Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A Kind Of Farm Team-The 1888 St. Louis Whites, Part 3

We can see evidence of a farming relationship between the Browns and Whites, with players moving between the two teams, and Peter Morris has written that this relationship fits within a general 19th century trend towards the establishment of the farm system. This seems sufficient to declare that the Whites were indeed a Browns' farm club. However, there is some contradictory evidence that most be dealt with.

In the November 9, 1887 issue of Sporting Life, there is an article that discusses Von der Ahe's purchase of the Whites and mentions that Tom Loftus would be the club's manager. In this article, Von der Ahe explicitly states that the Whites would not be run as the Browns' farm club. What are we to make of this? It's possible that Von der Ahe was simply being disingenuous. Some of the farming relationships developed by major league clubs in 1887 had been controversial and many stated at the time that they were illegal. So Von der Ahe, in denying a farming relationship between the Browns and Whites, may have simply been trying to cover up the true nature of the relationship in an attempt to avoid controversy. It's also possible, however, that Von der Ahe was stating the truth and that while there may have been the appearance of a farming relationship, the intent to establish a farm club did not exist.

If Von der Ahe did not intend for the Whites to exist as a farm club, what was the purpose of his ownership of the club? It is entirely possible that the Whites existed for their own sake-to play baseball, to win games, to capture a pennant, to draw fans to Sportsman's Park. On February 25, 1888, The Sporting News wrote that "Talking of the coming season's prospects Mr. Von der Ahe said they were unusually bright. He will have two splendidly equipped teams in the field, and when one is away the other will be found at work entertaining the local patrons." I don't think then that it's outside the realm of possibility that Von der Ahe established the Whites simply as another tenant for his ballpark. St. Louis had shown to a certain extent that it was able to support two teams. In 1884, the Browns and the Maroons finished first and fourth among all major league teams in attendance. While the Maroons' attendance fell off in their final two years, between 1884 and 1886 the two clubs drew over 800,000 fans between them. With the Browns drawing almost 250,000 fans in 1887, it's conceivable that Von der Ahe believed that there was room in the St. Louis baseball market for another team and that he could profit from the addition of that team.

However, the Whites, most likely as a result of their poor play, did not draw well and, at the same time, the Browns' attendance fell by almost 100,000 due to the St. Louis fans' displeasure over Von der Ahe's fire sale after the 1887 season. The market was unable to sustain both teams and Von der Ahe quickly decided to dispose of the Whites. It's Von der Ahe's quick decision to sell the Whites and the manner in which he went about it that casts a great deal of doubt on the status of the Whites and Von der Ahe's original intent with regards to the team.

The Whites first game was played against Milwaukee at Sportsman's Park on April 28, 1888. Less than a month later, Von der Ahe was actively attempting to sell the team. By May 27th, Von der Ahe was in serious negotiations with both "Mr. McClintock of Denver and Mr. Keith of Lincoln" to sell his Western Association franchise and all of its players. The Sporting News explained that Von der Ahe had received "good cash offers for several members of the team and notably for (Harry) Staley. He had not accepted any of those for the simple reason that he did not care to break up the team, a move that would be of irreparable damage to the Western Association. He believed that the only fair thing to do was to transfer the team bodily to some other city and he would only do this after receiving fair compensation."

This raises several questions. If Von der Ahe was operating the Whites as a farm club, why was he attempting to sell the franchise and the players less than four weeks after the club began playing? If the goal of owning the Whites was to operate a reserve club and develop players for the Browns, why was Von der Ahe pulling the plug in May? I understand that the Whites were drawing poorly and Von der Ahe was running the operation at a loss but wouldn't that loss have been acceptable to a certain extent if the Whites were operating as a farm club for the Browns? Even if the Whites were losing money, how substantial could the loss have been after only four weeks of operation? As far as selling the players is concerned, if the Whites were simply a farm club for the Browns why would Von der Ahe not simply sell off the players and fold the team? He had offers on the table for the players so why not take them? Why was he concerned about the viability of the Western Association? Why was his original intent to sell the franchise and the players?

While Von der Ahe originally wanted $10,000 for the franchise and players, by the first week of June he had reached an agreement with James Keith to sell the team for $7,000. At the time of the agreement, Von der Ahe had offers on the table from various teams to purchase members of the Whites. These included offers from Louisville, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, and Wilkes-Barre. If he had wanted to, Von der Ahe could have sold off the players at the beginning of June and received more money than Keith was offering him.

In the end, the agreement with Keith fell apart and McClintock never raised his offer over $5,000 so Von der Ahe, on June 20th, disbanded the Whites and sold off several of the players. He received $4500 from Pittsburgh for Jake Beckley and Harry Staley and sold Jack Crooks to Omaha for $500. Tom Dolan, Ed Herr, and Jim Devlin all joined the Browns. Bart Cantz also was assigned to the Browns but was transferred to Baltimore in a transaction for which I have no details. So out of the breakup of the Whites, Von der Ahe received, at the very least, $5,000 plus Dolan, Herr, and Devlin. If he had sold those three players, Von der Ahe would have most likely gotten well over the $7,000 that Keith had offered him for the entire franchise. The rest of the players were released.

It's Von der Ahe's own words and actions in 1887 and 1888 that raises doubts about the status of the Whites. While his comments that the Whites were not a farm club can be dismissed, he also stated in late May of 1888 that he saw no difference between the Whites and Browns and that he treated both clubs the same. At no time did Von der Ahe ever state or imply that the Whites were a farm club and were subservient to the needs of the Browns-this at a time when farming relationships were accepted and in the open.

Von der Ahe's attempts to pursue the viability of the Western Association is rather fascinating and the possible explanation for this also cast doubt about his intent regarding the Whites. I'll talk about this tomorrow.

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