Sunday, November 16, 2008

Between Two Fires

A frightful runaway accident, with a startling domestic sensation as a sequel, occurred at the corner of Spring and St. Louis avenues at 9: 30 o'clock last Sunday evening. Chris Von der Ahe, the President of the St. Louis Base Ball Club, lives on St. Louis avenue, about midway between Grand and Spring avenues. At the hour mentioned Mrs. Von der Ahe was at home awaiting the return of her liege lord, who had gone out early in the evening. She was seated on the front steps of her residence enjoying the refreshing breeze that prevailed, when a horse hitched to a buggy, occupied by a man and woman and a little girl about 7 years old came south on Grand avenue at break-neck speed. The horse was frightened beyond control of the driver and the woman was screaming her terror. At St. Louis avenue the horse turned west, the buggy going around the corner on two wheels and very nearly capsizing on the curbstone. The light of the lamp at the corner shone full on the faces of the occupants of the buggy anas they dashed by the man and woman were recognized by several persons as Chris Von der Ae and Miss Kitty Dewey. At Spring avenue the horse made a very short turn north and the buggy tipped over, throwing out the woman and child. Von der Ahe was dragged quite a distance up Spring avenue before extricating himself from the wreck. A crowd was quickly on the spot. The woman was found to be unhurt, but the child had suffered an injury of its left arm. The latter was hurriedly taken to Layton's drug store, on the southwest corner of St. Louis and Grand avenues. An examination of the arm showed a painful cut just above the elbow and when the little girl saw it she shrieked as if fearing death. The woman was anzious to get away, and after the child's wound had been bandaged, she hurried out of the drug store. As she reached the sidewalk Mrs. Von der Ahe confronted her. She ran across the street in a vain effort to escape, but was overtaken on the opposite sidewalk by the injured wife. Mrs. Von der Ahe addressed Miss Kittie Dewey in vigorous language, and gave her a charming tongue lashing. Mrs. Von der Ahe also, it is said, threatened to kill Miss Kittie Dewey if she ever again even looked in any direction where Mr. Von der Ahe might be.

In the meantime Mr. Von der Ahe had reached the drug store with his under lip badly cut, and his white shirt front and white vest all covered with blood. He was a sorry spectacle. The proprietor, noting his wants, took him into a back room and got a basin of water and a sponge and was about to wash his chin when Mrs. Von der Ahe rushed in and proceeded to knock out Mr. Von der Ahe in two languages. She railed against him in German for about ten minutes, occasionally changing to English and expressed opinions of Mr. Von der Ahe and Miss Dewey in terms that were fully understood and appreciated by the crowd in the front of the drug store. She informed her husband that she had told Miss Dewey she would break her neck if she ever caught her around the neighborhood again, and she meant to keep her word. All that Mr. Von der Ahe said in meek reply was: "You go away;" "Now you go away." When the wound on Mr. Von der Ahe's chin was washed it was found so deep that sewing was a necessity and Dr. Carson was summoned by telephone. About 11 0'clock Mr. Von der Ahe's chin was sewed up and he was taken home. A few hours later Dr. Carson was called again. Mrs. Von der Ahe having been prostrated from the effects of the excitement she had experienced. Mr. Von der Ahe was all right yesterday, but Mrs. Von der Ahe was still under medical care.
-St. Louis Globe-Democrat, August 12, 1885

I've never claimed that all of the stories about Von der Ahe are false. One of the things, however, that is absolutely necessary is to separate the reality of Von der Ahe from the myth that has been built up over the course of more than a century. We need to see through the Ted Sullivan and Arlie Latham stories about VdA, get past the verbiage of his enemies, and throw out all the bad historical work so that we can find the truth of who VdA was and what it is he actually achieved.

I've also never claimed the man was a saint. We can't go so far in this reinterpretation of VdA that we ignore or gloss over the flaws that were at the root of many of the stories. Chris Von der Ahe was a womanizer and an adulterer. Those are facts. Just because I happen to like VdA and am found of the idea of reinterpreting his life, I'm not going to ignore those facts.

VdA was a flawed human being who brought a great deal of trouble on himself. He also happened to have been an outstanding businessman and baseball magnate who is probably the most significant figure in the history of 19th century baseball in St. Louis. Those facts can co-exist and when brought together actually offer a fuller and more realistic portrait of VdA than currently exists in general baseball histories.

This particular story, VdA being dragged by the carriage, is relatively familiar to anyone with a passing acquaintance of VdA's life. It's often used, like most of the VdA stories, to portray him as a buffoon. However, the reality of the story as reported in the Globe is significantly more interesting.

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