Saturday, December 27, 2008

Von Der Ahe And The Players League, Part Three

The meeting of the brotherhood to effect a permanent organization will be held at the Fifth Avenue Hotel (in New York City) Monday, and already many of the prime movers in the scheme are in the city. Tonight there was quite a gathering of them at an up-town resort, among them being Al Johnson of Cleveland, Arthur Irwin, Jay Faatz, John Ward, George Gore, and Fred Pfeffer. Chris Von Der Ahe of St. Louis is also in the city, and will attend the meeting in the hope that he may be able to prevent the annihilation of his St. Louis Browns.

All the players spoke hopefully of the future of the organization, did not seem at all dismayed at the desertion of some of their members, and predicted that tomorrow would see the organization built on a sounder basis than was generally believed. As to whether or not there would be an amalgamation of the remnants of the American Association with the brotherhood nobody cared to say. Some thought St. Louis would be taken care of, while others were of the opinion that the brotherhood would go along with the cities originally picked out.
-Chicago Tribune, December 15, 1889

I think that there are two rather significant pieces of information here. First, the Tribune attributes Von der Ahe as attempting "to prevent the annihilation of his St. Louis Browns." While it's obvious that the PL had targeted the Browns and their players, I hardly see this as akin to annihilation. Even with the team gutted by defections to the PL, the Browns still managed to finish 78-58, good for third place, in 1890.

However, the defection of the Browns' stars may have had VdA facing financial annihilation. The Browns' attendance data for 1890 is rather ugly. For the season, the club drew 105,000 people which was the lowest attendance the Browns had between 1882 and 1899. Even when the Browns had to compete against the Maroons, they drew more fans. Even when they were losing 100 games a year in the late 1890's, they drew more fans. In 1889, for comparisons sake, the Browns drew 175,000 and in 1891 they drew 220,000. It's obvious, based on this data (incomplete as it is), that VdA took a large financial hit as a result of the Players League.

When one looks a bit deeper at the attendance numbers, the problem doesn't seem quite as bad. Even though 1890 was the worst raw attendance year the Browns had in their history, when compared to other teams in the Association and in the major leagues the Browns' attendance numbers look a little better. In 1890, the Browns finished third in attendance in the Association and had the twelfth best attendance out of the twenty-five major league clubs. Again, for the sake of comparison, the Browns, between 1893 and 1898, never finished better than fifth in attendance in the National League.

There is no doubt that Von der Ahe and the Browns suffered financially in 1890 as a result of the defections of their star players (and also as a result of the reorganization of the American Association, which I'll cover later), specifically when compared to the financial success that the team enjoyed in the mid-1880's. And I'm certain that VdA anticipated the effect the Players League would have on his bottom line. However, it's difficult to argue that it was a financial "annihilation" and the team's attendance bounced back strongly the next year. The negative financial effect of the Brotherhood War on VdA and the Browns was a temporary one. Of course, Von der Ahe had no way of knowing that the PL would last only one season and that, in 1891, he would have his stars back.

The other significant piece of information is the statement that some of the players involved in the organization of the PL "thought St. Louis would be taken care of..." The implication is that there's more than smoke here and there might actually be some fire. If Von der Ahe had serious fears about the financial viability of the Browns then it's possible that he entered into negotiations with the PL about joining the league in some form. VdA had a history of worrying about the financial viability of his team and making plans for the future in case the Association fell apart.

There were always rumors swirling around that VdA was going to sell the club or move the club to another city or jump to another league and that's why it's easy to dismiss the PL rumors as just being more of the same. However, the fact that rumors of this type persisted for almost a decade leads one to take them seriously or, at the very least, take a good look at them rather than simply dismiss them. One way to look at these rumors is to accept that there's a bit of truth to them. Most likely, VdA did from time to time look at selling the club or moving the club to a new city or league. He was a business man and his goal was to make money. If he believed that his market position was in danger, for whatever reason, then he would investigate possible avenues to improve his situation. Maybe that was moving the club to Cleveland. Maybe it was jumping to the Players League. Maybe it was building a new ballpark. Maybe it was selling off some of his stars.

In this context, Von der Ahe's dealings with the Players League can be seen as an attempt to protect or improve his financial situation rather than a desperate move of a fearful man. It's possible that VdA saw the PL as the strongest horse in the race and simply wanted to cast his financial lot with the organization that he believed was going to win the war.

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