What I’m Reading: “The Cardinals Way” by Howard Megdal

The Cardinals Way: How One Team Embraced Tradition and Moneyball at the Same Time is an ambitious book that does a lot of things really well and makes for a captivating read.

Author Howard Megdal illustrates the way in which the team’s conversion to analytics was not out of line with the team’s history, which included the innovations of Branch Rickey and the commitment to continuous improvement of longtime baseball men like George Kissell, and also includes a sustained commitment to scouting and player development.

As a result, The Cardinals Way ends up becoming several books in one. Megdal devotes the early chapters to tracing the Cardinals’ history under Branch Rickey and the innovations he introduced to the St. Louis Cardinals, including the creation of a minor league system designed to continuously pump fresh talent onto the major-league roster.

Megdal then devotes significant time to Kissell, the Cardinals’ long-time minor-league coach, whose baseball philosophy remains a significant part of the Cardinals’ identity. Of all the Cardinals books I’ve read, I have not yet found another that is as dedicated to showing the impact Kissell has had on the Cardinals behind the scenes. At one point in this section, Megdal describes an interview with a minor-league instructor who played under Kissell. As that coach glowingly describes their interactions with Kissell and the impact he had upon their life and career, another player-turned-coach overhears them and begins to share their own Kissell stories. Soon, yet another coach joins them to share additional stories.

The section on Kissell alone makes this book worth reading.

Megdal follows that section by discussing Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr. and his growing belief after buying the team that the Cardinals need to improve their data gathering and analysis. To implement that plan, DeWitt hires Jeff Luhnow, and Megdal describes the changes that take place in the St. Louis Cardinals organization and the challenges Luhnow faced in implementing his vision for more data-based decision-making.

One of Megdal’s real strengths in this book is the access he obtains. He interviews all the key players, including DeWitt, Luhnow, Walt Jocketty, Sig Mejdal, and Dan Kantrovitz, and they all seem to be genuinely open and honest with him about that time period. Megdal actually dives into the personalities of Mejdal and Kantrovitz – arguably the two least well-known of the key players in the Cardinals’ shift to analytics – but I would have liked to have seen Megdal dive more into who these other men are and how their backgrounds shape their decision-making.

He’s fair with Jocketty and is quick to point out that what Jocketty was doing was working – as evidenced by the World Series appearance in 2004 and the World Series championship in 2006 – but he doesn’t give us any understanding as to how Jocketty got to this position or what his organizational philosophy has been.

I also would have liked to have gotten a better feel for who Luhnow is as a person. He’s obviously a key player in the story the book is telling and Megdal quotes him throughout that section of the book, but as a reader, I really never got to know much about him outside of his professional background and his philosophy for the organization. Obviously, Luhnow’s personal characteristics are more interesting now, in 2020, given the manner in which his career with the Astros ended.

When it comes to discussing the conflict within the front office, however, Megdal gets unparalleled access, including interviews with Jocketty about his days with the Cardinals. Personally, I found this part of the book fascinating as well, as it covers topics related to baseball, but also provides great insights regarding organizational goals, communication, and leadership. This transition to incorporating analytics into their decision-making is as important as anything that has happened to the Cardinals under DeWitt’s ownership, and this is the deepest dive into that transition that I have seen.

In the final portion of the book, Megdal illustrates how important the Cardinals’ scouts and player development professionals are to the team’s success. Megdal speaks to a number of Cardinals prospects – regular, run-of-the-mill prospects looking to make their major-league dreams come true. At the same time, he also spotlights the Cardinals’ scouts, primarily Charlie Gonzalez. Charlie is a memorable character, and the scenes where Megdal brings us into the scouts’ meetings in advance of the draft provide a fascinating glimpse into the process.

As you can probably tell, I enjoyed all three pieces of the book, as they paint the full picture of how the Cardinals’ analytics version ties the past with the future and the analytics movement with an emphasis on superior scouting and player development. The publisher doesn’t actually divide the book into these three sections, but these shifts in focus are so defined that I can see why readers would like one or two of the book’s sections more than the others.

Ultimately, though, I think all three pieces are necessary to fully paint the picture of how the Cardinals have incorporated analytics into their operations. I love that Megdal placed a spotlight on George Kissell and the impact he has had upon Cardinals baseball. I was impressed by the access Megdal was given to the club, even in discussing its internal conflict and its scouting decisions, and I liked that this book took me inside the Cardinals’ front office with a perspective I haven’t seen during this generation of St. Louis baseball.

For Cardinals fans, even those who haven’t bought into analytics, this book offers a bit of everything. It’s definitely worth reading to better understand the process that led to the 2011 World Series and established the foundation for the Cardinals teams of today.

What I’m Reading: “Whitey Herzog Builds a Winner” by Doug Feldmann

With Whitey Herzog Builds a Winner: The St. Louis Cardinals, 1979-1982, Doug Feldmann traces the Cardinals’ path to the 1982 World Series championship from Lou Brock’s final season in 1979 to Bruce Sutter’s final pitch in Game 7.

Feldmann’s decision to focus the first two chapters on Brock’s resurgent final season is an interesting one as he seeks to tie the Cardinals of the 1960s and ’70s to the team Whitey Herzog would create following his arrival in 1980. Even as the 1970s weren’t a particularly successful era in Cardinals history, Brock’s return to form in 1979 after subpar seasons in 1977 and 1978 provides a positive opener to help bookend the story.

Ultimately, though, those first two chapters feel like part of a different book. After Herzog takes Kenny Boyer’s place as manager of the Cardinals, he quickly takes the measure of his players and tells Gussie Busch that the Redbirds need a complete overhaul. As a result, Busch fires John Claiborne and makes Herzog the general manager duties as well. It doesn’t take long for Herzog to start wheeling and dealing, and by the time Feldmann begins to dive into the Cardinals’ championship season, almost all of Brock’s former teammates are out of the picture.

Feldmann’s research is largely built around newspaper accounts; autobiographies by Herzog, Brock, Jack Buck, Darrell Porter, and Red Schoendienst; and interviews with Herzog, Ken Reitz, Don Kessinger, Mark Littell, and John Fulgham. There are a lot of good stories shared, and Feldmann does a good job bringing the games to life, particularly during the 1982 playoffs.

