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 Central.org , 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.