Distilled History

A Drinking Blog with a History Problem
April 9th, 2015

Der Boss President

Chris Von der AheOh, baseball. It’s finally time for baseball.

And boy do I need it. After several dense and exhausting posts, (including one that detailed how death once visited St. Louis), it’s time to lighten things up. And what better time to do it than right now, because baseball is finally here again.

I’ve taken a swing at St. Louis baseball previously in Distilled History, and my fun search for where baseball has been played in this town remains one of my most popular posts.  I’m still catching hell (often) for not being a Cardinal fan, but I hope my appreciation for the history of the game in St. Louis allows me a brief reprieve.

That’s unlikely, but as I mentally prepare for a certain down year in the Bronx, I decided to take a longer look at one particular St. Louisan who had a major impact on the history of my favorite game.

His name was Chris Von der Ahe, and in the early days of the game, he’s a major reason why baseball took root in St. Louis. His tenure as owner of the St. Louis Browns (before they were Cardinals) ended over a century ago, but his legacy is vital to the history of the game and this city.  Actually, I’ve been a bit surprised to learn that many of my Cardinal-loving friends know nothing about him. I guess history isn’t for everyone, but I have a very good reason why every baseball fan in St. Louis should raise a glass to the memory of Chris Von der Ahe:

Beer.The Golden Lion

That’s right. As baseball fans, we should all take a moment and thank Chris Von der Ahe for beer. Well, maybe not beer in general, but certainly how it relates to the game of baseball. It sounds crazy now, but before Chris Von der Ahe stuck his bulbous nose into professional baseball back in the 1870’s, taking in a professional baseball game while sipping a cold beer was no easy feat. In fact, it was completely forbidden.

My interest in Von der Ahe was kindled by a recent book suggestion. The Summer of Beer and Whiskey by Edward Achorn details the story of a riveting pennant race the St. Louis Browns participated in during the summer of 1883. It’s a wonderful story of 19th century baseball, and Chris Von der Ahe is Achorn’s central figure in it.

1882 St. Louis Brown Stockings

Von der Ahe’s larger-than-life personality pours off Achorn’s pages. He was bombastic, egotistical, and undeniably controversial. He drank often, he was a blatant philanderer, and he craved constant adulation from everyone around him. He was an incessant self-promoter, often telling stories of his rise to the top as cigar smoke wafted from beneath his walrus mustache. He was “portly”, he wore bowler hats, and he radiated confidence in heavily starched shirts. His German accent was so thick that utterances of “Paseball” and “Vas it a good game?” led some to amusement and others to underestimate his shrewd intelligence. During his time in baseball, his drive to earn a profit drove every decision he made. When he achieved it, he’d proudly walk down Grand Avenue behind a wheelbarrow filled with cash. When he didn’t, he’d start meddling in a game that he didn’t fully understand. His actions, fines, and demands often left his managers and players completely exasperated. He was “Der Boss President”, and he made sure everyone knew it.

theboss_compton

Christian Frederick Wilhelm Von der Ahe was born in Prussia on October 2, 1848. Many note his birth year as 1851, but as Achorn points out, it’s likely Von der Ahe changed the date intentionally in order to avoid military service in Germany. Freed from army life, Von der Ahe left his native country and emigrated to America in 1867.

Chis Von der Ahe 1886In 1870, just three years later, he’s running his own grocery store on the western edge of St. Louis. In the same year, he marries Emma Hoffman and the couple give birth to a son. His early days in St. Louis aren’t remarkable compared to the thousands of Germans who poured into Missouri in the mid-19th century. Von der Ahe was a businessman, and his decision to add a saloon to the back of his grocery store made sense. The beer industry was thriving in St. Louis in the 1870’s, and the opportunities to make money selling it were substantial. In 1874, Chris Von der Ahe stumbled upon one of them.

That’s the year Von der Ahe moved his grocery and saloon to the northwest corner of Grand and St. Louis avenues. He likely didn’t realize his good fortune at first, but the new grocery stood just a block away from the Grand Avenue Grounds. That ballpark would soon become home to the first professional baseball club in St. Louis, the St. Louis Brown Stockings.

