Monday, December 17, 2007

Von der Ahe And The Sportsman's Park Fire Of 1898, Part 1

In the early 1890’s Chris Von der Ahe’s empire was under a great deal of stress. “Real estate values collapsed in the late 1880’s,” Jon David Cash wrote in Before They Were Cardinals, “leaving (Von der Ahe) overextended and heavily indebted to the Northwestern Savings Bank of St. Louis. To pay his debts, Von der Ahe resulted to selling the services of many talented players.” While the Browns had an enviable depth of talent, over time the team was unable to absorb these losses and remain competitive. During the last seven years of Von der Ahe’s ownership, the Browns never finished higher than ninth.

At the same time that Von der Ahe’s financial and sporting fortunes took a turn for the worse, the United States suffered one of the greatest economic downturns in its history. The Panic of 1893 began, according to Ohio History , when “the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, one of the United States' largest railroad companies and employers, ceased operation. Soon thereafter, the National Cordage Company also closed its doors. As a result of the failure of these two companies, a crisis broke out on the stock market. Hundreds of businesses had overextended themselves, borrowing money to expand their operations. As the financial crisis struck, banks and other investment firms began calling in loans, causing hundreds of business bankruptcies across the United States. Banks, railroads, and steel mills especially fell into bankruptcy. Over fifteen thousand businesses closed during this crisis…Unemployment rates soared to twenty to twenty-five percent in the United States during the Panic of 1893. Homelessness skyrocketed, as workers were laid off and could not pay their rent or mortgages. The unemployed also had difficulty buying food due to the lack of income.” Just as this economic crisis began, Von der Ahe decided to build a new ballpark.

The new Sportsman’s Park, a major real estate investment, was built in 1892 at the corner of Vandeventer Avenue and Natural Bridge Road and was a testament to both Von der Ahe’s imagination and extravagance. According to the Illuminations And Epiphanies website, “Von der Ahe constructed ‘the Coney Island of the West,’ which not only contained the ballpark but included a beer garden, a chute-the-chute water ride, an outfield track for night time horse racing, and an artificial lake.” In order to finance his new sports complex, Von der Ahe took on a great deal of debt in the form of bonds.

By 1898, the national economy had still not fully recovered and Von der Ahe’s financial situation had become desperate. In 1895, his wife sued him for divorce and the resulting settlement was costly. His team was floundering on the field and at the gate after a last place finish in 1897. He was awash in debt and forced to turn to shady money lenders to stay afloat. Handling money as if it were “peanuts to feed to monkeys,” buying champagne for “his numerous army of flatterers and hanger-ons” and keeping multiple mistresses, according to Cash Von der Ahe continued to live the lifestyle of a successful sportsman even as his empire collapsed.

And then his ballpark burnt to the ground.


Richard Hershberger said...

What is the source for that image of the park? It seems strikingly badly designed for baseball, with the spectators moved far, far away from the action. It looks like something from the 1860s when they adapted racetracks at fairgrounds.

Jeff Kittel said...

I found it at Nineteenth-Century Base Ball Pictures On The World Wide Web ( The picture was tagged as "Sportsman's Park c. 1898". They got the image from Commodifying Leisure (

There's another picture of Sportsman's Park that
I'm using in the second part of the post tomorrow that has the grandstand much closer to the infield.

Looking at the picture of the park from today's post, there are some things wrong with it. First, the artist has the ballpark in a pastoral setting when it was actually in a well developed urban area. Second, there are no bleachers and it's known that the New Sportsman's Park had, at the very least, bleachers in left field. Also, there are no outer buildings for a tavern, clubhouse, etc. that the park complex was known to have.

I'm open to the possibility that the picture is not of Sportsman's Park at all but most likely it's just an inaccurate portrait of the park drawn from memory. The thing I like about the picture, and the reason I used it, is that it does show the cycling track around the park. I think, because of that, the picture gives a good sense of New Sportsman's Park being something more than just a ballpark. It does a good job of conveying the grandness of Von der Ahe's vision for the park.