thought we knew about what was going on with Von der Ahe and the Brown Stockings at this time.
This is really great stuff and I have to thank Richard for passing the information along.
This is a great picture of the building which housed Chris Von der Ahe's grocery store and saloon, at the corner of Grand and St. Louis Avenues. It comes from the August 3, 1958 issue of the Globe-Democrat and I have to Jerry Vickery for getting me a copy. From what I understand, the grocery was in the front of the building and the saloon was in the back.
I don't think the picture comes from 1958. If I had to guess, I'd say it was taken in the 1920s or 30s, based simply on the cars in the photo. Off the top of my head, I can't remember when the building was torn down but it's been gone for a long time and I don't think it was there in 1958.
Note: This is an excerpt from a longer piece that I'm working on about the legacy of Chris Von der Ahe. I think that this part speaks to Von der Ahe's unique accomplishment in creating a new baseball market in St. Louis that appealed to the working class of the city. The restoration of major league baseball in St. Louis, that Von der Ahe brought about, only succeeded because of Von der Ahe's vision of baseball as a game for the working class. His legacy, of course, extends beyond that but, for the purposes of wrapping up the series of posts on the Restoration of 1881, I think this excerpt will suffice.
With the success of the American Association and the Browns, Chris Von der Ahe would become one of the most famous men in America in the 1880s. He would become wealthy beyond his wildest dreams. His club would bring championships to his adopted city. He would succeed – and fail – in ways that would make news across the country. He would become arguably the most dominant figure in American baseball during the last two decades of the 19th century. Most importantly, Chris Von der Ahe's legacy – the baseball club that he created in October of 1881 – would endure for one hundred and thirty years and counting.
This baseball club, which was first known as the Brown Stockings, then the Browns, then, unofficially, the Perfectos, and then, finally, the Cardinals, is Von der Ahe's greatest achievement. It is one of the most significant professional sporting clubs in the United States and it's impossible to tell the history of baseball in American without including the story of this club. Setting aside the New York Yankees, it is probably the most successful sports club in the country and is at the core of identity of a city and region. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that when most people think of St. Louis, they think of two things – the Gateway Arch and the St. Louis Cardinals. Chris Von der Ahe created something that defines the people of St. Louis and has brought pleasure and enjoyment to untold millions. That, in and of itself, is an extraordinary achievement and a legacy that few can match.
But, as extraordinary as this achievement is, Von der Ahe did not simply create a great and enduring baseball club. He essentially created the modern St. Louis baseball market and, in doing so, helped to create the modern game of baseball. Over the course of almost two decades, Chris Von der Ahe would change the game of baseball. He would be attacked and mocked, without mercy, for the things he would do but, in the end, we have to look back at Von der Ahe's achievements and note the visionary nature of the innovations and changes he helped introduce into the game. Very few men in the history of baseball changed the game in such lasting ways as did Chris Von der Ahe. Baseball, after Von der Ahe, would never be the same and it looked substantially more like the modern game than it did like the game he first became involved in.
Von der Ahe found a way to make major league, professional baseball profitable in St. Louis, where everyone else had failed in their attempts to do so. The National Association/National League Brown Stockings were not a profitable enterprise and neither was the independent Brown Stockings that followed them. Having been involved in St. Louis baseball since 1875 and having seen how these clubs were run, Von der Ahe was aware of this and attempted something new and different. He marketed the club to a new set of customers – the working class of St. Louis. Von der Ahe created a business model that offered common, blue-collar, working men and women of St. Louis an ease of access to major league baseball that had not been offered to them in the past and offered them amenities that enticed them to come to the ballpark.
Generally, the baseball fraternity, going back to the 1850s, always seemed somewhat embarrassed by their involvement in the game. There was an awareness that the game had evolved from children's games and that the game often attracted, among the players and fans, a rough and tumble type of character. Those who were at the forefront of advancing the game and turning it into a profitable business almost always took severe measures to distance themselves from the game's humble origins and what they saw as the vulgar characteristics of those who played and were fans of the game. It was common in the early sporting press to see references to the manly nature of the game, to the gentlemanly character of the players, and to a ballpark atmosphere that was appropriate for ladies and the higher class to visit. Gambling, drunkenness, rowdiness, yelling, booing – all of these were frowned upon and chastised in the sporting press and baseball organizations were encouraged to eliminate this kind of behavior from both club and crowd. Three ways that baseball clubs attempted to do this was by setting ticket prices at a level that was difficult for the working class to afford, by not selling beer and liquor at games, and by not scheduling games on Sunday, which was the one day that most people were off work.
