George L. Herancourt: Baseball, Beer & Cincinnati
Updated: Mar 19, 2020
While researching the history of Lick Run I became familiar with curious story of George L. Herancourt, the son of “beer barron” George M. Herancourt who founded one of the city’s oldest breweries. It’s a story that combines two things Cincinnatians hold dear – baseball and beer, into a tale of machiavellan politics in the 1880’s when professional baseball was still in its infancy. It’s a story however, that did not end well for the young Herancourt. George L. Herancourt was born in 1856, one of eight children in Barbara and George M. Herancourt’s family. He grew up very comfortably in a large home located in Brighton not far from the sprawling GM Herancourt Brewery at the eastern end of Lick Run Valley near the present day Western Hills Viaduct. At the time of his father’s death George had earned a law degree and was a wealthy 24 year -old vice president of the family's expansive brewery operation presided over by his older brother Louis. George was clearly smart and also very ambitious with an interest in building his own commercial empire.
Herancourt saw an opportunity emerging in 1881 in the form of baseball. Baseball was not yet a “big business” nor did the term “major league baseball “ even exist though the National Association , established in 1876, had made enough headway toward the concept, that it was typically referred to in the sports pages as “The League”. In 1881 the Red Stockings slid into bankruptcy leaving baseball fans in Cincinnati without a team. Saddled with debt, the club had also been kicked of the National Association at the conclusion of the 1880 season for refusing to abide by league rules that among other things banned selling beer and playing on Sundays, practices frowned upon by many native-born protestants. The German immigrant population of Cincinnati however, saw nothing wrong with either. In fact Cincinnati’s Germans viewed Sundays as a family day of rest and recreation in which picnics, beer gardens, and ball games were perfectly legitimate pastimes, a belief not shared by a segment of city’s native born, largely protestant power structure.
Harencourt saw the bankrupt ball club as an opportunity and as part of a small group of investors paid off the team’s debt while also conspiring with baseball clubs in five other cities to create a new league, the American Association. As part of the new ownership group, the one thing George Herancourt could bring to the table was money, something that Justus Thorner and OP Caylor also members of the group lacked. Thorner and Caylor were both baseball men with experience and contacts particularly in Cincinnati that Herancourt and other money men like Aaron Stern, a clothing merchant and John McLean the publisher of the Cincinnati Enquirer were missing. Amazingly this diverse assortment of partners succeeded in fielding a brand new ball club and helping to organize a new league in time for the 1882 season. The partnership however, was a tenuous one, that unraveled into complete disfunction.
The creation of the new league was paramount to the Red Stocking’s rebirth, so as the new partnership group was organizing, representatives of six teams including Harencourt were meeting in Cincinnati to hammer out an agreement on the shape of the new league. One component of the constitution that was likely a key to Herancourt’s business ambitions, was a provision backed by the Red Stockings and the St. Louis Browns permitting the sale of beer and Sunday play. The Cincinnati club argued the sale of beer was an important component of making their new venture profitable, not surprising with Herancourt directly involved in negotiating the league's constitution, after all he was the vice president of a large family owned brewery. Once the alcohol provision was adopted, the American Association became known as the "beer and whiskey league" and branded as the working man's league, though alcohol and cigars were barred from the grandstands in an attempt to create an atmosphere more friendly to women.
Herancourt furthered his business ambitions by making a significant investment in the oyster packing firm of Fick & Chase. At first glance that may seem an odd choice unless you understand that in the 19th century oysters were considered a cheap working class food often consumed in saloons and ballparks.[i] While not quite the business visionary as Carnegie, Rockefeller or JP Morgan he believed in a powerful combination of beer, baseball and...yes, oysters !
All appeared to be coming together for Harencourt, when the American Association began league play in the summer of 1882. For the Red Stockings led by player manager Pop Synder, their inaugural season was a rousing success with a 55-25 record, taking first place as the American Association’s champions. The club also realized a considerable net profit of $15,000 in their first year of operation. The beginning of the season however, did not go well for the Red Stockings creating some anxiety especially for the mercurial Justus Thorner. Thorner who had a reputation for combativeness essentially walked away from the ball club out of frustration not anticipating the Red Stocking's strong finish. It should be noted Thorner also made a living as a salesman for the GM Herancourt Brewery.
As the season ended, a bitter Thorner, took legal action against the Red Stockings filing a petition to dissolve the club. He alleged that as a partner he was being excluded from management of the Red Stockings and was going to be denied a share of the season’s profits. Thorner singled out Herancourt in the suit asking that a receivership be established to distribute the 1882 profits upon the team’s dissolution. In December a judge denied Thorner’s request to dissolve the club based on Herancourt's argument that Thorner never was part of the ownership group having never actually exchanged any money for a share of the ownership. Thorner he argued, had simply signed the ownership agreement as his own ( Herancourt's) agent and had no rights as an owner.[ii] This was just the first battle in the war between Thorner and Herancourt that would unfold over the next several years.
Embolden by his success with the Red Stockings, Herancourt decided to next try his hand at politics, running as a Democrat for the office of city treasurer. In 1883, less than a year after launching the Reds, George Herancourt won the treasurer’s race. His victory seemed to herald a new rising star in Cincinnati with the 27 year-old Herancourt an owner of a championship baseball club, treasurer of the city of Cincinnati, Vice President of Brewery and a major shareholder in the oyster packing firm of Fisk & Chase.