Of course, the Cardinals had a variety of interesting personalities in those days, and while Feldmann touches on each of them, he doesn’t dive as deep into the 1982 players as he does the final year of Brock’s career. Though it would have made the book longer, I would have liked to have seen him provide more biographical information for some of the Cardinals’ stars of the era, including George Hendrick, Keith Hernandez, Ozzie Smith, Bruce Sutter, and others.

However, while the book doesn’t dive into the personalities as much I might like, Herzog gets a significant spotlight and Feldmann does a good job shining a light on Herzog’s unique personality and approach to the game.

Ultimately, Whitey Builds a Winner is a great book for readers seeking an introduction to Herzog and the 1982 Cardinals. Feldmann is very thorough in detailing the moves Herzog made to build the roster he needed and in showing the way that the entire Cardinals roster – including both the stars and the reserves – contributed to the 1982 triumph. For 24 years, the 1982 season would stand as the Cardinals’ most recent championship and this book provides a really good look at the season and how Herzog made that World Series win possible.

What I’m Reading: “Living on the Black” by John Feinstein

living-on-the-blackWith Living on the Black: Two Pitchers, Two Teams, One Season to Remember, John Feinstein meticulously details the 2007 seasons of two future Hall of Famers – New York Mets starting pitcher Tom Glavine and New York Yankees starting pitcher Mike Mussina.

It would prove to be the penultimate season in the career of each pitcher, as both would retire after their 2008 seasons. It proved an interesting season for Feinstein to follow, as Glavine pursued his 300th victory and Mussina battled through arguably the worst season of his career.

The first quarter of the book lays out both men’s careers leading into the 2007 season in a compelling fashion before diving into the day-to-day cycle of wins, losses, preparation between starts, and constant adjustments. Both Glavine and Mussina are near the tail end of their careers. Never a hard thrower, Glavine has relied upon precise pitch location and guile throughout his career. Mussina, meanwhile, finds himself adjusting to a fastball that no longer has the velocity it once did. As a result, we get an interesting contrast even though both pitchers, located in big-market New York and seeing the end of their Hall of Fame careers coming just around the corner, appear on the surface to be very similar.

Part of the appeal is the difference in the pitchers’ personalities. Glavine is obviously the friendlier, more low-key subject, and he happens to be enjoying a more successful season. Feinstein provides an insightful glimpse into how important family is to Glavine and the relationship between Glavine and his former Braves teammates John Smoltz and Greg Maddux. He also does an excellent job documenting Glavine’s thoughts and feelings as he approached his 300th career victory and that pursuit obviously plays a significant part in the book.

Mussina’s season, meanwhile, was much more challenging and so while he doesn’t seem as open about his family and friendships as Glavine is, his season – which would prove to be Joe Torre’s final as Yankees manager – contained much more drama and conflict. It particularly showed how quickly a season can turn on a pitcher.

Throughout much of the book, Feinstein documents a season that seems to be going OK for Mussina. He’s not dominant by any stretch, but he’s having a respectable season when things suddenly spiral. As Mussina piles bad start after bad start, he doesn’t seem to have any answers. In fact, Feinstein writes, Mussina asks five people whose opinion he respects what he’s doing wrong and they give him five different answers. Eventually, Mussina takes pieces of each answer and decides that he’s not being aggressive enough and is trying too hard to live on the black part of the plate, but it’s not enough to prevent him from getting booted from the starting rotation for the first time in his career.

Eventually, injuries – including one to Roger Clemens, who also is making his final appearance in Yankees pinstripes – allow Mussina to return to the rotation, where he helps the Yankees make the playoffs and finishes the year with an 11-10 record. Not exactly an all-star season, but certainly respectable, especially for an aging pitcher who was struggling to hold down a rotation spot at one point.

Feinstein also shares some details that humanize Mussina, a player known for sometimes being prickly. Getting Mussina’s voice certainly helps, but I was most interested in Mussina’s relationship with his bullpen catcher. At least twice in the book, Mussina points out that only a few teammates remain from when he first arrived in New York, and Feinstein strongly hints that it’s actually Mussina’s sensitivity and how hard it is for him to build relationships and then see those people go to other organizations that make him build walls around himself. It’s a fascinating insight into Mussina’s psyche that I really appreciated.

Feinstein’s storytelling ability is always top-notch (A Season on the Brink, documenting a season with Bobby Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers, was one of the first sports books I ever read), and I can’t say that I preferred Glavine or Mussina’s story over the other. They both have interesting details to share, and Feinstein is especially effective in showing the little details of the season – how they prepare for each start, their mental approaches, the ups and downs of their relationships with managers and coaches.

At the same time, there were moments where it felt as though Feinstein was being unnecessarily petty or sarcastic and it distracted me from the story he was telling. The most pointed example was in regards to Carl Pavano. Feinstein points out how remarkable it is that both Glavine and Mussina have been relatively healthy throughout their long careers, but if he has an appreciation for how incredible their health has been, he certainly has no sympathy for the oft-injured Pavano.

Feinstein relates early in the book a situation in which Pavano tells reporters he has nothing to prove entering the 2007 season despite his recent injury history. When this is conveyed to Mussina, he expresses disbelief and tells reporters that Pavano absolutely has something to prove to his teammates, and needs to show the Yankees that he can be counted on to take the ball when his turn in the rotation comes up.

It feels like a minor misunderstanding between teammates, but Feinstein hops back to the subject of Pavano a few times in the subsequent to take a few gratuitous shots. Mussina and Pavano happen to go on the disabled list the same day, and as Feinstein writes, “After his impressive outing in Minnesota, he (Pavano) had reported some tightness in his right forearm. The so-called tightness would eventually lead to season-ending surgery.”

It was the use of “so-called” that caught my eye – after all, that indicates that Feinstein isn’t sure there was any tightness at all, which seems strange given that Yankees’ doctors confirmed the injury and the guy had season-ending surgery to correct it. Pitchers don’t fake injuries that require them to go under the knife. If anything, Pavano seems like a cautionary tale about how hard it is to be healthy and successful at the game’s highest level, but is instead treated as though he’s somehow not tough enough to pitch in New York.

