There will be a meeting of the Brown Stocking ball-tossers at Christ Von der Ahe's, on Grand avenue, to-night.
-St. Louis Globe-Democrat, August 24, 1881
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...
If I'm reading it correctly, there was a meeting between the Brown Stocking players and Chris Von der Ahe on August 24, 1881. The meeting either took place at Von der Ahe's house or saloon. Since Von der Ahe was not involved, in 1881, with the actual running of the baseball club, I can think of no reason for him to be meeting with the players other than to discuss the common grievances that they had against the StLBBA. I think that this meeting marks the beginning of Von der Ahe's plan to take control of the Brown Stockings that would come to fruition at the beginning of October.
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.
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.