Chris von der Ahe and the Terrible, Awful, No Good, Very Bad Year

Chris von der Ahe had himself a bad year back in the late 1800s. (via Library of Congress)

One of the first books I ever read to my kids was Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, the story of how an ungrateful and easily annoyed child receives divine justice for his refusal to stop whining. It taught them that bad things happen to everyone, so they should stop complaining about every little thing I do wrong as a father. Frankly, I think it deserves a Pulitzer.

I don’t read this book to them anymore. For one thing, my son is 11 and reading it to him would be weird. He reads his own books now about maze running or something. But, more importantly, when I want them to know that life is unfair and that bad things happen to everybody, even the rich and powerful, I tell them the story of Chris von der Ahe, der Boss President of the St. Louis Browns.

Von der Ahe, who immigrated to the United States from Prussia when he was 19, purchased the Brown Stockings (who would later become the Cardinals) in 1880 as a way to sell more beer and whiskey than he could at his saloon, cultivated St. Louis as a baseball town by turning the team into a champion, and helped to save baseball from a boring and boozeless future by co-founding the American Association.

He was an uniquely American success story, a Horatio Alger myth made flesh. He made himself into one of the richest men in the Midwest and then lost it all, most of it in the course of what was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year. Indeed, for all that he did that was right and good (but mostly because of what he did wrong), von der Ahe still was made to suffer in 1898. This is the story I tell my kids now when I want them to understand that their lives could always get worse:

January

While the the 1880s were a massive success for von der Ahe’s Browns, both on the field and in his pocketbook, the American Association’s war with the National League and the Players League in 1890 and 1891 took a great toll on his club. When the Association folded after 1891, von der Ahe was accepted into the NL, but wound up losing his entire roster in the process as players jumped, were released, or were sold off to help meet expenses. Sure, der Boss President replaced them all, but it was essentially like the scene in Major League where they talk about who they’re inviting to spring training. The new players were all too old, too young, or dead.

The once proud Browns dropped from a second place team in the Association to an 11th place club (out of 12) in the National League. Attendance, understandably, plummeted, and von der Ahe was forced, for the rest of the time he owned the club, to sell off anyone of value for the money he needed to stay afloat.

It all caught up to him by January of 1898, when he was finally unable to satisfy his creditors and began to look around in earnest to sell the club. He managed to agree to a deal to sell the Browns to Cincinnati Reds owner John Brush, but encountered an obstacle in that he had already used his shares in the team as collateral. He needed an advance on the sale to get his shares out of hock, but was unable to get Brush to budge. So von der Ahe instead resigned as club president, turning the job over to his secretary whose name was, I kid you not, B.S. Muckenfuss. Von der Ahe turned the team over to receivership, and got himself named as the trustee responsible for paying off the creditors (among whom he counted himself first to the tune of $100,000). As part of the deal, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, he was supposed to sell the club within six months.

As this was going on, von der Ahe also threw his wife out of their apartment at Sportsman’s Park, installing a new door while she was out shopping. He also lost a Supreme Court case to former pitcher Mark Baldwin, to whom he owed $2,500, but der Boss President refused to (or could not) pay.

February

The case with Baldwin stemmed back to the old Players League war in 1890. Baldwin had jumped to the upstart circuit when it was formed and served as something of an agent for clubs, trying to entice other players to take the leap, including several members of the Browns. When the Players League folded, the National League refused to respect the American Association’s claim that its players were still bound by the Reserve Clause, and Baldwin again acted as an agent, enticing former AA players to come back to the NL for more than their former teams could pay. One of those players was former Browns ace Silver King, who lived in St. Louis, and who Baldwin took a trip to recruit in March of 1891.

Hearing what Baldwin had done, von der Ahe flew into one of his typical rages. He used his political connections to get a judge to issue an arrest warrant for Baldwin on the charge of conspiracy. Baldwin was, indeed, arrested, though he was quickly released because he hadn’t actually done anything illegal. The pitcher sued the Browns owner, seeking $10,000 for malicious prosecution and false imprisonment. In the subsequent trial, von der Ahe lost and was ordered to pay Baldwin the money. Von der Ahe refused to pay and was arrested when he visited Pittsburgh in 1894. He was bailed out of jail for $1,000 by Pirates president William Nimick. But then he kept filing appeals and skipped town again.