There are a few other small examples in which Feinstein introduces journeyman opponents sarcastically as “the immortal” so-and-so. The book is certainly good enough to overcome this strange tendency, but it’s weird for a guy who is writing a book that analyzes the nuances of a professional baseball career to mock players competing at the highest level.

There also is an interesting point late in the book in which Mussina is pulled from the rotation and Yankees pitching coach Ron Guidry inexplicably begins to ignore Mussina. As it’s described, Guidry simply stops talking to Mussina and looks through him when they see each other in the clubhouse. Obviously, I have no way of knowing whether Feinstein asked Guidry about this and what the response may have been, but as readers we never really get an explanation from Guidry’s perspective as to why – or even if – this takes place. In the afterward, Feinstein thanks Guidry for all his help with the book, so it’s unclear whether Feinstein doesn’t dive into this more because he likes Guidry or there’s something else going on. He certain isn’t as gentle in his handling of others, whether it’s Pavano or the relief pitchers who lose leads for Mussina or Glavine.

Regardless, as a Cardinals fan who doesn’t particularly care for the Mets or the Yankees, this is definitely a book worth reading for any baseball fan. The analysis of pitching from the perspective of two of the game’s best is outstanding, and following both pitchers throughout their 2007 season makes for an interesting format.

With the benefit of hindsight, I’d have loved to see an extra chapter added to a subsequent edition that provides some insight into the close of both men’s careers. While Glavine’s 2007 season was superior to Mussina’s, Glavine would struggle in 2008. After signing with the Braves, he would go 2-4 and throw just 63 1/3 innings that season. The Braves would release him in 2009 and he would retire shortly thereafter, a sharp turn from the optimism Glavine expresses regarding his baseball future late in this book.

Meanwhile, Mussina, who had just struggled through arguably the toughest season of his career, would turn things around after a slow start in 2008. After chronicling how Mussina had won 19 games in both 1995 and 1996, Feinstein may have been surprised to see Mussina finally win 20 games in 2008 while shaving almost two runs off his ERA.

In the book’s final pages, Feinstein also touches on the steroid scandal and the fact that it included several of Mussina and Glavine’s teammates – namely Clemens, Andy Pettitte, and Paul Lo Duca. Even outside of the steroid scandal, Feinstein only briefly mentions Clemens and Pettitte, and Mussina’s relationship with his fellow Hall of Fame pitchers is never discussed, a strange oversight that left me wishing Feinstein had seen fit to mention a bit more about the Yankees’ clubhouse culture and Mussina’s place in it.

I guess, though, that that’s the mark of a really good book – even after you’re through reading it, you’d like to read just a bit more.

What I’m Reading: “The Gashouse Gang” by John Heidenry

gashouse-gangDespite its title, John Heidenry’s “The Gashouse Gang: How Dizzy Dean, Leo Durocher, Branch Rickey, Pepper Martin, and Their Colorful, Come-From-Behind Ball Club Won the World Series – and America’s Heart – During the Great Depression” is mostly a book about the 1934 St. Louis Cardinals’ star pitcher – Dizzy Dean.

Of course, the book touches on the other personalities that drove the team, including Frankie Frisch, Paul Dean, Pepper Martin, Ducky Medwick, and Leo Durocher, and even includes an early chapter on Branch Rickey, though he disappears for most of the book. However, most of these characters only discussed in the broadest biographical terms; this is mostly a book about the Deans and the way in which Dizzy took the baseball world by storm in the summer of 1934.

Heidenry covers Dizzy Dean’s path to the Major Leagues, the brothers’ confrontation with Cardinals owner Sam Breadon and Rickey over salary in the midst of a pennant race, and the variety of crazy things Dean said and did over the course of the season.

Interestingly, Heidenry admits that while the team’s famous nickname did not arrive until 1935, he doesn’t have an explanation for why the 1934 Cardinals were dubbed “the Gashouse Gang,” though he offers a number of suggestions that have been proposed elsewhere. In fact, he spends a not insignificant amount of time describing why the name makes little sense, as the term “gashouse” had been out of vogue for decades, and while New York had a “gashouse district” a generation previous, St. Louis did not.

Nonetheless, while Heidenry does not dive into great deal into any of the personalities on display outside of Dizzy Dean, he does provide a sense of how the Gashouse Gang fit into the culture of 1930s America, and the way that baseball was in many respects an entirely different atmosphere in those days.

Heidenry provides a steady stream of entertaining anecdotes – most centered on Dean, but a few that don’t. He includes the day that Dean famously provided interviews to three different journalists from New York City and helpfully gave them each a different birth date so they each would have a scoop for their readers.

Among my favorites:

  • When player-manager Frisch went to the mound to pull Tex Carleton from the game and the pitcher objected. “Well, you may feel all right, but I feel terrible,” Frisch responded. “Please go away from here.”
  • After striking Dizzy Dean in the head with a thrown ball in the 1934 World Series, knocking the young superstar unconscious, Detroit Tigers shortstop told reporters, “If I’d known his head was there, I would have thrown the ball harder.”
  • After Dizzy Dean’s playing days ended prematurely due to injury, he began a successful broadcasting career and was paired with Pee Wee Reese on CBS’s game of the week. “Look-a-there, Pee Wee,” Dean reportedly said once. “Those young folks are smooching after every pitch. He’s kissing her on the strikes and she’s kissing him on the balls.”

Though it wasn’t directly related to the Cardinals, I also appreciated this quote from Casey Stengel, whose Brooklyn Dodgers defeated the New York Giants on the final day of the season to help cement New York’s fall from the top of the National League and the Cardinals to capture the pennant:

“Farewell, my bonny men,” he told his players now that the season was over. “Some of you are off to maim the gentle rabbit. Some of you will shoot the carefree deer. I bid you Godspeed, my lamby-pambies, my brave young soldiers. Go with Casey’s blessing on your sweet heads.”

That, my friends, is poetry far superior to most anything I was forced to read in my English literature classes.

