The Opening, Opening Day

Baseball's Opening Day is a national day of hope that, like Thanksgiving or Christmas, gains emotional power from the familiarity of its rituals. On Thursday the Sea of Red will wash over us. "Here Comes the King" will again become fashionable, like wearing whites after Memorial Day. The Budweiser Clydesdales will circle Busch Stadium with equine precision. Cardinals players riding Ford pickup trucks will dismount to receive blessings from red-jacketed legends, the Ghosts of Opening Days past, whose wrinkled faces remind us that even our heroes grow old. Al Hrabosky will emerge from winter hibernation with shellacked white hair and a fresh coat of spray tan to inform us that we are the Best Fans in Baseball. Some of us may shed a tear.

Countless scribes will connect Opening Day with spring, and rebirth, and renewal. But something will be missing from their meditations. A "rebirth" requires an original birth. One cannot be reborn unless one was born. Before something's "renewal" can resonate we must understand what that thing was when it was actually new.

Imagine an Opening Day with neither familiarity nor rituals. In other words, imagine the moment when Opening Day was born rather than reborn. When it was simply "opening day."

When was the Cardinals's opening, opening day, and how did the team reach that moment?

May 2, 1882 was a beautiful Tuesday, sunny and mild, a relief from the chilly rains of recent weeks. As 4:00 p.m. neared, around two thousand St. Louisans walked, rode horses, or took horse-drawn streetcars to the corner of Grand Boulevard and Dodier Street, the site of Grand Avenue Park. Some people had started calling it "Sportsmen's Park" in honor of the Sportsmen's Park and Club Association, an investor group that had recently purchased it and renovated a dilapidated site into a respectable home for baseball games, track meets, turkey shoots, and other outdoor events.

One person after another plunked down twenty-five cents for a ticket to that afternoon's American Association (AA) baseball game between the visiting Louisville Eclipse and the hometown St. Louis Brown Stockings. The crowd momentarily blurred the city's class, ethnic, and gender (but not racial) lines. Both men and women entered the park. Native-born Americans walked alongside Irish and German immigrants. Manual laborers wearing work clothes eyed middle-class businessmen wearing pressed suits.

That moment soon passed. The women, huffing in corsets and shielded beneath hats the size of Fredbird's head, climbed a staircase to a ladies' pavilion that protected them from the "annoyance" of "crushing or crowding." Working-class fans gravitated toward left-field bleachers designed to keep "the ‘howling' element...out of hearing distance, just where they ought to be." More respectable patrons filled about one-third of the wooden benches in the brand-new, covered grandstand. This separation of classes reflected tensions embroiling the city; recent strikes in area factories had so unnerved local elites that they started funding dozens of anti-labor militias.

Grandstand seats offered excellent views of home plate (or rather "home diamond," as the pentagon-shaped plate wasn't adopted until 1900). With no seats along the first- or third-base lines, foul territory extended to the edges of the city block. Patrons looking beyond the rectangular "pitcher's square," fifty feet from home (no mounds for another decade), saw the howlers tucked behind the left-field fence, 350 feet away. The right-field barrier was more ambiguous, as the outdoor beer garden 285 feet from the plate was in play. Fans saw no Gateway Arch and no skyline other than the actual skyline -€” the horizon -€” interspersed with trees and some low-slung buildings. It would have been idyllic if not for the haze of coal and brick dust.

These two thousand Browns fans had no inkling of that moment's real significance. For what they were about to witness -€” with no cameras, no blogs, no audio recording devices -€” was the birth of the St. Louis Cardinals. May 2, 1882, was the Opening, Opening Day.

The original St. Louis Brown Stockings formed in 1876 and played two seasons in the National League before getting booted for fixing games. Several "clean" players organized a semipro squad that retained the Browns name for games against local nines and a few out-of-town semipro teams, played in front of, to quote pioneering baseball writer Al Spink, "what Shakespeare would have termed a beggarly array of empty benches."

