Chris Von der Ahe, Bob Caruthers Engage in Mustachioed Power Struggle

Across SB Nation's baseball network, this week, we've been asked to write about great Grooming Moments in baseball history, and as sad as this might make Jason Motte and Al Hrabosky hirsute relievers didn't even cross my mind when I thought about who to write up. No: This is the perfect opportunity to remember the time "Parisian Bob" Caruthers, the St. Louis Browns' star pitcher-outfielder, and Chris Von der Ahe, their cartoon-character owner, crossed mustaches for the final time.

Caruthers wasn't the proto-Cardinals' first superstar—Charlie Comiskey was their founding first baseman and eventual manager, a sort of cross between John Mabry and Tony La Russa, and they also developed "The Freshest Man on Earth," Arlie Latham. But he was the best they'd ever seen.

In his first full season, 1885, Caruthers—who stood 5'7" and weighed 138 pounds with mustache—led the league with 40 wins (in 53 decisions) and an ERA of 2.07. In 1886 he went 30-14 with a 2.32 ERA and led the league with an OPS of .974, not that anybody was keeping track. (They might have noticed his OPS+ was 201, though.)

After 1887 a case could be made for Caruthers as baseball's best hitter and pitcher, all at once. The 24-year-old was 106-38 as a pitcher, with an ERA of 2.51, and .313/.409/.470 as a hitter, an OPS+ of 156.

It's hard to get an accurate picture of a player who looked like this and who played in the middle of baseball's evolution, but it's clear he had an idea of just how much damage walks could do; his walk rates as a pitcher were frequently among the lowest in the American Association, and as a batter—he split time between the pitcher's box and the outfield—he regularly outwalked players who'd appeared in a third again as many games.

He was the best player in baseball in a time when starting pitchers could accumulate twice as many innings in a season as they do now, and the Browns were lucky to have him. Which is to say that they didn't have him much longer.

Enter a man with a much bolder mustache: Chris Von der Ahe, the Browns' owner, is usually afforded "eccentric" for his Homeric epithet, out of a reluctance to speak ill of the dead. I, on the other hand, remain convinced that the man himself wouldn't want us to sugarcoat it. With that in mind: Chris Von der Ahe was crazy.


This post goes on after the jump, but I thought I'd take this opportunity to mention that if you like this sort of thing, you might enjoy The Ultimate Cardinals Record Book, in which I devoted no fewer than two chapters to Bob Caruthers and Von der Ahe, because I could. It's available on Amazon at that link and at Barnes and Noble, if you live in the St. Louis area. Thanks!

Here's how Von der Ahe was crazy: He didn't understand baseball, but he installed himself as manager on multiple occasions. He built a giant statue of himself in front of the Browns' ballpark that was ridiculous enough that one unknown sportswriter's barb—he called it Von der Ahe Discovers the West—has been passed down through history to explain it. He had the idea for the first mallpark, building an amusement park beyond the outfield with water flumes, an artificial lake, and a horse-racing track.

Caruthers didn't help matters. After that golden 1885 season he fled with a teammate to France, where he conducted his prolonged contract negotiations telegraphically. And in 1887, following the Browns' embarrassing loss in a proto-World-Series designed by Von der Ahe as an enormous, Super Bowl-ian spectacle—stop me if you've heard this one before—the Browns' best player took the blame.

The Browns' effort in the series was criticized, and Caruthers, a card sharp, carouser, and general mustachioed man-about-town, took the brunt of the blame for the distraction. Two months after he'd gone 29-9 and hit .357, the Brown sold Bob Caruthers to the Brooklyn Bridegrooms for something like $200,000 in 2011 money. SABR's biography does a good job of catching the flavor of the negotiations:

"When asked about the terms of the contract and the salary he was to receive, Caruthers said, ‘I will get a larger salary than any ball player has ever received, but I can't say what it is. My mouth is closed.'

" ‘It lays the [King] Kelly deal entirely in the shade,' said Pritchard, ‘and that is all I want to say about it.' ... Byrne was more communicative. ‘As for Caruthers his Association contract calls for $2,000, but we will give him more money than ever has been or ever will be paid any other player.' "

So ended Caruthers's St. Louis career, at least for the moment. With the Bridegrooms he was never quite the same, but I don't think anybody minded—over four seasons he hit .252/.370/.350, for an OPS+ of 118, while going 110-51 with a 2.92 ERA on the mound.

In 1892, with the Browns newly installed in the National League and about to go into a tailspin that wouldn't resolve itself for 20 years, Caruthers reemerged one more time. Dead-armed at 28—he went 2-10, having thrown 2700 innings already in his brief career—he spent most of the time in the outfield and showed that, however little he had left as a pitcher, he still knew how to frustrate them. In 143 games, a career high, as the squad's starting right fielder, he hit .277/.386/.357 (120) and walked 86 times, fifth-most in the National League.

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