This article was written by Richard Egenriether
This article was published in the 1989 Baseball Research Journal
Move over, Charlie Finley and Bill Veeck – the old Browns’ owner was baseball’s first great promoter. And move over George Steinbrenner – Von der Ahe was a meddler supreme.
PERHAPS THE GREATEST DAY of Chris Von der Ahe’s life occurred in the spring of 1882, when he dedicated his new Sportsman’s Park on Grand Avenue and Dodier Street in north St. Louis. Leading his fellow American Association owners to the mound, the portly magnate, glowing with pride, is alleged to have said: “Look around chentlemen [sic], because this the largest dimundt in the welt ist.” Charlie Comiskey, the St. Louis Browns captain, tactfully reminded Chris that baseball diamonds were the same size. “Vot I meant to say,” said the “Boss President,” hastily correcting his grand claim, “vas this the larchest infield in the welt ist.”
This vignette is characteristic of Chris Von der Ahe, the German immigrant who knew virtually nothing about baseball, yet was one of the few owners in the early professional era to earn a substantial profit from his investment. Popular with his employees and the public as a magnanimous entrepreneur and flamboyant character, he was detested by many of his rival magnates as an interloper who degraded the “truly American” character of the pastime of baseball by charging lower admission rates, promoting Sunday play, and instituting beer concessions at the ballpark. National League magnates like Albert G. Spalding were dismayed by the marketing strategies of American Association owners like Von der Ahe and eventually forced Chris out of the game. But Chris’s impact is felt to this day. Quirky promotions like the installation of a shoot-the-chute, a “stadium club,” and sideshow attractions were later imitated in the modern era by the likes of Larry MacPhail, Charles O. Finley, and Bill Veeck. Even the conservative conglomerates of today, desiring a profitable return on their investments, offer premiums and extra-baseball entertainment to their customers. Yet for all of their efforts, today’s promotions pale in comparison to those of Chris Von der Ahe, baseball’s pioneering huckster.
Sources conflict as to exactly when Chris was born. Lee Allen tells us that Chris arrived at New York at seventeen in 1864. The Sporting News and the St. Louis Globe-Democrat in their obituaries say that Chris was born at Hille, Germany in 1850. By 1870, he was in New York. Later he moved to St. Louis, where he worked as a grocery clerk and eventually became the proprietor of a saloon on Sullivan and Spring Avenues at the western edge of the city. Within a few years he bought real estate in the neighborhood and made money as a landlord. Von der Ahe was also involved in neighborhood politics and used the back room of his tavern as a ward headquarters.
Just east of his saloon was a lot first used by German immigrants as a shooting park and later converted to a makeshift baseball field known as Sportsman’s Park. The games there were amateur events but drew large crowds, many of whom would repair to Von der Ahe’s saloon for friendly imbibing afterwards.
Alfred H. Spink, who would later know success in the establishment of The Sporting News, backed a professional independent club known as the Browns – a name recalling an earlier St. Louis ball club that held membership in the National League. In the spring of 1881, Spink contacted Cincinnati sportwriter O. P. Caylor and asked him to organize a club for an exhibition at St. Louis. Caylor readily accepted the invitation and had little trouble finding players in a town that had become baseball-starved. (An 1880 NL ban on Sunday games had effectively removed Cincinnati from the league.) The game at Sportsman’s Park was a tremendous financial success. “Vot a fine pig crowd [sic],” Chris, holder of the concession nights, said to Spink after the game. “But the game, Al, how vas the game? You know, Al, I know nawthing.” Whether the game was good or not made no difference to Chris and Al, but the success at the gate indicated to Spink that it would be profitable to arrange for other exhibitions with other independent clubs. So successful were these exhibitions that these clubs came together in the fall of 1881 to create a formal relationship. A meeting held at Cincinnati resulted in the formation of the American Association, which granted franchises to Baltimore, Cincinnati, Louisville, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis.
The constitution of the Association was based along the same lines as the National League. Although the American Association copied the National League in respect to the philosophy of honest play, it was far more liberal in other respects. Member clubs could play outside clubs on open dates. Players were not bound to the reserve clause as were their National League brethren. Indeed, a player could be released from his club without prejudice, given two weeks salary, and allowed to sign immediately with any Association club that desired his services. Other distinctions were two innovations in play: that the club with the highest percentage instead of the most wins was champion, and the hiring of a permanent staff of umpires. But the greatest differences between the League and the Association were that the interlopers allowed Sunday ball, charged twenty-five cent admission, (half that of the League), and sold beer and liquor. The latter was not surprising, given the brewery and distillery money behind several clubs.
