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.
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.