Over the Plate: Arlie Latham’s Own Baseball Stories, No. 1

Arlie Latham, 1911

Arlie Latham, 1911

In the weeks to come, I will offer up some Arlie Latham tales that were published in the New York World a century ago and reprinted by a handful of newspapers, beginning in August 1915, but have escaped notice since. Latham is one of baseball’s most colorful if not necessarily likable (or trustworthy) characters. Born in 1860, Latham lived long enough–until 1952–to tell, repeat, and “enrich” his tales for several generations of writers, including Robert Smith (author of the wonderful the wonderful Baseball, 1947). To get us started, here’s a snapshot of who he was.

Arlie Latham was called “the Freshest Man on Earth” after a popular song of the 1880s. The song is long forgotten, but Latham lives on in his stories. He was also something of a clown and thus a fan favorite. He was famous for profanely badgering the opposition and hectoring his own players, thus earning him the enmity of both. His private life was as tumultuous as that on the field: his first wife attempted suicide, and his second wife divorced him, charging “perversion, assault, desertion, and infidelity.”

Latham had a brief trial with Buffalo’s National League team in 1880, but didn’t stick in the leagues until he joined the St. Louis Browns of the American Association in 1883, who went on secure four straight American Association championships from 1885 through 1888. Although he batted above .300 four times in his career, he was not considered an outstanding hitter. He excelled mostly on defense, exhibiting one of the strongest arms in baseball, as well as on the basepaths. Because the rules at that time credited a player with a steal whenever he took an extra base on a teammate’s hit, it is impossible to accurately reconstruct Latham’s record in modern terms. However, under the rules of his day, he was credited with 129 steals in 1887, and he led the league the next year with 109. His career total, with some years unavailable, is 739.

Arlie Latham, 1888

Arlie Latham, 1888

Latham played part of the 1890 season in the Players League, then joined Cincinnati of the National League, where he starred through 1895, his last full season. He did play briefly with St. Louis in 1896 and with Washington in 1899. He spent three years as an umpire before returning to the game in 1909 with the New York Giants.

At a time when players took turns coaching baserunners at first and third, John McGraw hired Latham to be baseball’s first professional coach. Some say that his habit of roaming the length of the foul line inspired the creation of the coaches’ boxes that bracket the diamond today. Latham also played in four games that year, and though he went hitless, he became, at the age of 49, the oldest player to steal a base.

Into his nineties he served as the press box custodian at, first, Yankee Stadium, and then the Polo Grounds.

Latham Tells Stories of Chris von der Ahe

New York, N.Y., Aug. 14 [1915]–There was a fat German saloon keeper outside the old ball grounds in St. Louis and after the games he used to stand at the end of his bar and watch his sweating bar-keepers rake in the shekels.

“Five tousand tamn fools,” he would say, “and one wise man. Und dat wise man is me–Chris von de[r] Ahe.”

But old Chris saw money in baseball and soon he became interested in the sport, writes Arlie Latham in the World. Eventually he became owner of the St. Louis Browns, one of the most successful teams that ever played the game. From that time on everyone knew Chris. For all his eccentricities he was a likable old fellow and, as he said, no fool.

He was a big man with a face like the full moon and a nose like a bunch of strawberries. It’s a wonder he wasn’t cross-eyed from trying to see around it. He had a stomach as big as a bush leaguer’s opinion of himself, and for every step he took forward he had to take two to each side.

Chris von der Ahe, 1887

Chris von der Ahe, 1887

Chris had a great sense of his won dignity, and if he caught a player trying to pull any wise stuff on him he made the player pay for it–that is, he told he was fined. I have estimated that while I played with his club he fined me a million dollars. But he never got a cent of it, for he always forgot it the next day.

His heart and soul were bound up in his ball club, and he never could see any excuse for losing a game. If anyone booted away a game, Chris roared like a bull. Sometimes, when the team would be going bad, Chris would become so disgusted that he would threaten to fine the whole club. But we would remember that it was only old Chris von der Ahe talking, and we let it go at that.

If there was one thing Chris hated it was to see a man hit a fly ball.

“Shtop hitting them high-fliers!” he’d yell. “Keep them on the floor! Don’t you know them fielders can catch does high vuns?”

Taking Observations

He used to have a seat on the bench, and when a fly ball would be hit Chris would groan and then grab a telescope he had always with him. He’d focus the fielder running after the ball and then begin to pull with his arms and legs as if to pull the ball away from him. He’d grunt like a man lifting a heavy weight and bend his body almost double, as though he thought he could change the course of the ball. Finally, just as the fielder was about to catch the ball Chris would be so excited and doubled up that he usually ended by toppling off the bench with a crash. Then the players always gave him the horse laugh.

When Chris picked himself up his mustache would be sticking up like the quills of a porcupine, and if he saw anyone laughing heaven help that wretch!

As I could, he never could see any excuse for an error. No matter how hard the ball came, get it! If you knew it was going to knock your head off, get it! If it came so fast that it would kill you–well, Chris would forgive–maybe.