The jubilation however, that accompanied his win at the ballot box was short lived. Before his first year in office was over, Herancourt found himself engaged in a heated dispute with the mayor and members of city council. Herancourt had brashly moved $50,000 dollars of city money from the Third National Bank to a new city account in the German National Bank of which his cousin, John Hauck was President.[iii] The move while roundly criticized was not deemed illegal but remained a point of controversy through the rest of his term in office.
During the 1883 season the Red Stockings turned in a disappointing third place finish despite spending a significant amount of money to upgrade their players, but it was the post season that proved to be interesting as young Herancourt moved to take control of the Reds . In Oct. 1884 the Cincinnati Enquirer reported that Herancourt bought out two of his partners giving him controlling interest in the club though many believed he significantly overpaid for it. The paper also noted he planned to convert the Reds into a joint stock company capitalized at $40,000. Herancourt also was accumulating debt and enemies adding another powerful foe in the form of John McLean, the publisher of the Enquirer.
McLean was no friend of Herancourt and was further alienated when Hernacourt moved to hire O.P. Caylor as the Red Stockings new manager. Caylor a well known baseball figure in Cincinnati had formerly worked for McLean as his star sports writer but when Caylor quit and took a job at a rival paper, The Cincinnati Commercial the two became bitter enemies. When Herancourt hired Caylor as the Red Stockings manager hoping to improve their on the field performance, he earned McLean's everlasting animosity.
The birth of an alternative third league, the Union League, opened the door for Mclean's and Thorner's return to baseball and as it turned out, an opportunity to take revenge on a common enemy, George Herancourt . McLean and George Gerke, another brewery owner put up the money to establish a Union League baseball team in Cincinnati, the Outlaw Reds, with Justus Thorner as their front man. It wasn't enough however for Thorner and McLean to just compete against the Red Stockings for fans and notoriety, they actively plotted to undermine Herancourt's Red Stockings. McLean and Thorner first move was to successfully to negotiate a lease making the Bank Street Grounds, the home field of the new Outlaw Reds for the 1884 season which had been the Red Stockings home field for the previous two years.They also secretly negotiated agreements to block the use of other existing fields by the Red Stockings leaving the club homeless. Left with no other option, Herancourt was forced to build a new facility known as American Park on the future site of Crosley Field at great expense to himself.
The new ball park only added to Herancourt’s growing financial problems. He long had a reputation of as a spendthrift, known “to spend hundreds of dollars in a night” according to the Enquirer, which noted he had “dissipated a fortune of several hundred thousand dollars” in just a few years. This behavior likely added to the opposition he faced running for second term as the city’s treasurer. The opposition included the Cincinnati Commercial Gazette that argued Herancourt sought a second term as city treasurer for “the benefit of the German National Bank”, the bank over which his cousin John Hauck presided.[iv] Not surprisingly Herancourt was defeated in the 1885 election deepening his financial distress.
According to the Enquirer rumors were circulating that “ Ex-City Treasurer George L. Herancourt had assigned all his property to his brothers and was financially in a bad way”. The paper further explained his “baseball venture has gone badly” as had his investment in the oyster firm of Fick & Chase.[v] It was rumored that Justus Thorner had used contacts to convince a Baltimore firm that supplied Fick & Chase with oysters to stop selling oysters to Herancourt's Cincinnati firm.
By 1886 Herancourt was facing multiple lawsuits over the debts he was accumulating. In one case, FB Mallory, the Baltimore oyster business, alleged fraud had been committed when a $4,260 judgement against Herancourt could not be collected, arguing Harencourt's assets had been illegally transferred to his cousin John Hauck.[vi]
After the end of the 1886 season, harried by creditors, his reputation destroyed, George Herancourt handed over the Red Stockings to Hauck who in return paid off his cousin's debts. [vii] A short time later Herancourt disappeared from Cincinnati’s streets, his whereabouts unknown. In the Winter of 1888 the Enquirer reported Herancourt was living in Los Angles leading a starkly different life as a laborer working for a dollar a day, noting that Herancourt claimed he was “in better health and better satisfied “ with life than his days in Cincinnati.
As a postscript to this story the Enquirer reported in 1896 that Herancourt was rumored to be living in San Francisco “rapidly accumulating a fortune”. [viii] John Hauck as majority owner of the Reds, turned over operation of the club to his son Louis and at the conclusion of the season sold the Red Stockings back to former owner Aaron Stern. The club continued to play at American Park as part of American Association averaging 2,000 fans before rejoining the National League in 1890. The Outlaw Reds simply could not compete against the more popular Red Stockings, folding at the conclusion of the 1884 season after which Justus Thorner left baseball.
[i]The demographic make up of St. Louis was similar to that of Cincinnati with a large German working class [ii]Cincinnati Commercial, December 31, 1882. [iii]Cincinnati Commercial Gazette, June 9, 1883. [iv]Ibid, March 25, 1885. [v]Cincinnati Enquirer, December 27, 1885 [vi]Cincinnati Enquirer, March 27,1886 [vii] Cincinnati Enquirer Oct. 13, 1886 [viii]Enquirer 28, 1896