During the 1880s, Chris von der Ahe‘s St. Louis Brown Stockings were a baseball dynasty, winning a string of American Association pennants and attracting throngs of fans to Sportsman’s Park. But during the 1890s Von der Ahe encountered a series of personal and financial setbacks, and his ballclub’s plight mirrored his downward spiral. After the 1892 merger of the American Association and National League, the Browns sunk lower and lower in the standings of the “big league,” and the irascible owner tried to combat declining attendance by a disastrous effort to turn Sportsman’s Park into a combination of ballpark, racetrack and amusement park.
One of the many manifestations of the turmoil was the revolving door approach that he used in selecting the club’s managers during the mid-1890s. Between 1895 and 1897, the club had at least four managers every season. Von der Ahe himself served three stints as manager, but none lasted more than a few days, with one of these tenures prompting The Sporting News to quip: “It appears that ‘Der Boss’ was only able to get along with himself for two days.” (Sporting News, May 16, 1896)
One of the many reasons for this dismal state of affairs was that Von der Ahe seemed more inclined to listen to his paramours and their relatives than to anyone with practical knowledge of baseball. As a result, when he appointed Lou Phelan as manager of the ballclub in August of 1895, it seemed to epitomize a team in disarray.
Louis A. Phelan was born in March of 1864 in St. Louis, the son of Dr. Richard A. Phelan and the former Sarah Doyle. Louis was one of many children, but the family was blighted often by tragedy. At least four of Louis’s brothers died in childhood, while his two sisters passed away in 1880 and 1887. In 1881, Sarah Phelan died and her husband remarried and started a new family. Thus, while Louis had a much younger brother and eventually had many stepbrothers and stepsisters, it was his brother Frank, three years older, with whom he had his closest bond.
What little we know about Louis’s youth and young adulthood does not form a very coherent picture. The 1880 census shows him working as a dry goods clerk. He appears in the 1889 St. Louis city directory as a student, living at the same address as his father, but that same year he was married in Chicago on April 17 to a young woman named Maud Wells. The marriage license lists Maud as a resident of St. Louis and Louis as a resident of Cook County, Illinois. Louis then reappears in the St. Louis city directory in 1893 as a foreman.
Over the next few years, however, both Louis Phelan and his brother Frank began to make names for themselves. Louis became the manager of well-known boxer Dan Creedon, a New Zealand native who had claimed the Australian middleweight championship and then relocated to St. Louis. He and Creedon also opened a saloon on Olive Street in St. Louis. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 11, 1895)
Frank Phelan meanwhile was figuring in national headlines, having befriended Eugene V. Debs, organizer of the American Railway Union, and became one of his key lieutenants during the great railroad strike of 1894. He was dispatched to Cincinnati to organize a work stoppage and did so in spite of an injunction from two circuit court judges.
Phelan was charged with contempt and went on trial on July 5 in front of one of the judges who had issued the injunction, none other than William Howard Taft. The night before his trial, Phelan gave a defiant speech during which he remarked, “Well, tomorrow I must go down and put on the gloves with Judge Taft.” Unamused, Taft sentenced Phelan to six months in the Warren County jail. (Chicago Tribune, July 17, 1897) Fourteen years later, during the presidential campaign of 1908, Taft’s opponents would cite the case in an unsuccessful effort to portray him as unsympathetic to labor. (Washington Post, October 14, 1908)
Upon his release from jail, Frank Phelan was cheered by a large crowd of railroad workers. But his time behind bars seems to have changed him for the worse. Frank returned to St. Louis, met a prostitute named Kate Wadsworth and moved in with her, and began to operate a bookmaking establishment and other shady enterprises.