Spink approached Von der Ahe in early 1882 and asked him to sell 180 shares of stock in the Browns at ten dollars a share. Von der Ahe had bought the stock himself as an opportunity to expand his bar business. From the beginning, the Browns were a success. During the exhibition season of 1881, Spink had spotted a talented first baseman named Charles A. Comiskey playing for the Dubuque Rabbits. Persuaded to sign with the Browns, “Commy” was given a free reign to manage the club. By 1885, Comiskey built the Browns into baseball’s most dominant club. They won four consecutive pennants between 1885 and 1888, a feat that was not matched until John McGraw’s New York Giants of 1921-1924 and not surpassed until Casey Stengel’s New York Yankees of 1949-1953.
Von der Ahe was fortunate to have Comiskey, a good player and intelligent leader who got the most out of his talented players. Among them were Arlie Latham, a clownish but dazzling third baseman; Bob Carruthers and Dave Foutz, two outstanding pitchers who over three years won 195 games; and Tip O’Neill and Curt Welch, two staples in the outfield who provided power and finesse. Von der Ahe fawned over his Browns during the glory days. He paid them well and outfitted them in broad-stripe blazers that served as warm-up jackets. Chris always got some of his money back from his players by insisting that they live in his boarding houses and do their drinking in his saloon. The players, however, were not always willing to spend their free time under the Boss’s constant eye and frequently sneaked across the street to a rival public house. Von der Ahe tried vainly to keep tabs on those players by occasionally visiting the rival. But the recalcitrant players always managed to evade detection because Chris could easily be spotted under the tavern’s short-bottomed swinging doors. His spatted shoes and ever-present greyhounds were dead giveaways. Seeing trouble, the players would hightail it out the back door.
Von der Ahe was not a baseball man in the sense Spalding or NL founder William A. Hulbert were, but an entrepreneur. As such, he saw the value of postseason exhibitions for his champions. A three-game series was established in 1884 in which Providence of the National League beat New York of the Association. In 1885, the Browns played a series of touring exhibition games with Chicago. The Browns won three games of seven played, one ended in a tie because of darkness, and a second was forfeited by the Browns when Comiskey took them off the field after an adverse umpiring decision. In search of larger receipts, Von der Ahe suggested to Al Spalding in 1886 that the series be played on the contestants’ fields. Spalding, whose White Stockings were the perennial League champions, agreed to the format and set forth other conditions to avoid “the misunderstandings of last year” in a winner-take-all series. Spalding promised his players half of the receipts and new suits if they won. Inspired by such a magnanimous promise, the White Stockings won two of the first three games at Chicago. But the Browns came storming back, sweeping three at Sportsman’s Park. The last game was won in the tenth inning after Chicago blew a 3-0 lead in the seventh. The Browns rallied, scoring one run followed by a single by Comiskey and a bunt single by Curt Welch. Arlie Latham, known as “the freshest man on earth,” came to bat with the calm confidence of Thayer’s Casey silencing the crowd by saying, “Don’t worry folks, I’ll tie it up.” And he did with a two-run triple. The Browns scored in the tenth to win the series when Welch stole home with the famous “$15,000” slide. Spalding was reported to be so upset with his players that he refused to pay their train fare home. Von der Ahe was so elated with his Browns that he arranged a parade in which the club rode in a large carriage bearing a huge woolen pennant proudly proclaiming: “St. Louis Browns: Champions of the World.”
During the 1880s a baseball game featuring the Browns was an event almost akin to the Fourth of July. At home or on the road, the Browns virtually guaranteed a full house. Going to the game was as momentous as the game itself. “The Boss President,” as Chris liked to call himself, personally led his club to the ballpark. In those days, many parks did not have clubhouses, so players dressed in their hotel rooms or apartments. In St. Louis, the Browns would assemble at Von der Ahe’s saloon and march down to Sportsman’s Park. A silk-hatted, swaggering Chris would lead the formation, flanked by his two sleek greyhounds, Snoozer and Schnauzer. Chris would beam as he acknowledged cheers, but he was always bewildered by the laughter that followed him. Had he ever bothered to look back, Chris would have seen third baseman Latham aping the Boss’s gait and wearing a bright red false nose reminiscent of Chris’s bulbous proboscis.