In his book Chris Von der Ahe and the St. Louis Browns, author J. Thomas Hetrick tells the story behind Von der Ahe’s epiphany. On a warm summer day, Von der Ahe asked one of his bartenders, Ned Cuthbert, why the saloon frequently emptied for a just a few hours on certain days. Cuthbert, a ball player himself (and a future manager the St. Louis Browns), told him that’s when his customers walked down the street to see a ballgame.

Suddenly, Chris Von der Ahe became very interested in baseball.

Chris Von der Ahe Quote

Baseball in the 1870’s was a much different game than we know today. The sport had taken the country by storm in the years since the Civil War, but the game was still in its infancy. Players didn’t wear gloves, a coin flip determined who batted first, and foul balls caught on a bounce were considered outs. Sitting in the grandstands next to a woman was almost unheard of, and in an era when the Prohibition movement was gaining momentum, holding a mug of beer in your hand was nearing the same fate. In fact, baseball’s early years were so riddled with gambling, game fixing, and unruly behavior by players that many simply gave up on it. The first iteration of the St. Louis Brown Stockings, which folded in 1877 after a game fixing scandal, met the same fate as many 19th century ball clubs.

Chris Von der Ahe Timeline

William Hulbert

Enter a man named William Hulbert. In 1876, as owner of the National League’s Chicago White Stockings (now known as the Cubs), Hulbert became a major force in restoring baseball to its proper place in American sport. His decisive efforts in opposing all forms of gambling, improving player behavior (on and off the field), and restoring integrity to the game are undeniably commendable. But many at the time believed he took matters too far. He set ticket prices at National League games at fifty cents, a price that assured only the wealthy and people of means would be in attendance. If a common laborer or lowly immigrant happened to get a ticket, the National League’s ban on Sunday baseball eliminated the only day of leisure available to a class of people required to work six days a week. Finally, every National League ballpark was strictly forbidden to sell alcohol to spectators in any form.

To a German immigrant in St. Louis that had just started becoming interested (and investing) in baseball, such regulations were ludicrous. Chris Von der Ahe insisted that in cities with large German populations (such as St. Louis and Cincinnati), making the game accessible to immigrants and the lower classes was essential to making baseball profitable. Von der Ahe wasn’t alone in his opinion. The Cincinnati Red Stockings, baseball’s first professional team since its inception in 1869, was expelled from the National League in 1880 as a result of the team’s refusal to adhere to Hulbert’s strict regulations.

The 1885 St. Louis Browns

With the folding of the Brown Stockings and Cincinnati out of the National League, two major western cities found themselves without a professional club. But in 1880, Chris Von der Ahe was persuaded by Ned Cuthbert and a man named Alfred Spink (the future founder of the Sporting News), to invest in a new professional baseball team in St. Louis. Seeing the game as a perfect way to sell barrels of beer to packed grandstands, Von der Ahe dumped his entire life savings into the venture. Along with obtaining the lease to the Grand Avenue Grounds (soon to be renamed as “Sportsman’s Park”) and upgrading the facility to hold over 10,000 thirsty cranks (the 1870’s term for “fans”), professional baseball was finally back in St. Louis.

After a year of playing a schedule filled with semi-pro opponents, Chris Von der Ahe and representatives from five other cities met in Cincinnati in late 1881. When the meeting adjourned, a new professional league named the American Association had been formed, with plans to begin play in 1882. To lure cranks to their new league, American Association owners took direct aim at William Hulbert’s  restrictive National League rules. At the insistence of the Von der Ahe and the Cincinnati Red Stockings, the sale of alcohol at games was allowed and even encouraged. Games could be scheduled on Sunday without fear of retribution. And most importantly, all six teams agreed to a ticket price of just twenty-five cents, making the game accessible to a class of people who had been previously priced out of baseball.

On May 2, 1882, the season opened as Chris Von der Ahe’s St. Louis Brown Stockings faced the Louisville Eclipse at Sportsman’s Park. That game, which the Brown Stockings won 9-7, is considered the first one ever played in the rich history of the St. Louis Cardinal franchise.

St. Louis Base Ball Timeline

In the first several years of play, the American Association thrived. Crowds packed into grandstands as National League owners fretted about how to counter the “Beer and Whiskey Circuit”, a moniker the American Association owners didn’t mind in the least. Despite mediocre production from the Browns in the first few years of play, attendance at Sportsman’s Park soared. Von der Ahe capitalized on the support by lining grandstand aisles with vendors holding trays of beer and shots of whiskey. Marching bands entertained customers before and after games as Von der Ahe lured many of them back to his saloon for another drink. He even turned distant right field into an open beer garden, in which balls remained in play if they happened to be hit that far.

