Tuesday, August 24, 2010

This Just In: Von der Ahe Played Baseball

Before we get to the games of the 1886 series, I have to stop and post something that I just found:

Mr. Von der Ahe thinks some of having the old Grand Avenues play the Browns at Sportsman's Park to-morrow afternoon. Mr. Von der Ahe was the short stop of that famous old nine.
-St. Louis Globe-Democrat, October 11, 1886

Von der Ahe was on the board of directors of the Grand Avenue Club in 1876 and was their vice-president in 1877. However, this is the first I've ever heard of Von der Ahe playing baseball with the club. In fact, this is the first I've heard of the possibility that Von der Ahe ever played baseball anywhere.

You have to remember that this is the guy who has been portrayed as knowing nothing about the game. He was the guy who didn't realize all of his customers were leaving to go to the ballgame across the street. He was the guy who didn't know that all baseball diamonds are the same size.

While we already knew that Von der Ahe had been involved in St. Louis baseball going back to at least 1876, here we have evidence that not only was he involved on the business side but he may have been a player as well. I'm not sure exactly what I think about this right now because I literally found this a couple of minutes ago and haven't really processed the information.

If this is true, and I have some doubts, it has to change how we view Chris Von der Ahe. While I've been arguing for a reinterpretation of Von der Ahe's career and I think that I've done it well, this would be a major, important fact that one could point to when arguing that Von der Ahe wasn't the ignorant clown that he's depicted as being. The argument that "He played the game," while superficial, is a powerful one.

Edit: The mind does like to play tricks and since I found this reference and wrote up this post, I've had this odd feeling that I may have seen the reference before. I can't be certain and the point isn't important enough to go looking through all my VdA posts. But the feeling is like an itch I can't scratch.


Richard Hershberger said...

I think a grain of salt is called for. I often see characterizations like this for clubs from a decade before. Taken on its face, the claim is that Von der Ahe was the regular short stop of the first nine. It is unlikely this would have gone unnoticed before now. It is more likely that he was an occasional player, or that the claim is simply false.

Unfortunately I don't have electronic access to any St. Louis papers from that year, but it shouldn't be too difficult to establish who was the regular short stop, given the right library and a working microfilm reader.

Not that this affects your broader point one way or the other. You have established to my satisfaction that Von der Ahe was connected to baseball long before the just so story about the Browns was supposed to have taken place.

Jeffrey Kittel said...

Without looking for any boxscores (and there are a few on the site), I think the shortstop for the Grand Avenues was Joe Solari but regardless, there's no way VdA played on the first nine. The club came into existence in 1876 and that season and the next they were a very good club. They lost something like six games in two years and three of those loses were to the Brown Stockings.

Thinking about it for several days, I'm at the point were I believe that VdA simply played in a muffin game or games (and technically, therefore, played for the Grand Avenues) or the report is wrong, confusing his service on the board with playing for the club.

David Ball said...

Unless it's purely fanciful and tongue in cheek, the specific reference to him as a shortstop seems to imply he probably really did play. But he came to America in 1870 when he was about twenty, isn't that the case? That would be a little old to take up the game from scratch and expect to become any kind of players, even as an amateur.

Jeffrey Kittel said...

VdA was in StL in 1867, after arriving in New York and a short period in New Orleans (if I remember correctly). So he may have arrived in the country in 1866. Born in 1851, he was just a kid when he got here and was about twenty-five when the Grand Avenues got going.

VdA certainly had a connection with the Grand Avenues but I still find it unlikely that he played with them. The Grand Avenues were a top level club and he couldn't have played with the first nine, unless he was a much better ballplayer than we believe him to be. The Grand Avenues didn't have a second nine for him to play on that I'm aware of. This was 1876/7 not 1866/7. The club was playing for money and to win, not for fun.

However, given that VdA was around 16 when he got to StL, that there was an explosion in the number of clubs in StL at the time and an increase in interest in the game, it's very possible that VdA played with some other club in the late 1860s. I've looked at most of the major clubs of the era and his name never showed up as a member or player but there were a ton of minor clubs during this period. There were over two hundred baseball clubs active in StL in the early 1870s and I'm sure that if VdA had an interest in playing, he could have found a team to play for.

I guess I'll have to go back and look at the Grand Avenue boxscores but I'd be shocked if I found VdA playing for the club. We'll see.