Chris Von der Ahe, in creating a new St. Louis baseball market, did the opposite of this. While the National League charged fifty cents for a ticket, Von der Ahe charged twenty five cents and encouraged the other clubs in the American Association to do the same. With the per capita income in Missouri in 1880 being only $157, a fifty percent reduction in ticket prices made it substantially easier for the average working class person in St. Louis to afford a ticket to Sportsman's Park. By setting ticket prices at the level he did, Von der Ahe expanded the customer base that could afford to attend a major league baseball game.
A lower ticket price not only created a large potential fan base but it also gave those fans a bit more disposable income to spend at the ballpark and Chris Von der Ahe was more than willing to sell them all of the beer, liquor, and food that they wanted. William Hubert, the first president of the National League, had been opposed to the sale of alcohol at baseball games and one of the reasons that the Cincinnati club was thrown out of the League in 1880 was because of their insistence upon offering their customers beer and liquor. Von der Ahe, as a man of German heritage who had made a good deal of money in the tavern business, saw nothing wrong with giving baseball fans what they wanted. If the fans wanted to drink lager beer at the ball game, Von der Ahe would offer it to them at a fair price. One of the reasons that Von der Ahe's club was so profitable was this expansion of potential concession sales. At the same time, the sale of beer and liquor at the ballpark sent a signal to the working people of St. Louis that they were welcome at the ballpark and that the club's owner cared about them and what they wanted.
It also should be noted, as far as innovative concession sales is concerned, that there is some evidence to suggest that the hot dog, that staple of the ballpark diet, was first offered for sale by Chris Von der Ahe at Sportsman's Park in 1886. While it's certainly open to debate, it's possible to argue that the “Weiner wurst” stand at Sportsman's Park was the first time hot dogs were offered at a major league game. While Von der Ahe was a man of great achievement, it would be difficult to top being the man who popularized the sale of beer and hot dogs at baseball games.
Von der Ahe not only offered his customers tickets, beer, and food at fair prices, he also expanded the opportunity that they had to watch his club by playing games on Sunday. The issue of playing baseball on Sundays was a contentious one in the 19th century and the National League had a prohibition against their clubs playing League games on the Sabbath. For a variety of reasons, including the Creole heritage of the city and the large influx of German and Irish Catholic immigrants into the city during the second half of the 19th century, Sabbatarianism was never particularly popular in St. Louis and baseball was often played on Sunday in the city. But Chris Von der Ahe was the first person to offer major league baseball on Sunday to the people of St. Louis and this was an important innovation. People worked six days a week and long hours during those days. The five-day workweek and the eight hour day was something that the working class was still fighting for in the 1880s and they had little leisure time to get to the ballpark and watch games that were being played during the day, as all games were in the 19th century. Chris Von der Ahe offered the working people of St. Louis the opportunity to come to watch a baseball game on Sunday, the one day off that most people enjoyed, and the people of St. Louis seized upon the chance, packing Sportsman's Park, Sunday after Sunday.
Von der Ahe's vision of a new kind of baseball market – one that included and was primarily marketed to the working class – was an extraordinary success. By lowering ticket prices, offering fans the type of concessions that they wanted, and scheduling games when the majority of fans were most likely to be able to attend, he created a brand new fan base and the results must have exceeded his wildest expectations. According to the attendance data at Baseball-Reference, the Browns led all major league baseball clubs in attendance during the 1880s, finishing first among all major league clubs in attendance in 1882, 1884, 1886, and 1891. From 1875 to 1877, the NA/NL Brown Stockings totaled about 143,500 fans in attendance. In 1882, Von der Ahe's Brown Stockings, marketing to this new fan base, drew 135,000 fans to Sportsman's Park. The following year, they drew 243,000. Even when the club was bad and losing one hundred games a season in the late 1890s, the Browns were still bringing in 150,000 fans a year.
Von der Ahe's vision of what baseball could be and who baseball fans were created a new type of baseball market that brought tens of thousands of new customers to the ballpark every year. By creating a new type of fan experience and new opportunities to experience major league baseball, he created something that is recognizable to modern baseball fans. Place a modern baseball fan among the rowdy Sportsman's Park crowd on any given Sunday in the mid-1880s, put a beer and a hot dog in their hand, and they'd be comfortable in a way that they wouldn't be if they were attending a National League game during the same period. Baseball in the last century looks much more like Von der Ahe's vision than William Hulbert's. Von der Ahe created a new way of operating the business of baseball that was extremely successful and that style of economic management remains an important part of baseball to this day.
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