The 1888 St. Louis Browns

Then the Browns began to win. Led by player/manager Charles Comiskey (and aided by piles of money Von der Ahe threw at the best players available), the Browns won four consecutive American Association pennants from 1885-1888. At the conclusion of the 1886 season, the Browns topped the National League champion Chicago White Stockings in an early version of the World Series. It must have been a fine day for Chris Von der Ahe to defeat the team of his old rival Hulbert (who had died in 1882) and own the best baseball team in the world.

However, success would not last for Chris Von der Ahe. Despite repeated success on the diamond, his ego and pursuit of financial gain became a hindrance. He repeatedly fined players for poor play, barked orders at them from his personal box, and openly questioned managerial decisions. He once fined third baseman Arlie Latham for “singing and otherwise acting up” during a game. In another notable incident, his team openly rebelled after Von der Ahe chastised player in front of spectators. The team refused to get on the train after the game, and when they did play again, they started losing suspiciously. In 1885, he suddenly sold away five of his best players, infuriating his manager and opening himself up to severe criticism from the press. In time, the Sporting News would begin referring to him as “Chris Von der Ha Ha!”. Further salary dumps in 1877 fueled speculation that Von der Ahe planned to move the team to New York, a city with limitless baseball and beer profits that everyone knew he craved.

Chris Von der Ahe Quote

His controversies weren’t limited to baseball.In 1895, Von der Ahe marched across Grand Avenue and attacked an African-American man he was certain had robbed his saloon. After landing several blows, he pulled out a pistol and fired it at the man’s feet. His unabashed womanizing led him to divorce (twice), notably from his first wife Emma who even smashed a bottle over the head of one of his lovers that had the nerve to appear at Sportsman’s Park. His only son Edward helped prove the infidelity in his mother’s attempt to sue Von der Ahe for divorce. When the trial ended, he severed ties from his father for good.

But in the end, it was debt that took down Chris Von der Ahe. The more he meddled in the game, the more he alienated players, fellow league owners, and fans. Ticket sales plummeted, debt mounted, and the St. Louis Browns became the worst team in baseball in the 1890’s. After baseball minds got together and agreed to merge St. Louis and three other clubs into the National League, Von der Ahe’s players suddenly found themselves without a contractual obligation the Browns. The best of them jumped at the opportunity to sign with other clubs.

The Von der Ahe grave at Bellefontaine Cemetery

After a litany of lawsuits and legal wranglings that peppered the decade, the end finally came in 1898. Failing to pay a settlement from a lawsuit brought against him in Pittsburgh, Von der Ahe was grabbed, thrown in a truck, and taken by force to Pennsylvania. Eventually freed after being jailed and put on trial, the incident was a massive source of embarrassment for the proud German. In the wake of it, with outlets such as the Sporting News calling for his immediate dismissal from the game, National League brass finally took action. In 1899, Chris Von der Ahe was forced from ownership of the St. Louis Browns and the team was sold at auction.

In the years after his life in baseball, Chris Von der Ahe slowly faded into obscurity. Once a national name, he returned to the life of a simple saloon owner in St. Louis. But for a brief moment in 1907, Chris Von der Ahe was again able to bask in the glow of overwhelming adulation. At a dinner held to honor the history of the Browns at the Southern Hotel in downtown St. Louis, Von der Ahe stood before thunderous applause. For an evening, people forgot about the controversial Chris Von der Ahe and recognized him for all he had done for St. Louis baseball.

For a fleeting moment, Chris Von der Ahe was “Der Boss President” again.

The Drink

It’s important to note that when the St. Louis Browns became members of the National League in 1892, no stipulation was put in place requiring the St. Louis club to cease scheduling games on Sunday or to stop selling beer to its fans. It took several years, but as Edward Achorn details in the epilogue of his wonderful book, other National League teams eventually chose to shed the silly restrictions as well. Today, millions of baseball fans go to Sunday ball games and order large, expensive beers without giving it a second thought. It’s likely that would have become possible without Chris Von der Ahe’s meddling, but he was still the first to make it his issue. And for that, we should all raise a glass to the man.