Finally, with a Supreme Court verdict in, von der Ahe was out of options except for the one where he straight up refused to pay Baldwin. This, unfortunately, left Nimick on the hook not only for von der Ahe’s bail money, but for the $2,500 that was owed to Baldwin. And Nimick, who by then was no longer with the Pirates, had no intention of paying that.

So he hired a detective by the name of Nicholas Bendel and, together with Nimick’s attorneys, they hatched a plot to force von der Ahe to show up. Nimick, calling himself Robert Smith, managed to finagle a dinner meeting with von der Ahe on February 7. Von der Ahe was pretty sure that Smith, nee Bendel, was there at the behest of Giants owner Andrew Freedman, to discuss a deal. When von der Ahe showed up at the St. Nicholas Hotel in St. Louis for the meeting, he was quickly shoved into a coach and spirited away toward the Illinois border.

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Upon reaching the border, the carriage was stopped by a watchman on the Illinois side. Von der Ahe shouted that he was being kidnapped, but the watchman figured he had no authority in Illinois over a kidnapping that happened in Missouri, and let the coach through. In Illinois, der Boss President was just der Boss prisoner. Von der Ahe was soon loaded onto a train to Pittsburgh to meet his fate.

There were howls of protest from von der Ahe’s friends in Missouri, who wanted Bendel, Nimick and the lawyers exported back to St. Louis to stand trial. The governors of both Missouri and Pennsylvania got involved, as Missouri Gov. Lon Stephens arranged for them all to be charged with kidnapping and tried to arrange for extradition. Von der Ahe was soon released and continued to file appeals to get out of paying Baldwin.

March

Chris gets a breather.

April

There’s nothing in the world von der Ahe was more proud of than Sportsman’s Park. Even his own child was a distant second. For Sportsman’s Park was truly von der Ahe’s baby. When he bought the Browns for $1,800 in 1880, the stadium was just a bunch of run down and rotting bleachers. He immediately poured money into the field, turning it into a gleaming wood and iron structure, with beer gardens, an amusement park, a horse track that ran through the outfield, a water flume in right field, and an artificial lake that served as a skating rink in the winter. Out in front was a larger-than-life statue of der Boss President himself, resplendant in an eight-button jacket. It was the first real mallpark, and von der Ahe loved the spectacle.

On April 15, the Browns’ season opened at this circus-like ballpark in front of 12,000 people. Cap Anson’s Chicago Colts (eventually the Cubs) beat the Browns 2-1. The next day, with 6,000 fans in attendance, von der Ahe’s palace came down. In the bottom of the second inning, the Browns had a runner on third when fire was spotted in the third base grandstand. There was, of course, a panic, as fans ran over one another to escape the rapidly spreading blaze and four explosions from beneath the grandstand. There was a crush as many fans tried to escape onto the field, aided by the Browns and the Colts.

Von der Ahe had to be restrained from running back into his apartment, which was also destroyed, to get papers and jewelry that he claimed were worth in excess of $100,000, and his dog. More than 60 people were confirmed to be injured in the blaze, which destroyed most of the stadium in less than 25 minutes. Miraculously, though there were some life-threatening injuries, no one seems to have died in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy. That night, construction began on new outfield fences and a new grandstand, to be financed in part by a $34,000 settlement from insurance. Von der Ahe’s beloved ballpark was gone, but he and his club would soldier on.

May

Chris von der Ahe had always been a womanizer. He married his first wife when he was 20, but serially cheated on her. In 1885, she tracked down his girlfriend in the crowd at Sportsman’s Park and smashed a soda bottle over her head. In 1895, she divorced him, citing his association with “women of ill repute,” his “repeated acts of adultery,” and that he “traveled with women of bad character from place to place.”

For his part, Chris publicly blamed his own son, Eddie, for the divorce (see what I mean about preferring the ballpark?), but immediately took up with another young woman named Della Wells. A year later, he married her and embarked on his honeymoon. When he returned two weeks later, he was slapped with a lawsuit by a third woman, his former housekeeper, for “breach of promise.” According to letters and diary entries in the possession of this housekeeper, von der Ahe had actually promised to marry her up until the moment when he married Della Wells. The housekeeper, Annie Kaiser, was awarded several thousand dollars.

In January of 1898, as we previously noted, von der Ahe and his second wife hit the rocks, and he ejected her from their home. He claimed that she was a golddigger, and that she had abused his generosity. In the quick trial in May, the judge doesn’t buy it. In his divorce decree, he notes that von der Ahe had not proven he had grounds for divorce, and that “to say that ‘the marriage was unfortunate,’ will not do.” He praises the former Mrs. von der Ahe, awarding her alimony and allowing her to take back her maiden name.

