Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Mr. Von Der Ahe Understands But Little About Baseball

Manager Sullivan, of the St. Louis Club, yesterday asked President Von Der Ahe for his release.  On Wednesday, when the Metropolitans were batting hard, the President requested Manager Sullivan to change the pitchers.  The manager refused to do so, saying: "It's no use now.  The Mets have a deciding lead."  After the game, it is said, the President spoke harshly to the manager.  "I have brought this club up to its present standing," said Mr. Sullivan yesterday, "and it is hard, after putting it in a fair way to win the championship, to be treated thus badly.  Mr. Von Der Ahe understands but little about base-ball, and if I had obeyed all of his orders during the season, the club would be nearer the foot than the head in the race."
-New York Times, August 31, 1883

While this account of Sullivan's resignation as Browns' manager is essentially correct, several details have been left out.  About two weeks previous to this, Pat Deasley and Fred Lewis got drunk, assaulted Sullivan, and spent the night in jail.  This story leaked to the press and the Browns had a PR problem on their hands, especially after everybody involved denied the story and were proved to be disingenuous.  The Post-Dispatch started digging and published numerous stories of fights and drunkenness involving Browns' players.  As the Browns were in the process of falling out of first place and losing the pennant, the Post was hammering them about the conduct of their players and stating that a lack of discipline was costing the club a championship.  

Von der Ahe and Sullivan's relationship was already strained after Sullivan refused to support Von der Ahe's fining of Arlie Latham in late July.  After the manager again defied his boss during the New York game and the club again lost, Von der Ahe decided to conduct a surprise curfew check and found most of the players absent from their rooms.  He went to confront Sullivan about the situation and that's when a screaming match broke out and Von der Ahe "spoke harshly" to Sullivan.  

In Before They Were Cardinals, Jon David Cash has the Post's take on Sullivan's resignation:

It is announced from New York that Sullivan has withdrawn from the management of the St. Louis club.  The reasons for the withdrawal are alleged to be dissensions in the club, some accounts of which have already been given by the Post-Dispatch, and the truth of which are pretty well proven to by the final result.  It is also stated that President Von der Ahe took Sullivan to task for not enforcing stricter discipline, and that a stormy scene occurred between the two men.  Sullivan, at any rate, has withdrawn, and his place is filled for the present by Charley Comiskey.

So basically Sullivan is letting the players run wild, the team is losing, and he can't get along with his boss but, in the New York Times, Von der Ahe is the bad guy (based on the testimony of Sullivan).  Of course Von der Ahe shouldn't have been interfering in game decisions and his fining of Latham in late July was uncalled for but Sullivan's real failure was his inability to deal with Von der Ahe.  History has glossed over Sullivan's failures and his resignation as Browns' manager has become part of the Von der Ahe myth.  Von der Ahe is the guy who tried to force his manager to change pitchers in the middle of the game rather than the guy who had problems with a manager who had a championship-caliber club but was letting the pennant slip away because he couldn't maintain discipline.  Sullivan is the hero who resigned with honor rather than a failed manager.  

I think that most of us have had demanding bosses as well as bosses who were erratic in their demands.  As an employee, it's part of your job to deal with that and, to a certain extent, manage your boss.  Sullivan was unable to do this and, if he didn't resign, he probably would have been fired.  One of the strengths of the man who replaced Sullivan, Charles Comiskey, was his ability to manage Von der Ahe.  He established a relationship with his boss that grew over time and Von der Ahe came to trust and respect Comiskey.  A good manager manages people and Sullivan doesn't appear to have been particularly good at that especially in comparison to Comiskey.              


Richard Hershberger said...

Who put together the 1883 players? This is an honest question, as I don't know much about them. If it was Sullivan, this would be an argument for baseball savvy.

I have never quite decided what my opinion is of Von Der Ahe, and it has never occurred to me before now to consider having an opinion of Sullivan. When I read about the players running wild, I don't know what to make of it. If the players are kept on a loose leash and win, this is managerial genius of not reining in thoroughbreds. (Yes, I am mixing my metaphors.) I have been watching this in Philly the past few years. Charlie Manual has a laid-back managerial style. When the Phillies were not quite making the post-season, this was criticized as laxness. Since they won the World Series it turns out to be brilliant insight into players' psychology. Either way I take a grain of salt.

As for working with difficult bosses, that goes both ways. Part of being an effective employee is being able to manage your boss. Part of being an effective employer is being able to get the best out of your employees.

In this specific case, Von Der Ahe had a lot more later success than did Sullivan, so point goes to the German. There clearly is a lot more to Von Der Ahe than his image as a clown. But he surely did provoke that reaction from an awful lot of people.

Jeffrey Kittel said...

Sullivan was a brillant baseball man who had a good eye for talent. He was responsible for putting together both the Dubuque team and the Browns. Comiskey was very forthright in giving credit to Sullivan for building the championship club. Even after he left the club, he continued to give Comiskey leads on players. His role in putting that club together is often overlooked.

My problem with Sullivan is the role that he played in determining Von der Ahe's historical fate. He had a good relationship with the press and was a raconteur who told story after story about Von der Ahe, all of which portrayed VdA as a buffoon. I was reading a couple of obituaries of VdA last night that appeared in Sporting Life and they were filled with these silly stories. Sullivan was instrumental in spreading these stories and helped solidify VdA's (negative) legacy.

Your point about management styles is well taken and Whitey Herzog had a similiar style. He always talked about treating his players like adults and said that he only had two rules: show up on time and play hard. But my point was not necessarily that Sullivan deserved to be fired for poor management but rather that the story (largely because of the way Sullivan told it) became Von der Ahe not knowing anything about baseball, meddling with management, and forcing Sullivan to resign with honor. While that may be true, there was another side of the story that has never been told because it doesn't fit with the established pattern of VdA as clown.

My opinion of VdA is that he was (like most of us) a complicated, flawed human being. He could be overbearing, irrational, emotional, and prone to outburst. He was also a habitual womanizer who publicly cheated on and humiliated his wives. He was overlitigious to a fault. There were many people who saw this part of him and couldn't stand the man. A lot of people just were unable to work for him.

On the otherhand, I see him as being a rather warmhearted, open, friendly, and humorous person. This side of VdA inspired great loyalty in many people who worked for him. He was also a visonary baseball man who was the first person to make professional baseball a sustained profitable venture in StL. His ideas about what a ballpark was and how it could generate revenue was a hundred years ahead of its time. He was a larger than life figure whose succeses and failures were grand and played out publicly for twenty years.

I grew up reading Bob Broeg and Bob Burns in the StL papers and their columns were filled with VdA stories. The first chapter of Broeg's history of the Cardinals is called "Der Boss President" and, again, repeated all the stories. VdA as clown has been the accepted historical interpretation for over a hundred years and I almost certain that it starts with Sullivan.

While I respect his achievements, I think that Sullivan is a biased witness whose opinions re: VdA need to be discredited. The original draft of this post was rather strenuous in attacking Sullivan and I went back and rewrote it after realizing that it was a bit over the top. But it's difficult to continue to see this stuff about VdA and not go on the attack when I know that the reality of the situation is different than what is being portrayed. I also don't want to go overboard and portray VdA as a perfect, flawless saint because he certainly wasn't that.

I think that the thing that makes VdA so interesting is that his is a flawed greatness. It's just that up to now we've been given the flaws and the greatness has largly been ignored.