St. Louis, with more than 350,000 residents, was the sixth-largest city in the nation. It had a thriving industrial base of millers, brewers (but not Miller's brewing), brickmakers, tobacco processors, and iron mills. The smell of rotting flesh emanating from its many rendering plants testified to its industrial brawn. High Society clustered around Lafayette Square, tucked between present-day interstates 40 and 64. Clumps of new office buildings, five or six stories tall and bristling with statues and Romanesque ornamentation, attested to the city's bright future. The Eads Bridge, the first span across the lower Mississippi, gleamed with newness. A new Union Depot struggled to handle the flood of railroad traffic. Streetcars connected the Grand Avenue neighborhood with Forest Park, completed in 1876.

What better way to announce St. Louis's arrival than a first-rate baseball team? "No town in the country has ever been accounted a better community in its liberal support of the national game," the St. Louis Post-Dispatch boasted with a generous dollop of hyperbole. A winning team would elevate the city's national profile. Achieving that goal required someone with both deep pockets and a sense of civic pride.

A few blocks from what was still Grand Avenue Park, a bartender/Browns outfielder named Ned Cuthbert hatched a plan to create the Browns 3.0. His employer was Christian Von der Ahe, a thirty-year-old German immigrant turned bar owner turned real-estate magnate. Cuthbert spent his shifts at Von der Ahe's Golden Lion Saloon, two blocks from Grand Avenue Park, talking up the glories of the sport, not-so subtly implying that his boss should buy the club. Von der Ahe knew nothing about baseball, but he could see that his establishment emptied when Browns games began, then refilled when they ended. "Why don't you bring your beer to them?" Cuthbert inquired. If Von der Ahe owned the team, he could sell beer to the fans not just before and after, but also during games.

In late 1881 Von de Ahe bought a controlling interest in the Browns for $1,800, something like $52,000 in today's money. As the lead investor in the Sportsmen's Park and Club Association, he also owned the team's playing field. And that right-field beer garden? Also his.

Cuthbert split time between manning the bar and building the new Browns. His best signing was a twenty-two-year old first plumber/first baseman named Charles Comiskey, who accepted $75 a month (during the season only) to relocate from Dubuque, Iowa. But Cuthbert preferred local players already known to fans. He inked the brothers Jack and Will Gleason (Jack was a part-time firefighter) and the rubber-armed glassblower/pitcher George "Jumbo" McGinnis, who stood 5'10" and weighed 179 pounds, almost identical to Tommy Edman's dimensions. The Browns pursued several St. Louisans who, according to the Post-Dispatch, "did not feel like accepting, not being inclined to enter base ball professionally." Cuthbert would serve as the new team's player-manager. At thirty-seven, he planned on doing more managing than playing.

Von der Ahe's masterstroke came that winter when he helped wrestle seven pro and semipro teams into a new professional league called the American Association. Three of the AA's teams -€” Cincinnati, Louisville, and St. Louis -€” were kept afloat by beer money. Not coincidentally, the AA announced that, unlike the rival National League, it would sell beer at games. AA owners also agreed to sell tickets for a quarter apiece, half of what National League teams charged, and to play games on Sundays.

Moralists blasted the AA for promoting drunkenness and social disorder. St. Louis newspapers, those engines of civic boosterism, insisted that the new, new Browns was a clean organization. Von der Ahe reinforced his team's upright image by retrofitting Grand Avenue/Sportsmen's Park with the ladies' pavilion and segregated "howlers" seats.

As the spring of 1882 neared it remained unclear as to who would actually play in the AA. The Brooklyn Atlantics joined the league, then dropped out, then rejoined before dropping out again. Buffalo cancelled its membership. A Washington, D.C., team owner played "will he won't he" until finally deciding he would not. The Baltimore Orioles (no relation to the current franchise) committed only at the last minute. Several of the AA's six remaining teams struggled to fill their rosters.

The Browns's biggest roster scare came in late March. Third baseman Jack Gleason retired after wrenching his knee at the engine house. He unretired a few weeks later. Von der Ahe catered to St. Louis's immigrants by signing the Irishman Thomas "Sleeper" Sullivan. "He is as good a catcher as there is," the Post-Dispatch crowed. "He is one of the heaviest batsmen in the country and a splendid base runner.... The Browns have got a valuable acquisition." Sullivan stood 5'7" tall and weighed 175 pounds.

