Thursday, July 29, 2010

Alternative History

The talk of Von der Ahe retiring from base ball at the close of the present season is not true, yet I don't doubt but what Chris has been talking of leaving the national game and living on the interest of his money.
-Sporting Life, July 26, 1890

Imagine if Von der Ahe had retired after the 1890 or 1891 season. How would he be viewed in baseball history?

Throwing out the 1882 season, when the Browns finished fifth, Von der Ahe's club from 1883 to 1891 finished second, fourth, first, first, first, first, second, third and second. Four championships (including one outright and one disputed world championship) and three second place finishes in nine years. He brought major league baseball back to one of the biggest baseball markets in the country and helped build a viable, second major league. He was responsible for building one of the greatest and most famous teams of the 19th century. Von der Ahe was also an innovator when it came to baseball stadiums and the ballpark experience. He was rich, famous and successful.

After 1891, of course, everything fell apart for a variety of reasons. Von der Ahe became an object of intense ridicule as the Browns never finished higher than ninth during the last seven seasons he was running the club. The popular image of Von der Ahe was formed in the second half of his run with the Browns, when the stadium burned down, he gets arrested in the Baldwin affair, the press turned on him, Sullivan and Latham started telling stories, he was firing managers on almost a daily basis, his team was struggling to win thirty games a year, he was building statues of himself, etc., etc., etc.

If Von der Ahe had gotten out of baseball after the 1890 or the 1891 season, no one would have blamed him, given the difficulties he experienced with the Player's Revolt, and his legacy would not have been stained by the difficult years that followed. There would have been no Von der Ha! Ha! Ha! History would have recorded him as having been one of the most successful and innovative baseball magnates of the 19th century and he would, more than likely, be in the Hall of Fame.

But that isn't how things happened. The 1890s are a part of Von der Ahe's record and has to be weighed against the success he experienced in the 1880s. While history would have been kinder if Von der Ahe had gotten out in 1890/91, it certainly would have been much less interesting.


Richard Hershberger said...

Pop quiz: name three people in major league history who are widely remembered for their accomplishments in the American Association? Too hard? OK, name just one.

Sure, you and I can rattle off a list of names, but you and I are remarkably intelligent, well informed, well bred, and attractive to members of the opposite sex. To the general mass of baseball fans--even those interested in baseball history--the AA is a minor curiosity. The NL of the period is obscure too, but at least you don't need to begin the discussion with what the NL was and defending its major league status.

So to answer your question, he would have been forgotten except to eccentric (if remarkably attractive) specialists. What would the specialists think of him? Probably the clownish reputation would be reduced to more of a "did you know this about him?" level. His accomplishments would stand out more and his personality (or the perception of it) less. But it is easy enough to find discussions of his personality quirks in 1880s papers. The reputation would still be out there, but perhaps it wouldn't be the lede.

Jeffrey Kittel said...

You raise several good points. I find it difficult to remember or understand that the AA is a bit of an obscurity. My earliest exposure to baseball history, which came through Bob Broeg's columns and books, always included Von der Ahe and the Browns. All histories of the Cardinals begin with that story so I'd hope that anyone with an interest in Cardinals' history would be up on VdA and the AA to some extent. But I've begun to believe (as I'm turning into a rather cranky old man) that the quality of the baseball fan in StL has declined and you don't hear much talk of our history in the stands like you used to. There's no one in the media like Broeg or Bob Burns who carry that torch anymore and educate the fanbase. So I'd guess that if you asked the average fan at Busch Stadium who VdA was or what the AA was, the vast majority would have no clue.

It's interesting, and completely unremarkable, that the clownish, more salacious aspects of VdA's personality and life have made him more interesting from a historical point of view. The stories, the "kidnapping," the lawsuits, the women, the loss of the club all make him a more interesting figure. Rags to riches to rags is a much better tale than just rags to riches.