As for “The Gashouse Gang,” it’s a book that recounts a time in baseball history when the personalities were bigger and the game was far less polished. For fans of the St. Louis Cardinals, it’s a comprehensive look at the 1934 season and a team that will forever be remembered in Redbirds lore.

Chris Von der Ahe

Von der Ahe 1

Though largely forgotten in common baseball lore, the first owner of the St. Louis Cardinals franchise was the George Steinbrenner of early American baseball – brash, outspoken, innovative, and determined to field a championship club.

Perhaps no one in baseball history can claim as much credit for bringing the sport to the masses and making baseball a truly American game, an ironic achievement for a German immigrant who was widely ridiculed for his thick accent and flamboyant ways.

In many ways, modern baseball stadiums emulate Von der Ahe’s vision for Sportsman’s Park in everything from the array of entertainment options at the ballpark to the flashy scoreboards. The modern ballpark wouldn’t be the same without beer and concessions – another innovation led by Von der Ahe and the St. Louis Browns.

Ultimately, it was Von der Ahe and his fellow American Association owners who brought baseball to the American public, welcoming working-class families to a sport they previously had been unable to afford.

Perhaps just as important to Cardinals fans, it was Von der Ahe – nicknamed Der Boss President – who made baseball a success in St. Louis, succeeding where American club owners had failed. That success earned Von der Ahe a significant place in the history of American baseball and the St. Louis Cardinals franchise. It also made him a lightning rod for criticism. Newspapers of the time reveled in telling outlandish stories about Von der Ahe, especially those that depicted the Browns owner as an over-proud immigrant who didn’t understand the English language, modern technology, or even the sport he had done so much to make successful in St. Louis.

As a result, opinions among baseball historians regarding Von der Ahe’s place in the sport remain mixed.

 

ARRIVAL & EARLY SUCCESS

The oldest of nine children, Von der Ahe emigrated to New York from Hille, Germany in 1867. Facing mandatory service in the Prussian army during the wars of German unification, Von der Ahe likely told officials he was born in 1851, a fiction that would have made him too young to serve in the military. Even after emigrating, Von der Ahe maintained this fictional birthdate, which appears in official documents and on his headstone[1]. Edward Achorn, author of “The Summer of Beer and Whiskey,” speculates that Von der Ahe maintained this falsehood so he might avoid arrest should he choose to return to Germany someday.

Regardless, Von der Ahe stayed in New York only a few weeks before going to St. Louis, where he began working as a grocery clerk. While he later would be known for his extravagant lifestyle, Von der Ahe worked hard and saved his money. Within a few years, he purchased his own grocery store and added a tavern to the establishment. He later would add a butcher shop and feed store[2].

By the early 1870s, Von der Ahe had begun purchasing real estate, and by 1875 he moved his delicatessen to the corner of Grand Boulevard and St. Louis Avenue. While it appeared to be an unusual decision at the time of the purchase, it quickly grew into a bustling business district[3], thanks in no small part to the efforts of Von der Ahe, who was influential in the German immigrant community, serving as a member of the Democratic Party and the local German Immigration Society[4], and also as chairman of the Eighth Congressional District Committee[5].

Popular lore depicts Von der Ahe as the ignorant German who stumbled onto the profitability of baseball in his quest to sell beer. In Chris Von der Ahe and the St. Louis Browns, J. Thomas Hetrick notes that, “by the spring of 1880, Von der Ahe began to notice the daily shouts of boys playing ball across the street.”

Later, Hetrick recounts an oft-quoted conversation between Von der Ahe and Al Spink in which Von der Ahe said, “Vot a fine pig crowd. But the game, Al, how was the game? Vas it a goot game? You know, I know nawthing.”

As an active community leader, however, Von der Ahe was fully aware of the passion his West End community had for baseball. In 1875, he joined the Grand Avenue Club’s board of directors. The club played their games across the street from Von der Ahe’s grocery and saloon, and by 1875 he served as the club’s vice president[6].

At the time, owning a professional baseball team was no guarantee of financial success. A St. Louis Brown Stockings team had been established in 1875, and even tied for second place in the new National League, but disbanded after the 1877 season amid accusations that players had thrown games and the managers had bribed umpires[7].

In 1878, William and Al Spink and August Solari, the operator of the Grand Avenue Grounds, established a new Brown Stockings team, but this club was even less successful. Unable to gain entry into the National League, the Brown Stockings struggled to schedule quality competition, and went out of business in 1880[8].

Despite these previous failures, when the Sportsman’s Park and Club Association asked Von der Ahe to help sell stock, Von der Ahe came back a few weeks later with a check and told the stockholders he had sold 180 shares. “Never mind who bought it,” he said. “There’s Chris Von der Ahe’s check for $1,800.”[9]

In Edward Achorn’s The Summer of Beer and Whiskey, he quotes sportswriter Harry Weldon: “When Von der Ahe pulled out of the savings bank the most of his hard earnings and invested it in resurrecting the national game in St. Louis, he knew as much about baseball as a porker does about theology. Chris had no experience then, but was plucky and game enough to risk the money in the venture when no one else would touch it with a pair of tongs.”

It’s entirely possible that Weldon underestimates Von der Ahe, even as he accurately depicts the risk of the investment. Von der Ahe’s purchase appeared especially suspect when the Browns were unable to gain readmission to the National League. Given St. Louis’ history with gambling scandals and low attendance, and Von der Ahe’s plan to sell beer at the ballpark, the National League – with its bans on alcohol sales and Sunday games – had no interest in the upstart German and his Browns[10].

To most of the Browns’ stockholders, this eliminated the team’s best chance to profitability. But Von der Ahe saw another path to success. At a time when most factory workers earned $500 per year[11], the National League’s 50-cent admission was a challenge for working class citizens. The Browns’ 25-cent admission made the game more inclusive, and drew crowds excited to cheer on their local boys. Von der Ahe also introduced Sunday baseball – the one day a week that laborers were off work – and sold both beer and hard liquor at the stadium.

