Caring Is Contagious
The extraordinary triumph of meaningful baseball in March.
Around 1870, a German teenager named Chris von der Ahe immigrated to the United States and settled in St. Louis. An entrepreneurial sort, he got a job at a grocery store, then bought the grocery store, then expanded with a saloon and brewery and boardinghouse.
There was a ballpark nearby that was home to the St. Louis Brown Stockings, an independent team led by the future Sporting News founder Al Spink. Spink later wrote that von der Ahe became interested in baseball “as he might have become interested in pretzels, peanuts or any other incitant to thirst and beer drinking.” The goal was to sell beer and the mode was to find some reliable way of corralling beer customers. If pretzels satiate a man’s hunger so that he won’t leave the saloon in search of a meal, baseball satiates a man’s boredom so that he won’t leave the saloon in search of a good time.
A baseball game wouldn’t fit in a bowl on a bar, so von der Ahe had to take the bar to the park. He first acquired the vending rights to the Browns’ games, then he bought the Browns. With other clubs, he formed the American Association, a professional league of well-funded teams in six major cities. It became known colloquially as the Beer & Whiskey League for its liberal serving policies. Several teams were backed by brewery, distillery or saloon owners. Von der Ahe set ticket prices at a quarter, half of what they charged in the other “major” league, so that fans would have more money for drinks.
Think of this as an origin story for baseball’s World Series. Von der Ahe, arguably the first team owner with a real sense of showmanship, baseball’s pioneering huckster, tried all sorts of tricks to promote his big bar, from luxury seating to a huge water slide in center field. But the most successful innovation was the championship series. By 1884, the American Association and the National League had both established themselves as major leagues. The American Association proposed a three-game postseason series between the best team in each league. Attendance was dismal in the first year, but the newspapers raised the stakes, calling the winners the World Champions, and attendance grew. When his Browns won the postseason series in 1886, von de Ahe organized the sport’s first victory parade, behind a huge championship banner. Just as deodorant companies had to convince consumers that they smelled bad, baseball companies had to convince the world that winning championships felt amazing. They did it!
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