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Baseball by the Books

No Love Story
Book Review by Chuck Chalberg

J. Thomas Hetrick. Chris Von der Ahe and the St. Louis Browns. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1999, 288 pp., $42, cloth.

What do Charlie Finley, Bill Veeck, Marge Schott, George Steinbrenner, and _________ (fill in the blank) have in common with Chris Von der Ahe? Well, yes, all have passed for owners of what have passed for major league professional baseball teams. But that simple statement leaves at least two additional questions unanswered. What could Bill Veeck and George Steinbrenner possibly have in common? And just who was Chris Von der Ahe?

Second things first. As longtime SABR member and veteran amateur baseball historian J. Thomas Hetrick tells us, Von der Ahe was a German immigrant who discovered the wonders of St. Louis, saloons, and baseball, in that order. Arriving in New York City shortly after the Civil War, the still teen-aged Von der Ahe did what innumerable nineteenth century German immigrants did: without waiting to be seduced by the allures of Manhattan he fled the east coast almost immediately for one of the midwestern meccas favored by migrants of his ethnic heritage. That mecca might have been Cincinnati, where beer and baseball had already toasted one another. It might also have been Milwaukee, where beer and baseball would eventually find one another. Instead it was St. Louis, where Von der Ahe himself would serve as midwife for the union of that city's ongoing love affair with beer and baseball (not even necessarily in that order).

In Von der Ahe's case, beer always seemed to take precedence over baseball. Therein resided one of the secrets to his success . . . as a saloonkeeper. Therein resided his fortuitous, if accidental, discovery of baseball. And therein resides a sad and certainly incomplete, if not quite tragic, tale.

Though beer drove saloonkeeper Von der Ahe into baseball, saloonkeeper Von der Ahe did not just dabble in baseball. As owner of the original St. Louis Browns of the upstart American Association (which claimed major league status when the only established major league of the moment was the National League), Von der Ahe built a minor baseball dynasty in the 1880s, a dynasty comparable to that of Finley's Oakland A's of the early 1970s or to that of George Steinbrenner's current crop of New York Yankees.

As the challenger to the staid NL, the would-be lords of the AA knew that they had to offer more than baseball to their customers. And no budding lord understood that better than Von der Ahe. Venturing into a nineteenth century version of niche marketing, Von der Ahe and his colleagues sought to attract the urban working class by halving NL ticket prices to a quarter, scheduling games on Sunday, and selling beer in the ballpark. Saloonkeeper that he was, Von der Ahe was perfectly positioned to give his customers just what they wanted. That he managed to field a winning baseball team as well was just so much suds atop his glass.

"Managed" is the operative word, because the key to owner's Von der Ahe's success was player-manager Charles Comiskey. Taking over the Browns' helm near the end of the 1884 season, the then young Roman promptly piloted Von der Ahe's club to titles over the next four campaigns. But were they really Von der Ahe's team? By 1889 Comiskey thought not. The resulting feud between owner and manager led to the departure of guess which one. Unfortunately for Von der Ahe and Browns' fans, Comiskey took a number of the Browns' players with him when he left to mange the Chicago entry in the Players League of 1890, a year which was financially disastrous to all three leagues. After Monte Ward's "up-start" league failed, Comiskey return-ed to St. Louis to guide the Browns to a second place finish in 1891. Before the next season, however, the American Association disbanded, Comiskey departed once again, and Von der Ahe saw his days as a successful team's owner come to an end.

Unlike Von der Ahe himself, his biographer is quite willing to give credit where credit was due. Charles Comiskey, not Chris Von der Ahe was the not exactly well-kept secret behind the Browns' on-the-field success. Of course, there was a time when Von der Ahe was a more than willing accomplice. Like Finley and Steinbrenner, he was not at all hesitant to do what was required to obtain the ballplayers necessary for victory. Pennants, after all, were good for business, whether the business was beer or baseball, or both.

But Von der Ahe was like Finley and Steinbrenner in more ways than one. Blazing a trail that owners of his ilk would follow, Chris Von der Ahe proved to be both a dabbler and a meddler. More than that, he was a meddler of the worst sort, the kind who not only often had no idea what he was doing, but little awareness that he had no idea what he was doing.

