This is another in a series of St. Louis Cardinals history posts inspired by The Ultimate Cardinals Record Book, a collection of stories and stats I wrote that came out in March. You can buy it at the link above, and you can read a sample here. Or you can just read this post. Thanks!
The St. Louis Cardinals of today trace their lineage no further than 1892, when they joined the National League, but most baseball fans who care about this sort of thing go back further, to Chris Von der Ahe's American Association Browns. They were the same franchise, after all, and much more interesting than their NL counterpart—in the AA Von der Ahe helped invent the concept of the World Series, built a giant statue of himself, turned his baseball park into Coney Island, and then drove Bob Caruthers out of town, while in the NL he mostly just spiraled toward bankruptcy.
Before that, they were briefly a member of the National Association, baseball's first organized professional league, and the actual NL. These are the teams nobody particularly cares about—because they weren't very good, because the National Association isn't recognized by Major League Baseball, because they were eventually bankrupted in the fallout from a gambling scandal.
Here's what's worth knowing:
Their first manager was Dickey Pearce
Dickey Pearce has the third-oldest date of birth on Baseball-Reference—1836, meaning he was 35 when the National Association played its first season in 1871. When Pearce came to the sport (from cricket), Jim Creighton, the famous proto-baseball star who invented the fastball and died swinging a bat, was 15 years old. When he left it Creighton had been dead 15 years.
Pearce was old enough that he played most of his career as a nominal amateur, when the dominant stat was runs per game and batting average was something nerds calculated in their basements. By the time baseball came to St. Louis he was 39, and on the verge of retirement.
In the meantime—in those 20 years that saw the development of something resembling modern baseball—Pearce had invented a position and Mike Matheny's favorite managerial tactic, among other things.
The position first: The baseball Pearce began playing, in 1856, featured basemen who stood right on the bases they covered and a position called "short fielder," which roved among the holes that positioning left. Pearce moved the position to where it exists today, between third and second, taking advantage of his strong arm and his ungloved hands to retire all the pull hitters who'd used that particular gap.
When we finally get fielding statistics he was a five-three, 160-pound 35-year-old, but those abilities that made him the original shortstop were still apparent—his fielding percentage from 35 to 41 was .828, against a league average of .798. Baseball Reference's most rudimentary version of fielding runs credits him with 47 above an average shortstop across 291 games.
Through the 1860s Pearce was a superstar and a pioneer—SABR's excellent bio credits him with innovative catcher signals, as well as shortstop play, and explains that he brought to baseball not only the sacrifice bunt but the suicide squeeze—but by 1871, the arbitrary date on which baseball statistics suddenly look familiar and professional baseball players were suddenly allowed to throw off the mantle of amateurism, he was the top league's second-oldest regular.
Pearce's SABR bio describes what happened next—
In the fall of 1874, a group of civic boosters in St. Louis raised $20,000 to organize a baseball club called the Browns, the first openly professional nine in the city's history. James Lucas was named president. Vice president C. Orrick Bishop, a local lawyer and amateur baseball promoter, went east to recruit some top talent in order to be competitive as the club set its sights on joining the National Association. In Brooklyn, Bishop picked up Pearce, Jack Chapman, Dehlman, and Lip Pike. In and around Philadelphia, Bishop added Ned Cuthbert, Reddy Miller, George Bradley, Bill Hague, and Joe Battin. In the days before the reserve clause, such tampering and contract jumping, known as revolving, was rampant.
St. Louis agreed with Pearce; he arrived in February 1875 and stayed until April 1881. He opened a cigar store on Franklin Avenue and gained a new nickname in the town, Bad Dickey.
They poached a few stars
In addition to Pearce the Brown Stockings had signed Lip Pike, one of the National Association's most athletic hitters and, at 30, still in the prime of his career. (Pike is most famous today for being the first Jewish baseball star, and second-most-famous for the story Bill James recounts in the Historical Baseball Abstract, in which he raced a trotting horse and won.)
Early baseball is marked by a million weird-making departures from the contemporary game—misshapen baseballs, endless outfields, under-handed pitchers, weird counts—but the most important one to consider, I think, looking in on it from 2012, is that its worst players were much worse than our worst players. There just weren't that many great baseball players at the time; in 1856 that meant that Pearce, a cricket player, could slip into the lineup of a top amateur team at the same time he was learning the sport.
In 1875 it wasn't quite that absurd, but the Browns show the dichotomy well. Their worst hitter—starting catcher Tom Miller—had an OPS+ of 24 over 56 games. He hit .164—33 singles, two doubles, and one walk in 214 at-bats. Their best hitter, Pike, hit .346/.352/.494, for an OPS+ of 203—74 singles, 22 doubles, 12 triples.
In 1876 the Browns moved to the National League and finished third—at 45-19 they were one of three competitive teams out of eight. Pearce was being phased out, though, and by 1877 the team seemed set to continue successfully without him.
They blew up in a gambling scandal
The Browns most responsible for St. Louis's early exit from the National League never played a league game in their uniforms. After a disappointing 1877 the Browns signed Jim Devlin, a sturdy pitcher, and George Hall, who'd hit .376 in 1876, from the Louisville Grays, who'd finished second the year before. Poaching players like this was another common feature of 1870s baseball—with six teams in the league, and contract law of little interest to players and owners alike, poaching from the guy ahead of you in the standings was especially effective.
The Browns, though—already in financial trouble—were unfortunate enough to poach from a team that had been throwing games the year before. They probably weren't the only ones, either, but they weren't very good at hiding the evidence, and Devlin and Hall confessed to game-fixing in the offseason.
According to Before They Were Cardinals, the scandal seemed to pass almost virally from Devlin and Hall to the last year's Browns, and suspicion enveloped the St. Louis baseball scene. The shareholders were in debt, and nobody seemed especially eager to suffer for their home team.
So the Browns left the NL in disgrace, and it wasn't until Von der Ahe, looking for new ways to sell beer, bought the team and entered it into the American Association in 1882 that the Cardinals' uninterrupted major league run finally began.
The Cardinals distance themselves from those Browns at their own risk—it's like they don't want to sell me a Bob Caruthers jersey—but I can understand their reticence to connect themselves to the original team. Once you look past their lack of success and the existential threat they posed to professional baseball, though, those original Browns weren't so bad after all. If nothing else, they were interesting.