Monday, August 16, 2010

Making Merry With Von der Ahe's Dignity

St. Louis has a champion base-ball club. This is not generally known outside the city limits, but nevertheless it has a club entitled to that proud appellation. For seven months the club has been assaulting the Poseyville Reds, the Smoky City Whites, and the Porkopolis Blues, and having more or less vanquished them all it has returned home full of honors and booze. Not only is this club unique, but it has a President who is the most eccentric of his kind. His name is Chris Von der Ahe, and to mention it in base-ball circles is to provoke a wide grin. The base-ball fraternity and even his own "champion" club make merry with Chris' dignity. Like many good citizens from the Rheinish provinces, Chris has found the English language as hard to conquer as many of the ball clubs. His knowledge of the beautiful points in the game is also quite limited, as the following story, told by his deceased secretary, Dave Reid, will attest: One morning when his club was practicing he approached Dave, and in a burst of confidence said:

"Dave, dis vas de piggest diamond in de country."

"No, Chris," replied Dave, "all diamonds are the same size."

"Vell," replied Chris,..."it vas de piggest infield, anyhow."

In the early part of the summer Chris called the boys together, and said: "See here, now: I don't vant some foolishness from you fellows. I vant you to stop dis slushing and play ball. Of you vin de scampinship I gif you all a suit of clothes and a benefit game extra, and of you don't you vill haf to eat snowballs all vintor." This ultimatum had the desired effect, and the players slugged the ball and stole bases until they were well in the lead. When the President saw that the coveted pennant was within his grasp he determined to get up a carnival procession that would make the Veiled Prophet sick and dwarf his parade into insignificance...

...It was called a reception and was ostensibly given by the public, but in reality by Von der Ahe in the name of the public. Chris skirmished around and got all the rowing clubs, amateur ball clubs, foot-ball clubs, and sprinters, engaged all the German bands within a five-mile radius of the courthouse and awaited the arrival of "de Prowns..." Chris was a stellar attraction all by himself, and immediately following him were "de Prowns." The champions were conscious that the eyes of the multitude were on them, and they bore themselves with becoming dignity. With feet occasionally elevated above their heads and cigars between their teeth, they showed by the expectorations which they showered on their admirers and emphatic cries of "Rats!" with which they returned all cheers, that they still retained their individual characteristics...

The procession wound up in Schneider's beer-garden, where Congressman John J. O'Neil, a stockholder in the Browns, welcomed them in behalf of the public. He told how the great heart of the city warmed toward her club and that the boys could have anything they wanted, and if they were too modest to ask for it he would ask for them.

"Well, give us a rest," shouted one of the champions...

Latham, who is described by Chris as "dot boy Latham, who can run like a cantelope," became quite obstreperous at the banquet...
-Chicago Tribune, October 8, 1885

This was a very long article that took plenty of shots at Von der Ahe and the players but I edited out a lot of the more uninteresting stuff. The article also contained the story about Vice-President Thomas Hendricks, who was in St. Louis at the time and believed that the championship parade was thrown in his honor.

The point of all of this is to note that Von der Ahe stories, which had begun to appear as early as 1883, were rather well-formed by 1885. You have the diamond story, the eating snowballs story and "de Prowns." The only thing missing is a reference to "de Poss President." The Latham cantaloupe story is a new one to me and it made me chuckle.

I think that 1885 marks an important moment in the evolution of the Von der Ahe stories. The Browns were successful and Von der Ahe was becoming better known. He had some very public domestic problems in August that had to have done some damage to his reputation. And after this article in the Tribune at the beginning of October, Von der Ahe stories begin to pop up in numerous newspapers throughout the month. It seems that beginning in October 1885 the Von der Ahe stories take on the form that they would retain to this day and become a staple in the sporting press.


David Ball said...

What's particularly interesting is to see the "world's biggeet diamond story in connection with Dave Reid. I have seen it often, but usually Von der Ahe's interlocutor is supposed to be Ted Sullivan or Charlie Comiskey.

Reid was a newsman who served as the Browns' first secretary from the club's formation until his death some time in 1883 or 1884. If Reid really originated the story, it goes far back and Reid himself may have played a large part in originating Von der Ahe's outsized public image from a very early date, before Ted Sullivan came on the scene.

I think people who have not read the contemporary sources may not realize what a large figure Von der Ahe cut on the sporting scene. In the 1890's newspaper reporters outside St. Louis could start a story with "Chris says..." and not feel they had to specify which Chris they were talking to for their readers. It's as though he were Elvis or Cher.

As late as 1908 I've seen a law review article that discusses a famous case arising from the kidnapping of Von der Ah for the sake of returning him to Pennsylvania after he had jumped bail. Again, the article alternately refers to him as "Von der Ahe" and "Chris." This is a journal published in St. Louis, and I doubt the same thing would have happened had that not been the case, but even so, it's a striking informality in such as austere publication and a testament to well known a figure Von der Ahe was.

Jeffrey Kittel said...

Reid died on May 2, 1885 and you're right that it's interesting to see this story connected to him.

The Tribune article is an odd one but I think the general goal was to take a shot at St. Louis generally rather than VdA specifically (although, of course, they managed to do both). But all elements of the VdA stories are there in the article and it is certainly a very early example of a VdA story. Can't be for certain but the stories in the Trib are so familiar and have been told so often that it's possible that the Trib is one of the main sources for the origins of the stories.

They even managed to get the dismissive, haughty tone correct. The Sporting News, in the 1890s, would master that attitude when it came to writing about VdA.