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Chris von der Ahe

Christian Frederick Wilhelm von der Ahe, (?1851-June 5, 1913) was a native of Germany who emigrated to the United States in 1867, where he became a brewer and owner of the St. Louis Cardinals (then called the St. Louis Browns) baseball team from 1882 to 1898. Chris von der Ahe was the first of the eccentric baseball owners, the George Steinbrenner and Charlie Finley of his day.

Von der Ahe arrived in New York City but quickly moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where he worked as a clerk in a grocery store. Later he bought out the store owner and expanded business by establishing a saloon in the back of the store. Von der Ahe noticed that a number of his patrons visited the saloon after a baseball game, so in 1882, he bought the bankrupt and scandal-ridden St. Louis baseball franchise for $1,800 and joined the American Association baseball league. He nicknamed the team the Browns simply because their uniforms were brown, and hired future Chicago White Sox owner Charles Comiskey to manage the team and play first base. Von der Ahe dubbed himself "der boss president."

The Browns were successful, winning four straight league championships starting in 1885, and the baseball, beer, and other investments made von der Ahe wealthy. He quickly made $500,000 off the baseball team alone. He set the ticket price at 25 cents, hoping fans would spend money on beer. As a result, the Browns led the league in attendance and soon had to expand his ballpark.

In 1885, von der Ahe erected a larger-than-life statue outside of Sportsman's Park, not of any of his star players, but of himself. A sportswriter from Denver, Colorado mockingly called the statue "Von der Ahe discovers Illinois."

Although eccentric, von der Ahe made a number of innovations, operating a farm club called the St. Louis Whites, and inventing the World Series, initially just to raise more money at the end of the season. Also, tradition holds that von der Ahe was the first to sell hot dogs at the ballpark, although some historians dispute this.

In 1887, after a poor showing in the World Series, the ill-tempered von der Ahe threatened to withhold his players' share of the earnings. Soon after, he dismissed Comiskey and started running the team himself. In 1892 the team rejoined the National League after the American Association folded, where it quickly became a last-place team.

Legal problems plagued von der Ahe's ownership, especially in the later years, and in an effort to recoup his losses, in 1892 he moved to a larger ballpark, which he surrounded with an amusement park, complete with beer garden, a horse track in the outfield, a "shoot-the-shoots" water flume ride, and an artificial lake (also used for ice skating in the winter). The league, which prohibited gambling on its grounds, disapproved of the race track. So did von der Ahe's outfielders. The press called the facility "Coney Island West" and nicknamed von der Ahe "Von der Ha Ha."

With losses still piling up, von der Ahe resorted to selling off his best players, mostly to Brooklyn.

In 1898 part of the ballpark burned down during a game with Chicago, his second wife divorced him, and his bondsman kidnapped him for not paying his debts. In a highly publicized trial connected with the fire, von der Ahe lost his baseball team. The Browns changed hands twice and changed their name twice, first to the St. Louis Perfectos and then to the St. Louis Cardinals. The American League team known as the St. Louis Browns from 1902-1954 had no connection to von der Ahe's team aside from the name, which was designed to invoke the memory of 1885-1889.

His team lost, von der Ahe was reduced to tending bar in a small saloon. He died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1913. He was buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis, the statue that once stood in front of Sportsman's Park adorning his grave.