Saturday, August 9, 2008

Sullivan Writes About Von Der Ahe

Should three volumes of 500 pages each be written on Chris Von der Ahe's base ball life it would not contain all the humorous and exciting incidents in his meteoric career. The particular incident that is to be recited here has never been written, although the writer remembers it well.

The writer, when he managed the famous Browns for Chris, also joined him in a business venture in base ball supply and general sporting goods on the corner of Sixth and Pine streets in St. Louis. This was the headquarters for the Browns and general public. Genial Chris was seen here both morning and night on some important matters that he wished to impart to his manager. On this particular day there was a great crowd at the game with the Cincinnati Reds. It took place on a Saturday and Chris counted 10,000 people. "Honest John" Kelly was the king of umpires at that time and he officiated on this Saturday afternoon.

Chris, that season, was in high feather. It was his second year in base ball but the first successful one, as in the year previous, in 1882, he had a tail-end club in a league of six cities and before that season ended he had seven managers, eight groundskeepers, 20 gatekeepers and 10 secretaries at different times of the year. That year, '83, his club, the Browns, was at the top. He was drawing from 4,000 to 10,000 spectators on week days and from 12,000 to 17,000 on Sundays and giving only $65 to the visiting clubs, which was the commercial rule in the association that year.

In the second inning on that particular day, "King Kel" made a decision which told against the Browns but nevertheless was just, in the writers opinion. Chris took exception to it, upon the advice of his "hot air" friends, and made a bee-line for the telegraph operator, who was on the grounds. In his haste and excitement to get to that individual, he bumped up against a tray of beer that was in one of the waiter's hands and sent the glasses flying. When he reached the operator, he sent the following dispatch to James Williams, of Columbus, who was then secretary of the American Association:

"Take Kelly at once from my grounds, he is stopping my Browns from winning, and send me up Charley Daniels from Louisville to St. Louis for tomorrow's game."

Chris then turned to his friends and remarked: "'King Kel' will have a chance to make those decisions tomorrow in Louisville," and trotted off at a pompous gait.

The writer was oblivious to this act of Chris until John Kelly came to him after the game and showed him the wire from Williams, ordering him to leave for Louisville at once. Neither of us understood (the order) but thought that it came from Williams himself. That night at about 10 o'clock Chris (came) into the base ball headquarters and said, "What do you think, Ted? Daniels got left by the regular train and I had to get a special engine and coach to bring him on here from Louisville, and the railroad company charged me $300. But he will be here in time to umpire tomorrow's game."

I looked at him in dumb amazement and said: "What is getting into you? Kelly was all right and here you are making a laughing stock of yourself by paying a railroad company$300 dollars to bring a man here who should have been left in Louisville."

The grand Teuton reflected for awhile when he saw the wisdom of my remarks and said, "We can't stop the train now, for Daniels has certainly started, but you see the advertisement we will get out of it by paying $300 for a special train to bring an umpire to St. Louis."

So it has gone on record that Chris Von der Ahe, of St. Louis, the (then) president of the boss club paid the highest price on record for the services of one umpire for one game...
-Ted Sullivan, writing in The Sporting News, March 8, 1902

This is a perfect example of how Von der Ahe was turned into the buffoonish character that is portrayed in most histories. Sullivan was a great baseball man and I don't think anybody in the game was more respected. But the man was a raconteur who enjoyed telling humorous and entertaining baseball stories. In fact, shortly after Sullivan published this piece in TSN, he published Humorous Stories of the Ball Field (which I've yet to read but would love to get my hands on). Sullivan actually told a couple of different versions of this story one of which involved Von der Ahe denying to Sullivan that he had anything to do with the umpire switch only to have some flunky burst into the room talking about how they could get a train for Daniels but it would cost $300 dollars.

It's a good story and I'm sure Sullivan, in person, told it well but how much truth is there too it? Difficult to say. The story at its core my indeed be true and there may have been an umpire switch instigated by Von der Ahe that forced him to pay the $300 for a special train. But in the end that isn't the real point. It's the way Sullivan tells the story, the details about Von der Ahe he includes, the way he describes him that paints him as a clown and damages his reputation.

Sullivan, without any malice, did more to damage Von der Ahe's reputation as anybody (except for maybe Von der Ahe himself).

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