So while researching the status of the 1888 St. Louis Whites, I found enough evidence to establish a relationship between the Whites and the Browns that involved players moving back and forth between the two teams. However, in the face of contradictory evidence, I was still struggling to get a handle on the nature of the relationship between the two teams. At that point I got smart and pulled Peter Morris' A Game of Inches: The Game Behind The Scenes off the shelf. Morris has a great deal to say regarding the development of the farm system and specifically mentions the Whites.
Most sources credit Branch Rickey with inventing the practice of farming, but this is at best an oversimplification. Rickey was unquestionably the first man to put together what we now call a farm system, in which a player could advance from the lowest rung of the minor leagues to the major leagues while remaining the property of the same organization. But the system of major league clubs using minor league clubs as farm clubs had a lengthy, well-organized, and controversial history before Rickey's entry into the field.-A Game Of Inches: The Game Behind The Scenes
It could be argued that the use of farm clubs dates all the way back to the very earliest baseball clubs. These clubs were represented in matches by their "first nine," but they also had second and third nines and often junior nines. These extra nines provided reserves when a member of the first nine was injured or unavailable and also helped develop new players.
Morris goes on to write about how the National League and American Association clubs formed reserve teams in the face of the threat posed by the Union Association in 1884. While the aim of these teams was to keep players away from UA teams, they became "virtually a training school" for players. Sporting Life noted that these reserve teams "served to develop some strong young players, a number of whom are now playing on the regular nines." However, with the collapse of the UA following the 1884 season, the reason for the existence of the reserve teams had been removed and teams no longer felt the need to sign extra players.
"But major league owners had seen the advantages to having additional players available," Morris writes, "and soon found ways to resurrect the scheme." In January of 1887, Cincinnati attempted to make arrangements whereby they would loan out two of their players to a club in Kansas who at the end of the season would return them to the Red Stockings. While this scheme fell through, the Detroit Wolverines in the same year loaned out three of their players (Jimmy Manning, Bill Shindle, and George Knowlton) to Kansas City of the Western League. According to the Detroit Free Press, the players "will not sever their connection with the Detroits, neither will the club have to pay their salaries. If by sickness or accident any of the others of the club should be laid up, the team will not be weakened perceptibly, as a dispatch will bring either or all of the loaned players into the breach..." Later in 1887, Cincinnati would lend Henry Kappel to Nashville, imitating the Detroit/Kansas City arrangement. These moves were controversial at the time and many believed them to be illegal.
"With that tactic meeting such concerted resistance," Morris said, "the 1888 season instead saw many clubs take the route of purchasing minor league teams and operating them as farm clubs. In contrast to the season before, this practice was conducted openly and created relatively little controversy." This trend saw the Washingtons purchase Troy of the International Association in order to operate it as "a training-school or feeder..." John Day bought the Jersey City club of the Central League and planned to "run it as a reserve for the New-York Club." While it's unclear if Philadelphia owned Allentown of the Central league, the two teams had a relationship which "amounted to farming."
St. Louis Brown Stockings owner Chris Von der Ahe operated the St. Louis Whites of the Western Association as a farm club, signing no fewer than twenty-nine players to 1888 contracts by December of 1887. Chicago White Stockings president A.G. Spaulding appears to have pursued a similar course with another Western Association club, the Chicago Maroons. Although Sam Morton was the nominal president of the Maroons, the club had close connections with the local major league franchise...-A Game Of Inches: The Game Behind The Scenes
Like so many nineteenth-century minor league clubs, the farm clubs were not financial successes. The St. Louis Whites folded in June 1888, and while the other clubs made it through the season, none seem to have been in the black. The Maroons disbanded at season's end, while the Washington club quietly disposed of its Troy farm club...Ownership of the Jersey City club in 1888 was reported to have resulted in a $17,500 loss, and although it returned as "an annex to the New York League Club" in 1889, Day apparently sold out in June...Not surprisingly, a consensus emerged that such ventures were too expensive to be maintained.
That perception was one of several factors that led to the multiple experiments with farm clubs in 1888 being followed by six lean years for farming. A second was the concern voiced by Sporting Life's Columbus correspondent that farming could destroy a minor league's competitive balance. Another important reason was that the attention of the established leagues was focused on the player revolt that led to the creation of the Player's League in 1890. In addition...any exchange of contracts during this period meant releasing the players with the risk of losing them altogether.
So Morris places the Browns relationship with the Whites squarely in the 19th century trend towards the development of the farm system and explicitly states that Von der Ahe operated the Whites as a farm club. However, there is evidence that contradicts this and lends itself to other interpretations. I'll discuss this tomorrow.