Hetrick has no end of stories detailing Von der Ahe's interferences with Comiskey's running of the Browns. Whether it was fining players, dispatching players, redeploying players, spying on players, or simply berating players, Von der Ahe was a Charlie Finley before his time. Taken as individual stories of an owner's compulsion to run–and eventually to run into the ground–his own team, these tales might have amounted to something more than they have. Collectively, they might have been pieces of a larger story, perhaps even a tragic story, of the rise and fall of both Chris Von der Ahe and his St. Louis Browns.

Maybe it is too much to ask that this biography of a bull-headed immigrant-turned-entrepreneur, a German-American who embodied many of the worst traits of Germans and Americans, be a sympathetic portrait of a figure of tragic proportions. In any event, author Hetrick has preferred to see his subject as a comedic figure. And comedy there is aplenty, whether it be his misuse of the English language or his mishandling of his St. Louis Browns, or whether it was his hijacking of what had been a great team or his very own kidnapping engineered by a disgruntled ex-player.

But comedy or tragedy, the trouble with this biography is that Hetrick's isolated stories remain just that. If the St. Louis Browns of the 1880s missed an opportunity to transform a mini-dynasty into something more than that, Hetrick has missed an opportunity to make something more out of the life of perhaps the game's first genuine character.

Hetrick has great fun at the expense of Von der Ahe's apparent failure to master the syntax and sound of the English language. But he fails to make what might have been a great story out of Von der Ahe's stubborn refusal to appreciate what was already coming to be the American game. Hetrick does attempt to have a measure of fun with this maddening dimension of the Von der Ahe persona, but as a result, his Chris Von der Ahe becomes merely a buffoon. Perhaps that's all this owner of the St. Louis Browns ever was: a casually oafish buffoon who happened upon the game of baseball, who just happened to have more than his deserved share of baseball success, and who also happened to have more than a streak of contempt for his ballplayers.

But buried in all of this is a question and a story. Why did Chris Von der Ahe never come to appreciate the diamond game that he so long and yet so carelessly held in his hands? Von der Ahe, after all, had much more than a fleeting acquaintance with baseball. His ownership of the Browns began in 1882 and ended in 1898. Over that length of time, one might have thought that he would have obtained at least a working knowledge of, and perhaps even a deep attachment to, baseball. But such was not the case. Instead, the Von der Ahe of 1882 and the Von der Ahe of 1898 proved equally incapable of caring all that much about the game that made him temporarily rich and at least locally notorious. He proved to be all too typical of the dabbler-owners to be (even though he was not of that breed) and all too atypical of the meddler-owners (of which he was in some respects the prototype). The dabblers at least got out before they made complete fools of themselves, while the meddlers at least made sure that they actually knew a thing or two about the game. Chris Von der Ahe did neither.

The easy question to answer is why Von der Ahe got into the game. The harder question to answer is why he remained so impervious to baseball's charms. Maybe the answer had something to do with his contempt for his players. But then or now, it is one thing to be contemptuous of those who play the game at even the highest of levels, and quite another thing to be contemptuous of both the play of the game and of the game itself. Von der Ahe blatantly held many of his players in contempt and his failure to so much as begin to master the game also represented a kind of contempt. As did his Veeckian-like insistence that the game could not be promoted for the great game that it is, but rather could only to be sold as one small ring of any number of three-ring circuses in and around his Sportsmanšs Park. Perhaps it was only fitting, not to mention somehow symbolic, that his final season as Browns owner would begin with a fire that left the original Sportsmanšs Park of St. Louis in ashes, save for the right-field bleachers. Among the losses, symbolically enough, was the parkšs saloon and Von der Ahešs apartment above it. The blaze not only reduced the park to rubble, it turned nearly 4,000 patrons into an hysterical mass, and Von der Ahe into a temporary madman literally running through the streets of St. Louis. The end was clearly at hand. In one sense, Hetrick tells a great story, because he has on his hands a marvelous character whose life was comprised of one marvelous story after another. But Hetrick at once tells his stories and misses a story. Chris Von der Ahe was a German immigrant who never fully assimilated to the larger American culture. He seemed to take on the worst of America and keep his stubborn distance from the best. He loved the limelight. He loved money and all that money could buy. He loved many more women than his wife (if not a single one of his on-field chattel). He loved the glamour and the hoopla surrounding the game of baseball (and was responsible for adding to both). He loved his city and his beer. And of course he loved himself. But he never really loved baseball. ‹EFQ

CHUCK CHALBERG teaches American history at Normandale Community College in Bloomington, Minnesota.

© 2000 Chuck Chalberg


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