Monday, April 28, 2008

Al Spink And The Bible Of Baseball

Naturally, I use The Sporting News as a source a great deal and I thought it would be interesting to take a brief look at the history of the newspaper in the 19th century. Lucky for me I found a nice article entitled The Sporting News: A History of the Bible of Baseball and rather than do any real work, I can just quote liberally from it:

The first issue of The Sporting News measured 17 by 22 inches, sold for 5 cents or if you wanted to bet on it's survival then $2.50 per year, and was published March 17, 1886, by 31-year-old Al Spink, a St. Louis Browns executive who was instrumental in the purchase of Sportsman's Park with the colorful Chris Von der Ahe. The Sporting News would be published by the Spink family for just over 90 years. They were a colorful bunch, that's for sure.

I previously referred to The Sporting News as "The Bible of Baseball" and while it would earn this moniker in time at its beginning it reflected Al Spink's interests and covered cycling, shooting, billiards and even theater. Boxing coverage would also be a big part of the 19th century Sporting News, but baseball was The Sporting News bread and butter from the start.

As soon as September 1886 The Sporting News would include sketches of the St. Louis Browns players on its cover with the banner headline "St. Louis Browns -- Champions of the World". For the most part these earliest editions of The Sporting News appeared at first glance the same as any newspaper--the cover was filled by text.

It should be noted that as successful as The Sporting News was, it was not the first sporting paper, and it did have formidable competition from the start in The Sporting Life, founded by Francis Richter in 1883. While The Sporting Life originally noted the arrival of The Sporting News with approval very soon they were accusing Spink's paper of copying The Sporting Life's style. Spink replied that indeed, their advertising columns were very similar, except that The Sporting News had so many more ads!

The Sporting News was pretty much a one-man operation involving Al Spink at first, with Al handling tasks as varied as balancing the books, soliciting advertising and overseeing the editorial content, but this soon proved too much for one man so Al brought in his little brother Charles Spink in 1887 at a $50 per week salary.

Even though his baseball knowledge was initially limited, Charles jumped at the opportunity and quickly helped boost circulation with a sample-copy campaign. Circulation stood at about 40,000 in October 1887 and had risen to 56,500 as soon as February 1888. Advertising requests were so heavy that The Sporting News would expand five times in 1888, growing from 8 to 12 pages.

This was followed by a brief drop in circulation when in 1890 The Sporting News broke the story about the player's revolt and backed the new Player's League. They had made the wrong choice and the public let them know it. Charles Spink was taking over the magazine little by little all throughout the 90's as Al persued other interests. Al Spink would depart for good in 1899 with A.J. "Joe" Flanner taking over as editor and Charles Spink holding the title of publisher. With Al out the door The Sporting News adjusted its coverage and focused entirely upon baseball.

While I'm at it I might as well take a look at Al Spink, who I've probably quoted more than anyone else here at TGOG. W.E. Kelsoe, in A Newspaper Man's Motion-Picture of the City, had a great deal to say about the Spink brothers:

Mention is made elsewhere of the Spink family. William M. Spink, the oldest of the boys, remembered by old-timers as telegraph editor and sporting editor of the Globe and the Globe-Democrat in the Seventies and early Eighties and later (until his death) with the Chronicle, was a national authority on sporting matters generally. He had been an expert telegrapher before engaging in newspaper work. His brother, Alfred, now Mr. A. H. Spink of Chicago, came to St. Louis early in the Seventies and his first newspaper work here was as correspondent for New York papers. Then he worked for the Post, the Post-Dispatch and the Missouri Republican, in turn, as a reporter, and later was, first, telegraph editor and then sporting editor of the Republican. He was one of the early sporting editors of the Chronicle and held a like position on the Post-Dispatch for eight years. Al Spink was the founder of the present Sporting News of St. Louis and of the morning World, started in 1902. He was one of the organizers of the St. Louis Browns of 1882 and of the American Association (baseball) that year. For many years he was actively interested here in baseball, horse racing and other sports. The third brother, the late Charles C. Spink, devoted his newspaper activities to the management of the Sporting News, which is now owned and conducted by the widow, Mrs. Marie T. Spink, and son, John G. Taylor Spink, now prominent in sporting matters. The three newspaper brothers mentioned had two newspaper sisters, the wives of, respectively, William H. Hicks and George T. Lanigan, both newspaper men. Mr. Hicks I remember well. We called him "Billy Hicks," but I never worked with him. I think he was on the Globe-Democrat or the Post-Dispatch and my allegiance then was to "Old 1808" (Missouri Republican).

Mark Cooper wrote a nice piece on Al Spink:

Alfred Henry Spink is best known for introducing The Sporting News on March 17, 1886. It is today the oldest sports periodical, with a world-wide circulation of 625, 000.

