Thursday, March 24, 2011

Some Final Thoughts On The Browns' 1887 Player Sales

The first thing I should mention is that I no longer know what to call the events that took place in the fall of 1887. I used to call it a fire sale but it really wasn't that. A fire sale implies that the seller is being forced to sell because of financial stress and that wasn't what these moves were about. So I've taken to generically calling it a players sale. That's esthetically unpleasing but more accurate. Regardless, what I want to do here is give a quick summary of what took place and then look at the reasons for why the sales happened.

By the time the 1887 world's championship series ended, it was clear that the Browns were going to make some changes to their roster for the 1888 season. There had been rumors going back to the summer that some players were unhappy and wanted out of St. Louis. The events surrounding the players' refusal to play the Cuban Giants damaged the relationship between players and management. Von der Ahe was disappointed in the performance of some of the players in the world's series loss. A few players complained about their world's series share and others felt unappreciated. Essentially, the relationship between management and some of the players had broken down. The egos of players who had won three consecutive championships and the egos of management were in conflict and it was evident by the time the season ended that some players were going to be sold.

On November 22, it was reported that Curt Welch and Bill Gleason had been sold to Philadelphia. On November 24, Charles Byrne stated that he had completed the purchase of Doc Bushong and, a day later, it was reported that St. Louis had sold Bob Caruthers to Brooklyn. On November 29, Dave Foutz was sold to Brooklyn. In eight days, Chris Von der Ahe had sold the rights to five of the core members of his championship club for approximately $21,000 and the rights to Fredd Mann, Chippy McGarr and Jocko Milligan.

I think that the conventional historical wisdom is that Von der Ahe made the moves for financial reasons and out of a general unhappiness with some of his players. Financially, the club had seen its profits decline from 1886 to 1887 and there were rumors that Von der Ahe was going to move the club to New York for the 1888 season. However, the club was profitable. Von der Ahe, himself, stated that his club never lost money except during the 1890 Players' Revolt. It's true that attendance had declined somewhat but the club had made money and there was no reason to believe that it wouldn't continue to do so in the future.

Money certainly played a role in the sales. But the reason the players were sold for cash is that that was the way players were moved from team to team during the era. The rights to players were sold, not traded for other players. Brooklyn could not obtain Caruthers, Foutz and Bushong without purchasing their rights from St. Louis. Money was the means by which player transactions were conducted. So if Von der Ahe wanted to move his players for reasons other than financial, he was still going to receive money for their rights.

I think that people saw the fact that the players were sold and the amount of money the Browns received and naturally believed that the transactions were financially motivated. I do believe that finances played a part in the sales. The Browns were a successful club with many star players and there was stress placed by the players on management to increase salaries. By moving many of his stars, Von der Ahe removed some of the financial stress on the club. By replacing those stars with younger and cheaper players, the Browns became more profitable. But I don't believe that the transactions were motivated specifically by the money the club was receiving in return for the players. There was a financial motive in moving the players but it's not the one that most people believe.

As to Von der Ahe's unhappiness with his players, that absolutely played a role in the transactions. He was not happy with the world's series loss and the play of some the players, specifically Gleason, during the series. He was not happy with the players' refusal to play the Cuban Giants. He was not happy with the constant complaints about salary. Von der Ahe was unhappy with some of the players and some of the players were unhappy with Von der Ahe. In the end, Von der Ahe owned the team and the players got shipped out. In this clash of egos, the owner won, as they tend to do.

However, there's another aspect of this which doesn't fit neatly into the story of Chris Von der Ahe the greedy and egomaniacal owner who dumped his stars for cash and that is the role of Charlie Comiskey in all of this. Comiskey, while a player, ran the club on the field and was, for all intents and purposes, a part of management. The extent to which Comiskey was involved in the management of the club as a whole has been overblown historically, as a slight to Von der Ahe, but he did play a role. He had, for the most part, a good relationship with Von der Ahe and the Browns' owner respected his captain as a person and a baseball man. So if club management was unhappy with some of the players and wanted to move them, I think a relevant question is to what extent was Comiskey, as a part of the management team, involved in the decision to the move the players?

