Ex-President Von der Ahe, of the St. Louis Club, after a week of distress, humiliation and physical and mental agony, is to be again a free man, thanks, not to his former fair-weather friends and neighbors at home, but to his fellow League magnates, headed by lovyal and generous Frank Robison, of Cleveland. These gentlemen, when all others failed, decided to advance the funds to liberate Mr. Von der Ahe, thus placing one more noble action to the credit of the rulers of base ball. This will end the disgraceful Von der Ahe kidnapping case for the present, but Mr. Von der Ahe will doubtless not rest until all the instigators and participants in the flagrant outrage have been reckoned with. Though the abduction proceeding has been declared legal under common law, in itself a relic of mediaeval barbarism, nevertheless, the violent abduction, handcuffing and incarceration of an ordinary debtor like a common criminal will remain in the public mind a flagrant perversion of the spirit of the law and an outrageous subversion of citizen right, incompatible with boasted American nineteenth century civilization. If there is any way to obtain satisfaction for the ignominy heaped upon him Mr. Von der Ahe should leave no stone unturned to obtain it, if only to discourage future outrages upon others, to which the decision in this case opens wide the door.
-Sporting Life, February 19, 1898
This stage of the Baldwin Affair is certainly rife with irony. As noted before, we have Von der Ahe unjustly (according to the views of many) jailed, when it was the unjust jailing of Baldwin, perpetrated by Von der Ahe, which started the whole thing. Here, we have Robison getting Von der Ahe out of jail and being noted as a true friend when he was in the process of plotting to seize the man's franchise from him. I seriously doubt that, by August of 1898, Von der Ahe considered Robison to be a friend of his.
The action of the League in expelling the Sportsman’s Park and Club from the association and recognizing the new organization formed by Robison and Becker has aroused the greatest enthusiasm (in St. Louis) and the fans already see the pennant flying from the flagstaff at the ball grounds. The deal means the transfer to this city of the Cleveland Club in its entirety.
Frank DeHaas Robison, of Cleveland, accompanied by his family, arrived [in St. Louis] last Saturday evening and registered at the Southern. Mr. Robison declared that he would not be a bidder in person or by representative for the St. Louis Base Ball Club, but when he was asked whether he would be here with is team next year he answered: "I don't really know." He intimated strongly that the purchaser of the club at public sale would secure nothing but the lease of the ground, the grand stand, etc., and that the National League would have the say-so about the franchise which, it was inferred, would be turned over to Robison...
Keep off the grass. Everything has been worked out. Don't get in our way. The fix is in. It's all been prearranged.
Based on this information, it's rather probable that VdA would have been stripped of his League franchise even if he had somehow won his suit against Mississippi Valley Trust. The scenario whereby Becker purchased the club assets and he and the Robisons took control of the franchise had been floating around and known since about July of 1898. Von der Ahe had been a dead man walking for about a year and I think he was the last person to recognize it.
By the way, in the same article the phrase "the wreck of Von der Ahe's greatness" was used. Love that phrase and wished I had thought of it.
The following is the statement of the basis upon which E.C. Becker, B.S. Muckenfuss and the Robisons, of Cleveland, expect to arrange the distribution of the stock of the St. Louis Base Ball Club after the receiver's sale. It is expected Becker will be the only bidder, acting as agent for the Cleveland magnates. The owners of the club's franchise and plant next year wi be Frank De Haas and M. Stanley Robison, owners of the Cleveland Club, and Oliver Tebeau, manager of that team, whose holdings will be $5000, representing 55 per cent. of the stock. Becker and Muckenfuss will control the rest. The Robisons are to provide the players, the local parties are to pay off all indebtedness. Becker owns 1700 shares of the Sportsman's Park club stock and Von der Ahe but twelve shares.
Von der Ahe was still fighting but the plan was in place to transfer the club to the Robisons and there was going to be nothing he could do about it.
