Monday, March 31, 2008

The Leading Spirit

A couple of interesting notes from E. H. Tobias' writings on St. Louis baseball history:

It was early developed in 1868 that the year would mark an era in local base ball. The leading spirit of the Union Club, Asa W. Smith, had devised plans to advance his club to the foremost and to maintain that position, being animated mainly by that true spirit of sportsman and athlete, love of the game for its own intrinsic merit. At no time were either the Union or Empire Clubs actuated by a desire to make money and when they adopted the plan of placing a price upon admission to the games, it was because necessity forced them into it. The increased and still increasing interest of the general public demanded better surroundings and accommodations and Asa Smith, recognizing this fact, calculated to promote the National game by catering to the desires of the public. For this work, he was not only ably fitted by his own personal traits of character for which he was beloved and honored by the fraternity in general and a host of friends in business and social circles, but he was most fortuitously situated in having at his command all the necessary elements that would tend to success...That the game had reached that stage when it was one of the most popular of entertainments was attested by the experience of the preceding year when charging admission was inaugurated with success. In order to gratify this public taste it was necessary to incur large expenses, particularly so whenever it was desired to secure the presence of any of the great clubs of the East or West and these demanded one-half of the gate receipts...
One of the first movements made by Asa Smith as president of the Union Club this year was that of forming a State Association of Clubs, there being then quite a number of clubs organized in the interior cities and towns. This was quite a pet idea with its originator and although his first effort in this direction in '67 proved a failure, he was not deterred from another endeavor to accomplish this object and on the 21st of March a preliminary meeting was held at the rooms of the Union Club, which was attended by representatives of sixteen city clubs and presided over by Asa Smith with Nat Hazard, of the Olympic Club, as secretary. It was then resolved to call a state convention on April 22 and pursuant thereto the delegates met on that date in Philharmonic Hall on St. Charles Street, west of Fourth, and formulated a State Association under National Association laws with the following officers: President, A.W. Smith; vice-presidents, H. C. Carr, O.P. Seiner, C.D. Paul; recording secretary, J. E. Mcginn; corresponding secretary, G.H. Denny; treasurer, L.P Fuller, of the Empire Club.
-From The Sporting News, November 23, 1895

St. Louis' two NA teams of 1875 are often referred to as the first professional teams in St. Louis history and St. Louis has been called a bastion of amateurism during the late 1860's and early 1870's but none of that is actually true. St. Louis baseball players were most likely getting paid by 1867 (at least some of them) and certainly by 1868 when August Solari built the baseball grounds on Grand Avenue. This is neither shocking nor unique and merely shows that St. Louis baseball was following national trends.

While Tobias' reasoning about why money was introduced is romanticised, there are some elements to it which I find interesting. First, he talks about how Smith wanted to "advance his club to the foremost and to maintain that position" and one way of doing that would be to hire the best players. Also, Tobias mentions the needs for better grounds and drawing Eastern teams to St. Louis. When the Nationals of Washington came to St. Louis in July of 1867, there was some talk by the Nationals' players about the poor condition of the grounds. To compete on a national level and draw the best teams to the city, St. Louis needed a first-class baseball facility. If Smith's goal was to create one of the best baseball teams in the country then he needed better players, better grounds, and better competition. All of that took money and the best way to raise the money was to charge admission.

The other thing that I find interesting is Smith's involvement in attempting to organize a state association "under National Association laws." This also appears to be a part of Smith's plan to advance both the interests of the game in St. Louis and those of the Union Club as well as to bring St. Louis baseball into the national mainstream (if there was such a thing). In 1867, Smith is not only trying to establish a state organization but he also has the Union Club entering upon the national baseball stage by joining the NABBP, the first St. Louis club to do so. The next year, the Empire and Atlantic Clubs also joined the NABBP and St. Louis was visited by clubs from Washington, Chicago, Cincinnati, New York, and Brooklyn-so Smith's plan was having a positive effect on the local baseball scene.

As I said, baseball in St. Louis at this time was developing according to national trends but Smith certainly played a role in recognizing those trends and having St. Louis baseball clubs adapt to them. While these developments may have occurred without him, Smith was, as Tobias wrote, "the leading spirit" in advancing the game in St. Louis in the late 1860's. Charging admission, paying players, building better facilities, organizing on a local and state level according to the national model, expanding from parochial to national competition-Asa Smith was a leader in all of these changes and played a prominent role in the development of the game in St. Louis.

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