The evidence is conflicting and doesn't lend itself to an easy answer. Contemporary accounts at the time the transactions were happening state that the moves came as a surprise to Comiskey and that he was unhappy with the moves. However, a few months later, it was reported that Comiskey had been unhappy with some of his players. He felt that their egos had gotten a bit too large, that they were no longer manageable and he wanted them gone. According to these accounts, Comiskey was the driving force behind the moves. While it's difficult to resolve the contradictions, I don't believe that the moves would have been made without Comiskey's knowledge and approval. There are reports that Von der Ahe had wanted to sell Latham in the fall of 1887 but Comiskey disapproved and the sale never went through. I believe that Comiskey's reported unhappiness in December of 1887 has to do with the sale of Foutz, specifically, rather than the sale of the players in general.

While there had been rumors that Foutz was going to be one of the players moved, after the Caruthers' sale, Von der Ahe stated that he was finished moving players. Less than a week later, Foutz was sold to Brooklyn. The reasons for the Foutz sale are, to me, obvious. After Caruthers was sold to Brooklyn, he refused to sign and presented the club with financial demands. When the club met those demands, Caruthers still refused to sign. At that point, the Foutz deal was made. I believe that Brooklyn went back to Von der Ahe and bought Foutz because it was not clear that they would be able to sign Caruthers. The Foutz deal was not part of the original plan and was made only after the Caruthers deal looked like it was falling through. I think this was the source of Comiskey's unhappiness. Losing Foutz left him with an unexpected hole in right field.

Regardless of Comiskey's specific role in the transactions and his level of approval for the moves, it's clear that the ego of management was one of the reasons for the sale of the players. But there are a couple of other reasons for the sales, one of which has been brought up by other historians and one which seems to always be overlooked.

One of the reasons for the sales which has been brought up in the past is that Von der Ahe was attempting to strengthen some of the other teams in the American Association and, by doing so, strengthen the league as a whole. As mentioned earlier, attendance in St. Louis was down in 1887. The reason for this, it appears, is due the uncompetitive nature of the AA race in 1887, when the Browns won the league by fourteen games. In 1885, the Browns won the league by sixteen games and, in 1886, they won by twelve games. The Browns were the class of the AA and had run away with the championship for three straight seasons. By 1887, a sense of boredom or inevitability may have set in among the St. Louis baseball fans and driven down attendance. By strengthening Brooklyn and Philadelphia, Von der Ahe may have hoped to create a more balanced league and a more exciting pennant race. Also, by strengthening those two specific clubs, he was making the league stronger in two of the most important baseball markets in the country. If this was one of the goals of the sales, and Byrnes stated that it was, Von der Ahe succeeded to a certain extent. In 1888, the Browns still won the pennant but by only six and a half games. Brooklyn and Philadelphia finished second and third, respectively. In 1889, the AA experienced one of the great pennant races in baseball history with Brooklyn winning the pennant by two games over St. Louis and Philadelphia finishing a distant third. Von der Ahe, through his moves, strengthened the league in Brooklyn and Philadelphia, got a more competitive league and his club remained profitable. If these were indeed the motivating factors for the sales then Von der Ahe's moves succeeded.

The one thing that always gets overlooked when the sales are discussed is the possibility that the moves were made for pure baseball reasons. Doc Bushong was being phased out as the starting catcher in 1887 and the club had Jack Boyle to replace him. Bill Gleason had his worst year as a professional in 1887 and was in permanent decline. Curt Welch had a poor year at the plate that season and was a drunk. Both he and Gleason had been involved in altercations with their teammates, effecting the chemistry of the club. Dave Foutz had suffered a thumb injury to his throwing hand and it was unknown if he would ever be an effective pitcher again. Comiskey held to a theory of pitching that believed that pitchers, after a few years of hard use, quickly lost their effectiveness. He had ridden Caruthers and Foutz hard for several seasons and the club had good, young pitching in reserve so the Browns' two star pitchers were replaceable.

