Monday, November 2, 2009

St. Louis Badly Beaten: An Early Von Der Ahe Story

President Von der Ahe was almost heart-broken over the defeat of the St. Louis base-ball nine by the Athletic Club to-day. As he walked from the grounds a vision of the champion flag slowly fading away came before him and he wept. Dashing the tears away with a great effort he pulled his broad sombrero down over his face, jumped into a bobtail car, and went down town. Arrived at his hotel, he shot off a dozen electric bells and ordered the whole St. Louis nine to his room. The boys soon came up. There was not a smile. They arranged themselves around the room, some on te bed, others on chairs, and still others lounged on the velvet carpet of the wealthy President's room. Von der Ahe gazed upon the crowd and the crowd, with their still unwashed faces, glared back at him. By a great effort Von der Ahe spoke. "Boys, Von der Ahe is de President of de Cent Lewis Club. Von der Ahe is de manager of de Cent Lewis Club. Von der Ahe is de boss manager of the Cent Lewis Club. Vhy did you loose dot game to-day?"

Silence reigned all around. If the State House clock had been nearer it would have been heard to tick. Arlie Latham, from his downy perch on Von der Ahe's bolster, was the first to recover, and he answered: "Why, you see, boss, we had devilish hard luck."

"Yes," chorused the nine, "we had devilish hard luck." Von der Ahe gazed upon his nine. His nine stared back. He knew they had often won games for him. He also remembered how many fines he had paid and how many bad bonds he was on. He turned his eyes upon the stolid countenance of Lewis and then a smile ruffled across his Teutonic face as he said: "Vell, boys, if it was hard luck, dot settles it. You can't win a game ven you have hard luck. Dots so. Dat vas ail right." The nine felt relieved. They arose to a man, shook Von der Ahe's hand, and then filed down to the dinning-room, where they terrified the colored waiters with their orders for supper. The score of to-day's game was 11 to 1 in favor of the Athletics.
-The New York Times, September 5, 1883

Without doing any kind of search through my notes, I'd say that this is one of the earliest Von der Ahe stories that I've come across. For those who don't know what a Von der Ahe story is, I'd define it as any story that attempts to mine humor by portraying Chris Von der Ahe as a buffoon. The common elements in a Von der Ahe story include his German accent, his general ignorance (especially of baseball), and his emotional nature. Usually there is a foil, often Arlie Latham or Ted Sullivan (who specialized in telling Von der Ahe stories), who outwits an angry or confused Von der Ahe by some witty retort or action.

While this kind of humor, portraying immigrants as ignorant and finding humor in their "otherness," was common during the era, the result of all these stories over time has been to create an inaccurate picture of Von der Ahe. Von der Ahe was a self-made man, a successful businessman, and an innovative baseball magnate. But, thanks largely to these stories, he is remembered today as a clown and buffoon. Even if there is some truth in the stories (and many of them just seem to be yarns made up out of whole cloth), the way they are told, focusing on the accent and always presenting Von der Ahe as the butt of the joke, has had the effect of creating an inaccurate and on-sided portrayal of Von der Ahe.

Von der Ahe, like most people, was complicated and can't be captured by a one-dimensional portrayal. Could he be a buffoon? Of course. Did he have moments of genius? I think so. He was a womanizer and a spendthrift but he was also extraordinarily kind-hearted and innovative. There were many people that hated him and probably just as many that loved him. Many mocked him and many admired him. He was certainly more than the stupid clown who appears in the stories.

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