The festivities continued on the field with an aggressive brand of play. Consistent with the American value of achieving success at any cost, baseball players in the 1880’s seemingly observed only one rule: Everything was fair. One contemporary umpire noted that only the closest watch of players could keep them from tricks like sliding spikes-high, which became such a hazard that spikes were barred from the major leagues for several years. The Browns were not the only club that resorted to such tactics, but because they won so many pennants they were singled out for rowdy play and accused of “stopping at nothing” to win.
Following the action on the field, Chris would lead his customers back up Sullivan Avenue for a nightly wassail. Chris would even occasionally spring for drinks, declaring “money, dot [sic] ist to schpend!”
The 1880s were heady days for Von der Ahe and the Browns; not even the threat of a third league could slow the Von der Ahe juggernaut. The key behind the Browns’ success was that Comiskey could deal diplomatically with the mercurial Von der Ahe and prevent the Boss from interfering with running the club on the field.
The Browns’ fortunes, however, turned with the formation of the Players League in 1890. Comiskey was one of 30 AA stars to defect. The PL’s collapse did not help the AA, and after the 1891 season, Von der Ahe and his Browns were begrudgingly accepted into the National League.
Looking for new ways of drawing customers, Chris decided that old Sportsman’s Park was outdated. A new 10,000-seat stadium was built near a convenient trolley line. Chris hoped that access to mass transportation would lure the fans. However, the Browns became losers. Chris was unable to find a suitable replacement for manager Comiskey. Between 1892 and 1896, Von der Ahe convened a “reign of terror.” Between 1894 and 1896, the Boss ran through a dozen managers; the eight he used in 1895 is a record that not even George Steinbrenner could assault.
AMONG THE MANAGERS was George Miller, known as “Calliope” because of his booming voice.
When not hung over, he was at least an able hitter and catcher. Calliope’s tenure was briefly broken in August, 1894, when the Phillies came to town. At the time Chris’s secretary George Munson was out of town promoting a melodrama written by Al Spink. Harry Martin, the Browns’ official scorer, was left to fill in as interim secretary, while continuing to score. When the Phillies scored eight runs in one inning, four of which were unearned on an errant throw by Calliope, Von der Ahe telephoned Martin in the press box and demanded to see him forthwith. Martin appeared in Chris’s office.
“Why,” demanded Chris, “didn’t you go down there and kick the manager out of the game? Should I do everything around here – Is it up to me to manage those lousy low-lifers?”
“But I am only the official scorer, Mr. Von der Ahe,” replied Harry, “I am no manager.”
“Well then, from now on you are the manager too. You go down there and tell that Calliope feller [sic], that good-for-nothing bum to get the hell out of my park and you sit there on the bench and tell `em what to do.”
Martin had no choice but to relieve Miller of his duties. Calliope, slightly hung over as Martin recalled, was quite happy to give his gear to someone else. Martin sat quietly on the bench and watched Philadelphia score some more unanswered runs. The next day, however, Chris and Calliope made up, and Harry gratefully returned to the press box.
Chris believed he was a good judge of baseball talent. Browns scout Billy Gleason brought in a young man named McGraw for a tryout with the Browns. Chris took one look at the skinny kid and without seeing him work out snorted, “that little feller, take him over to the Fairgrounds track and make a hoss yockey [sic] out of him!” Gleason sold the “little feller” to Baltimore, and John McGraw enjoyed a ten-year career as a third baseman for the Orioles followed by thirty years as one of the most successful managers of all time. Another example of Chris’s mismanagement occurred in 1894 when he ordered Martin to trade shortstop Frank Shugart to Louisville. In return, Chris wanted an outfielder named Tom Brown. Martin drafted a telegram spelling out the deal in plain language, but it was vetoed by the Boss. Chris told Martin to write in a more obfuscated manner. The trade somehow went through. In 1895, Brown hit an unimpressive .217 before being traded to Washington where he hit .233. Shugart, who was batting .436 for the Browns, dropped to all of .374 with Louisville.
