This week, as the Cardinals fight for a spot in the playoffs, I’ll profile some local sports figures in The Colorful Characters of St. Louis who made their marks in St. Louis Baseball. One was Chris Von der Ahe, the owner of the St. Louis Browns in the 1880s and 1890s.
Von der Ahe’s words, delivered in a mangled German accent, were sure to amuse. He boasted he had the biggest baseball diamond in the world. Told that all diamonds had the same dimensions, he said “Well I got the biggest infield, anyways.” Such quotes made Von der Ahe seem not too schmart, but he was no dummkopf.
In the 1870s, he noticed that many of the customers at his food market, saloon and beer garden at Grand and St. Louis Avenues had come from just-finished games of a ball team called the Browns. Seeing opportunity, he bought into the team and owned it outright by the end of 1881.
The Browns started bringing in cash for Von der Ahe and were champions of the American Association from 1885 to 1888. Der Boss President, as people called Von der Ahe, also became known for outrageous promotions, like a scantily-clad all-girl band, horse racing and a shoot-the-shoot. He brought in a Wild West Show with cowboys, cowgirls, and Indians and won a court fight against Blue Laws prohibiting Sunday pro baseball.
The Browns moved to the National League after the American Association folded in the in the 1890s and stayed at or near the bottom of the league standings. Von der Ahe lost the team after a fire destroyed his ball field in 1898 and he didn’t make payments on a new one. The team was renamed the Perfectos in 1899 and the Cardinals in 1900. In 1902, a new team from the new American League called the St. Louis Browns started playing in St. Louis.
Von der Ahe’s promotions helped lead the way to events at games today like the Cardinals’ Kiss Cam, the Cap Dance, and Fredbird. They changed going to a ball game from merely watching an athletic contest to a day at the park.