In mid-March, with the weather warming, the AA announced an eighty-game schedule. The Browns entered a period that was more than a modern spring training but less than a real season, playing well-attended games against pickup squads; two local semipro clubs, the Standards and the Red Socks; and the National League's Detroit Wolverines (who folded in 1888).

"Base ball fever" (a thing even in 1882) gripped the city when the Eclipse pulled into town for a late-April exhibition. Fans expected a thrilling game. "The rival teams are of nearly equal weight, and rank about alike in the base ball army," the Globe-Democrat reported.

Louisville stomped the home team 15-3. "The Browns appeared like boys in comparison," one doubter complained. "The business men of St. Louis are admirers of the national game and would patronize it liberally, if the club managers would infuse a little interest into the game by procuring good men who are professional players."

(That's right. We're not even to opening, opening day and St. Louis baseball fans are complaining about cheapskate owners. "Wallet" in German is "Geldbörse," in case you want to post a clever "Dewallet/Von der...." comment below.)

On Sunday, April 30, in their final pre-AA tune-up, the Browns trounced the Standards 13-5 before a crowd of 2,400. There was no final trimming of the roster, no packing of trunks, no journey north from Florida. There was no sense that a new era, or really even a new season, was beginning. Players simply removed their baseball flannels and returned to their day jobs until their Tuesday afternoon game against the Eclipse.

Von der Ahe manufactured as much opening-day spectacle as possible. With neither Clydesdales nor Al Hrabosky at his disposal, he hired the city's most popular musical outfit, Postlewaite's Band, to parade through downtown to Sportsmen's Park's, where it would entertain fans with marches, waltzes, and quicksteps between innings. Local journalists boosted the spectacle. "[Tuesday's] game at Sportsmen's Park attracts more attention than any game which has taken place thus far during the season," exclaimed the Post-Dispatch. Here, the P-D used "season" in the calendar sense rather than a sporting one; the Browns began their 1882 "season" by playing the hometown Standards and other clubs. The AA season was just part of a larger slate of contests.

(Details are sketchy, but the presence of Postlewaite's Band raises a fascinating possibility. Little is known about composer/bandleader Joseph W. Postlewaite even though his orchestra regaled innumerable civic events and elite gatherings, including the inaugural Veiled Prophet balls. When Postlewaite died in 1899 the Post-Dispatch reported, to everyone's shock, "He Was Really a Colored Man." Postlewaite's mother was probably Black, making him Black, under the day's racial codes. He likely started "passing" for white in the 1860s, perhaps because of an 1860 Missouri law expelling free Black people from the state. Newspaper reports do not say whether he personally directed his band at opening, opening day. If he did, his presence would have defied local segregation ordnances that, with a few brief exceptions, forbid Black people from attending Browns and Cardinals games until 1944.)

The Louisville players stepped off their train wearing new uniforms from the A. S. Spalding factory in Chicago. The Browns also wore new uniforms, tailored by a local company: white flannel shirts and knee breeches set off by brown stockings, belts, and caps. The team had abandoned its experiment of putting each player in a different-colored cap so ticketholders could identify them.

When the Eclipse thrashed the Browns a few days earlier, they did so without their star pitcher, Tony Mullane, who was sidelined with a twisted knee. Now Mullane was ready to go, giving Louisville such a clear advantage that, according to the Globe-Democrat, "there was not much money placed against the visitors."

Howlers jeered when Louisville took the field in their baggy grey flannels. Some players may have worn thin leather gloves, possibly fingerless, to slap down ground balls. Baseball purists considered gloves unmanly. Although the catcher's mask had been introduced, both teams' backstops probably received pitches without any protection.

The game's lone umpire, Charlie Houtz, an outfielder for the Standards, settled into position. Jack Gleason led off the game with an infield hit. His brother Will advanced him on a ground ball to Mullane. Oscar Walker flew out to left field. Charlie Comiskey came up with a two-out RBI opportunity. The future Hall of Famer punched one to the left-center fence, plating Gleason. Another two-out hit scored Comiskey.