In 1882, Von der Ahe and others formed the American Association, admitting the Browns, Brooklyn Atlantics, Cincinnati Reds, Louisville Eclipse, and Pittsburgh Alleghenys. At Von der Ahe’s insistence, the league featured Sunday games and 25-cent admission. The new league initially barred alcohol sales, but after objections from St. Louis and Cincinnati, the league’s other owners agreed to allow alcohol at the ballpark[12].

Of course, to attract a crowd, Von der Ahe needed a ballpark worthy of the name. Grand Avenue Park was past its prime, and featured a two-story building 285 feet down the right-field line. But Von der Ahe had a vision for the future of the property. He updated the grandstand with a new upper deck, and installed covered bleachers down the baseline – a project totaling $2,500[13]. The two-story building was converted into a German-style beer garden, with chairs and tables placed within the field of play.

Some believe that Von der Ahe’s “weiner wurst” stand first introduced hot dogs as a baseball staple, though others credit New York’s Harry M. Stevens[14].

As the Browns became a force to be reckoned with in the American Association, Von der Ahe continued to improve the stadium, now known as Sportsman’s Park. In the outfield, he added a bulletin board – a forerunner to today’s scoreboards – that featured out-of-town scores conveyed via telegraph (a benefit for local gamblers). Von der Ahe also made Sportsman’s Park welcoming to women, installing a ladies restroom, offering special seating sections and souvenirs, and hosting Ladies Nights[15]. In 1883, the press box was enclosed, a relief to reporters who had been annoyed by the constant visits of fans offering their opinions for the next day’s headlines, and in the player dressing rooms, each gentleman had their own locker, a rarity for the time[16].

Referring to Sportsman’s Park as the Coney Island of the West, Von der Ahe brought a Wild West show featuring 50 Indians and 40 cowboys and cowgirls to the ballpark. In 1896, Von der Ahe began building a one-third mile horse racing track at Sportsman’s Park. Critics complained that the move brought gamblers and an unwholesome element to the ballpark, but when the league told Von der Ahe he was violating league rules regarding gambling, the Boss President responded that the rule applied only to baseball[17].

When neither the Wild West show nor the race track brought in the revenue Von der Ahe sought, he installed a shoot-the-chutes at the park. After an elevator took visitors to the top of the water slide, they were strapped into a boat and plunged to the bottom. The attraction lasted less than two seasons, however, amid lawsuits from the construction company and the company that owned the patent[18].

Undeterred, Von der Ahe introduced an ice skating park to Sportsman’s Park in 1896. Just before the grand opening, Von der Ahe asked an employee to test the ice. The unfortunate fellow crashed through the ice and had to be pulled from the water by a policeman.

“Vell, vat dit you do dat for?” Von der Ahe demanded. “I nefer toldt you to chump t’roo it, dit I?”

The policeman had to prevent Von der Ahe from attacking the man, and the evening’s celebration was postponed[19].

While Von der Ahe’s off-the-field attractions were largely unsuccessful, the Browns led both American Association and National League teams in attendance in 1882, 1884, 1886, and 1891, drawing as many as 243,000 fans in 1883[20]. That year, the Browns earned $50,000 in profit, second only to Philadelphia[21]. Throughout most of the 1880s, the Browns reportedly earned $75,000 per year[22], and by 1890, the Browns had earned Von der Ahe more than $500,000 in profits[23].

After games, Von der Ahe often lit a victory cigar, then, flanked by armed guards, transported the day’s earnings in a wheelbarrow to the bank. “Five tousand tamn fools, und one wise man. Und dat wise man iss me – Chris Von der Ahe,” he was fond of saying[24].

In addition to his baseball profits, the Browns’ player contracts required the players to stay at Von der Ahe’s boarding house, ensuring that the owner recouped a portion of each player’s salary[25]. Players often drank at Von der Ahe’s saloons, allowing the owner to recollect even more of the players’ salaries.

However, the players didn’t always want to drink under the owner’s supervision. When they chose to visit other establishments, the Browns players kept an eye out for Von der Ahe’s prized greyhounds, which often preceded him beneath the saloon doors. Once they saw those dogs, players would bolt out the back door[26].

Von der Ahe’s innovations weren’t entirely to credit for the Browns’ success at the ticket gate. The Browns magnate surrounded himself with great baseball men such as Ned Cuthbert, Ted Sullivan, and Charles Comiskey. Together, their personnel decisions helped the Browns win four consecutive pennants from 1885-88.

As Jeff Kittel writes in an essay supporting Von der Ahe’s 2016 Hall of Fame bid, “The popular interpretation of the success of the Browns in the 1880s has always been to credit Charles Comiskey for putting together and running a club that won four consecutive championships. But there is no evidence to suggest that Comiskey, who was without a doubt, a great baseball man, an extraordinary leader, and an admirable person, had any involvement in the signing of players. On the other hand, there (are) multiple references in the contemporary press to Chris Von der Ahe going on the road, identifying players that he believed would help the Browns, and signing them.”

 

THE STORIES

von der ahe 2Perhaps one of the reasons Von der Ahe doesn’t receive significant credit for his accomplishments, either in bringing baseball to the masses or for his role in finally establishing a successful baseball franchise in St. Louis, is because newspapers across the country depicted him as an impulsive, preening fool. Some of this reputation certainly was earned, but reporters also appeared to take great joy in presenting Von der Ahe as a bumbling caricature.

As J. Thomas Hetrick notes in his book, Chris Von der Ahe and the St. Louis Browns, “proof exists that many of (Von der Ahe’s) quotes were not quite authentic, due in part to their repetitive nature. Certain quotations were run year after year in St. Louis’ local newspapers, often with them intact but the wording slightly altered.”

The story often is told that at the grand opening of the renovated Sportsman’s Park, where Von der Ahe reportedly said, “Look around, chentlemen, because this is the largest dimundt in the welt ist.” In different versions of the story, Comiskey or team secretary David L. Reid then inform Von der Ahe that all baseball diamonds are, by rule, the same dimensions. “Vot I meant to say vas this is the larchest infield in the welt ist,” Von der Ahe is said to have replied.

