Any player/Any era: Chris von der Ahe

What he did: Von der Ahe owned the 19th century equivalent of the St. Louis Cardinals and might have been a century ahead of his time. Free spending and nicknamed “The Millionaire Sportsman,” von der Ahe didn’t know much about baseball, though he loved the game, once bragging he had the biggest diamond. He was a shrewd businessman and innovator, however, the first owner to sell souvenirs at his ballpark, cover the field when it rained, or build a ladies’ restroom. He also recognized the value of liquor sales, setting his ticket prices at 25 cents with the idea fans would spend leftover money on beer.

Von der Ahe’s methods worked to great effect, as he made $500,000 in 1885 alone (almost $12 million in 2010 dollars) and won four straight American Association championships. Eventually, he began to sell players to cover debts, and he lost his team in 1898 after a suspicious fire, dying of cirrhosis of the liver 15 years later. All the same, with his success and creativity in his prime, von der Ahe might have made a worthy contemporary decades later to frugal geniuses like Bill Veeck and Charlie Finley, only with George Steinbrenner’s budget.

Era he might have thrived in: Veeck and Finley did their best work before the advent of free agency in the 1970s and struggled to stay competitive thereafter as salaries ballooned. The thought here is that von der Ahe would have had deep enough pockets in the modern era to succeed where Wreck and Charlie O. fell short.

Why: It’s rare that owners are both innovative and free spending. Generally, tight budgets push management to find new ways to stay competitive: Moneyball for the Oakland A’s of recent years; exploding scoreboards, midgets, and Satchel Paige for Veeck; mustache-related bonuses, designated runners, and Paige as well (where didn’t he go?) for Finley.

Von der Ahe had that mindset, and one  can only wonder what gimmicks of his own he might have come up with as an owner in the 1960s and ’70s. Personally, I’d have liked to see if he attempted to pull off his own version of the ill-fated 10 cent beer night which turned a Cleveland Indians game into a drunken mess in 1974. Still, given his bankroll, I’m guessing von der Ahe’s  promotional hijinks would be strictly avocational, not a dire necessity for a man with deep pockets.

One thing’s for sure: I doubt von der Ahe would have been too upset by arbitrator Peter Seitz’s decision in 1975 to abrogate the Reserve Clause which introduced free agency and tripled salaries within five years. I’m guessing von der Ahe would have been one of the first to assemble the best team money could buy, and if he owned the Cardinals of the late ’70s, they might have been something more than lackluster. He could have been the National League equivalent of Steinbrenner.

It goes without saying that the details of von der Ahe’s personal life could be brighter, too, with stronger alcohol treatment options available in recent decades. A man who died at 61 and had to be supported by former player and manager Charlie Comiskey as he ran a saloon near the end might have had a better coda.

Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature here that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.

Others in this series: Albert Pujols, Babe Ruth, Bad News Rockies, Barry Bonds, Billy Martin, Bob Caruthers, Bob Feller, Bob Watson, Bobby Veach, Carl Mays, Charles Victory Faust, Denny McLain, Dom DiMaggio, Eddie Lopat, Frank Howard, Fritz Maisel, Gavvy Cravath, George Case, George Weiss, Harmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Honus Wagner, Ichiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Joe Posnanski, Johnny Antonelli, Johnny Frederick, Josh Hamilton, Ken Griffey Jr., Lefty Grove, Lefty O’Doul, Major League (1989 film), Matty Alou, Michael Jordan, Monte Irvin, Nate Colbert, Paul Derringer, Pete Rose, Prince Fielder, Ralph Kiner, Rick Ankiel, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Rogers Hornsby, Sam Crawford, Sam Thompson, Sandy Koufax, Satchel Paige, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, The Meusel Brothers, Ty Cobb, Wally Bunker, Willie Mays

4 Replies to “Any player/Any era: Chris von der Ahe”

  1. I liked your projection of how the modern-day version of von der Ahe may have faired. He certainly was cut from the same cloth as the aforementioned owners. Thanks, Graham!

      1. The next time you’re in a baseball park hoisting a beer, attending a game on Sundays, or looking at a baseball card, offer a toast to Chris Von der Ahe. “Chris Von der Ahe and the St. Louis Browns” is the only full scale biography of one of (alternately) baseball’s greatest and later most despised baseball team owners. He’s the only owner to ever build a horse race track inside his park, open a water flume ride in right field, commission a statue of himself that stood outside his park, and when times got real tough, be kidnapped by the National League! This rags-to-riches-to-rags tale is chock full of amusing anecdotes and was a finalist for the Seymour Medal, presented to the best baseball history or biography book in a calendar year.

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