Top Five All-Time Cardinal Executives: Number One – Chris Von der Ahe

And…..FINALLY…..we come to the number one pick of my Top Five All-Time Cardinal Executives.  This choice may be a bit of a surprise to some, but I have my reasons for making this pick.  In picking this gentleman, I reasoned that he was the one that started it all.  His name? Chris Von der Ahe and he was known in baseball circles as “Der Poss Bresident” – a nickname he bestowed upon himself in his thick German accent.  He would become baseball’s first great showman owner – a 19th Century precursor to Bill Veeck, Charlie Finley and George Steinbrenner.

Chris Von der Ahe was born in Hille, Prussia (now Germany) on October 7, 1851.  In 1870, he emigrated to New York City and soon thereafter moved to St. Louis where he would spend the rest of his life.

It was in St. Louis that Von der Ahe started to realize his dreams of success in the business world.  He started working as a clerk in a grocery store and soon bought out the owner.  He then decided to expand the business and opened a saloon at the back of his store.  The Golden Lion Saloon fast became a very popular watering hole for St. Louis residents.  It was there that Chris Von der Ahe would hit upon an idea that would ultimately shape the rest of his life.

In the years following the Civil War, the game of Base Ball (as it was then often called)  had begun to take hold.  The United States had gone Base Ball mad and St. Louis proved to be no exception.  In January of 1876, St. Louis became a charter member of a new professional league called the Western League, which met for the first time at the Galt House Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky.  A month later, the league met again in New York City and added some eastern clubs and became the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs with the St. Louis Brown Stockings becoming a charter member.  The Brown Stockings did very well in the inaugural season in the brand new league, finishing second to the Chicago White Stockings (now the Cubs) with a record of 45-19.  The highlight of the season came on July 15 – 11 days after the United States had turned 100 years old and about three week after George Armstrong Custer met his doom at Little Bighorn.  George Washington “Grin” Bradley threw the first-ever no-hitter in Major League Baseball history, beating the Hartford Dark Blues 2-0.  The 1877 club stumbled to a record of 28-32.  “Grin” Bradley had shipped off to Chicago and the Brown Stockings signed Outfielder George Hall and pitcher Jim Devlin away from the Louisville club and they would get caught up in a gambling scandal that plagued the whole of the National League.  The Louisville and St. Louis clubs would end up filing for bankruptcy and Louisville and St. Louis would be finished as major league cities for the time being.  The Brown Stockings would, however, stay in business for the next four years as a semi-professional barnstorming team.  The 1876-77 Brown Stockings are in no way connected with the Cardinals franchise of today.  In the interim, Von der Ahe’s Golden Lion Saloon had become a popular hangout for both players and fans after ball games.  The saloon was located just two blocks from where the Brown Stockings played their home games.  It was one of the Golden Lion’s patrons, a Brown Stockings outfielder named Ned Cuthbert (who had been in baseball since 1870) that first got Chris Von der Ahe turned on to baseball.  “It was ‘Eddie’ who talked me into baseball.”, Von der Ahe said, “He picked me out and, for months, he talked league baseball until he convinced me there was something in it.”

Chris Von der Ahe had purchased the Brown Stockings with the intent of bringing them back into the major leagues.  On November 2, 1881, he met with ownership groups from Baltimore, Cincinnati, Louisville, Philadelphia and Pittsburg (then spelled without the “h”) at the Hotel Gibson in Cincinnati and they formed the American Association.  Von der Ahe was elected chairman of the new league’s initial meeting.  The new league played ball on Sundays, encouraged the sale of beer and liquor at its ballparks and, in a direct challenge to the older, more established National League, charged only 25 cents for admission as opposed to the 50 cents charged by the NL. The owners of the six member clubs of the American Association all had ties to the brewing and distilling industries.  Because of this, the new league became known as “the Beer and Whiskey League”.  The franchise we know and love today as the St. Louis Cardinals was born.  Aside from the Brown Stockings, three members of the Association (as the league was commonly known) still operate to this day:  the Pittsburg Alleghenys (now the Pirates), the Cincinnati Red Stockings (now the Reds) and the Brooklyn Atlantics, who joined in 1884 (now the Los Angeles Dodgers).  Von der Ahe’s dream of league baseball finally came to fruition on May 2, 1882.  The reconstituted major league franchise, managed by Von der Ahe’s old drinking buddy Ned Cuthbert, took the field for the the first time at the Grand Avenue Grounds and defeated the Louisville Eclipse by a score of 9-7 – the first of 11042 lifetime victories (as of April 15, 2022).  

