Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A Kind Of Farm Team-The 1888 St. Louis Whites, Part 4

The available evidence make it easy to state that the Whites existed as a farm club for the Browns. Players are moving back and forth between the teams and the pattern fits a general baseball trend towards farming relationships that had been established in 1887. However, Von der Ahe's own words and actions in 1887 and 1888 cast some doubt on that relationship. He explicitly denied that the Whites were a farm club, quickly pulled the plug on the enterprise, and attempted to sell the franchise and players to another city rather than breakup the team and sell off the player individually. This attempt to keep the team intact in an effort to preserve the viability of the Western Association is fascinating and leads to another explanation for Von der Ahe's actions with regards to the Whites.

There are two articles that may possibly speak to Von der Ahe's intent. The first appeared in The New York Times on November 20, 1887:

A dispatch from St. Louis says the proposed new baseball League in the East is creating alarm among the stockholders of the St. Louis Browns. President Von der Ahe, since his return from the East, has had several conferences with other stockholders in the club, and he has imparted to them news of such a startling character that many of them are publicly asserting that baseball in the West next year will be practically dead. The President of the Browns says that Day, Byrne, and Barnie are heartily in favor of the scheme, and that if they pulled the other strong Eastern clubs into line the scheme would be adopted. "Without the big Eastern clubs," said he, "the business would go to smash, and if war was declared the East would have the advantage from the beginning." Foutz, Welch, and Bushong of the home team are to be traded off or sold, and if the proposed Eastern League is an assured fact the stars of the Browns will doubtless be sold and St. Louis will be contented with its little Western League Club.

The other appeared in The Sporting News on February 4, 1888:

St. Louis Will Be in The Big Western Association Next Year

And the Eastern Clubs Will Have an Association of Their Own

It seems to be the prevailing opinion among ball men that great changes will take place in the make-up of the base ball map after the present season. Said a gentleman, who is way up in ball circles, to me the other day:

“You will find that before the season of 1888 commences Brooklyn and Cincinnati will be full-flogged members of the National League. St. Louis will be in the New Western Association, leaving Cleveland, Louisville, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Kansas City to shift for themselves. Mark the prediction.”

While I don't find much evidence supporting the rumored geographical split in the baseball world, this doesn't mean that the rumors weren't floating about and being taken seriously by Von der Ahe. If you look at the language of the Times piece, I think it conveys how Von der Ahe may have seen the threat of the breakup of the National League and American Association along geographical lines. The Times uses the words "alarm," "startling," and "dead" and speaks of "war" and business going "to smash." The Times implies that Von der Ahe took these rumors very seriously and that he was concerned about the survival of his baseball interests.

The Sporting News article presented the rumor as a done deal. In the case of a geographical split, the Western Association would attempt to compete as a major league. In 1888, the WA had teams in St. Louis, Chicago, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Des Moines, Omaha, Davenport, and Sioux City. If you added Indianapolis to the Association, this would have made for a decent Western major league, although certainly it would have been at a financial disadvantage against the Eastern major league.

I believe that it's entirely possible that Von der Ahe was using the Whites and the Western Association as a stalking horse for the establishment of a potential Western major league in the face of the threat from the Eastern teams. If the threat materialized, Von der Ahe had a viable backup plan for his baseball interests. If the American Association fell apart, he could simply consolidate his baseball holdings and continue to operate in the Western Association.

Von der Ahe's attempts to sell the Whites in May of 1888 lends some credence to this interpretation. When the Eastern threat failed to materialize, Von der Ahe simply decided that he no longer needed the Whites or the players and entered into negotiations to sell them. His decision to sell the franchise and players rather than simply disband the team and sell off the players was defended by Von der Ahe as a move designed not to cause "irreparable damage to the Western Association." While Von der Ahe may have concluded that the threat had passed, he may have still had some concerns and wished to keep his Western Association option open.

Certainly this is highly speculative. But the rumors of the Eastern threat were floating about and Von der Ahe took them seriously. His ownership of the Whites and their participation in the WA would have allowed him to continue his baseball operations in St. Louis in the eventuality of the materialization of the Eastern threat. The Western Association also could have been quickly transformed into a major league with the participation of people like Von der Ahe and Spaulding, whose Chicago team also had a farm club in the WA. When the threat passed, Von der Ahe was able to dispose of the Whites while attempting to preserve the WA-just in case.

Tomorrow, I'll talk a bit about the players on the Whites.

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