Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Perfect Story

"You may talk about Chris Von der Ahe's explosions of dialect. Chris did himself proud one Sunday, eleven years ago," says Ted Sullivan. "I was managing Henry Lucas' Union Maroons in St. Louis, and Jimmy Williams managed the Browns. Our team was scheduled for a game with the Chicago Unions, and the Browns and Brooklyns were the counter attractions scheduled to play at Chris' park. We advertised the game extensively in the Sunday papers. Both sides were fighting each other-the Association and Union-and we were hustling for a Sunday crowd.

"I met Chris at noon on Sunday standing in front of his office, with an umbrella over his head. It was raining in sheets and buckets.

"'Are der Maroons and Chicago's going to play, Ted?' he asked.

"'Not much. Our grounds are afloat Chris.'

"'Neder are der Browns. It's too vet, Ted,' said Chris, and he began to toss bad words at the weather.

"I went over to our park and engaged a crowd of men and boys to unload sawdust all over the field.

"The rain held up, and at 3 o'clock our grounds were dry enough for a game.

"I sent Fred Dunlap, captain of the Maroons, over to Chris' office, instructing him to tell Chris that the Maroons wouldn't play-that the grounds were too wet.

"About an hour later the sky cleared and the crowd poured into our grand stand and bleachers. It wasn't till our game was half over that Chris discovered the job we had put up on him. After the game he was tackled by scores of his friends.

"'Great game over at Henry Lucas' park, Chris. Over 8,000 paid admissions,' said Fred Dunlap.

"'That was an awful job Ted Sullivan put up on you," said Henry Boyle.

"'My Gott, vot you tink of dot. Ted to giff me an inshoot like dot. He vos a foxy Irishman. Eight tousant paid admissions. Vot you tink?'

"And Chris drowned his troubles in cocktails."
-The Washington Post, December 30, 1895

Will I ever find a more perfect story to post than this? Seriously, we have one of Sullivan's Von der Ahe-as-buffoon stories and a mention of Fred Dunlap. This story gives me an excuse to go off on two of my favorite rants. I could do paragraphs here about the need to rehabilitate the reputations of VdA and Dunlap. I could do a week-long, multi-part series based on nothing more than this story. Good God, talk about coming right into my wheel-house.

Of course, I'm going to spare you the beating the dead horse rants and just ask that you appreciate the sublime perfection of this story.


David Ball said...

Jeff, is it your impression Sullivan meant these stories in good fun, or was he deliberately subjecting Von der Ahe to mockery and ridicule?

I know they ended on bad terms when Sullivan managed the Browns, and I have read that Sullivan hated Von der Ahe, but then again Sullivan was a free lance operator who never knew who he might want to strike a deal with or ask a favor of. I would guess a man like that really couldn't afford to hold grudges against many people.

I guess I have a hard time assessing the real intent of his funny stories about Von der Ahe because most of them actually strike me as about as witty and amusing as a detailed explication of the tariff law of preprocessed linen goods from Eastern Europe. This seems a pretty fair sample of the genre.

Jeff Kittel said...

It's difficult to say, off the top of my head, where exactly the VdA/Sullivan relationship was at the turn of the century or when VdA died. You always hear contradictory things about people's relationship with VdA. You find sources that say one person hated him, quit on him, wouldn't speak to him and then you see another source quoting the person saying how much they liked VdA. My take on this is that VdA could be a difficult person to get along with-big ego, quick temper-but in general he operated without malice and it's this lack of malice that defined his relationships rather than the outbursts or unreasonable demands. I actually know a lot of people like that so I find it easy to relate to.

Sullivan certainly had problems with VdA when they worked together in the early 1880's. I think the reason he quit the Browns was because of VdA's meddling in baseball affairs. And I'm sure that Sullivan's going over to the Maroons put a strain on the relationship. However, and this may be because of Comiskey, Sullivan still had a lot of dealings with the Browns throughout the 1880's and seemed to go out of his way to help them with player procurement.

Because of all of this and because I have a great deal of respect for Sullivan, I tend to see the stories as being told in good fun. Yes, VdA is the butt of the joke and he's being mocked but I don't see any difference in these stories compared to all the Yogi Berra stories that make the rounds. Both VdA and Yogi were a bit goofy and they became the target for jokes in the locker room. There's nothing hurtful about them but they have a cumulative effect of turning the butt of the joke into a cartoon character. Both VdA and Yogi's historical reputation has suffered because of this.

And I don't find them all that funny either. I think a lot of the humor is supposed to come from the thick German accent. Also, there's probably supposed to be some kind of Bugs Bunny/Elmer Fudd dynamic going on where Sullivan is Bugs and VdA is Fudd. All I know is that if you have to spend any time thinking about a joke and breaking it down then it's not all that funny.

Really I think that Sullivan falls under the category of raconteur rather than humorist. The guy would be entertaining as all heck in a bar but he certainly was no Mark Twain.