For my own personal toast, I’m in somewhat of a bind because I can’t drink a beer at the ball game. The St. Louis Cardinals are opening the season in Chicago and my favorite team plays 1,000 miles away. But I do love listening to baseball on the radio. Instead of packing into a crowded sports bar, I’m going to take the opportunity to enjoy St. Louis before the summer humidity gets here. While I listen to the Yanks play the Blue Jays on the porch of my little house in south city, I’ll throw down a few cold beers.

Baseball is here again, and I’m a happy man.
quote_line
Key Sources and Additional Reading: 

Note: Like Von der Ahe’s personality, the full story of our “Boss President” is far too big to fit into a single post.  I’m already thinking the story of his demise is one that I may need to detail further in this blog at some point in the future. In the meantime, the following sources can provide a detailed (and fascinating) look at the full story behind of Chris Von der Ahe.

  • The Summer of Beer & Whiskey by Edward Achorn
  • Before They Were Cardinals by John David Cash
  • Chris Von der Ahe and the St. Louis Browns by J. Thomas Hetrick
  • Baseball’s “Boss President” Chris von der Ahe and the Nineteenth-Century St. Louis Browns by Jim Rygelski – Gateway Heritage Magazine (Missouri History Museum)
  • This Game of Games – A (fantastic) website dedicated to telling the story of St. Louis baseball in the 19th century
April 1st, 2013

The Bygone Ballparks of St. Louis

Baseball

Opening day! There are few days on the calendar that I look forward to more than this one. By far my favorite sport, I love the start of a new season. It won’t be long before I’m sitting on my porch listening to ballgames and drinking good gin.

Baseball is another reason why I love this city. Imagine re-writing baseball history without St. Louis. Imagine eliminating the Gashouse Gang, Stan Musial, Bob Gibson, and Ozzie Smith from that narrative.  Eliminate the St. Louis Browns, “Cool Papa” Bell, Sportsman’s Park, Branch Rickey, eleven World Series championships, and  two (maybe three) Negro National League Championships. Without St. Louis, the story of baseball suddenly becomes significantly diminished. Best of all, the fans here are passionate, they drape themselves in Cardinal red, and they fill Busch Stadium no matter where the Cardinals sit in the standings. It is a great baseball city.

Now that I’ve probably made every Cardinal fan who reads this blog a little warm and happy inside, I’ll make a confession that may alienate each and every one of them.

I loathe the St. Louis Cardinals.

I Don't Like the Cardinals

That’s right. I am no Cardinal fan. I could barely handle it when St. Louis won those improbable championships in 2006 and 2011. I despised those Mark McGwire years when he was crushing balls off facades and breaking the Roger Maris home run record.  I still roll my eyes when I see David Eckstein shirts being worn at Cardinal games. Eckstein? Seriously?

My fellow St. Louisans, before you unsubscribe from this blog and hunt me down like a lippy Cub fan, please hear me out. We aren’t that much different. I love this city and the people in it. I love the buildings, the parks, the neighborhoods, and obviously, baseball. I just happen to come from a different part of the country. Born and raised in upstate New York, my baseball loyalties were firmly established long before I set foot in this city. From the moment of my entry into this world, I was bred to be an unapologetic disciple of the Evil Empire.

Before I get to the real purpose of this post, let me provide an infographic to detail the history of my Yankee heritage. Hopefully, it will help my St. Louis friends and neighbors understand that shifting my allegiances based on a current address (which is something I am told to do often) simply isn’t going to happen.

My Yankee Family Tree

With that unpleasant business out of the way, let’s get to the real purpose of this post. With baseball being such a rich tradition in St. Louis, I wanted to find out more about where the game has been played in this city. Since I enjoy seeing where old structures used to be, I hatched a plan to find out where every pro ballpark once stood in St. Louis.

The Ballparks of St. Louis

Fortunately, this turned out to be a pretty simple task. While scouring baseball books and articles, I kept stumbling upon one particular name. A St. Louis baseball historian named Joan Thomas had researched this topic in great detail already. After reading a few fascinating articles written by her, I purchased her book St. Louis’ Big League Ballparks. It told me everything I needed to know except where to find a good drink along the way.