June

Chris gets another breather, but the Browns are losing games hand over fist. In a 150-game schedule, St. Louis will lose 111 games, somehow managing a better winning percentage than in 1897, when the team lost 102 games in 133 contests. It will be the most losses in franchise’s 135-year history.

July

One of von der Ahe’s primary creditors, Edward Becker, agrees to buy the club from der Boss President for $60,000 on the 12th. He promised, “I will spend $50,000, if necessary, to strengthen the team.” A few days later, however, Becker was out again for reasons unknown, leaving von der Ahe in the lurch.

August

Von der Ahe talked of retiring from baseball entirely in early August, but that changed when he was reappointed as the trustee of the Browns after briefly losing control of the franchise to his former secretary, B.S. Muckenfuss. All season, there was a growing animosity between the two former friends, with von der Ahe convinced that Muckenfuss was working to undercut him.

But as one rift formed, another mended. Annie Kaiser, the housekeeper von der Ahe was forced to pay when he spurned her in favor of his second wife married him. And they say romance is dead.

September

The legal battle with Mark Baldwin finally, mercifully, comes to an end, as does the Browns’ season. Von der Ahe settles with the former pitcher for $3,000 and this time actually pays him.

October

Muckenfuss announces to the Post Dispatch that the Cleveland Spiders, who had finished a relatively robust fifth in the National League, would be relocating to St. Louis and sharing Sportsman’s Park with the Browns. Von der Ahe tells them to bring it on, but that they shouldn’t expect to get preferential treatment. “It should be on equal sharing terms or not at all,” he told the Post-Dispatch. But they could share St. Louis.

One thing von der Ahe is not willing to share anymore, however, is the Browns themselves. He files a motion in court to oust Muckenfuss as the team’s receiver. The final battle for the Browns begins.

November

Der Boss President and Muckenfuss continue to slug it out in the courts, with von der Ahe complaining in court about the players being paid while the team is in receivership and about Muckenfuss trading ace Jack Taylor to the Reds for a lesser starter and $3,500. He and the board of directors strip Muckenfuss of his presidency of the Browns, but it’s largely symbolic, as he remains the court-appointed receiver.

What’s more, von der Ahe claims that, even though the Browns are operated by the Sportsman’s Park and Club Association (which he claims owes him $100,000, remember), the association doesn’t actually own the Browns. The team, von der Ahe says, is still actually owned privately by him. The case drags on all month long, with no resolution in sight. Even if it goes against him, von der Ahe vows to appeal to the Supreme Court if necessary. Both men vow to represent the Browns’ interest at the National League owners meeting in December.

December

And so they do. They both travel to New York for the meeting, but only one is allowed to represent the Browns. They present their case to the other 11 owners, who vote overwhelmingly (nine to two) to seat Muckenfuss instead of von der Ahe. When Chris threatens to sue to stop the meeting, the owners relent and let him in, but leave voting power in the hand of Muckenfuss. No action is taken to disband the Browns, but the owners, “are tired of von der Ahe and intend to drive him out of the league.”

The trial for the Browns finally gets underway on the 22nd, with von der Ahe still promising to take the case all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary. If that happens, the Post-Dispatch points out, the team will be in limbo for years. It already had been evicted from Sportsman’s Park for not paying its rent and didn’t even have any players under contract. It admits, “The future of baseball in St. Louis is murky.”

On the 30th, Muckenfuss, Becker, and the National League decide to finally play hardball. They go public with their vision for the Browns in 1899. If the court rules in favor of Muckenfuss, Becker will buy the team on behalf of Frank and Stanley Robison, who also own the Cleveland Spiders. If von der Ahe prevails, the National League announces it will rip it from von der Ahe’s hands, declare it forfeit, give it to the Robisons, and fight it out in the court with der Boss President, who is flat broke.

Epilogue

This is exactly what will happen. After two more months of dickering, the NL suspends the St. Louis club on March 1 for refusing to pay a minor league club $750 for the services of one Suter Sullivan. On the 14th, they will sell the club out from under von der Ahe for just $35,000.