It was during this time that baseball evolved more and more into the game we know today. Overhand pitching became routine by 1890, diamonds were laid out by geometric principles in 1893, and the pitcher’s mound was set at the present 60′ 6″. In 1896 efforts were made to codify scorekeeping. The immigrant-baiting Sporting News, which was antagonistic towards Von der Ahe throughout the 1890’s as his entrepreneurial schemes subordinated his baseball interests, asked Chris’s opinion of uniformity in scorekeeping. The recorded reply can only be taken as an attempt to discredit Chris as a baseball magnate:
“Vot [sic] do I think of uniformity in scorekeeping? Now vot do reporters want with uniforms on? Are they stuck on the dames and do they want to show off? Let the players wear uniforms, but not the reporters.”
The Browns lost game after game, and Chris lost money to rainouts. Complaining of so many rainouts at a league meeting, Chris allegedly suggested that in all fairness, rainy days should be distributed more evenly throughout the league. Selling his highest-paid players to make up these losses, he reinvested not in players but promotions. To Von der Ahe, money was invested to draw patrons who sought diversions other than baseball. In fairness, his thinking was not unique. In an era in which people sought various forms of entertainment, a baseball magnate had to find ways to ensure that his customers would not seek their pleasures elsewhere. The choice was either to field a competitive club or resort to the extremes Chris did. His first such investment was the building of a “stadium club” under the grandstands at new Sportsman’s Park. The clubhouse motif, which has since been copied by modern owners as a luxury premium, was simply a shaded area protected from stray balls by a screened fence and was open to all on a first-come, first-serve basis. In the relative comfort of the shade, a fan could watch the game and eat and drink to his heart’s content. The clubhouse idea seemed to work well, and beer sales increased. Harry Martin recalled, however, that when Chris discovered that the Cincinnati club’s beer sales were greater, he took measures to expand his bar.
Another innovation was the installation of a shoot-the-chute in center field. After an elevator trip to the top of the water slide, the passenger was strapped in a boat by a nautically-clad attendant. As the passengers were about to take their plunge, they would be sent off by a women’s silver cornet band that Chris hired for general entertainment. The Sporting News satirized the shoot-the-chute with a cartoon in which Chris was portrayed as a ship’s captain with the boat taking its plunge. The cartoon was an apt analogy to the sinking fortunes of the Browns.
ANOTHER ATTRACTION CHRIS BROUGHT to Sportsman’s Park was a Wild West show featuring fifty Indians and forty cowboys and cowgirls. The Indians were full-blooded Sioux whom the Boss rented from the government at the rate of $12 a month each. When doubts of the Indians’ authenticity reached Chris’s ears, he was furious, “I should pay an actor feller [sic] $50 a month when I can get squaws, bucks and a real Indian chief [Sitting Bull] at $12 a head?” After the 1895 season, Chris took his show on a southern tour but was crestfallen when it did not produce the desired profit. Undeterred, Von der Ahe continued to expand his ballpark enterprise and billed it as “the Coney Island of the West.”
In 1896 Chris began building his most controversial enterprise: a one-third mile race track inside Sportsman’s Park. The track was leased with concession rights to race promoter Fred Foster for two years. Von der Ahe expected to collect $20,000 over two years. The Sporting News, which held up baseball as a public icon, decried the electrically-illuminated pony track as an assault on baseball’s integrity. League officials warned Chris that he violated Section 3 of the league’s constitution. Chris replied that the specifics of the rule applied only to baseball. The league had no reply to that.
Critics clamored for Von der Ahe’s removal from the game. The Sporting News advocated that the league protect itself from Chris, whom they called “Von der ‘Ha-ha’” and referred to as a “maggot” as opposed to a “magnate.” The Sporting News claimed that the league’s toleration of Chris and his gambling associates would result in baseball’s reputation being tarnished. Additionally, The Sporting News propagated the myth that baseball was still in the realm of upper-class entertainment, and that by ousting Von der Ahe and his cronies, the game would somehow be wrested from its democratized status and returned to its proper place in society. Von der Ahe ignored the bad press. The Coney Island venture demanded all of his attention, and the quality of baseball sank to ridiculous depths. In less than a decade, the mighty Browns fell from contender to doormat. The pony track, shoot-the-chute’s water hazard, and fly-by-night sideshows took their toll on the condition of the playing field. Scorers had difficulty determining hits from errors because the pock-marked infield fell into disrepair. Losing interest in baseball, Von der Ahe concentrated only in making money to pay his mounting debts.