The Plaque at Federal League Park

I also discovered most of the ballpark locations in St. Louis have commemorative plaques erected where they stood. These plaques were put in place by the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). Many of the ballpark histories written for SABR’s project were also written by Joan Thomas. Each plaque contains a brief history of the team, significant facts, and a diagram of the layout. Kudos to SABR, Ms. Thomas, and anyone else who had a hand in this project. I believe it’s a great way to celebrate baseball history in St. Louis.

I strongly recommend baseball fans go out and find these locations on their own. It’s fun to stand where these ballparks once stood and think about how the game of baseball was once played there.

Follow along as I visit each of the bygone ballparks of St. Louis. The parks are listed in order of their closing, starting with one that I knew absolutely nothing about.

Red Stockings Park

I have driven or bicycled over the Compton Avenue railroad overpass hundreds of times, perhaps thousands. Until reading an article by Joan Thomas, I had no idea that beneath that bridge once stood one of St. Louis’s earliest ballparks. In fact, it is where the first professional baseball game in St. Louis was played on May 4, 1875.

Red Stockings Park

Although not recognized by Major League Baseball as a Major League, the first professional baseball league ever formed in the United States was the National Association of Professional Baseball Players. In 1875, two St. Louis clubs opted to move up from amateur status and join the league. The Brown Stockings, who played their games at the Grand Avenue Grounds, and the Red Stockings, who played in a new park on Compton Avenue just north of the railroad tracks. That park, known as “Red Stockings Park”, is where the two St. Louis teams met and played that historic first game.

Red Stocking Park Location

Loaded with a roster of  “imported” quality players from around the country, the Brown Stockings easily beat the Reds 15-9 (the score was 15-1 until the eighth inning). This was controversial, since many believed teams should consist of local talent, such as the Red Stockings St. Louis-based roster. Success on the field settled the argument. The Red Stockings lasted just a few months before leaving the league and dropping back down to amateur status. The Brown Stockings continued to play winning baseball. They’d become a charter member of the National League the following year.

Red Stockings Park would continue to be used for amateur baseball games and other contests until it was torn down in 1898.

Red Stocking Park Diagram

Union Base Ball Park

In 1883, a St. Louis millionaire named Henry Lucas decided to get in on the blossoming baseball craze. He created and funded the Union Association, a new baseball league that began play in 1884. Lucas also owned the dominant team in the league, the St. Louis Maroons. The Maroons played their home games at Union Base Ball Park, located at the northeast corner of Cass and Jefferson Avenues.

The 1886 St. Louis Maroons

Being the owner of the league, Lucas selfishly made sure his St. Louis club was the team to beat. At the expense of other teams, he stacked the Maroons with the best talent. As a result, the St. Louis Maroons dominated, winning the title with a 94-19 record (an .832 winning percentage). Many baseball historians don’t consider the league a major league because the St. Louis club was the only one with any legitimate talent. Fred Dunlap, lured to the Maroons when Lucas offered him the highest salary in the league, batted .412. It was eighty-six points higher than his career average.

The farce caused the Union Association to fold after just one year of play. With a quality roster, the Maroons joined the National League the following season. After playing in St. Louis in 1885 and 1886, the team was relocated and became the Indianapolis Hoosiers.

Union Ball Park Location

According to historian Joan Thomas, Union Base Ball park had a capacity of about 10,000. An enthusiastic supporter of sports, Lucas had the park surrounded by a cinder track for running and bicycling. The outfield was planted with blue grass and clover.  Center field contained a scoreboard, called a “bulletin board” that would display game scores from around the Union Association sent by telegraph.

Union Base Ball Park Diagram

Federal League Park

In 1915, a third major league was created to compete with the established National and American Leagues. Deemed an “outlaw” league by its competitors, the Federal league didn’t utilize the reserve clause, which forced a player to be bound to the team that signed him even after a contract expired. This fact, and the lure of higher salaries, caused many big name players such as Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown”, Chief Bender, and Eddie Plank to sign with Federal League Teams.

Harry Chapman of the 1915 St. Louis Terriers

The St. Louis entry into the Federal League was the Terriers. The team played their games at Federal League Park in 1914 and 1915 before a failed anti-trust suit against established leagues forced the Federal League to cease operations.

Although the league lasted only two seasons, the Federal League delivered one very large contribution to baseball. Wrigley Field in Chicago was originally named Weegham Park, and it was built for the Federal League Chicago Whales. The Cubs didn’t move there until 1916 when the Federal League folded.