By this time, Creedon’s boxing career was also on the decline, and Louis Phelan began to take on new projects. Meanwhile, Von der Ahe had gotten himself entangled with a woman named Della Wells, who used her influence to get her friends and relatives hired at Sportsman’s Park. Della’s sister just happened to be Lou Phelan’s wife, so he soon was a fixture at the ballpark-racetrack. But he could hardly have been prepared for what happened next. (Hetrick, 176)
With the Browns possessing a 28-62 record that left them eleventh in the twelve-team league, a “stormy interview” with Von der Ahe led player-manager Joe Quinn to resign as manager. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 11, 1895) The Sporting News offered this account of what then transpired: “Phelan owes his appointment to nepotism. The ‘Done Browns’ are a family affair now. When it was suggested to Chris that he would do well to secure as manager a man with some ability and reputation in the base ball world, he looked on the plan with favor and promised to sleep on it. Upon his arrival at Sportsman’s Park the next morning, Von der Ha! Ha! announced that ‘the old woman wanted Lou and I got to give it to him, don’t I?’ That is the explanation generally accepted by the players and public.” (Sporting News, August 17, 1895, 4)
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch did its best to be charitable, writing that Phelan “is a clever fellow personally, but just where he got his experience as a base ball manager is a mystery to the local fans.” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 11, 1895) But The Sporting News showed no such restraint, raging: “Fancy a National League team managed by a man who knows next to nothing about baseball! That is the state of affairs in St. Louis, since that honest player and competent general, Joe Quinn, resigned and Lou Phelan was appointed his successor. If Mr. Phelan were to go into the dressing room of any major or minor league club in the country, he would find himself a stranger. He knows nobody in the base ball world and nobody in the business knows him. Still he is placed at the head of the team which of all others needs a competent and experienced manager.” (The Sporting News, August 17, 1895, 4)
And the Philadelphia Record reported, “Joe Quinn has given up his task as manager of the St. Louis Club and has been succeeded by a St. Louis saloon-keeper named Phelan. One of his principal qualifications is said to be that he knows less about the national game than Von der Ahe, and that is what Chris wants.” (Philadelphia Record, quoted in The Sporting News, August 24, 1895)
Phelan pledged to spend the off-season learning the game’s finer points, but for the time being he was in an untenable situation. (Hetrick, 176) Naturally, he merited little respect from his new charges. Pitcher Ted Breitenstein related this telling anecdote about Phelan’s tenure after the season: “Last season we had a smart Alec with the Browns named Lou Phelan, who was appointed manager by Chris. Phelan had a balloon head, and he prided himself on bluffing umpires. When [umpire] Tim Hurst walked on the field Phelan yelled from the bench: ‘Say, Hurst, if any of those decisions are close make them in our favor, and if you don’t you’ll hear from it through [league president] Nick Young.’ Tim trotted over to Phelan with that funny little pigeon-toed walk of his, and fanning his finger under Phelan’s nose said: ‘See here, you big stiff, if you make any more cracks like that I’ll give you a punch in the nose.’ Phelan turned white, and apologized, and afterward addressed Tim as Mr. Hurst.” (Washington Post, February 12, 1896, 8)
The Browns went 11-30 under Phelan’s leadership, being saved from the National League cellar only by the fact that the Louisville franchise was even more downtrodden. After the season, he was replaced as manager by Henry Diddlebock, whose appointment prompted The Sporting News to sarcastically remark that, “Mr. Diddlebock’s mission will be to repair the damage Von der Ahe has done the game and the St. Louis Club.” (The Sporting News, December 21, 1895) That was Louis Phelan’s last association with baseball.
Meanwhile Frank Phelan’s downward cycle was continuing. In September of 1896, police closed the hotel he had been operating, and he and Kate Wadsworth moved to Chicago. Within a few months, he was back in St. Louis, where he and Louis operated a pool room at 703 Pine Street. But this too was shut down by the police in June, and by this time Wadsworth had left him.
Frank Phelan became despondent and followed Kate Wadsworth back to Chicago. He spent a week searching for her unsuccessfully and attempted to kill himself by taking laudanum. On the evening of July 16, 1897, he finally found her at a saloon at the Grand Palace Hotel and an angry confrontation ensued. After attempting to cut the young woman’s throat, Phelan shot her twice and then shot himself fatally.
He left behind a note that left no doubt that the act was premeditated. In it, he claimed, “I have sacrificed everything for three years trying to reform her, but to no purpose. Rather than see her further degrade herself I will kill her.” The note concluded with instructions for the disposition of her effects and directions to “notify Louis A. Phelan, in care of Chris Von der Ahe, St. Louis, Mo.” (Chicago Tribune, July 17, 1897)
Wadsworth survived the attack, but Frank Phelan didn’t. His body was brought back to St. Louis and, at the family’s request, he was buried in a ceremony attended only by a few members of the immediate family.
Louis Phelan’s life also entered a downward cycle after his brother’s death. Von der Ahe had married Della Wells and offered his brother-in-law work as a bookmaker at Sportsman’s Park. But soon the mercurial owner’s marriage was also on the rocks and, with bankruptcy staring him in the face, he got rid of his estranged wife’s friends and relatives. Then, Louis Phelan and his wife separated.
With little left to keep him in St. Louis, Phelan found work as a traveling salesman. By 1900, he was living in Butte, Montana. On August 10, 1903, he was remarried there to Angelina Arbeck, who was still a few months shy of her sixteenth birthday. The couple welcomed two children, daughter Camille in 1904 and son Louis Jr. in 1912. Louis Sr. quit the road and is listed as living on his own income on the 1910 census and as a hotel proprietor on the 1920 census.
During the 1920s, the family relocated from Butte to Los Angeles, where Louis Phelan died on November 2, 1933. A death notice in the Times listed the names of his wife, son and daughter, but made no mention of the eventful life that Louis Phelan had led.
Contemporary censuses, city directories, vital records, and newspapers, as noted, especially the extensive coverage of the suicide of Frank Phelan in the Chicago Tribune and St. Louis Post-Dispatch in July of 1897; research by Bruce Allardice; J. Thomas Hetrick, Chris Von der Ahe and the St. Louis Browns (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 1999).