Der Boss President vows to fight in the courts, but cannot prevail. The Robisons will transfer all their best players from Cleveland and form a superteam in St. Louis that will finish fifth with 84 wins. The leftover Spiders will lose 134 and earn the distinction as the worst team of all time. Frank Robison will die in 1908, and his brother in 1911, passing the franchise on to Stanley’s daughter Helen, the first woman to own a major league team. She renames von der Ahe’s beloved Sportsman’s Park “Robison Field.” Muckenfuss will stay with the club, renamed the Perfectos and then the Cardinals, through 1906.

Von der Ahe, for all his bluster and clawing to hold onto his team, will go away quietly. He goes back to the saloon where he started his rise and stays there for the rest of his life. He lives in poverty and obscurity, forgotten by all of his old friends and allies, save for his old manager, Charles Comiskey, who sends him money to help make ends meet. Von der Ahe will die of cirrhosis in 1913, at the age of 64. The giant statue he had commissioned for his ballpark stands sentinel over his grave to this day.

Am I actually teaching my kids anything? I don’t know. Sometimes it’s just fun to mess with them, and it’s hard to tell when I’m really trying to impart a lesson and when I’m just talking because I like to torture them.

But I think the knowledge that, especially these days, we’re all subject to forces beyond our control and that, as good as we have it, ultimately we all skate on a thin layer of ice that covers a freezing abyss is instructive. All we ultimately have is our friends and our family to care for us and to remember us. Driving them away leaves us vulnerable should that ice crack. So they should be nice to their dad, and I should be good to them. The story also reminds me that, should all of that fail, it’s a good idea to have a big ass statue on hand to mark your passing.

Resources and References

  • Edward Achorn, The Summer of Beer and Whiskey, (Public Affairs, New York, 2013)
  • Richard Egenriether, Society for American Baseball Research, SABR Research Journal, “Chris von der Ahe: Baseball’s Pioneering Huckster
  • Brian McKenna, Society for American Baseball Research,”SABR Bio Project: Mark Baldwin
  • Chicago Tribune. “New Owners of Browns.” December 31, 1898.
  • The New York Times. “Von der Ahe to Retire.” August 2, 1898.
  • St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “The Price Agreed On.” January 7, 1898.
  • St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Awaits Bidder.” January 11, 1898.
  • St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Muckenfuss is Boss.” January 13, 1898.
  • St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Der Boss President Takes a Trip East.” February 8, 1898.
  • St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Fire and Panic at Sportsman’s Park.” April 17, 1898.
  • St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Mrs. von der Ahe Won.” May 11, 1898.
  • St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Becker Backed Out.” July 24, 1898.
  • St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “In a Receiver’s Hands.” August 10, 1898.
  • St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Von der Ahe Married.” August 19, 1898.
  • St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Spiders are coming.” October 5, 1898.
  • St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “To Oust Muckenfuss.” October 12, 1898.
  • St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Muck Was Deposed.” November 22, 1898.
  • St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Turned Down.” Dec ember14, 1898.
  • St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Baseball In Court.” December23, 1898.
  • St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Robison Will Move In.” March 17, 1899.


Mike Bates co-founded The Platoon Advantage, and has written for many other baseball websites, including NotGraphs (rest in peace) and The Score. Currently, he writes for MLB Daily Dish on SB Nation. He currently cohosts the podcast This Week In Baseball History. His favorite word is paradigm. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBatesSBN.
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John Autin
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John Autin

I really enjoyed this. One quibble, though — your Epilogue’s opening sentence, “This is exactly what will happen,” doesn’t really say which of the two “ifs” just laid out had actually come to pass.

Chris K
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Chris K

Holy cow…

scooter262
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scooter262

It’s a great story. The lesson that I would teach from it, though, is that actions have consequences. There are many stories where bad things happen to good people. But in this case, it seems as if von der Ahe brought most of this down upon himself by his own actions: he was greedy and stubborn and treated women horribly.

Paul G.
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Paul G.
Most excellent article. At the start of the 1899 season the St. Louis and Cleveland franchises, now both property of the Robison brothers, basically swapped rosters with a few exceptions. Of note, Cleveland was granted the former St. Louis player Lave Cross, who was St. Louis’s best player in 1898 and an all-star level talent. The “superteam” efforts did not really take effect until after the season was started when it became apparent that the Perfectos were anything but, at which point the Robisons raided the Cleveland roster for whatever St. Louis could use. Tellingly, they only took 3 players.
Richie
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Richie

Very-well written. Thank you!

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

Chris could have used some advice from, say, Harvey Weinstein.