Von der Ahe’s profligate lifestyle led to his eventual failure. The Sporting News painted a picture of Chris with a peasant demeanor and dressed in outrageously flashy clothes who thought of himself as a veritable Apollo, but in reality attracted women because of his fabulous wealth. It’s true that Chris was adulterous. In 1896 his wife Emma sued for divorce while he carried on an affair with the housemaid, Anne Kaiser, to whom he had proposed. In August, Chris reneged on this promise and married Della Welles, a golddigger. Kaiser sued Chris for breach of promise but settled out of court. The marriage to Della was a disaster. In December, 1897, Chris filed for divorce citing Della as neglectful of her duties and physically abusive, as well as running “up large bills for things she does not need.”
Chris’s misfortunes came to a head in February, 1898, as the result of a suit originally filed against him in 1890. Mark Baldwin, a Pittsburgh club executive, had come to St. Louis in the midst of the Players’ war and tried to steal Chris’s star players. Chris had Baldwin arrested for conspiracy. When charges were thrown out of court, Baldwin sued Von der Ahe for false arrest and asked for $10,000 in damages. Baldwin was awarded $2,500 four years later, but could not collect because Chris avoided going to Pittsburgh. W A. Nimick, who posted bond for Chris, wanted his money back and hired a private detective to seize Von der Ahe. Chris was lured into a trap by the detective, handcuffed, and taken to the Allegheny County jail where he sat for several days unkempt and humiliated until his lawyers could bail him out. The league stepped in on Chris’s behalf and paid his debt. In return, Von der Ahe was required to retire from baseball. He complied and tried to sell the Browns, but couldn’t get a clean bill of sale because of his debts. The club was put in a receivership by the courts and later put up for auction. The league moved to protect itself from an undesirable purchaser by declaring that ownership of the Browns’ assets did not necessarily include league membership.
Mired in debt and out of baseball, Von der Ahe filed for bankruptcy in 1899. The onetime czar of the American Association left baseball a pariah. He returned to his old saloon but business was no longer booming. Chris was forced to rely on the benevolence of his old captain, Charles Comiskey, who had become a magnate in the fledging American League. In 1908, a benefit exhibition between St. Louis’ two major league clubs helped build Chris a nest egg in the face of declining health.
After a long illness, Chris died on June 5, 1913, of dropsy and cirrhosis of the liver. Thanks to Comiskey, Chris was given a dignified burial in keeping with his once lofty status. Comiskey eulogized Chris as “the grandest figure baseball has ever known.”
HOW SHOULD Chris be appraised? Harold Seymour called Chris “quixotic.” Lee Allen suggested he “resembled something out of Rabelais,” and David Quentin Voigt said he was “part-genius, part-clown.” All these assessments capture the essence of a “character.” But there was more to Chris than that. Unlike his conservative rivals, who saw baseball as a purely “American” institution to be enjoyed by the upper classes, Chris and his American Association colleagues were instrumental in democratizing the game. With the introduction of beer concessions, they succeeded in showing up the puritanical National League owners.
But success and respectability often have limits in high-risk enterprises. Successful in undercutting the National League monopoly for a few years, Chris could not adjust to the second Association war. His sideshow attractions dismayed the other owners, and they helped force him out of baseball.
But Von der Ahe was the prototype for other owner-promoters who changed the face of baseball. Larry MacPhail introduced night baseball to the major leagues. Although considered a novelty fifty years ago, it is standard practice today. Bill Veeck imitated Chris with schemes like exploding scoreboards that were designed to create maximum publicity and bolster attendance. The strategy worked for years. Charlie Finley introduced colorful uniforms of the 1970’s and early 1980’s reminiscent of nineteenth-century styles.
Today, even corporate owners follow Chris’s example, albeit more conservatively. To lure fans, they offer cheap premiums like can wraps, socks, wrist bands, vinyl warmup jackets, and special-honoree promotions. These Barnumesque trappings are minor but integral aspects of baseball today. They are also the legacy of Chris Von der Ahe, baseball’s pioneering huckster.
Richard Egenriether is a graduate student in American studies at the University of Minnesota.