Handlan's Park Location

Federal League Park was also called “Handlan’s Park” after the owner of the plot, Alexander H. Handlan. After the Federal League folded, the field was used as the St. Louis University Athletic Field. During the 1920 and 1921 seasons, the St. Louis Giants of the Negro National League played some home games there.

Handlan's Park Diagram

Robison Field

In researching this post, I played a little game where I asked several of my St. Louis friends a simple question. I asked them “Can you tell me the names of the four ballparks that the St. Louis Cardinals have called home?”. It was a fun bit of trivia to throw at them. The results were a bit surprising. Not a single person could name all four. Everyone was able to rattle off “Sportsman’s Park, Old Busch Stadium, and New Busch Stadium”. Not a single responder could give me the name of Robison Field,  the ballpark where the  St. Louis Brown Stockings/Browns/Perfectos/Cardinals played baseball from 1893-1920.

1911 St. Louis Cardinals at Robison Field

The history of the St. Louis Cardinals could be a library in itself, so for the purpose of this post, I’ll briefly describe how the Cardinals came to play their games at Robison Field. The St. Louis Cardinals started as the St. Louis Brown Stockings. After stints in the National Association (as mentioned in the game against the Red Stockings), the National League, and the American Association, the Browns would become permanent members of the National League in 1892. The team played their games at “Grand Avenue Grounds”, which would officially become “Sportsman’s Park” in 1886. In 1893, the owner of the club, Chris von der Ahe, built and moved the team to a new ballpark named “New Sportsman’s Park” just a few blocks away at the corner of Vandeventer and Natural Bridge. In 1899, the Browns changed their name to the “Perfectos”, along with changing the team colors from brown to cardinal red. The color change was so popular that the team name was changed to the “Cardinals” the following year.

Robison Field Opening Day

The ballpark at Natural Bridge and Vandeventer would be the home of the St. Louis Cardinals until 1920. It was here that Rogers Hornsby began a career that would make him one of the greatest hitters in baseball history. Cy Young was a member of the 1899 team. Other notable players include the future manager of the Yankees, Miller Huggins, and Bill Doak, who twice led the National League in ERA.

Robison Field is also home to some notable off-field events. In 1911, Helene Britton inherited the Cardinals when team owner Frank Robison died. She became the first female owner of a professional sports franchise in United States history. In 1919, Branch Rickey, the man who integrated baseball, became president and manager of the club.

Robison Field Location

Robison Field was the last professional ballpark that was made primarily of wood. It caught fire numerous times, notably in 1898 and 1901. By 1920, the structure had deteriorated and the team looked to relocate. The last Cardinal home game at Robison Field was played on June 6, 1920.

Fire at Robison Field

Robison Field continued to be owned by the Cardinals until the property was sold to developers. In 1926, Beaumont High School was built on the site. Beaumont has since created a rich baseball history of its own. The school has produced dozens of major league baseball players, managers, and coaches. Earl Weaver, the famous manager of the Baltimore Orioles, graduated from Beaumont in 1948.

Robison Field Diagram

Giant's Park

The St. Louis Giants were a Negro League baseball team that competed independently in the early 1900’s. Although the team played at several different ballparks around St. Louis, most of their home games were played at Giants or Kuebler’s Park on North Broadway Avenue.

Kuebler's Park in 1909The St. Louis Giants would become one of the charter members of the Negro National League, the first long-lasting professional league for African-American players. The league was founded by Andrew “Rube” Foster, a legendary man known as the “father of Black Baseball”. The Giants played at Kuebler’s Park for two seasons before being sold, renamed, and moved.

Crowds as large as 5,000 would fill the seats at Kuebler’s Park to cheer on the Giants. Their best player was Oscar Charleston, a future Hall of Famer who batted .436 during the 1921 season.

Kuebler's Park Location

Stars Park

The St. Louis Giants didn’t have to move far when they were sold in 1922. The new owners renamed the club the St. Louis Stars and built them a shiny new ballpark at the corner of Compton and Market.  Stars Park, as it would be called, was one of the few ballparks built specifically for a Negro League Team.

The 1928 St. Louis Stars

Stars Park is the field where one of the greatest players to ever step on a diamond began his baseball career. James “Cool Papa” Bell started as a pitcher for the for the Stars in 1921 at the age of nineteen. Like Babe Ruth a few years earlier, Bell began playing outfield on non-pitching days. By 1924, he became the teams full-time center fielder. Considered one of the fastest men to ever play the game, “Cool Papa” Bell led the St. Louis Stars to Negro National League titles in 1928 and 1930.

The famous pitcher Satchel Paige once said about Bell: “One time he hit a line drive right past my ear. I turned around and saw the ball hit his ass sliding into second.”

Stars Park Diagram

Along with “Cool Papa” Bell, the St. Louis Stars boasted two other future Hall of Famers. George “Mule” Suttle and Willie “Devil” Wells played with the St. Louis Stars until 1931 when the league folded. The Stars had the best record at the time the league folded, so they were declared champions in that final year. This title is disputed by many baseball historians.

According to baseball historian Joan Thomas, Stars Park had a capacity of 10,000 people. It was known as a hitters park, with a home run to left field only 250 feet away. Today, the same field is used by the Harris-Stowe University baseball team.

Stars Park Location

After folding in 1931, the St. Louis Stars were reincarnated in 1937 and again 1939 to play in the Negro American League. This team had no relation to the earlier version other than reusing the Stars name. According to Philip J. Lowry in his book Green Cathedrals, the 1937 team played at Metropolitan Park, the same site as Giants or Kuebler’s Park. The 1939 team played at South End Park, which was located on South Kingshighway, just south of Tower Grove Park. In my limited time to research this post, I’ve been unable to find any photographs, diagrams, or articles to further describe these ballparks.

Sportsman's Park

Sportsman’s Park, perhaps the most famous baseball park in St. Louis, began its tenure as the Grand Avenue Grounds in 1867. Few sites in the United States can claim a baseball heritage as rich as the plot of land that sits at the corner of Grand and Dodier in north St. Louis.

1910 St. Louis Browns

Baseball was played at that intersection for over ninety years.  Ten World Series and three Major League Baseball All-Star games happened there. The names of great players who competed at Sportsman’s Park is like a Cooperstown roll call: Stan Musial, George Sisler, Lou Brock, Satchel Paige, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Grover Alexander, Willie Mays, Lou Gehrig, and many others.

Grand Avenue Grounds

When Chris von der Ahe moved his club to Robison field and changed the name, the Browns name, colors, and ballpark were now available. In 1902, the Milwaukee Brewers relocated to St. Louis and adopted them all. They built a new stadium, aptly naming it “Sportsman’s Park” For the next fifty-one years, Sportsman’s Park would be the home of the American League’s St. Louis Browns.

Sportsman's Park LocationIn 1920, the St. Louis Cardinals became tenants of the St. Louis Browns when they moved from Robison Field to play home games at Sportsman’s Park.  However, it was the renters that soon began winning pennants. Although more successful during the first twenty years of  century, the Browns slid into a long tenure at the bottom of the standings.

Despite a notable Browns vs. Cardinals World Series in 1944, it became apparent by the early 1950’s that St. Louis could no longer support two major league teams. In 1953, the Browns sold the stadium to the Cardinals and relocated to become today’s Baltimore Orioles.

Sportsman's Park

1953 is also noteworthy for it is the year that Anhueser-Busch purchased the St. Louis Cardinals. The owners wanted to change the name of the stadium to “Budweiser Stadium”, but the Commissioner feared a public backlash against a stadium named after a beer. In response, August Busch simply named the stadium after himself. Sportsman’s Park was officially renamed “Busch Stadium”. In a peculiar coincidence, Busch beer was introduced to the American market just two years later.

Sportsman's Park Diagram

Busch Memorial Stadium

The final ballpark in the Distilled History stadium tour is one that has only been gone for about eight years. What many people now call “Old Busch Stadium” was built in 1966 in downtown St. Louis. One of the first of the multi-use “cookie-cutter” designs to be built during the 1960’s, Busch Memorial Stadium was the home of the St. Louis Cardinals until the end of the 2005 season.

Busch Memorial Stadium

I was never a fan of the cookie-cutter stadiums (thankfully, they are all gone), but I think St. Louis had the best of the bunch.The ninety-six arches that surrounded the roof added a nice touch to the design.

Old Busch Stadium is also where my darkest baseball memory occurred. The one time that I can say I rooted for the Cardinals like I was born and bred in this city was during the 2004 World Series against the Boston Red Sox. Just as the Yankees failed to do in the American League playoffs that year, the Cardinals couldn’t stop that wretched organization from winning its first title since 1918.

Busch Memorial Stadium

Busch Stadium had a capacity of over 57,000 when it closed in 2005. Old Busch Stadium hosted the 1966 All-Star game and six World Series (1967, 1968, 1982, 1985, 1987, and 2004). The stadium was the site of Mark McGwire’s 62nd and 70th home runs in 1998.

Busch Municipal Stadium Location

The Drink

Vallerie's Sit & Sip Cocktail Bar

When it comes to finding a drink for a baseball post, there isn’t one more appropriate than cold beer. I certainly have never ordered a cocktail at a ballgame, and I should be justifiably heckled if I did.

Except for Old Busch Stadium, few of the old ballpark sites are anywhere near a bar. But one park stands out in this list, and that’s where I had to get my beer. Sitting at the corner of Sullivan and Spring, just across the street from where Sportsman’s Park once stood, sits Valerie’s Sit and Sip Cocktail Lounge.

These days, most St. Louisans know the neighborhood around Sportsman’s Park has fallen on difficult times. It’s not a neighborhood where a guy driving a Honda with a notebook and camera goes looking for a drink. But as I stood on the field trying to guess where Babe Ruth caught the final out to win the 1928 World Series, Valerie’s Lounge beckoned.

Since it was early in the day, I figured the place had to be empty. I could get a cold beer and maybe ask Valerie (if there really is a Valerie) if she knew anything about the ballpark that once stood on the opposite corner.

I’m still at a loss to describe what happened next. I opened the door to Valerie’s, and I was confronted with a bar packed with people.  It looked deserted outside, but at least seventy-five people were inside drinking like it was going out of style. A deejay was in the corner playing loud music, and many were dancing away like it was 10 at night.

When the door opened, seventy-five heads snapped around and looked at Wally Cleaver standing in the entrance.  Gathering my surroundings, I smiled, pushed my way to the bar, and tried (very unsuccessfully) to convey an aura of knowing what the hell I was doing.

Miller High Life at Valerie's

Since it was so loud, all I could do was point at something to place an order. Although I planned to get a Busch, the only beer I saw people drinking was Miller High Life. A very stern woman stood behind the bar serving drinks. I’m not sure if it was Valerie, but I could tell no monkey business was allowed in this bar. When it was my turn to order, I simply pointed at an empty High Life bottle. Getting my beer, I tipped Valerie very well and smiled broadly while I did so. There’d be no talk of ballparks today.

(update! Since publishing this post, a gracious reader forwarded me this link with a full history of the famous bar I picked by chance. I’m glad to report I picked a very appropriate place to get a drink)

The only person to engage me in conversation was a woman who walked by and slyly said “How you doin’, baby?”. I stumbled over my response, and the people who overheard me seemed rather amused. When I tried to explain what I was doing there, I noticed my new friend had started to tickle my lower back. It would have been a good story if I stuck around, but I decided to to stay for just the one beer.

I worked my way back outside and was harshly reminded by the glaring sun that it was only one p.m.. I walked back across the street and took another look at the empty space where one of the most famous baseball fields in American history once stood. It’s where Stan Musial once hit five home runs in a double-header, where Enos Slaughter’s “Mad Dash” won the 1946 World Series, and where three-foot seven-inch Eddie Gaedel was sent in to pitch hit for the St. Louis Browns. It’s where my beloved Yankees won two World Series titles in 1928 and 1943. In turn, the Cardinals would best the Yanks for three championships on that same field, and add four more against others. It all happened, and much more, on just that one city block.

Feeling sufficiently nostalgic, I jumped back into my Honda and drove away.

Along with the book by Joan Thomas, a few other baseball books were very helpful in writing this post. Before they were Cardinals : Major League Baseball in Nineteenth-century St. Louis by John David Cash, Green Cathedrals by Philip J. Lowry, and Baseball in St. Louis 1900-1925 by Steve Steinberg. Although it wasn’t used for this post, David Halberstam’s October 1964 is a must for any Cardinal/baseball fan.

%d bloggers like this: