My Diamond’s Bigger Than Your Diamond

Baseball has had a lot of interesting owners. Some have been saints, some downright evil. Some have been clowns, some have been thoughtful. Then there’s Chris von der Ahe.

Born in Germany, von der Ahe ended up in St. Louis with it’s large German community. He clerked in a grocery, bought the place, then added in a saloon. He began to make good money and started looking around for more investments. He realized that some of the biggest crowds in the city gathered at the ballpark when the local Browns were playing and that a spillover to the bars after the game was common. So the solution to his problem? Buy the team.

n 1882 he bought the Browns (they are now the Cardinals) for $1800 and joined the fledgling American Association. Von der Ahe had a good team already, but didn’t know it. In fact, he knew almost nothing of baseball, except that the park was a good place to sell beer. His manager was Charles Comiskey, who had to manage the team, play first base, watch what von der Ahe was doing, and teach the owner how the game worked.

It worked pretty well for a while. The Browns won four stratight Association pennants 1885-1888, and picked up a “World Series” win (or two depending on how you figure forfeits and ties). They fell on hard times at the end of the 1880’s but survived and joined the National League in the fallout of the collapse of the American Association.

Von der Ahe got rich on the deal. He made a vast sum off the Browns and his beer. By charging 25 cents for the cheapest tickets, he managed to keep the stands full. In fact, they overflowed. So von der Ahe built a new, state of the art for the 1880s park. It was big, it was gaudy, there were bands, an amusement park, a water slide, a beer garden (You knew that was coming, didn’t you?) a few cushioned seats, and a larger-than-lifesize statue of von der Ahe at the entrance. That may be my favorite von der Ahe story. Most of us would put a statue of our best player there, but not the head Brown. According to legend he invented the ballpark hot dog at this point as a way to make more money.

Also according to legend, the man never could quite understand the game. With his new park he announced he now had the biggest diamond in the world. Comiskey kept reminding him that all the diamonds were the same size: 90 feet to a side. The outfield might be bigger, the stands larger, but not the diamond. To von der Ahe it was always the biggest diamond in the world.

He tried his hand at managing. Considering how little he understood the game, the results were predictable. He went 3-14 in stints in 1895, ’96, and ’97.

The Statue over Von Der Ahe's grave

By this point his world was coming unglued. The new park was expensive to maintain, the team wasn’t very good, his wife was divorcing him. He went deeper into debt and in 1898 fire gutted part of the ballpark. He was forced to sell the team and ended up tending bar. He lngered into 1913 before dying of cirrhosis. When they buried him, they found the park statue and erected it over his grave. It stands there today, a fitting monument to one of the most fun people who ever found himself associated with baseball.

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One Response to “My Diamond’s Bigger Than Your Diamond”

  1. J. Thomas Hetrick Says:

    A full-length biography of Chris Von der Ahe is now available in paperback from Pocol Press.

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