Jumbo McGinnis entered the pitcher's square with a two-run cushion. He pitched masterfully, striking out seven and wriggling through some jams. He also threw six wild pitches. Observers blamed the new catcher, Sleeper Sullivan, who besides getting crossed up on the signs, yielded two passed balls. Six Browns committed errors, a not-unreasonable total for that era.

While Eclipse batters "sawed air," clutch hitting staked the Browns to a 9-1 seventh-inning lead. Their success dismayed the Eclipse fans gathered outside the Louisville Courier-Journal's office receiving telegraphed updates. "I can't understand it!" they cried. It was unthinkable that "a gang no tougher than the Browns could run up their score" on Tony Mullane.

A late Eclipse rally fell short. The Browns hung on for a 9-7 win. "A very creditable victory," the Post-Dispatch declared. "The Browns Pound the Life out of the Home Boys," the Courier-Journal groused. McGinnis went the distance. He would go on to start forty-four of the Browns's remaining seventy-nine AA games, throwing 388.1 innings and amassing a 25-18 record, for anyone interested in pitcher wins. A 2.55 FIP, for those who aren't.

Opening day was over. Most fans hadn't even considered it "opening day," much less "Opening Day." They filed out into the afternoon sun -€” it was a little after 6 p.m. -€” buoyed by the win. Many of them, especially those seated in the "howler" section, headed for Von der Ahe's Golden Lion Saloon to rehash the game. Ned Cuthbert most likely served their drinks.

The 1882 Browns finished fifth in the six-team AA, eighteen games behind the first-place Cincinnati Red Stockings. Before the 1883 season they signed Tony Mullane, who went 30-24 with a 1.88 ERA in 460.1 innings to lead the Browns to a second-place finish. Charlie Comiskey became the team's full-time manager in 1885 and guided it to four straight AA championships.

Sleeper Sullivan finished the 1882 season with a .181/.194/.229 line, giving him an OPS+ of 40. He played only nine more AA games before retiring with a career WAR of -2.7.

Teams came and went throughout the AA's ten-season run. The Pittsburgh Pirates jumped to the National League in 1886. The Cincinnati Red Stockings and Brooklyn Dodgers followed in 1889. In 1891, when the AA folded, Von der Ahe's Browns also joined the National League. More precisely, what was left of the Browns. During the AA's chaotic final weeks National League owners, sensing weakness, poached Comiskey and the team's other stars.

Von der Ahe's gutted franchise was a perennial NL bottom feeder. Sagging attendance left the owner scrambling to make payroll. His wife divorced him. The community soured on him. He grew paranoid and abusive. Other team owners considered him an embarrassment. The St. Louis-based Sporting News mocked him as "Von der Ha Ha."

In 1898 a fire destroyed Von der Ahe's stadium, saloon, and office. The National League seized control of the Browns, selling the team to brothers Frank and Stanley Robison for $40,000. Von der Ahe, broke and despondent, died in 1913 from cirrhosis of the liver. Charlie Comiskey arranged for his burial at St. Louis's Bellefontaine Cemetery.

The Robison brothers, determined to change their team's image, rebranded the St. Louis Brown Stockings as the St. Louis Perfectos. Snazzy though the name was, it was the team's new, cardinal-red socks that captured the public's fancy. They played the 1900 season, and every season since, as the St. Louis Cardinals.

Thus, Von der Ahe's American Association Browns begat the National League Browns, who begat the Perfectos, who begat the Cardinals we know today. An unbroken string of opening days links the franchise that takes the field Thursday with the one that defeated the Louisville Eclipse in May of 1882. Although less than three miles separate the site of old Sportsmen's Park from the current Busch Stadium, the modern Opening Day hoopla would be unfathomable to the bartenders, glassblowers, and firefighters who played in its first iteration. They would be stunned to see what their endeavors, which somehow seem both modest and audacious, have produced.

But now birth must yield to rebirth. Win or lose, Thursday will be one of 2023's greatest days. I will sneak out of work to soak up every iota of pomp beaming through my television. Yet a tiny part of me will long to hear Postlewaite's Band and the howlers in the outfield, and to absorb the atmosphere from a time when Opening Day was just opening day.