Chris von der Ahe
Christian Frederick Wilhelm von der Ahe
After immigrating from Germany, Von der Ahe arrived in New York City but quickly moved to St. Louis, where he worked as a clerk in a grocery store. Later, he bought out the store owner and expanded business by establishing a saloon in the back of the store. Von der Ahe noticed that a number of his patrons visited the saloon after baseball games, so in 1882, he bought the bankrupt and scandal-ridden St. Louis baseball franchise for $1,800 and joined the American Association baseball league. He named the team the Browns and hired future Chicago White Sox owner Charles Comiskey to manage the team and play first base. Von der Ahe dubbed himself "der boss president of der Prowns." He took a very active role in the team, even though he knew almost nothing about baseball. With his bushy mustache, showmanship and exaggerated German accent, Von der Ahe was the first baseball owner with a significant public persona, the predecessor of Bill Veeck and Charlie Finley in this regard.
The Browns dominated the American Association, winning four straight league championships starting in 1885, and the baseball, beer, and other investments made von der Ahe wealthy. He made $500,000 off the baseball team alone. He set the ticket price at 25 cents, hoping fans would spend money on beer. As a result, the Browns led the league in attendance and soon had to expand his ballpark.
In 1885, Von der Ahe erected a larger-than-life statue outside of Sportsman's Park, not of any of his star players, but of himself. A sportswriter from Denver mockingly dubbed the statue "Von der Ahe discovers Illinois." Although eccentric, Von der Ahe made a number of innovations, operating a farm club called the St. Louis Whites, and inventing the World Series, initially just to raise more money at the end of the season. Also, tradition holds that Von der Ahe was the first to sell hot dogs at the ballpark, although some historians dispute this.
In 1887, after a poor showing in the World Series, the ill-tempered Von der Ahe threatened to withhold his players' share of the earnings. In 1891, he was also majority owner of the Cincinnati Porkers which played for part of one season in the American Association. In 1892 the Browns joined the National League after the American Association folded. By this time, Comiskey had lost patience with von der Ahe and left for the Cincinnati Reds. Without Comiskey, the Browns quickly became a last-place team.
Legal problems plagued Von der Ahe's ownership, especially in the later years, and in an effort to recoup his losses, in 1892 he moved to a larger ballpark, which he surrounded with an amusement park, complete with beer garden, a horse track in the outfield, a "shoot-the-shoots" water flume ride, and an artificial lake (also used for ice skating in the winter). The league, which prohibited gambling on its grounds, disapproved of the race track; so did Von der Ahe's outfielders. The press called the facility "Coney Island West" and nicknamed Von der Ahe "Von der Ha Ha."
With losses still piling up, Von der Ahe resorted to selling off his best players, mostly to Brooklyn. In 1898, part of the ballpark burned down during a game with Chicago, his second wife divorced him, and his bondsman kidnapped him for not paying his debts. In a highly publicized trial connected with the fire, Von der Ahe lost his baseball team. The Browns changed hands twice and changed their name twice, first to the "Perfectos" and then to the "Cardinals". The American League team known as the St. Louis Browns from 1902-1953 had no connection to Von der Ahe's team aside from the name, which was designed to invoke the memory of the 1885-1889 era.
Von der Ahe soon lost his other wealth as well, and was reduced to tending bar in a small saloon. Comiskey frequently sent Von der Ahe money to help make ends meet. He died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1913. He was buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis, with the statue that once stood in front of Sportsman's Park adorning his grave.
Owner of the St. Louis Browns
Von der Ahe a German immigrant, ran a saloon out of the back of his grocery, until he bought the bankrupt St. Louis franchise in 1882 for $1800. He was 31. He did so not out of any love of the sport, but because his bar was full after every local game and he figured he’d make a few bucks (he made hundreds of thousands pretty quickly, so it was a reasonably wise investment). He got St. Louis into the brand new American Association in 1882 where they promptly finished fifth out of six teams. He figured he’d make cash at games from cheap beer, so tickets were only 25 cents and he soon had the highest attendance in the AA. The team was called the Brown Stockings and then the Browns for the incredibly obvious reason that that’s the color they happened to be wearing.
