Grave Story: Gustave Gruner (1847-1909)

Here lies Gustave Gruner, who for a brief time was a baseball owner. How brief? About three days in 1899. Still, that’s enough to make Gruner a part of the St. Louis Cardinals ownership chain.

Gustave Adolph Gruner was born on December 3, 1847 in Ittlingen in Baden-Württemberg, Germany. He and his family emigrated to the United States in 1857. His older brother Philip started what became known as Philip Gruner & Bros. Lumber Co. in 1858. Gustave and his younger brother Louis would also become executives in the company.

At some point in time, Gruner became a director of the St. Louis Browns baseball club, founded and operated by Chris Von der Ahe. Von der Ahe hasn’t been given enough credit for his baseball career. The first time I’d come across him, he was written off as a ignorant boob who started a baseball team with no idea of how the game worked. And while it’s true that he wasn’t a baseball savant, he was an incredibly sharp businessman who helped found the American Association and guide it to become a legitimate contender to the National League. The Browns were one of the top teams in the AA and finished first each season from 1885 through 1888. I would guess he’d be considered the Charlie Finley of his era, with all the positive and negative connotations that the comparison brings.

Gustave Gruner is buried with his wife Amy at Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis.

The following couple paragraphs are a massive simplification of what happened, because Chris Von der Ahe’s story will have to wait until another day. I’m trying to get to Gruner’s small-but-not-insignificant role in Cardinals history. But to sum up, Von der Ahe had run out of money by 1888 or so, when his personal habits combined with some faulty business decisions to leave him in financial shambles. In 1889, after a number of court battles, the Browns were put up for auction to help pay off his debts.

On March 14, the following happened: “G.A. Gruner, treasurer of the Phil Gruner & Brothers Lumber Company, of this city [St. Louis], representing the creditors and bondholders of the Sportsmans’ Park and Club, bought the St. Louis baseball club at public auction at noon today for $33,000. Gruner was one of a committee of three appointed by the bondholders at a meeting last Friday to bid on the club to the extent of $35,000 if necessary. He and James M. Sullivan, representing the creditors, and Gustave Niemann, with August Gehner & Co., representing Edward Becker, were the only bidders.

“Buyer Gruner said after the sale, ‘I bought the property for the creditors and the bondholders. My claim against the property for the lumber is in the neighborhood of $4,000.’

“The sale conveys all the Sportsmans’ Park and Club property, with its rights, privileges and franchises. This includes its franchise of the National League and American Association of Professional Baseball Clubs… It is reported that outside magnates will buy the club from the bondholders.”

Here’s where it gets a little confusing. Edward Becker, who lost out to Gruner, was a Browns shareholder who had lent money to Von der Ahe repeatedly as the owner’s financial world fell apart. It was known at the time that he was working with Frank Robison, who along with his brother Stanley owned the Cleveland Spiders.

On March 17, the Browns creditors held a sale for control of the team. Becker and Frank Tate, a St. Louis theater owner, made bids, with Becker’s $40,000 price winning the day. However, it was known that by selling the team to Becker, Gruner and the other creditors actually sold the club to Robison. Becker made himself a vice president of the new St. Louis franchise, which was renamed the Perfectos, but Robison was the president.

The National League, by the way, didn’t have a problem with the same person owning two teams simultaneously and let the same thing happen between the Brooklyn Superbas and Baltimore Orioles. Unsurprisingly, the consequence of “syndicate baseball” was that the owners put all the good players on one team and left the scrubs with the other. All of Cleveland’s talent was sent to St. Louis (including Patsy Tebeau and Ed McKeon), and the 1899 Cleveland Spiders went 20-134 before they were contracted out of existence. That fiasco ended syndicate baseball. The Perfectos, despite the influx of talent from Cleveland, had a disappointing season and were renamed the Cardinals for 1900.

Back to Gruner. His three-day stint as a baseball owner netted he and his fellow creditors $7,000. In 2020 dollars, that is approximately $217,000. Presumably, he made back his money for the lumber that went into Sportsmans’ Park. With that transaction handled, his association with baseball comes to an end, though I did find a little more information about his life.

Gruner married Amy Millow on January 22, 1879, and they had anywhere from seven to ten children together. (Reports vary. He may have had children from a previous marriage, but Ancestry only lists the one marriage.) He stayed in the family business, surviving both his brothers Philip (who died in 1898) and Louis (1907). Gustave Gruner died on May 28, 1909, near his winter home in Richmond, Va., after being in failing health from a kidney ailment for more than a year. He spent more than 40 years in the lumber business and had served as president of the family company from 1898 until his death. He is buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis.

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