Henry Oberbeck Recovers in Contract Lawsuit Against St. Louis Browns

Oberbeck v. Sportsman’s Park & Club Ass’n, 17 Mo.App. 310 (Mo. App., 1885)

What happened?

Henry Oberbeck had a relatively uneventful career in professional baseball, playing for four teams over two seasons as a third baseman, outfielder and pitcher.  At the plate, he compiled a .176 lifetime batting average in 238 at bats and was 0-5 with an earned run average of 5.30 on the mound.  

Oberbeck was signed to a contract with the St. Louis Browns that would pay him a total of $785 (approximately $18,255 today) for the 1883 season lasting from May 23rd through October 31st.  By June 23rd, he had appeared in four games as an outfielder and was hitless in 14 at bats.

He was then informed that the Browns no longer needed his services and was discharged, having been paid only $150 of the agreed upon contract amount.  The Browns refused to pay Oberbeck the remaining salary, prompting him to sue for the balance.

The Browns claimed that there were actually two separate contracts signed, the first of which had not been approved by the American Association.  They claimed that the second contract included the right on the part of the Browns to terminate employment at any time.  Oberbeck denied he had executed the second contract and relied on the fact that the first contract did not allow the Browns to unilaterally cancel his contract.

The case proceeded to trial and the jury was instructed that if they found Oberbeck had signed the second contract, he would not be entitled to recover.  If they instead found that Oberbeck had not signed the second contract, he would be assessed damages in the amount of $635, less any amounts that he had earned or might have earned “by reasonable diligence” between the date of discharge and October 31, 1883.

Who won?

The jury awarded damages to Henry Oberbeck having found that Oberbeck had not signed the second contract.

The appeal

The Browns appealed, claiming that the court erred in its jury instructions by failing to include the possibility that both contracts could be construed together as part of the same contract. 

Who won the appeal?

Henry Oberbeck.  The appellate court found that the jury had been instructed properly and adopted plaintiff’s version of the transaction, which was “borne out by sufficient evidence.”

Oberbeck played professionally in 1884 for the Baltimore Monumentals and Kansas City Cowboys of the Union Association.  He was out of professional baseball by the time this case was decided.

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