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The Von der Ahe Years

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(How about some background music and poetry?)
Casey at the Bat

Long before the Cardinals were the Cardinals, baseball was played in St. Louis.  Lafayette ParkShepard Barclay, who was to eventually become a justice on the Missouri Supreme Court, once recalled that a contractor from "back east," named Jere Frain, came to St. Louis in the early 1850s.  Along with him, Frain (who had been a ball player with the Charter Oak Base Ball Nine of Hartford) brought a passion for the new sport.  Unfortunately for Frain, the national craze had not yet reached St. Louis, so he decided to recruit players himself.  Starting from scratch, he laid out a diamond in Lafayette Park and taught the game to any of the boys and young men in the neighborhood who were interested. By the mid-1860s, a handful of amateur baseball clubs had been founded, including the Red Stockings, the Atlantics, the Empires and the Unions.St. Louis Union Base Ball Club March 

In 1867, the Washington Nationals, a
second tier Eastern club tired of being beaten to a pulp by the premier New York and Brooklyn teams, barnstormed across the Midwest leaving a wake of destruction as it passed cities in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Kentucky.  Newspaper accounts of the trip report incredibly lopsided defeats of the hastily assembled hometown teams.  The Nationals visit to St. Louis was no exception as they left town with a resounding 113-26 victory over the most powerful of the local teams, the Unions.  St. Louis, however, was left with a thirst for more baseball, and amateur clubs flourished in the city for the the next decade.

In 1874, however, a St. Louis business man, James R. Lucas, announced that he had raised
$10,000 in capital by selling $50 shares in order to register a team in the National Association of of Professional Baseball Players, and the following year, the St. Louis Brown Stockings entered theRed Stocking Field league.  Their first game was against a local amateur team, the St. Louis Red Stockings, on 4 May 1875 at the Red Stocking's field on Compton Avenue and Gratiot Street.  Not surprisingly, the Brown Stockings won easily by a score of 15-9.

One of the best teams in the country, the undefeated Boston Red Stockings, visited St. Louis later that summer sporting a 26 game winning streak and were surprised by the upstart Brown Stockings at the old North Grand Avenue baseball field, which in time would become Sportsman's Park and later Busch Stadium, losing the game 5-4.  By far the biggest game of the year, though, was a home game played against the Chicago White Stockings, the team that eventually became the Chicago Cubs.  St. Louis won the game much to the delight of the
5,000 spectators who packed the park and ended up in fourth place at the end of the year, a respectable finish for its first year in the league. 

In 1876, the team registered to play as a charter member of the newly formed National League and again did quite well evenSt. Louis - 1876 though it had only one pitcher, George Washington "Grin" Bradley, on its roster.  Bradley, by the way, pitched the first no-hitter in professional baseball on 15 July, defeating the Hartford Dark Blues 2-0.  He pitched every out of every game for the  Brown Stockings that season (535 2/3 innings) and ended with a 45-19 record as the team finished in second place.  The League, however had decided that to determine it's champion, the first and second place teams would play five additional games against each other with the winner of the series being christened The Champions of the West.  So, in the first true pre-cursor of the World Series, the Brown Stockings/Cardinals played the White Stockings/Cubs.  St. Louis easily handled Chicago and won the championship four games to one.

The team was poised for an excellent season the following year after it lured five superb players away from the Louisville Grays with very lucrative salary offers.  Unfortunately for the Brown Stockings, four of the five players were implicated in baseball's first gambling scandal from the season before and banned from baseball for life.  Now without a competitive roster for the year, the remaining Brown Stockings withdrew from the league and continued to play as  amateurs. 

In 1880 a saloon-keeper named Chris von der Ahe, who owned an establishment near the Grand Avenue ballpark, noticed that business boomed at his tavern on game days when fans poured in after spendingChris von der Ahe oppressively hot summer afternoons in the uncovered bleachers.  He purchased controlling interest in the nearly defunct amateur Brown Stockings as well as in the Grand Avenue field, which he renamed Sportsman's Park and Club.  Two years later, von der Ahe purchased a franchise for his team as one of the charter members of the old rough-and-tumble American Association, known as the "Beer and Whiskey League" because of the alleged rowdiness of its fans and the fact that many of its teams were owned or sponsored by breweries and distilleries.

Von der Ahe, a German immigrant, with a larger-than-life persona and a handlebar moustache to match, referred to himself as "der Boss President," and he was certainly a good one.  Von der Ahe knew how to make money and billed himself as "The Millionaire Sportsman."  The Browns consistently led the American Association in attendance and drew in fans with innovations such as on-site beer sales (balls hit into
the right field beer garden were considered to be in-play), hotdog vending (well, sausage vending anyway), and Sunday games.  

Von der Ahe's team was initially very successful, compiling a 782-433 (.644) record in its first ten years, winning the American Association pennant four times from 1885-1888, and defeating the National League Champion, the Chicago White Stockings--now the Chicago Cubs--in the 1885 and 1886 World's Championship Series. 

1888 St. Louis Brown Stockings

The 1885 series was disputed after the fact by the Chicago owner, Albert Spalding (yes, that Spalding).  In theCharles Comiskey series' second game, the St. Louis player-manger, Charles Comiskey (yes, that Comiskey) pulled his team off the field in protest of a botched call by an umpire.  The umpires initially decided to call the game a forfeit, but the two managers discussed the situation and agreed simply to ignore the game and continue the series.  When Chicago lost the final game and the Championship, three games to two, Spalding protested and refused to allow the prize money--put up by the two owners and held in escrow--to be distributed.  The only way for Von der Ahe to get his money back was to submit to Spalding's blackmail and agree that the series was a tie.

Troubles, however, began to mount, beginning in 1887, when Von der Ahe threatened to deny his players their earnings because of their poor
performance in that year's World's Championship series.  Soon thereafter, he dismissed Comiskey and began managing the team himself.  The Brown's performance plummeted, and other legal problemsVon der Ahe's Sportsman's Parks began to suck away at his capital.  In 1892, when the American Association folded, the Browns joined the National League, and--hoping to increase revenue--Von der Ahe moved the team to a sports complex he built at Vandeventer and Natural Bridge, which he named the New Sportsman's Park.  With a marketing imagination that would not be equaled until the arrival of Bill Veeck, Von der Ahe constructed "the Coney Island of the West," which not only contained the ballpark but included a beer garden, a chute-the-chute water ride, an outfield track for night time horse racing, and an artificial lake.  He hired an all female concert orchestra--the Silver Comet Band--to provide entertainment by playing popular songs of the day, and used the facility to host other events, the most spectacular being a "double-header" that combined a ball game with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show when it visited St. Louis after returning from a European tour.

Robinson FieldUnfortunately his debts continued to mount, and Von der Ahe sold most of his best players to the Brooklyn Bridegrooms.  Subsequently, after an expensive divorce, he began to resort to loans from shady characters, and after reneging on one, he was kidnapped and ransomed.  In 1898, a suspicious fire burned New Sportsman's Park to the ground, and though he rebuilt a much simpler replacement on the same spot, Von der Ahe eventually lost it and his team in the resulting civil trial. 

Perfecto UniformThe team then changed owners and names twice in quick succession, first being rechristened the Perfectos.  Then, after a sportswriter reported upon a lady's comments about the interesting shade of red piping on the team's new uniforms, they became known as the Cardinals.  Cleveland street car entrepreneurs, Frank and Stanley Robinson ended up as team owners in 1899.  The Robinsons also owned Cleveland's National League franchise, the Spiders, which was doing horribly at the gate.  In what amounted to a near wholesale transfer of players, the Robinsons sent most of the best Spiders to the Vandeventer Park--which had been renamed Robinson Field, where they became first the Perfectos and then the Cardinals

So, the renamed Cardinals began their first season in St. Louis withCy Young handful of former Cleveland stars filling out the roster including .400 hitting outfielder Jesse Burkett, super shortstop Bobby Wallace, and pitcher Denton True "Cyclone" Young.  Interest in the revitalized team was strong, and the Cardinals played their opening day on 15 April 1899 before a crowd of 18,000 at the rebuilt and renamed League Park on Vandeventer.  Cy Young took the mound on that first game, which was, by coincidence, with the horrendous Spiders of Cleveland whose roster was filled with the dregs of the 1898 Brown's team.  In less than two hours, Cy Young and the Cardinals had beaten Cleveland by the score of 10-1.

For a long time, I wondered whatever happened to Chris von der Ahe after he lost the team and went bankrupt.  Recently, I stumbled upon a copy of his obituary published in the New York Times on 6 June 1913.

Von der Ahe's Obituary  Von der Ahe Grave

The statue above Von der Ahe's grave at Bellfontaine Cemetery is one he commissioned to sit outside the entrance to Sportsman's Park when his Brown Stockings were in their prime.  At the time, the press ridiculed him for doing so; too bad this likeness doesn't now stand outside Busch Stadium.

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