“Der Boss President”, as he called himself, was Bill Veeck with a handlebar moustache, and pretty much did anything to increase both his and his team’s exposure.
He hired an old National Association veteran named Ned Cuthbert (who had also been a pre pro star of the 1860’s) to manage the first season, but midway through 1883, he was replaced by a 23 year old first sacker named Charlie Comiskey (yes, THAT Charlie Comiskey).
This is where it got good.
In 1883, it was all pitching as the Brownies shot to 2nd, behind the arms of Tony Mullane and Jumbo McGinnis, but this was der boss president’s team, and like Col. Ruppert would point out 50 years later, who the hell wants to watch good pitching?
In 1884, they dropped to 4th (out of 13 teams, 8 games out), BUT they got two Babe Ruths, named Tip O’Neill and Bob Caruthers, and some kid named Arlie Latham scored 115 runs in 110 games. What do I mean “two Babe Ruths”? Well, let’s just say that O’Neill and Caruthers were 18-6 between them that year and showed enough promise in every day play that the older O’Neill was moved to the outfield for good despite his 11-4 record and the 20 year old Caruthers just had to double up.
Then they became a dynasty.
In 1885, they won the league by 16 games behind the two Babe Ruths (in a more stable 8 team league). Caruthers won the pitching triple crown at 40-11 with a 2.07 ERA, and O’Neill hit .350 in an injury shortened season in a league that hit .246 overall (Pete Browning won the batting title drunk at .362). They tied Chicago of the National League in the old World Series 3-3-1.
They took the title by 12 in 1886. Latham hit .301 and scored a (by far) league leading 152 runs, a healthy O’Neill hit .328 and led the league in RBI, but the big daddy was Babe Ruth #2- Bob Caruthers. Now 22, Caruthers was 30-14 on the mound with a 2.32 ERA as the number TWO starter – new boy Dave Foutz – was an incredible 41-16, 2.11 as #1 that year to win HIS pitching triple crown (his arm died two years later and he carried on as a fair outfielder. Still, Foutz and Caruthers remain 5th and 6th all time in winning percentage (and were teammates for crying out loud!)) but it was Caruthers’ year in ‘86. Playing right field when off the mound, he hit .334, was first in the league in OBP and second in slugging, and his adjusted OPS of 200 equals that of Stan Musial in 1948 and Nap Lajoie in 1901. Not bad for the guy who also finished second in the league in ERA. They beat Chicago in the World Series 4-2.
In 1887, they won their third straight pennant by 14 games over Cincinnati. This was the defining team. Everything, and I mean EVERYTHING about these guys was great. They led the league in batting (the team hit .307 in a .273 league) and ERA. Read the next few lines carefully and tell me how many teams have ever been like this- Tip O’Neill truly blossomed and won the triple crown at .435, 14, 123 (yes, you read that batting average right). He also had 52 doubles among his 225 hits, with 19 triples and 30 steals. Oh yes, he ALSO had 167 runs scored to go with his .692 slugging percentage (which demolished the record by 70 points). Latham hit .316 and scored 163 runs more, aided by 129 steals- in fact, the Browns had 6 players with 100+ runs scored and 4 with 100+ RBI. Babe Ruths numbers 2 (Caruthers) and 3 (Foutz) each hit .357, and Caruthers was either second or third in the league in slugging to O’Neill and (possibly) Browning, depending who you ask. On the mound, Caruthers went 29-9, while Foutz “slipped” to 25-12, as 19 year old Silver King (with no pretensions as a hitter) took over the top of the rotation at 32-12. This was arguably the strongest pitching rotation in all of major league history- Matty and McGinnity never really had a third man, did they? In spite of all of this, they lost the World Series to Detroit 10 games to 5 (how weird do those numbers sound).