One day in St. Louis they were knocking them at me so fast I could only wave my arms and hope one of them wouldn’t hit me in the teeth. They must have hit a million at me. Well, a million may be an exaggeration, but there were at least 900,000. All I could do was stand there, let them hit me on the chest and trust to luck to recover them in time to throw the runner out at first. I could hear Chris mumbling something about a “chackass,” but I was afraid to look at him.

1888 St. Louis Browns, cabinet card by Guerin.

1888 St. Louis Browns, cabinet card by Guerin.

At the eighth inning the other team had us three runs to the bad. That was too much for Chris. He pulled himself out of his seat and started for the gate. He could never stay to see us lose, and when the game got beyond what he thought was hope he would get up and march out to the box office. There he’d drown his sorrows by counting the gate money. If the crowd was big he would speedily forget about the game.

This day, however, when he was in the middle of his counting there was a terrific noise outside.

A player came running in and found Chris serenely counting his coin.

“Did you hear that, Chris?” yelled the player.

“Chass.”

“Do you know what it was?”

“Oh, I suppose that chackass Laydem made anodder error.”

“No. But he just made a home run with three on, and won the game for you.”

“I always said,” remarked Chris that night, “dot Laydem vos the best man I effer hat in a binch.”

Not a Sane Fourth

But I got back at Chris in my own way. And then he got back at me again.That was always the trouble with that old bird. He got wise to things eventually and then he’d gum the cards with a fine.

We were playing in St. Louis one Fourth of July morning and it occurred to me that I’d have a little fun with the club owner. During our batting period I got a dynamite bomb from a man in the grandstand, and then, when our side was out, I walked out to third and put it under the base where Chris couldn’t see it. I had also got a piece of punk, and, as though tying my shoelace, I lit the fuse of the bomb. Then I pulled down my cap, put my hands on my knees and while shouting, “Come on! Get in the game!” I watched it.

All of a sudden–boom!

1883 St Louis Browns

1883 St Louis Browns

I jumped three feet in the air and landed on my back, kicking and writhing.Then I rolled on my side and kept one eye cocked at von der Ahe. He always carried a bugle with him with which he summoned the special policemen when he needed them. When he saw me fall he put the bugle to his lips  and tooted away for dear life. The specials came running from all parts of the stand and surrounded their employer. When he felt that he was safe and that no one could shoot him without first killing  guard he got up and yelled,

“Who in blazes shoot Laydem?” Then he came down oin the field surrounded by his guard and looked at me.

Presently I jumped up, shook myself and looked old Chris in the eye.

“It’s all right, Chris,” I said; “It didn’t go in; it just stunned me.”

Just then a player with a pail of ice water came running up and threw it over me. At that the spectators and players began to roar, and I could see the light of understanding coming into Chris’ eyes.

“You chackass,” he yelled at last. “I fine you $50.”

Which he never got.

Up in the Air

But Kid Gleason pulled a better one than that on him–and nearly got away with it.The team had been going bad for a while and Chris began to look blue around the gills. He couldn’t understand it. He never could. He never could see why the breaks should go against his team.

He took us into a hotel and began to call us down. He hadn’t been talking long when all the players began to laugh. Chris couldn’t stand anyone laughing at him. He saw Gleason just closing his mouth.

“Vot are you laffing at Gleason?” he demanded.

“Oh,” said Gleason, “I was laughing at those three kids looking in the window.”

Chris became furious at this and ordered the shutters closed immediately.

“Dey can’t look in here, the little low-lifes,” he exploded.

We were on the ninth floor of the building!

Chris saw the joke next day, hunted up Gleason and fined him $50. Which also he never collected.

If he became thoroughly disgusted with the team’s work he’d threaten to fine or release the whole team outright. When he’d threaten us in that manner we’d all go to the nearest telegraph office and wire for jobs. Of course Chris would hear of this immediately and in a few minutes down he’d come with good nature oozing out of him, haul us all up to the hotel and buy us a good dinner with wine.

Chris Von Der Ahe mortuary statue

Chris Von Der Ahe mortuary statue

Another thing he hated was to lose a baseball. Every time a ball was fouled out of the grounds he’d almost break his neck trying to keep his eye on it. One day in St. Louis they were fouling them off as fast as the pitcher could shoot them across. Every foul that would sail up in the air Chris would watch until he almost fell out of his seat. And to make it worse for him I’d run up and yell:

“There goes another dollar and a quarter, Chris!”

Finally Chris couldn’t stand it any longer.

“You’re too fresh, Laydem!” he said, getting up and pointing at me. “You’ll pay for dem balls. I fine you a hundred dollars!”

Poor old von der Ahe is dead now, and, I hope, at rest. His good nature got him a host of friends and his eccentricities lost him all his money. He was a good old fellow, when all is said, and he treated his players like men. And, even if they did poke fun at him they liked him just the same.

3 Comments

Great post, John. The Chris von der Ahe stories are terrific. Thanks.

Plenty of fun in these stories.

Wonderful stuff, John. I write a lot about van der Ahe in my Spirit of St. Louis, my oral history of the Cardinals an the Browns. van der Ahe ended up dead broke. It’s a sad story.

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