So top-heavy were the Browns with raw and untested players in the spring of 1888 that Von der Ahe formed the St. Louis Whites as a kind of farm team to play in the Western Association.-David Nemec, The Beer & Whiskey League
I was recently involved in a very pleasant conversation about Chris Von der Ahe over at Baseball Fever when the subject of the 1888 St. Louis Whites came up. It was the contention of one of the posters that the Browns had developed the first minor league system and that the Whites were the farm club in that system. While I was aware of Nemec's statement regarding the Whites, I thought that the idea that the Whites were a farm club and represented one of the first steps in the development of the modern minor league system to be overstated. However, I soon realized how little I really knew about the Whites (and don't think for a minute that just because I don't have all the facts I won't opine on a subject).
If the Browns were operating the Whites as a farm club, I thought that we would be able to see some player movement between the two clubs. That seemed logical. If there was a farming arrangement between the clubs, one would think that players would move from the Browns to the Whites and vice versa just as players today move between the parent club and the AAA club. While I didn't think the arrangement would be as tidy as it is today, I wanted to see that sort of player movement before I was willing to declare the Whites a Browns' farm club.
So I started doing some research.
The St. Louis Whites were a Western Association club, owned by Chris Von der Ahe and managed by Tom Loftus, that operated during the 1888 season. They had a 10-18 record before disbanding on June 20th.
The first reference to the Whites that I'm aware of comes from the November 9, 1887 issue of Sporting Life. In an article, it states that Loftus was to be the manager and that some Browns' players could be transferred to the club. Interestingly, Von der Ahe denied in the article that the Whites would be run as a Browns' farm club.
Von der Ahe had gone East in the Fall of 1887 selling off the rights to Doc Bushong, Curt Welch, Bill Gleason, Dave Foutz and Bob Caruthers in the Browns' great fire sale. In the process, he created holes in the Browns roster at catcher, pitcher, and in the outfield. To fill those holes, Von der Ahe received some players back from Philadelphia in exchange for Gleason and Welch and he and his agents signed numerous players. Eight of the players that Von der Ahe signed in the Fall of 1887 would play for the Whites.
A question that goes directly to Von der Ahe's intent in 1887 regarding the Whites is whether he signed the players to compete for roster spots on the Browns or whether they were signed specifically for his new WA club. In the December 3, 1887 issue of The Sporting News, Von der Ahe, in an article where he addresses the fire sale and the make-up of the 1888 Browns, mentions the players that he had signed and states that "Out of them, have you or anyone else the idea that we will not be able to pick a good player of two?" He specifically mentioned Parson Nicholson and stated that he would be playing second base for the Browns in 1888. The fact that Nicholson and most of the others Von der Ahe mentioned in the article ended up playing for the Whites in 1888 implies that he was signing players for the Browns, the players failed to make the team, and they were then assigned to the Whites.
There is other evidence that the players Von der Ahe was signing in the Fall of 1887 were to compete for roster spots on the Browns and only after failing to make the club were assigned to the Whites. In the February 18, 1888 issue of The Sporting News, Tom Loftus stated that he had signed Ernie Burch specifically for the Whites. The implication here is that Loftus and the Whites were in the process of stocking their own roster. There was no mention of the players signed in 1887 playing for the Whites. What we see is the Browns signing players and the Whites signing players-each team attempting to fill out their roster independently of the other.
If one accepts this logic then the players signed by the Browns in the Fall of 1887 who end up playing for the Whites in 1888 are evidence of player movement from the parent club to the farm club. Harry Staley, Jim Devlin, Hunkey Hines, Tom Dolan, Jerry McCormick, Bart Cantz, Parson Nicholson, and pitcher Sproat, one can say, were demoted to the "minor leagues" after failing to make the Browns.
There is also evidence of player movement in the opposite directions-from the Whites to the Browns. After the Whites were disbanded in June, The Sporting News reported in their June 30, 1888 issue that "Cantz and Dolan have been doing such splendid work behind the bat that President Von der Ahe has signed both for the Browns. Cantz has been hitting the ball hard and
is a good fielder, while Tom Dolan’s ability is well known." While it appears that Cantz was either traded or sold to Baltimore before he had a chance to play for the Browns, Dolan appeared in eleven games for the Browns in 1888.
Besides Dolan, two other members of the Whites played for the Browns in 1888. While it's unknown under what circumstances the two were transferred, Ed Herr and Jim Devlin were members of both the Whites and the Browns in 1888. I have found boxscores of Whites' games were Herr was playing with the team as late as May 2nd and Devlin is mentioned as a member of the team as late as May 5th. It's insinuated by The Sporting News that both were with the Browns prior to the Whites being disbanded on June 20th.
So the evidence of player movement between the Browns and the Whites exist. This was the minimum threshold of evidence that I thought had to be established before I could accept the idea that the Whites existed in 1888 as a Browns' farm club.
There also exists a great deal of evidence that this relationship was part of a general trend in 1887 and 1888 towards the establishment of farm clubs. I'll address that tomorrow.