Sunday, October 10, 2010

For Want Of A Rain Check

In commenting upon the proposed Brotherhood League, the Toledo Blade the other day gave Henry V. Lucas' real reason for forming the Union Association. In 1883 Mr. Lucas and a party of friends visited the St. Louis base ball grounds. The afternoon was stormy and the club management refused to issue rain checks. Mr. Lucas and his companions were highly indignant and then and there resolved to form an organization of their own, which they did, and it cost him $75,000.
-Philadelphia Inquirer, October 30, 1889

I'm not sure I'm buying this but it's possible. William Spink was bringing up the issue of rain checks in 1876 and by July of that year, the Brown Stockings had begun issuing them if a game was called because of rain before five innings had been played. To what extent that policy carried over to Von der Ahe's Browns in the early 1880s is unknown but, according to Peter Morris in A Game of Inches, there was at least one instance in 1883 when a ballpark crowd wanted rain checks and Von der Ahe refused to issue them, although the specific circumstances are unclear.

So when I say that this story is possible, I really mean that the rain check policy was not completely developed and it's possible that Lucas went to a ballgame in 1883, thought he deserved a rain check and didn't get one. However, human action is complicated and I think it's unrealistic that this one incident would motivate Lucas to undertake a project as large and risky as the formation of a new major league. It may very well have played a part in his decision-making but I find it difficult to believe that it was the most important factor. Lucas' love for baseball, his ego, his ability to financially undertake the project and the roll that his family had played in St. Louis baseball all played a part in his decision to form the Union Association. He also specifically mentioned the unfairness of the reserve rule as being a motivating factor, although that may have been an attempt to justify the raiding of other clubs. Regardless, it's unrealistic to describe something as complicated as the UA venture as being motivated by Von der Ahe's refusal to issue a rain check.


David Ball said...

Last spring I was at the Hall of Fame and examined some of the correspondence of A.G. Mills, the NL president in the early 1880's. In an 1884 letter Albert Spalding wrote Mills that he had been on his way to the ball park one day when he had encountered Ted Sullivan, then still the manager of Lucas' Maroons, waiting with some of his players for a street car to take them to a game against the Chicago Unions. Spalding stopped to chat.

"I asked Sullivan how the St. Louis Unions were getting along, and his reply was to the effect that their club was doing very well financially, but could not say so much for the other Union clubs. I understood from his remarks that Mr. Lucas was largely in both [sic] the Boston, Chicago, and Baltimore Unions, and that it was partially through the financial aid they received from Lucas that these clubs were enabled to go on.

"Sullivan volunteered the remark that the St. Louis Unions were out of their elements in their present association, and that they belonged in the League, and asked if I thought the St. Louis Union club would be admitted if they made application. I replied that they could not get in without a unanimous vote of the clubs composing the National Agreement, and I was quite sure they would not get a favorable vote so long as they continued to hold [players who had jumped from National Agreement clubs]. I further told him that if the St. Louis club came into the League they would have to give up Sunday playing. He said that he knew that Mr. Lucas was very anxious to get into the League, and he was willing to do almost anything to get out of his present association and into our organization."

Sullivan told Spalding Lucas was to be in Chicago the next day, and Spalding invited him to bring Lucas to the Spalding sporting goods store for a talk, but Spalding reported to Mills that he had never seen Lucas.

Spalding's letter was written at the end of June, but the incident must have have happened at the very beginning of that monthe, when the Maroons played the only series they had in Chicago before the latter club folded. There's little new here: Lucas wound up taking a NL franchise after the 1884 season snd it was well publicized that the Maroons made money in 1884 but Lucas sank all the profits and a lot more into supporting the rest of the Union Association. What's interesting is to see Lucas, or at least Sullivan, angling so early to move into the League. It's sometimes said that Lucas threw in his lot with the Unions only because he couldn't get a NL franchise for St. Louis to start with, and that may well be true.

Actually, there's also something completely different that perhaps really is new. It's a nice picture, one of the magnates of the national game making his way to work and bumping into the players and manager of a rival club waiting for a street car to take them to a different ball park, but league teams generally traveled to the ball park by carriage from their hotel, rather than by street car. You wouldn't have expected this kind of corner cutting from Lucas, who was supposed to have spent lavishly to give his team nothing but the best -- angora sweaters and the like. You have to wonder whether those stories were for publicity and he was actually cutting more corners than he liked to let on.

Jeffrey Kittel said...

That's a great story and I was remiss in not mentioning the desire to get a League club in StL as part of Lucas' motivation in forming the Maroons and the UA. The desire for a League team in StL was strong and never died out between 1878 and 1884. Every year there was some scheme or rumor about how StL was going to get back in the League. So I have no doubt that it was part of Lucas' thinking.

I'm not sure how much of the stories about Lucas' extravagance is true and how much may have been propaganda or marketing but we do have some accounts from guys like Glasscock who talk about how they were treated in first-class style. How we square that with the players taking a street car to the game, I don't know.

David Ball said...

I don't know. But he made a big initial splash and there was talk he would buy out the Mets to stock the Maroons when he first came into the NL, but he subsequently was very quiet and never made much impact with them He didn't spend to build a loser into a successful NL team the way the people in Detroit were doing. And there were scattered reports I believe even in 1885 that the Maroons weren't always paying their players on schedule.

However, I believe Lucas suffered some financial reverses in 1885 or 1886, so he may have had less money and less will to spend it than in 1884.

Jeffrey Kittel said...

Not to state the obvious but he also lost a lot of money in 1884, not as much as people think he did but the losses were real and significant. Lucas wasn't really able to absorb any financial losses because he was living off the money he inherited from his father. His older brother, J.B.C., was involved in numerous business interests, specifically real estate and railroads and had significant outside sources of income. I'm not sure that Henry was in that kind of position. Anytime you hear about his business dealings, it's because he lost a great deal of money. He probably had real estate holdings that he inherited but most likely looked to liquidate them rather than but them to work.

He just doesn't strike me as someone with a mind for business. The UA scheme, the angora sweaters, the nice clubhouse, the overspending on ballplayers in 1884, etc just wasn't a great investment. His brother figured out pretty quickly that baseball wasn't a very sound investment and got out as soon as the Browns became a financial liability. Also, Henry Lucas was going up against VdA, who was a businessman through and through. It wasn't inevitable that the Maroons were going to fail financially but I think the odds were against Lucas.

So you're probably right that the combination of already getting the publicity that he wanted and some financial setbacks made him scale back on the angora sweaters, the comforts in the clubhouse and the big contracts. While I'd like to know more about his outside business interests during 1884-1886, I have to think that he was simply living off his inheritence and, as he saw that slowly dissipating, he began to scale back the lavish spending.