The Browns had an abundance of young talent and Von der Ahe, in the fall of 1887, was gathering more. They had Silver King and Nat Hudson on the mound and bought Icebox Chamberlain, giving Comiskey three pitchers who were twenty years old or younger. They had Jack Boyle, who was 22. They picked up the young Tommy McCarthy and had the players they obtained from Philadelphia. On top of that, Von der Ahe was putting together the St. Louis Whites and stocking the club with guys like Jake Beckley, Jack Crooks, Jim Devlin, Harry Staley and Joseph Herr. If you consider the Whites to be a farm club for the Browns, Von der Ahe's AA team was loaded with young talent and could afford to cycle out older stars. By selling some of the older guys, the Browns got younger and the payroll got smaller, without much of a loss in quality. By making these moves, the Browns remained a competitive club through the 1891 season. It's not certain that if they had kept Caruthers, Foutz, Welch, Bushong and Gleason, the club would have been anymore successful. That has to be the bottom line. The Browns, through these sales, got younger and cheaper and remained successful for four more seasons.

One could make the argument that if Von der Ahe had continued his experiment in farming players with the Whites, the club would have remained competitive throughout the 1890s. For some reason, it appears that, within a historical context, the player sales and the collapse of the club in the 1890s are linked, the common thread being Von der Ahe's suppossed mismangement of the team. Obviously, the two events have nothing to do with each other and it's interesting to consider how Von der Ahe's legacy would be different if he had continued operating the Whites and phased in their young players in the early 1890s.

In the end, there is no one reason for why the sales took place. It was a complicated series of transactions that involved multiple motives and I don't think it's possible to explain them in one simple sentance. It's wrong to say that Von der Ahe sold off his players for the money but money was one of the motivating factors. The players were also sold because Von der Ahe was attempting to manage not only his own club but also because he was involved in the management of the American Association as a whole. Where there altruistic reasons behind the sale? Sure. Von der Ahe was trying to strengthen the league so that it could succeed but, at the same time, it was selfish in that by strengthening the league, Von der Ahe strengthened his own position. The club, on the field, was strengthened in the long term by these moves and, in the short term, they rid themselves of some of the more egotistical, problem players. All of these motives came together in the fall of 1887 and led to the sales.

One point that I think is important to make is that if you look at all the things motivating Von der Ahe in the fall of 1887, the player sales were a success. The club won the championship in 1888. They continued to be profitable. There were more competitive pennant races. The club got younger. The payroll went down. They shipped out some, if not all, of the problem players. The AA was strengthened by having two good clubs in Brooklyn and Philadelphia. These transactions have historically been portrayed negatively and Von der Ahe criticized for them. But the club was successful until they moved to the National League in 1892, which probably says more about the comparative quality of the AA and the NL than it does about Von der Ahe's management of the club in the late 1880s and early 1890s. The sales were a bold move and I think they worked. I think they achieved every imaginable thing that you could possibly have wanted them to achieve. Instead of viewing them as a negative product of Von der Ahe's baseball management, they should be seen as a daring, unconventional and successful move by one of the great figures of 19th century baseball.

1 comment:

David Ball said...

What Von der Ahe may have seen as a precedent for the big selloff is Al Spalding's deconstruction of his great Chicago dynasty, which had begun in the fall of 1886 and continued gradually all the way to the spring of 1888. Von der Ahe didn't need the money, but the prices Spalding got for his players may have attracted Chris' attention. Twenty thousand was a lot of money in 1887.

Generally, however, I have much the same view of the Chicago selloff as Jeff does about the dealings in St. Louis: a variety of motivations, but the sales can generally defended as good baseball moves, clearing aging players to make way for young prospects. These are probably the only two mass selloffs in baseball history that were not forced by economic necessity, and the difference as Jeff says is that trades were uncommon at the time, so if you were going to move a player, a sale was the natural way to do it (though Von der Ahe's deal with the Athletics was in fact the largest trade in terms of numbers of players until the mid '90's).

Both St. Louis and Chicago won one more championship after the sales started and then didn't win again for many years. But the two teams might have done better had they not suffered in the settlement after the instability of the interleague wars in 1890-91. Chicago, for example, could have had an excellent outfield of Ryan, Van Haltren and Duffy, but both Duffy and Van Haltren were elssewhere by 1892. My view is that the White Stockings might well have declined even more quickly had they held on to their veteran stars, and the same may well be true of St. Louis. Certainly, within a few years Von der Ahe and Comiskey would only have had one-third of a pitching staff if they had stuck with King, Foutz and Caruthers.