1883 — The Season That Saved Baseball

The St. Louis Browns trailed the arch rival Philadelphia Athletics by 1/2 game entering the one-year-old American Association’s season determining series, played between September 3-6, 1883.

Philadelphia Athletics

The American Association was formed by owners of minor league and semi-pro teams who failed to gain admission into the prestigious National League, which was just six-years old at the time. Baseball was on the decline across the country because of gambling and corruption, and the rowdiness and low-class behavior of its players. Team owners still saw monetary potential, but knew some things had to change if a league, especially a new one, were to survive.

The AA’s 1883 campaign did just that and by all accounts saved baseball in the United States, thanks mostly to a tight race between four of its eight teams — St. Louis, Louisville, Cincinnati and Philadelphia — and a particularly eccentric owner who wanted to use baseball as a way to sell beer to working-class patrons on Sundays.

By the first week of September only two teams had a realistic shot at winning the pennant — the feisty St. Louis Browns (led by aforementioned eccentric owner Chris Von der Ahe) and the tough-as-nails Philadelphia Athletics (led by pitcher “Jumping” Jack Jones).

“Jumping” Jack was a product of Yale. A pretty smart guy with decent stuff, he was recruited late in the season specifically to deal with the surging Browns’ pounding offense. Turns out Jones was also quite the attraction, as his peculiar pitching style of leaping in the air as if he were doing a jumping jack (hence the name) prior to delivery brought gawks and howls from the crowd everywhere he played.

He was also an effective slinger, winning most of his games including tight contests against the Browns when it meant most.

St. Louis Browns with owner Chris Von der Ahe (middle).

German immigrant shopkeeper Chris Von der Ahe purchased the Browns in 1882 for $1,800. He felt baseball should be enjoyed by working-class patrons on off days, mainly Sunday because that was the day no one worked. He also wanted to sell beer at games, and his plan was met with fierce discourse. He eventually won that battle despite the competing National League’s protests. Keep in mind that Von der Ahe helped form the American Association because the National League refused to accept him, let alone his desire to open up baseball to a whole new demographic. The NL catered to the rich, charging .50 for standard admission while the AA created an alternate sporting universe where a regular Joe could take in the pleasures of live baseball for a quarter!

The AA also allowed the sale of alcoholic libations and encouraged rowdiness at games.

Media outlets ate it up. The AA also embraced modern technology to deliver inning-by-inning updates to fans gathering wherever wire services operated. As the 1883 season progressed, so did the crowds gathering at wire stations, especially in Philly and St. Louis, where updates where scribbled onto large chalkboards.

Beer was sold at these outlets, too.

Innovation and progress was the name of the game, and the American Association’s brand of baseball as both sport and spectacle enveloped the American heart.

St. Louis lost the pivotal series to Philadelphia 3 games to 1, with Philly clinching the pennant by one game a few days later.

The first “world championship” between the NL and AA was supposed to happen October 1883, but Philadelphia backed out at the last minute citing that their pitchers didn’t have anything left in the tank. Keep in mind that pitchers of the day typically finished games they started and often worked almost every single game. The rotation was maybe two or three players tops!

The following season, 1884, baseball finally saw its first “World Championship” series, when the National League pennant winning Providence Grays defeated the American Association champion New York Metropolitans three games to zip.

Chris Von der Ahe’s Browns finally won their first AA pennant the year after, in 1885, but “World Champion” would elude them when their series against the NL’s Chicago White Stockings ended in dispute with each team taking three games and a tie (Game 1 halted due to darkness).

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