In a meeting with his fellow American Association owners, Von der Ahe is said to have protested the number of rainouts placed on the Browns schedule[27]. Another common Von der Ahe story tells of a reporter asking the Boss President about uniformity in scorekeeping. “Now vot do reporters want with uniforms on?” Von der Ahe said. “Are they stuck on the dames and do they want to show off? Let the players wear the uniforms, but not the reporters.”[28]

On another occasion, Von der Ahe joined his team in the clubhouse to fine shortstop Bill Gleason $100 for failing to stop a ground ball.

“But Chris, he wasn’t even near the ball,” said Comiskey, noting that the ball went through the infield 20 feet to Gleason’s left.

“But why wasn’t he in front of it?” responded Von der Ahe[29].

That doesn’t, however, mean that Von der Ahe was unreasonable. After one loss, the owner ordered the players to report to his hotel room for a team meeting, where he asked them why they lost the game. It was third baseman Arlie Latham who spoke for the team when he said, “You see, boss, we had devilish hard luck.”

The New York Times reported that Von der Ahe returned his players’ gaze before breaking into a grin. “Vell, boys, if it was hard luck dot settles it. You can’t win a game ven you have hard luck.”[30]

As owner, Von der Ahe demanded that his players remain sober enough to play on game days, a challenging task in the era. Outfielder Tom Mansell lost a good portion of the season one year when he fell through a hotel elevator shaft[31].

On one memorable occasion, center fielder Fred Lewis and a teammate were arrested for drunkenness. The following morning, when the players awoke on the floor of their cell, Von der Ahe was on the other side of the bars.

“Say Fred,” Von der Ahe said, “I tell you fellers to go to bed at 11 o’clock last nide. You got in der wrong room, didn’t you?”[32]

Von der Ahe took to fining players for drinking too much, even going so far as to hire a detective to follow second baseman Yank Robinson. When the detective found that Robinson indeed had been drinking, the Boss President fined him $100. But Robinson protested, explaining that he was taking medicine for “hydrophobia,” and that the medicine made him week. Feeling sorry for his star second baseman, Von der Ahe advanced Robinson $25 for additional medicine[33].

Another story tells of Von der Ahe fining Latham $100. After meeting the third baseman to hear his case, Von der Ahe agreed to reduce the fine to $50. A prankster known for emulating Von der Ahe’s signature gait and wearing a bright red nose during the team’s daily trek from the Boss President’s saloon to Sportsman’s Park[34], Latham then asked for a $50 loan to even their accounts. Later, Latham would estimate that Von der Ahe must have fined him more than $1 million, though he rarely remembered to collect. At other times, Comiskey stood up for his players, advocating so successfully for his players’ efforts that the fines were transformed into bonuses[35].

That isn’t to say, however, that Von der Ahe always forgot the fines he levied. Determined to keep his players in line, Von der Ahe paid what he called “private watchmen” to keep an eye on the players. Based upon their daily reports, Von der Ahe would fine the players $2 for drinking beer, $5 for whiskey, and $50 for gin[36].

After the 1889 season, five starters deserted the team for other squads. In 1892, pitchers Ted Breitenstein and Jack Easton were the only returners from the previous year[37].

Even away from the ballpark, Von der Ahe was considered eccentric, with a questionable mastery of the English language. Once, after purchasing a new horse and buggy, Von der Ahe demonstrated the new purchase to his friends. But to the horror of onlookers, the horse crashed into a telephone pole, ejecting Von der Ahe from buggy. Embarrassed and angered, Von der Ahe told an assistant to, “take dot … horse back to der barn unt starve him to deat. Don’t give him noddings to eat but hay and oats.”[38]

 

MANAGERS

The same eccentricities that made Von der Ahe such an interesting figure to the public imagination made him appear a madman when the team struggled to continue its success in the 1890s, and strained his relationships with a steady parade of managers. Ted Sullivan, the Browns’ first manager and the man who helped build the foundation for the team’s success, was the first to leave the team after a dispute with the Boss President during the 1883 pennant race.

“Chris had been interfering with me for a week or so before the climax came, and finally I could stand it no longer,” Sullivan said. “I told him I had enough of his interference and that he could take his club and run with it.”[39]

Demanding his release, Sullivan threw a gold pocket watch Von der Ahe had gifted him back in the owner’s face. Von der Ahe would later apologize and ask Sullivan to return, but the manager refused. In Sullivan’s 1903 autobiography, he would relate that Von der Ahe insisted Sullivan accept payment for the entire season[40].

“But I would rather have won the pennant and enjoyed its glory,” Sullivan wrote[41].

Von der Ahe announced that he would manage the team and keep the players in line, though he handed the day-to-day responsibilities to Charles Comiskey, who had signed a $60 per month contract with the team the year prior[42]. The new player-manager, who would go on to own the Chicago White Sox, quickly earned national recognition en route to leading the Browns to four American Association titles.

Other teams made bids for Comiskey’s services. Washington offered Von der Ahe $10,000, while Boston offered $15,000. Brooklyn owner Charles Byrne reportedly offered Von der Ahe $100,000 to purchase Comiskey and his players[43]. Despite – or perhaps because of – their success, the relationship between Von der Ahe and Comiskey had strained by 1889, and they argued over who deserved the credit.

After Comiskey’s departure, Von der Ahe used 12 managers from 1894-96, including a record eight in 1895. Von der Ahe even named himself the team manager on three separate occasions, compiling an unimpressive 3-14 record.

“It appears ‘Der Boss’ was only able to get along with himself for two days,” the Sporting News noted in its May 16, 1896 edition after Von der Ahe managed the club for just two games.

As manager, Von der Ahe would wear binoculars to better observe his players, and annoyed the players by frequently blowing a whistle to draw their attention. His batting advice was limited to frequently shouting “Gif it a bost. Gif it a hard bost.”[44]

In August 1894, catcher/manager George “Calliope” Miller would get a brief respite from managing the club after the Phillies scored eight runs in a single inning, including four unearned runs scored following a Miller throwing error. Irate, Von der Ahe called for his official scorer, Harry Martin.

“Why didn’t you go down there and kick the manager out of the game?” Von der Ahe asked. “Should I do everything around here? Is it up to me to manage these lousy low-lifers?”