The Brown Stockings quickly became the flagship franchise of the new league.  Like George Steinbrenner of the Yankees nine decades later, Von der Ahe stocked his team with superstars.  Among them were: the aforementioned Cuthbert, pitchers Tony Mullane, Jumbo, McGinnis, “Parisian” Bob Caruthers and Silver King, pitcher/outfielder Dave Foutz, Second Baseman Yank Robinson, Third Baseman Arlie Latham, “the Freshest Man on Earth” (St. Louis’ original base burglar), First Baseman Charlie Comiskey (Cuthbert’s eventual successor as manager) and Cuthbert’s eventual successor in left field James Edward “Tip” O’Neill, the original “Canadian Crusher”.

1885, the Brown Stockings (or Browns as they were commonly known) won the first of four consecutive American Association pennants and became baseball’s first dynasty.  They met the National League pennant winners the Chicago White Stockings (now the Cubs) in a postseason series called the World’s Series. That series ended in a widely disputed 3 games apiece tie.  The next year, the same two teams met again and  this time, Von der Ahe’s boys prevailed, winning 4 games to 2 giving St. Louis its first of 12 World Baseball Championships.  The Brown Stockings would win AA pennants the next two years as well, but would fall short in the World’s Series, losing in 1887 to the Detroit Wolverines and in 188 to the New York (now San Francisco) Giants.  Alfred H. Spink, of the founders of The Sporting News, once wrote of the Brown Stockings, “The team was the wonder of the baseball world for many a day.  The players were not stalwart looking, but rather slight and slim-waisted and when they met heavy nines like Chicago and Detroit, they suffered on the field in comparison.  Nonetheless, the Browns played wonderful and speedy ball and…..they knew how to win ball games.”

Chris Von der Ahe was something of a visionary and an innovator.  He was one of the first to realize the benefits of combining baseball and concessions into a lucrative business empire.  He set his ticket prices at 25 cents in the hopes that fans would spend money on beer, which…..they did.  He was also sometimes credited as the first owner to sell hot dogs at his ball yard.  This claim is disputed as most give credit for that innovation to English-born New York concessionaire Harry M. Stevens.  The term for followers of the game, fanatics (or “fans”) is also sometimes attributed to Der Poss Bresident.  Von der Ahe envisioned the ballpark he would build for his team (sort of an “If you build it, he will come”) as a multi-purpose entertainment complex with “a cricket field…..a baseball diamond, cinder paths for ‘sprinters’, a handball court, bowling alleys and everything of that sort.”  Sportsmen who were passionate about shooting contributed to the development of the new facility, intending weekly shooting events at the grounds under the auspices of the St. Louis Gun Club.  He named his new facility Sportsman’s Park.  Outside the entrance to the park, he also erected a statue of…..himself!

After the 1891 Season, the American Association folder and the Brown Stockings joined the National League.  in 1892, the team moved into a larger facility complete with a beer garden, a water flume ride, a horse racing track, an amusement park and an artificial lake used for ice skating in the winter.  The press ridiculed the new facility as “Coney Island West” and the National League, which prohibited gambling on its grounds, disapproved of the racetrack.

The years that followed the glory years of the 1880’s were mostly lean.  In 1898, the franchise had hit bottom and lost a record 111 games.  Von der Ahe’s dream ballpark was destroyed by a fire on April 16th of that year.  Von der Ahe went seriously into debt and would end up losing his team to Frank and Stanley Robison.  To add insult to injury, his wife divorced him.  Von der Ahe faded into obscurity.  He ended up tending bar at a small saloon and his former star player and manager Charlie Comiskey frequently sent him money to make ends meet.  In April of 1908, his old team (now known as the Cardinals) and the St. Louis Browns of the American League staged an exhibition game for his benefit that raised more than $4300.  Years of heavy alcohol consumption took its toll and on June 5, 1913, Chris Von de Ahe died of cirrhosis of the liver.  He was interred at Bellefontaine Cemetery and the statue that once stood outside his ballpark now adorns his grave.

In 1899, Von der Ahe’s old team became known as the St. Louis Perfectos and their roster was stocked with such stars as outfielder Jesse “The Crab” Burkett, shortstop Bobby Wallace and pitcher Denton True “Cy” Young – Hall of Famers all.  The next year, they adopted the moniker they continue to use to this day…..the Cardinals.  In 1902, the Milwaukee Brewers (not to be confused with the Brewers of today) of the then brand new American League moved to St. Louis and became known as the Browns.  The American League Browns had no connection to Von der Ahe’s old club except for the name.  In 1954, the Browns left St. Louis, moved to Baltimore and became the Orioles.

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