Edward C. Becker, the local capitalist, who has been posing as the probable future owner of the St. Louis Base Ball Club, on Friday withdrew his offer for the team and franchise made Chris Von der Ahe Tuesday a week ago, and the future of the home club is in a worse muddle than ever before. Just what will become of the Browns is pretty hard figuring. "Der Boss" is striving manfully in the face of all kinds of utter adversity to pay his creditors off as best he can and his offer of 50 cents on the dollar has been laughed at by persons holding about half of the total indebtedness against the defunct organization. The other half are glad to grab at the opportunity to secure that amount from the wreck. The Anheuser-Busch Brewing Company, which is probably the corporation's third largest creditor, holding as it does bills to the amount of $4000, having signified to Von der Ahe their acceptance of a 50 per cent settlement for their claims.
It's really difficult to find a place to begin the story of Von der Ahe's Fall. The story is a complete muddle and I honestly believe that it begins with the Players League in 1890. The Baldwin affair certainly plays a role in all of this, as VdA had to pay over two grand in fines, as well as attorney fees. The ball park fire played an even bigger role, as the financial loss was huge. VdA not only lost the Coney Island of the West but also had the expenses involved in building a new park plus the damages that were awarded to victims of the fire. Add to all of this the fact that the club wasn't making the money it once did. When the Browns were winning championships and leading all of baseball in attendance, VdA was flush with cash. Now that the club had suffered six straight losing seasons and were in the middle of a seventh, the club was not the cash cow that it had once been. On top of all of that, the nation was still feeling the effects of the Panic of 1896 and VdA's other business interests suffered as a result.
There was not one thing that led to VdA's bankruptcy and his loss of controlling interest in the Browns. Instead, there was a confluence of events over the course of the 1890s that led Von der Ahe to where he was at the end of July in 1898. The Players' Revolt crippled the Browns competitively, which meant less money coming in. The Baldwin affair humiliated VdA and added to his financial troubles. The ball park fire was a financial disaster. His real estate holdings were not bringing in the money they once did. In order to make ends meet, he was borrowing money and using the ball park and club as collateral. He was also selling off interest in both club and park to Edward Becker for quick cash infusions. Von der Ahe's finances were a mess and he had reached the point where he could no longer control the situation.
The above article from Sporting Life does a great job of setting the scene and there are three things that you should take away from it:
1. $67,000: This the amount of debt that VdA had, although I've seen reports putting the number at almost $90,000. Either way, that was a lot of money in 1898 and the article also helpfully breaks down who was holding the debt.
2. Edward Becker and the Robison brothers: By the end of July, all the major actors in this little saga are in place. VdA is struggling to stay afloat and Becker and the Robisons are circling the club like vultures. Also of note is that VdA probably could have sold out in July and probably have broken even. There were numerous points during the 1890s when this could have happened and I've argued in the past that if VdA had sold out and avoided losing the club in the way in which he did, he would be remembered differently.
3. Von der Ahe's defense: VdA's legal defense over the course of the next eight months or so was that the club and the ball park were two seperate entities and that the collapse of the Sportsman's Park and Club Association shouldn't have any bearing on his operation of the St. Louis Base Ball Club. Not to give anything away but that argument didn't hold up in court.
I should also point out, as we are getting into this, that the story I want to tell here is how specifically Von der Ahe lost controlling interest in the club. I'm not so interested in how VdA got into debt but rather what happened after that debt became unmanageable. I'm not interested in how much money VdA had to pay to Mark Baldwin but in the process by which VdA lost control of the club. In 1898, Von der Ahe was the owner and manager of the St. Louis Browns. In 1899, that club didn't really exist anymore and had been replaced by the St. Louis Perfectos, owned by Becker and the Robisons. How did that happen? It's a major, pivotal moment in the history of St. Louis baseball and it's one that's not particularly well understood. So I'm going to spend some time chronicling this particular moment and trying to make some sense out of it. Good luck to all of us.
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