Spink was born in Quebec, one of eight children, three of whom were brothers. After the American Civil War, the family emigrated to Chicago. The father died shortly after their arrival, and the sons-who had been excellent cricketers in Canada-turned their attention to baseball. The Spink boys helped form an amateur team on the West Side of Chicago: the Mutuals, named after the famous Mutuals of New York.

In 1875, Al moved south to St. Louis, at the suggestion of his brother Billy, a sports editor for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, and was soon covering sports for local papers himself. The brothers were enthusiastic backers of the St. Louis Brown Stockings, the city’s first professional club, which operated at Gus Solari’s ball park on Grand Avenue.

When the professional club folded prior to the 1878 season, Al and Bill organized a semipro team to play at Solari’s park. Finally, in 1881, Al convinced a neighborhood saloon keeper named Chris Von der Ahe to form a corporation called the Sportsman’s Park and club and to renovate (and rename) the grounds. Al himself organized a local team and booked its out-of-town opponents. The following fall he helped Von der Ahe bring professional baseball back to St. Louis with a charter membership in the new American Association.

While an executive of the Browns, Al Spink published the first issue of The Sporting News in 1886, a weekly eight-page publication, 17 by 22 inches. The paper sold for five cents, $2.50 per year. In the inaugural issue Al wrote in an editorial: “It is the custom when a journal of any class is thrust upon an all-confiding and unsuspecting public to launch out into a lengthy editorial as to what the newcomer will do and as to the aims and objects. Now, for various reasons, TSN intends to ignore this custom and let its readers guess at hat its aims and objects are. One thing we must do, however, is thank the hundreds of kind friends who have wished us God speed in the new enterprise.” An inside column of short items bore the caption “Caught on the Fly,” a heading still found in the paper.

In September, 1886, the paper, in recognition of the Browns’ World Series victory over the Chicago White Stockings, brightened page one with sketches of all the St. Louis players, proclaiming “St. Louis Browns-Champions of the world.” The older sporting weekly the sporting Life, published in Philadelphia, became aware of the new competition in St. Louis. When Sporting Life accused The Sporting News of copying its style, TSN responded: “The cruelest thing a Philadelphia contemporary can say is that we imitate his newspaper. He is right. Our advertising columns are very much like his except we have so very many more advertisements.”

Al Spink was a great editor, but a poor businessman. Realizing his inadequacies, he hired his younger brother Charles, for $50 a week, to become business manager. Success followed, and in the May 4, 1889, issue, TSN reported reaching a half million readers weekly with its 60,000 circulation.

In 1889 Al’s intimate association with players allowed TSN to break the story of the impending players’ revolt that led to the formation of the Players’ League. The story headline read: “The Brotherood/Every Man but Anson Pledged to Jump The League/The Greatest Move in the History of the National Game.”

During 1890 Al wrote a melodrama titled derby Winner, and took the play on the road, leaving all responsibility for The Sporting News to his brother Charles. Because TSN backed the Players’ League, National League clubs and advertisers (particularly Spalding) withdrew editorial and advertising support from the paper in favor of Sporting Life, and Al returned from his unsuccessful attempt in the theater to find circulation and revenue declining with a vengeance. He christened his paper The Sporting Death, and reported that Jack Glasscock, active in the players’ organization, was actually spy for the club owners.

Al also lashed out at his old benefactor Chris Von der Ahe, whom he called “J Christ von der Ahe.” Brother Charles resumed control of TSN, decreasing costs and increasing circulation.

In 1894, Al began to lose interest in The Sporting News and, in dire need of finances, sold all his stock to Charles. Al opened a racetrack at this time but continued to work for TSN. Finally, in 1899, he left the paper for good. In 1910 he moved to Chicago and published his book The National Game, a history of the early years of baseball. In 1921, while a columnist for the Chicago Evening Post, he authored a three-volume set titled One Thousand Sport Stories. At his funeral in 1928, baseball commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis gave the eulogy.

Al Spink's obituary was published in the New York Times on May 28, 1928:


-Obviously the history of The Sporting News article at the beginning of the post used the Cooper piece as its main source.

-The first picture of Al Spink, at the top of the post, was taken from The Sporting News website.

-The second photo of Spink, the NYT obituary, and the Cooper piece were all taken from Bill Burgess' Meet The Sports Writers post at Baseball Fever. Calling Bill's work a post is, of course, inadequate. It's more like a treasure trove.

-I should also add that while I like Cooper's piece on Spink I think his analysis of baseball history in St. Louis is a bit superficial. I'm not saying it's inaccurate but I think it understandably glosses over some facts. The history of baseball in St. Louis from 1877-1882 is a bit more complicated than Cooper's has it.

No comments: