I just finished reading Before They Were Cardinals, a history of the American Association St. Louis Browns, by Jon David Cash.
I have mixed feelings about the book.Most people know the Cardinals are one of the oldest baseball franchises. What most don’t know is that the Cardinals didn’t start out in the National League, were formerly known as the Browns (not to be confused with the later St. Louis Browns of the American League that moved to Baltimore in 1954), and that the tradition of the World Series originated here in St. Louis,
This book gives a nice overview of the early history of the St. Louis franchise and the American Association, the league in which the team had its first early successes.
The upside of the book is that it is very academic. It cites everything and the old maps and photographs prove the author spent hours at the Missouri Historical Society unearthing treasures.
The downside is that the book is academic. While I certainly understand the desire to rise above the sensationalist, opinionated late 19th-century journalism that serves as most of the book’s primary sources, a lot of the color that makes the early history of this team interesting isn’t in the book. The colorful and eccentric owner, Christian Frederick Wilhem von der Ahe, is presented as a German immigrant who bought a bar, noticed one day that his patrons all left in a rush for a few hours on Sunday, then returned to spend a leisurely rest of the day. After asking where everyone went and hearing about baseball, he invested in the team and made (and later lost) a fortune doing so.
That’s all fine and good, but it’s a one-dimensional picture of Chris Von der Ahe. Yes, he was an astute and successful self-made immigrant businessman–the embodiment of the American Dream if there ever was one. While some mention of his nouveau riche excesses is in the book, much of what made him so despised outside of St. Louis isn’t mentioned.
My personal favorite Von der Ahe story, the larger-than-life statue of himself erected outside of Sportsman’s Park to celebrate the successful 1885 season, gets no mention in the book. There is mention that Von der Ahe is buried underneath a large statue of himself, but no mention of where the statue came from.
I did find it very interesting that Von der Ahe, convinced there was no money left to be made in St. Louis, plotted to win the 1887 World Series and then move his world championship team to New York where he could draw bigger crowds, more beer sales, and bigger profits. The team never won another World Series under his ownership, however, so Von der Ahe never put that plan into motion.
Unfortunately, the book ends abruptly with the American Association’s merger with the National League, with only a brief epilogue at the end talking about the slow fall of Von der Ahe and his loss of the franchise.
In the book’s defense, Von der Ahe gets more treatment elsewhere while the American Association is little more than a footnote today, so I can see why the author chose to focus on the more neglected subject. It makes for better scholarship. Since this book is published by the University of Missouri Press and not Random House, I can see why the book was written the way it was.
If you want good history, particularly of what it was that made the American Association what it was–and this is fair, because the St. Louis club was the dominant team of that league and era–then this is a great book. If you’re looking for colorful stories about a guy who was like Ted Turner and George Steinbrenner and Charlie Finley and Bill Veeck all wrapped up into one with a dash of Jay Gatsby thrown in, look elsewhere.