But I need to take a small step back here because this situation had been percolating for most of July and I want to cover some of things that took place that month. And this is what makes this story so complicated. VdA didn't just wake up one day at the end of July 1898 to find himself in a precarious financial situation, with the vultures circling. This is a situation that had built up over the course of years and it's almost impossible to find a starting point to the story. I've mentioned the Players League, the Baldwin Affair, the ballpark fire and the divorce - trying to quickly cover the lead-up to Von der Ahe losing control of the Browns. All these things are part of the story and contributed to VdA's financial problems but I believe that July 1898 is the right place to start in telling the story that I want to tell.
So let's take a quick look at some of the things that were going on:
Next Friday the Sportsman's park at St. Louis and other club property, including the St. Louis Browns will be sold at public action. There is considerable speculation as to who will be the highest bidder and it is said a number of syndicates have been formed, but Chris Von der Ahe confidently asserts that he will be the purchaser.
-Kansas City Journal, July 10, 1898
"About the sale of the club," [Von der Ahe] said, "It will hardly take place next Friday. I have heard of all these syndicates that are going to buy it, but I haven't seen any of them yet. You can always hear of parties who have money to burn and who are always going to buy something, but when you want to sell you can't find them with a search warrant. But the sale is a long way off and there is no use wasting time talking about it just now. When it is made I hope to be there with the rest of them, and until that time - well, boys, let's have another little," and so Chris switched from the main subject to something more congenial and pleasant.
-Kansas City Journal, July 11, 1898
Edward C. Becker, the capitalist, who it was stated Wednesday had bought the St. Louis League base ball club, said yesterday in answer to a question: "Yes, I have bought the St. Louis Browns."
"Then, there is no chance of F. DeHaas Robinson, of Cleveland, securing the team?" he was asked.
"Not unless he buys it from me," was the quick reply.
"When did you buy the club?"
"On Tuesday last."
"The last day on which Von der Ahe was at liberty to sell it at private sale?"
"What did you pay him for the club?"
"That is a question I do not care to answer."
"The club, then, will not be put up for sale next Friday?"
"Not unless I put it up."
"Have you paid Von der Ahe the purchase money?"
"That has all been arranged for," said Mr. Becker.
-Kansas City Journal, July 15, 1898
About 50 per cent of the creditors of Sportsman's Park met with Chris Von Der Ahe tonight, and an agreement was effected to accept Von Der Ahe's offer of 50 cents on the dollar. Edward C. Becker, who is the prospective purchaser of the club, demands a clean bill of sale, and if the remainder of the creditors will not accept Von Der Ahe's offer, the club will be sold at public auction.
-Witchita Daily Eagle, July 21, 1898
The deal between Chris Von der Ahe and Edward C. Becker for the Browns is off and Von der Ahe believes himself badly treated. Two weeks ago Becker offered $60,000 for the baseball club and Von der Ahe virtually accepted the offer, the understanding being that the club was to be turned over to Becker free from all incumbrances. John D. Johnson conducted the negotiations for Von der Ahe and the arrangements had been completed for the transfer when Becker notified Johnson that he had concluded not to buy. Consequently Von der Ahe's hopes were dashed to the ground. Johnson left for New York today and it is said his mission is to enlist Eastern capital to purchase the club.
-Kansas City Journal, July 24, 1898
It appears that VdA's financial problems were so severe that his creditors were going to seize the ballpark and the club and sell them at public auction on Friday, July 15, 1898, in order to recoup the $67,000 that VdA owed. As a result of this VdA agreed to sell the club to Becker for $60,000. This is probably why VdA, in the papers on July 11, was saying that no auction was going to take place. He believed he had a deal in hand to sell the club and pay off his creditors.
But the sale never took place because, as part of the deal, VdA had to reach a separate agreement with his creditors to pay off his debts at less than face value. He was getting $60,000 from Becker but he owed $67,000. Becker wanted the club and park with no debts attached to the sale and that was VdA's problem to solve. He reached an agreement with some of his creditors to take 50 cents on the dollar but was unable to reach an agreement with all of them, as we saw in the Sporting Life article that I posted last week. With VdA unable to reach an agreement with his creditors, Becker pulled his offer.
VdA's biggest problem, at the end of July 1898, was that his debt was larger than the market value of his baseball club. He could not, by that point, sell the club and ballpark and pay off his creditors. He was bankrupt and it was only a matter of time before his creditors seized his assets.
It's almost ironic that the story of VdA's fall begins with his failure to sell the club to Edward Becker.