Friday, January 2, 2009

Chris Von Der Ahe And The Players League, Part Seven

Frank Brunell, Secretary of the Players' League, arrived here (in St. Louis) this morning from Kansas City. He stated that his errand here was to negotiate with St. Louis players and that his mission had been entirely successful. "We have been," said he, "after Comiskey for a long time and were anxious to secure him. I went to Denver some time ago on the same errand, but failed to come to an understanding. George Munson, then the Secretary of the Browns, and who is a warm friend of Comiskey, stood between me and the latter, and prevented my making terms with him. Now, however, Munson and Von der Ahe have parted company and Comiskey, feeling that the former was unjustly treated has agreed to play in Chicago. That is definitely settled. You can say positively that he will play in chicago next year. I will return to Chicago tonight bearing a letter from him, in which he states without qualification that he will leave St. Louis Thursday night and Friday will affix his signature to a contract to Captain and manage the Chicago brotherhood team for three years. We now have five of the St. Louis players-Comiskey, Latham, King, O'Neill, and Boyle-the four latter having already signed. Robinson I have also seen, and he has agreed to sign either with Cleveland or Brooklyn."

Comiskey was seen this evening, and when asked about his future movements said: "You are free to announce that I shall bid good-by to St. Louis and will go to Chicago Thursday to sign a contract to manage and captain the brotherhood team in that city. I have made an agreement to that effect and mean to carry it out to the letter."
-Chicago Daily Tribune, January 16, 1890

Capt. Comiskey said in an interview: "I take this step for the reason that I am in sympathy with the brotherhood. I believe their aims are for the best welfare and interest of the professional player. I believe that if the players do not this time stand true to their colors and maintain their organization, they will from this forward be at the mercy of the corporations who have been running the game, who drafted the 'reserve' rule and gave birth to the obnoxious classification list.

"I have taken all the chances of success and failure into consideration and I believe that if the players stand true to themselves they will score the grandest success ever achieved in the baseball world. But besides having the welfare of the players at heart. I have other reasons for wanting to play in Chicago. My parents and all my relatives reside here and all the property I own is in this city. I was raised here and have a kindly liking for the place."
-Boston Globe, January 18, 1890

I'm desperately trying to wrap all of this up as I have no doubt that you all are as tired of this topic as I am.

So by January, Von der Ahe has lost most of his players except for Icebox Chamberlain and Tommy McCarthy who had both signed early (and who, based on their statements at the time, would have jumped to the Players League with the rest of the team). There's no doubt that the PL was after the St. Louis players for some time. Certainly there had been talk of the players jumping to the PL since December, with Arlie Latham making the most noise (as usual). It makes perfect sense that the PL would be after the St. Louis players being as they were some of the biggest and most famous stars in the game.

For those who haven't been following the 27 part epic that is this series of posts, it's my contention that Von der Ahe was, in December of 1889, attempting to move the Browns into the PL. There are several reasons to believe this. First, the American Association had splintered in November of 1889 and was down to four teams. With the threat of a new league and the potential loss of star players, the AA was on the brink of falling apart. Second, there was a general belief that VdA was facing financial ruin. With his stars jumping to the new league, the loss to the AA of some good baseball markets, and the potential of a PL team in St. Louis, the Browns were looking at a tough financial situation. Lastly, I believe, with little support from the evidence, that VdA believed that he would be able to keep his players if he joined the PL. If, in December and before the players officially jumped, VdA was able to bring the Browns, in toto, into the PL it would have been a significant coup for the league. Having the Four Time Champions in the new league and a strong hold on the valuable St. Louis baseball market would have been a strong inducement for the league to allow VdA to keep his players.