Caruthers and Foutz went to Brooklyn in 1888. Not a bright move, but Von Der Ahe was beginning to have serious legal troubles, and for the next ten years, he would solve them by selling off his stars, usually to Brooklyn. In spite of this, the Brownies won their 4th consecutive pennant over the future Dodgers by 6.5 games, as the now 20 year old Silver King ruled the mound at 45-21 with a 1.64 ERA, backed up by Nat Hudson, who, in the only good year of his career, went 25-10, 2.54. The team’s batting average dropped to .250, but still led the league, as did their 2.09 ERA. Comiskey, Tommy McCarthy, and Latham each had over 70 steals (Latham had 109) and 100 plus runs scored, and Tip O’Neill won another batting title, hitting .335 (a drop of exactly 100 points). The Browns lost to the New York Giants 6-4 in the Series (who the hell changed the number of games played every year?).
St. Louis finished second in 1889, with O’Neill finishing second in the league in hitting at (again) .335, bringing Brownie dominance to an end, but it didn’t have to happen that way. On the final day of the season, St. Louis was playing Brooklyn, with the pennant hanging in the balance, in what became the most controversial closer ever until Merkle’s boner took precedence. The Browns were up 4-2 in the 7th when the weather turned and everything grew dark. The Browns asked the ump to call the game, which would have given St. Louis their fifth straight pennant. The ump refused, so Latham got 12 candles brought to the bench and lit them as a large hint that it was too dark to play. The umpire came over and blew them out. Latham lit them again, and the umpire went ballistic, blew them out again, and forfeited the game to Brooklyn, giving today’s Dodgers their first pennant ever.
Then the party was over. The Players league killed the Browns’ class act. Only Tommy McCarthy remained of the old gang in 1890- everyone else had jumped. To Mac’s credit, he hit .350 and scored 136 runs while leading the league with 83 steals, but it wasn’t nearly enough as the Browns fell to third. Comiskey and O’Neill came back in 1891 when the Players league folded, and Dummy Hoy joined them, but the pitching was gone, and St. Louis finished second, 8.5 games out.
The Browns, as one of the AA’s 4 strongest franchises, joined the NL in 1893, but it was as a joke. They never finished better than 9th until Von der Ahe finally sold them (after he had been literally kidnapped by his bondsman to get some damn money) in 1899 (when they became the Perfectos and then the Cardinals), and their 1897 season, at 29-102, was pretty much the worst ever until the Cleveland Spiders taught us how to lose.
Today, they’re all but forgotten, only Tommy McCarthy (other than future White Sox owner Comiskey) made the Hall of Fame, and that was after going to Boston and teaming up with Hugh Duffy as “the heavenly twins”, and now when you hear the name Browns you think of last place and a lone war time pennant, but those Browns had no relation to the glorious ones- they took the name deliberately trying to conjure up the past.
But they were great in their day, and they changed the game. Latham was the first ever full time coach and created the third base coach box and position. Imagine the fun he must have had with Von der Ahe sitting behind third base with his beer, binoculars, and whistle, telling his players to physically assault their opponents. The mind boggles.
|St. Louis Browns Manager
- Edward Achorn: The Summer of Beer and Whiskey: How Brewers, Barkeeps, Rowdies, Immigrants, and a Wild Pennant Fight Made Baseball America's Game, Public Affairs, Perseus Books Group, Philadelphia, PA, 2013. ISBN 978-1610392600
- Richard Egenriether: "Chris Von der Ahe: Baseball's Pioneering Huckster", in Nine: A Journal of Baseball History and Social Policy Perspectives, volume 7, number 2, 1999. Also abbreviated in the Baseball Research Journal,, volume 18. SABR, 1989.
- J. Thomas Hetrick: Chris Von der Ahe and the St. Louis Browns, Scarecrow Press, Lanham, MD, 1999. ISBN 0-8108-3473-1
- James Rygelski: Chris Von der Ahe: "The Boss President", Gateway Heritage, St. Louis, MO, 1992.
- Harold Seymour: Baseball: the Early Years, Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 1960. ISBN 0195059123
- David Quinten Voigt: American Baseball. Vol. 1: From Gentleman's Sport to the Commissioner System, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK, 1966. ISBN 0-8061-0904-1
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