Monday, October 8, 2007

October 8th In 19th Century St. Louis Baseball History

On this day in 1881, Chris Von der Ahe‚ president of the corporation that runs Sportsman's Park in St. Louis‚ signs the members of the previously independent St. Louis Browns semiprofessional club‚ giving Von der Ahe control over the players for the first time. This is a key step toward the establishment of the club that would eventually become the St. Louis Cardinals.

In 1887, Tip O'Neill, pictured above, hits his 14th homer of the season as part of a 5-for-5 day in the Browns' 11-5 win over Louisville. O'Neill is the only player in ML history to lead his AA league in all 3 categories of extra base hits: homers (14)‚ triples (19)‚ and doubles (52). Even without counting walks‚ his .435 adjusted average is 2nd on the all-time list.

-from Baseball Library


Richard Hershberger said...

I don't know anything about the prehistory of the Browns. How far back had they been playing? What was the organizational structure? Did Von der Ahe buy ownership, or did he sign players individually. What do you mean by "semiprofessional"? Did they tour? As I recall, in 1881 there was some baseball activity between teams in Louisville and Cincinnati and Akron. Were the Browns part of that?

Jeff Kittel said...

After the collapse of the Brown Stockings, following the scandals of 1877, and the failure to get an entry into the NL in 1878, a group of baseball men in StL formed a team called the Browns that scuffled along for a few years as a semi-professional team. The team was made up of the usual cast of characters (Joe Blong, Packy Dillon, Lip Pike, Mike McGeary, Art Croft, Charlie Houtz, Pidge Morgan, Tom Sullivan, the Gleason brothers,etc). I don't know a whole lot about them but I know they did play Indianapolis in 1878 and Cincinnati, Akron, the Philadelphia Athletics, and the Brooklyn Atlantics in 1881. All of these games were in StL.

The team that would become the AA Browns was Ted Sullivan's Dubuque team from the Northwest League. Sullivan brought most of his team, including Comiskey and Tom Loftus, to StL in 1882. One has to assume that Von der Ahe, who had put up a lot of the money for the 1881 team, bought the players as individuals and was the largest investor in the 1882 team. So essentially, Von der Ahe funded the team, signed the players from Dubuque, and helped form a new league for his team to play in. Spink writes that Von der Ahe "organized" the AA Browns.

Jeff Kittel said...

Just to give credit where credit is due, the stuff in the post was taken from Baseball and is their interpretation of events. I probably would have written it a bit differently (with less skill and polish).

You asked what was meant by "semiprofessional." That's actually a darn good question that I've wondered about myself. I've seen the term bandied about a lot when talking about this period in StL baseball history. In this case, the Browns were operating on a co-op basis and I've seen co-op and semi-pro used interchangably. Not necessarily accurate but it gets a point across. I'm certain that the players on the Browns from 1878 to 1881 thought of themselves as professional baseball players and they were reported in the press of the time to be professionals. But they don't fit our definition of a professional baseball team so people look for different words to describe what they were. "Semi-professional" is a lazy, shorthanded attempt to describe what that kind of team actually was.

Richard Hershberger said...

I'm confused. What exactly did Von der Ahe buy in October 1881, and how does it relate to the 1882 Browns?

As for semi-professional, the Chicago Tribune for years refused to recognize any team outside the National League as fully professional, and sometimes used "semiprofessional" for teams that actually were professional. It is a very vague term in this period, and so I try to avoid it.

Jeff Kittel said...

Sorry about the confusion. I didn't pick my words very well and the more I read that quote from Baseball Library, the less I understand it.

Von der Ahe didn't "buy" anything. In 1881, he was already the largest investor in the Browns. So when Charlton's Baseball Chronology (where Baseball Library gets this stuff) says that Von der Ahe "signs the members of the previously independent St. Louis Browns semiprofessional club", they're saying that he's signing his own players. That makes no sense. I guess it's possible that the club was transitioning from a co-op venture and signing their players to contracts. I don't know.

The other strange thing about the quote is the whole "giving Von der Ahe control over the players for the first time" thing. Again, that may be talking about transitioning from co-op to contracts. But, assuming that all of this was done in anticipation of joining the AA (which Von der Ahe essintially did on October 10), did the AA even have a reserve rule in 1882? How does the contract give Von der Ahe control over the player without a reserve clause?

And how is this really a "key step" in setting up the Browns for 1882 if Von der Ahe later brings in group of players from Dubuque that included Sullivan and Comiskey? Isn't that more significant?

I don't know. That's a strange little entry in the Baseball Chronology. I'm going to have to start vetting those things a little more closely before posting them.

Richard Hershberger said...

I think much of what you are seeing here is modern assumptions about pre-modern organizational structures. I see this a lot, where modern writers make a bad assumption that clubs or leagues operated pretty much the same way and for the same purposes as they do today. This is why I constantly ask questions about how groups were organized.

Nowadays we have a pretty good idea what we mean by someone buying a team and signing players, and even what it means to call a team "semiprofessional". But these were still jelling in the early 1880s. So probably that chronology took some actual events and unthinkingly crammed them into various conceptual slots.

The moral is there is no substitute for going to primary sources. At least by the 1880s there is some hope that the newspapers would report this stuff.

On a different note, you mentioned earlier in this thread the 1881 games of the Athletics of Philadelphia and the Atlantics of Brooklyn. This is a topic worth writing about in its own right. These were the first non-NL long-range tours by ballclubs in several years. Indianapolis did this sort of thing in 1877, but the baseball economy collapsed (along with the general economy, as fallout of the Panic of 1873: Pinkertons shooting at striking railworkers is from this era). I interpret the western tours of the Athletics and Atlantics as a trial run, to see if the time was right, and as an immediate precursor to the AA forming. Not much has been written on this, and the AA is not my personal strength, so I think this is fertile ground for study.