Of course there are a couple of problems with that last part. As David Ball has been kind enough to point out, if the Browns had jumped into the PL there would have been nothing to stop the National League from raiding the team and stealing the Browns' stars. My argument against that happening is to basically point to the Comiskey quote above and say that the players were supporters of the Brotherhood and the PL and wouldn't have jumped to the NL. Now again, David makes a very good point that the Browns' players were sick and tired of Von der Ahe and I can't argue with that. There are enough quotes to fill a book about how sick and tired some of these guys were of VdA. If you search this blog, I'm sure you'll find a few of them. It's entirely reasonable to believe that regardless of what league the Browns played in, the players, given an opportunity, would have jumped to another one to get away from VdA and make more money.

But I don't think that these two points change my thinking on the bigger issue of what Von der Ahe was trying to do in December of 1889. Facing the loss of his players, the possible collapse of the AA, and an uncertain financial situation, VdA made an attempt to move the Browns to the Players League. If the Pittsburgh club had been willing to step aside or had not been able to secure financial backing, he would have succeeded in doing so. While things may not have worked out as VdA planned, I have no doubt that this is what he was trying to do and I have little doubt about why he was doing it.

So I think I'm pretty much done with this. I have more stuff in the files but I've beaten this dead horse enough and really want to move on with my life.


David ball said...

Well, this could go on and on as far as I'm concerned, but perhaps that's a minority opinion. Let me just add that I have wondered about the influence of Comiskey, who I think was pretty clearly tired of Von der Ahe and probably could have taken some of his players wherever he went.

However, in these matters I suspect it's best to follow the maxim of H.L. Mencken, I think it was: "When they say it's not the money, it's the money." I don't discount that some of the Browns were sympathetic to the Brotherhood, but I believe that most players would sign for the highest pay they could get.

I will say, though, that in Bill Veek's second book he talks about taking over the White Sox and finding squirreled away in their office a copy of the Players League constitution, which Comiskey had apparently kept for at least ten years or say, through various moves before he came to Chicago around 1900.

Jeffrey Kittel said...

You can never go wrong quoting Mencken-he was a wise man.

There's no doubt that money was an issue for the Browns' players. There are enough quotes from them talking about how little they made and how they felt cheated by VdA to make it obvious. There were a lot of problems with how the post-season money was distributed and every fall there would be a serious of quotes from various players about how this was the final straw and they would never play for that SOB Von der Ahe again. Comiskey didn't make much noise however as he seems to me to be a man who kept his own counsel. But it's human nature to have a limited tolerance for drama and chaos, to look for greener pastures, and after achieving success to look for new challenges.

I probably could have done four more posts on this-more coverage of the players leaving (especially Latham, who made a lot of noise on his way out), some interesting stuff in the spring regarding rumors about Chamberlain, George Munson's attempt to get a PL team in StL, and the rumors of VdA selling out in the summer of 1890 in a deal that would have landed him a PL franchise (which I posted about awhile back).

All in all, I think I explored the point that I wanted to-although in a rather disorganized manner. I don't think I've ever read much about VdA's flirtation with the PL in December of 1889. Hetrich touches on it a bit in his book but uses it to reinforce the image of VdA as a blundering fool who doesn't know how to react to the challenge of the PL. Nemec didn't really touch on it in the Beer & Whiskey League. Seymour mentions it in passing.

Nobody has really looked at it seriously and considered the ramifications of what it would have meant if VdA had gotten the Browns into the PL in 1890. Certainly it would have meant the collapse of the AA. It may have led to the longterm success of the PL and a change in the nature of the relationship between player/owner 70 odd years before the advent of the players' union. Maybe there would have been an eventual merger between the NL and PL or there may have been a continuation of a two league system that would have left no room for the creation of the AL. Maybe St. Louis would never have ended up in the NL. Maybe Comiskey would have stayed in StL and ended up as owner of the Browns. You can go on and on along this line.

The important thing is that VdA came very close in December of 1889 to bolting the AA and placing the Browns in the PL. If the Pittsburgh club had been unable to secure financing or convince the others that they had the necessary financial backing, the Browns would have been playing in the PL in 1890.