In 19th-century baseball, a well-paid player might make about three times the salary of a factory worker. A nice sum for the era, true enough, but not the princely wages afforded our current Major Leaguers; today's journeymen can commend contracts well into the seven figures. Their predecessors were men who worked, year round.
Players were athletes first during the spring and summer, but usually afforded themselves some type of off-season labor; St. Louis' earliest diamond stars took jobs ranging from shoe sales to construction to selling confections on rail lines. In 1884, the team averaged just under $1,800 a head, and salary inflation was modest. The most lucrative deals edged towards a reasonable $5K by the turn of the century. With fans contributing to the gate with a nickel or a dime for their ticket, cost containment was a needed thing.
A new book on the earliest days of St. Louis pro sports, "Before They Were Cardinals: Major League Baseball in Nineteenth Century St. Louis" (University of Missouri Press), recounts plenty of stories that indicate that the good old days were good, indeed, but also thorny with problems. You had inter-league battles, talent raids, stadium renovations, teams teetering into bankruptcy, players bolting for better contracts and other tales that sound more contemporary than historical.
All of that fighting, though, was done on a scale that pales in comparison to the hundreds of millions of dollars at stake today. Contract disputes might center on a couple hundred dollars and franchises folded due to debts in the low five figures.
Though author Jon David Cash, a historian and professor at the University of Arkansas-Monticello, brings a degree of "academic,"
research-heavy text to the work, it shines when it focuses on the colorful anecdotes about the men who shaped, in particular, the pennant-rich St. Louis Brown Stockings. One of a couple of early squads fielded in town (does anyone remember the St. Louis Maroons of the Union Association?), the Brown Stockings were the Yankees of their day: winning with regularity, and doing so under the stewardship of a flamboyant owner, Chris von der Ahe.
A relatively recent immigrant from Germany, von der Ahe tended to a tavern near the ballyard, the Golden Lion. After he took an interest in the club in 1880, the team's fortunes changed rapidly. Eventually becoming the de facto general manager, von der Ahe was a quick study in baseball talent and economics. He wheeled-and-dealed players, negotiated contracts, battled competitors, dallied with a franchise move to New York and eventually had to sell the squad out of bankruptcy. (And FYI: these Brown Stockings would become the predecessors of the Cardinals of the National League, rather than the Browns of the American Association.)
Easily the central figure in Cash's book, von der Ahe also kept an eye on the bottom line, while bringing to life promotions that would stand up today. He made up doubleheaders with Wild West shows. He postered the town for big games. He even turned right field into a biergarten, where line drives would clatter through the wooden benches and revelers. You get the sense from the book that von der Ahe was probably out in that biergarten hoisting a stein with the fans, maybe even buying a few rounds.
Cash's book offers some tangential history of St. Louis' development patterns of 110 years ago, giving us a glimpse of a booming North Side. It obviously spins an interesting yarn about baseball's pioneering class. The early labor woes are sketched. And whether he intends to, or not the author gives the reader a chance to reflect on the importance of athletics to a community and how far that hometown should go in underwriting the bottom line of its franchises.