Bewildered, Martin said, “But I am only the official scorer, Mr. Von der Ahe. I am no manager.”

“Well then from now on you are the manager too. You go down and tell that Calliope feller, that good for nothing mum, to get the hell out of my park and you sit on the bench and tell them what to do.”

Left with no other choice, Martin went down to the bench and managed the team in place of Miller, who was perfectly content to give Martin the job for the remainder of the losing effort. The next day, Martin and Miller would resume their regular duties[45].

Incredibly, things would grow even worse during the Browns’ 1895 season. After leading the team to a measly 11-28 record in 1895, Joe Quinn, the third Browns manager of that season, quit in frustration. To replace him, Von der Ahe hired Lou Phelan, a local saloon keeper and bookie who just happened to be married to the sister of Von der Ahe’s girlfriend, Della Wells.

The media immediately declared the hire what it was – nepotism.

“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,” the August 17, 1895 edition of the Sporting News reported. “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?’”

The same article would note that Phelan “knows nobody in the base ball world and nobody in the business knows him.”

Phelan promised to learn the game, but wasn’t especially successful, leading the club to an 11-30 mark. After the season, Phelan was replaced by Henry Diddlebock, and never again worked in professional baseball.

 

WOMANIZING AND DISGRACE

Managers weren’t the only relationships with which Von der Ahe struggled.

One summer day in 1885, Von der Ahe crashed his carriage in front of his home. When Mrs. Emma Von der Ahe looked out the window, she saw Von der Ahe emerge from the crash with his afternoon date, Ms. Kittey Dewey. When Dewey dared to appear at Sportsman’s Park a few weeks later, Emma hit her on the head with a soda bottle[46]. On another embarrassing occasion, Emma answered the door one day to discover a man who had come to confront Von der Ahe for dating his wife[47].

In 1896, Von der Ahe’s affair with the family housekeeper convinced Emma to sue for divorce. Von der Ahe had promised the housekeeper, Anna Keiser, that he would marry her, but instead married Della Wells, settling with the housekeeper on breach of promise charges[48]. The marriage to Wells would go no better. After Von der Ahe sued her mother for $60 back rent and later evicted her from the apartment he had leased to her, he would file for divorce from Della in December 1897, citing her neglect, physical abuse, and overspending[49]. In Von der Ahe’s letter to Wells informing her of his decision, he described the act as a “release,” as though he were firing a player[50].

While Von der Ahe’s turbulent relationships provided plenty of fodder for local gossips, nothing compared to Von der Ahe’s rivalry with Mark Baldwin, which included multiple arrests, Von der Ahe’s kidnapping, and eventually contributed to the end of the Boss President’s ownership of the Browns.

By the time Baldwin signed with the Pittsburgh Alleghenys in 1890, he already had earned Von der Ahe’s ire for helping to recruit Charles Comiskey, Tip O’Neill and Yank Robinson to the Players League the previous year. Two days after signing with Pittsburgh, Baldwin went to St. Louis and successfully convinced star pitcher Silver King to join him in the National League[51].

Irate, Von der Ahe consulted with his attorneys and had Baldwin arrested while he was still in St. Louis. Baldwin spent 24 hours in jail before the case was thrown out, but as Baldwin left the courtroom, Von der Ahe had him arrested once again. These charges eventually were dropped as well, but the arrests led Baldwin to file a malicious prosecution and false imprisonment lawsuit against Von der Ahe in Philadelphia.

With Von der Ahe spending most of his time in St. Louis, the case didn’t proceed until one year later, when Von der Ahe visited Pittsburgh to watch his team play the newly-minted Pirates, who now were officially named for their tendency to pilfer players. As J. Thomas Hetrick describes it in Chris Von der Ahe and the St. Louis Browns, Baldwin and a deputy sheriff approached Von der Ahe in the press box, where “Baldwin looked his enemy right in the eye to inform him he would not be seeing the game. The deputy sheriff grabbed the startled Chris and announced he was under arrest for ordering the false imprisonment of Baldwin in St. Louis.” Pittsburgh club president William Nimick paid Von der Ahe’s bond to get the Boss President out of jail.

After two appeals, Von der Ahe was ordered to pay Baldwin $2,525, but he refused. He also failed to repay Nimick. Determined to be repaid, Nimick hired a private detective, and hatched a scheme to bring Von der Ahe back to Pittsburgh to face justice. When Von der Ahe arrived at the St. Nicholas Hotel in response to a lunch invitation from “Robert Smith,” he was handcuffed and taken by train to the Allegheny County Jail. After initially fighting his kidnappers, Von der Ahe gathered what little dignity he had left en route to his destination[52].

Von der Ahe’s drama somehow grew even worse in 1898, as a fire broke out during an April game, burning the $62,000 stadium to ashes. Though fortunate that no one was killed, more than 100 people were injured, including some who leapt from the grandstand to escape the flames. Von der Ahe, who lived above the saloon and had lost many of his personal belongings, was inconsolable in the aftermath[53].

Rather than moving the remainder of the series to Chicago, the Browns worked through the night to prepare the stadium for the next day’s game. Browns pitcher “Kid” Carsey, who had been awake past midnight helping to rebuild the ballpark, showed obvious fatigue in a 14-1 Browns loss.

For Von der Ahe, who already had lost significant sums when the real estate market turned south during the economic depression of the 1890s, the lawsuits that followed the fire effectively ended his ownership of the St. Louis Browns. On August 10, the courts placed the Browns under the control of Benjamin Muckenfuss, and Von der Ahe left for Illinois, where he married Anna Kaiser[54].

In December, the Mississippi Valley Trust Company filed a foreclosure suit against the Sportsman’s Park Club Association for the costs of the ballpark’s reconstruction, and asked the court for the right to sell the club[55]. The team eventually was sold to the owner of the Cleveland Spiders, Frank DeHaas Robison, who then moved all of his Spiders players to play in the larger St. Louis market and sent the Browns to Cleveland. With a team comprised of the former St. Louis Browns, the 1899 Spiders won just 20 of 154 games, the worst mark in major league history. Opposing teams refused to travel to Cleveland, as their cut of the ticket revenue failed to cover expenses, and the team was disbanded the following year as the National League went from 12 to eight teams.

With his health and finances in poor shape, Von der Ahe filed for bankruptcy in 1908, listing $200 in total assets[56]. To stay afloat, he relied upon the generosity of others, including his former first baseman/manager Charles Comiskey, and Charles Spink, the publisher of the Sporting News. Spink organized a benefit game between Von der Ahe’s former club, now known as the Cardinals, and the new American League Browns. In promoting the game, which would raise more than $5,000, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat reported on Von der Ahe’s accomplishments in making baseball the top game in the nation – and in St. Louis[57].

Von der Ahe passed away on June 5, 1913 of dropsy and cirrhosis of the liver. Comiskey paid for Von der Ahe’s funeral, and in his eulogy declared his former boss “the grandest figure baseball has ever known.”[58] Von der Ahe was buried beneath a statue of himself that he had commissioned when he was 34 and placed in front of Sportsman’s Park[59].

In 2016, Von der Ahe was named one of 10 finalists for the 2016 Pre-Integration Committee ballot at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. None of the finalists were selected, but at the time of this publication, it remains possible that Von der Ahe could one day be recognized with a place in the Hall of Fame.

“Chris Von de Ahe is the 19th-century George Steinbrenner, so maybe if and when the latter gets in, a strong case might be made for the former,” official Major League Baseball historian John Thorn said[60].

If nothing else, Von der Ahe stands as one of the great characters in American baseball history, standing out in an era when the game was filled with colorful personalities. His messy personal life and the humiliating way in which he was forced from the game has made people forget his innovations, but it can be argued that no one in baseball history did more to help make it a sport for the common people. Not only did Von der Ahe help baseball find its foothold in American culture, but under his leadership, baseball finally found its place in St. Louis, and one of the premier franchises in baseball history was born.

 

 

Bibliography

Achorn, E. (2013). The Summer of Beer and Whiskey: How Brewers, Barkeeps, Rowdies, Immigrants, and a Wild Pennant Fight Made Baseball America’s Game. New York: PublicAffairs.

Egenriether, R. (n.d.). Chris Von der Ahe: Baseball’s Pioneering Huckster. Retrieved from Society of American Baseball Research Journals Archive: http://research.sabr.org/journals/chris-von-der-ahe-baseballs-pioneering-huckster

Hetrick, J. T. (1999). Chris Von der Ahe and the St. Louis Browns. Clifton, Va.: Pocol Press.

Kelly, M. (n.d.). Chris Von der Ahe – A Magnate for Success. Retrieved from Baseball Hall of Fame: http://baseballhall.org/hall-of-famers/pre-integration/von-der-ahe-chris

Kittel, J. (n.d.). Chris Von der Ahe and the Creation of Modern Baseball: A Hall of Fame Argument. Retrieved from This Game of Games: St. Louis Baseball in the 19th Century: http://www.thisgameofgames.com/chris-von-der-ahe-and-the-creation-of-modern-baseball.html

McKenna, B. (n.d.). Mark Baldwin. Retrieved from Society of American Baseball Research: http://www.sabr.org/bioproj/person/41f65388

Morris, P. (n.d.). Lou Phen. Retrieved from Society for American Baseball Research: http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/fa9a327b

Solzman, D. (2015, January 7). Chris Von der Ahe: The Hall of Fame Case. Retrieved from Redbird Rants: http://redbirdrants.com/2015/01/08/chris-von-der-ahe-hall-fame-case

 

[1] Achorn, E. (2013)

[2] Kittel, J. (n.d.)

[3] Hetrick, J.T. (1999)

[4] Kittel, J. (n.d.)

[5] Hetrick, J.T. (1999)

[6] Kittel, J. (n.d.)

[7] Kittel, J. (n.d.)

[8] Kittel, J. (n.d.)

[9] Hetrick, J.T. (1999) and Kelly, M. (n.d.)

[10] Achorn, E. (2013)

[11] Achorn, E. (2013)

[12] Achorn, E. (2013)

[13] Achorn, E. (2013)

[14] Kelly, M. (n.d.)

[15] Hetrick, J.T. (1999)

[16] Achorn, E. (2013)

[17] Egenriether, R. (n.d.)

[18] Hetrick, J.T. (1999)

[19] Hetrick, J.T. (1999)

[20] Kittel, J. (n.d.)

[21] Hetrick, J.T. (1999)

[22] Hetrick, J.T. (1999)

[23] Kelly, M. (n.d.)

[24] Hetrick, J.T. (1999)

[25] Hetrick, J.T. (1999)

[26] Hetrick, J.T. (1999) and Achorn, E. (2013)

[27] Hetrick, J.T. (1999)

[28] Hetrick, J.T. (1999)

[29] Hetrick, J.T. (1999)

[30] Achorn, E. (2013)

[31] Hetrick, J.T. (1999)

[32] Hetrick, J.T. (1999)

[33] Hetrick, J.T. (1999)

[34] Egenriether, R. (n.d.)

[35] Hetrick, J.T. (1999)

[36] Hetrick, J.T. (1999)

[37] Hetrick, J.T. (1999)

[38] Achorn, E. (2013)

[39] Achorn, E. (2013)

[40] Achorn, E. (2013)

[41] Achorn, E. (2013)

[42] Achorn, E. (2013)

[43] Hetrick, J.T. (1999)

[44] Hetrick, J.T. (1999)

[45] Egenriether, R. (n.d.)

[46] Achorn, E. (2013)

[47] Hetrick, J.T. (1999)

[48] Egenriether, R. (n.d.)

[49] Egenriether, R. (n.d.)

[50] Hetrick, J.T. (1999)

[51] McKenna, B. (n.d.)

[52] Hetrick, J.T. (1999)

[53] Hetrick, J.T. (1999)

[54] Hetrick, J.T. (1999)

[55] Hetrick, J.T. (1999)

[56] Hetrick, J.T. (1999)

[57] Hetrick, J.T. (1999)

[58] Egenriether, R. (n.d.)

[59] Hetrick, J.T. (1999)

[60] Solzman, D. (2015)