Sunday, March 15, 2015

"The Dreary Refrain" - Major League Spring Training Comes to New Jersey

Separated by over five centuries, two classic poems, Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" and T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland" both begin by discussing the month of April.  For Chaucer, April seems to be a hopeful time, prompting journeys of thanksgiving, but Eliot takes a far more negative view, calling it "the cruelest month," a mixture of "memory and desire."  Everyone who loves base ball will instinctively identify with the more positive Chaucerian view because no matter how bleak the prospective reality, every team, player and fan looks forward with anticipation to the new season. The anticipation actually begins with spring training, extending backward from April into the harsher months of February and March.  Like all teams, vintage base ball clubs experience these same feelings as they themselves prepare for the new season usually during weekly March practices, weather and field conditions permitting.  For 2015, the Flemington Neshanock have moved their preseason practices slightly south to historic Allaire State Park.  Part of this is for relative convenience, but the primary reason is due to the efforts of Russ McIver and others to form the Bog Iron Boys, a new vintage club which calls Allaire home.

Charles Ebbets on taking over as Brooklyn club president in January of 1898

Allaire State Park is located in Monmouth County where, like most places in the southern half of the state, significant base ball activity began right after the Civil War.  Nineteenth century base ball at Allarie, was not, however limited to amateur play as the community was also the 1898 spring training site for the Brooklyn Base Ball Club (eventually the Dodgers), during the first of Charles Ebbets' 27 seasons as club president.  I first learned this while researching my essay on the Brooklyn owner for our Ebbets Field book, but was recently surprised to learn the Brooklyn players were not the only major leaguers to train in the Garden State that year.  Of the 12 National League teams (the only major league in 1898), three or 25% of the total prepared for the upcoming season in New Jersey, Brooklyn at Allaire, the Giants at nearby Lakewood and the Phillies at Cape May.  The three were certainly going against the tide as seven of the remaining eight trained in the south with only Washington staying close to home in the more temperate climes of the nation's capital.

Brooklyn Eagle headline - as the Brooklyn club heads to spring training in 1896

By 1898 spring training was hardly a new concept since as Peter Morris noted in Game of Inches, more than 25 years earlier, the Boston Red Stockings held "extensive" in door exercises until the weather permitted them to move outside.  Given the current New England winter, a similar approach in 2015 would get the Red Sox on the field around Memorial Day.  If the program of another team, the 1875 New Haven Club, is any indication, such in door work typically consisted of running, gymnastics on the horizontal bar and vaulting horse as well as exercises with Indian clubs.  According to Inches, one of the first southern training camps was held by the 1888 Washington club in Jacksonville, Florida.  Florida, however, was hardly the venue of choice with other National League clubs opting for North Carolina, Texas, Georgia, not to mention long time favorite Hot Springs, Arkansas.  Player conditioning going into spring training was also very different as seen in the 1896 Brooklyn Daily Eagle headline reporting that all of the Brooklyn players headed south overweight.

Brooklyn's 1898 spring training headquarters - Brooklyn Daily Eagle 

Charles Ebbets ascension to the Brooklyn club presidency occurred early in January of 1898 after the death of Charles Byrne, club president since the team's inception in 1883.  Although Ebbets himself had also been with the club since the beginning, he was immediately faced with more than the usual number of challenges, especially the pressing need for a new and more convenient ball park.  Since spring training sites were usually chosen on a year-to-year basis, the question of whether to return to the south again in 1898 was also both important and time sensitive.  While the Eagle  initially predicted the team would go south, this quickly changed when on January 13th, the paper said such a move was by "no means certain," especially because team captain Mike Griffin and manager William Barnie were opposed to the idea.  The primary reason for their opposition was the belief that the sharp change from the heat of the south to northern cold was too hard on pitcher's arms.  Ebbets himself apparently felt physical problems could be avoided by mandate, insisting that "no sore arms will be permitted."  When the club's leadership finally decided to go to Allaire, the Eagle, apparently caught up in the optimism of new ownership, called the choice a "master stroke."

Training regiment of trainer Jack McMasters - Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Although Ebbets changed the club's new training site, he continued Bryne's practice of hiring Jack McMasters, a college trainer, to help whip (at least figuratively) the Brooklyn players into shape.  Byrne had begun engaging McMasters  back in 1886 when standard base ball wisdom thought trainers unnecessary even though they had become common place in other sports.  McMasters was, therefore, part of the party of 20 which arrived at the tiny local train station on March 16th supposedly welcomed by "the entire population of Allaire, numbering 32 all told, not to mention one mangy dog and one antiquated cat."  The team's opening practice was delayed, first because the trunk with bats, balls and uniforms was stuck in transit and then because a railroad worker wouldn't release it without payment which was also delayed.  Fortunately the missing check arrived the next day allowing the beginning of a training regimen which included five mile walks, gymnastic exercises led by McMasters and hitting, fielding and throwing drills.  Not long after camp opened, the club began the standard routine of daily inter-squad games, but instead of the usual team names of "regulars" and "yannigans," the Brooklyn teams were named after Eastern Park, their current home grounds and Washington Park, their once and soon to be future home.  The Eagle writer's somewhat derisive description of the crowd at the station didn't extend to the village itself which he called "a cosy spot," one, he predicted would become "one of the prettiest summer and winter resorts in the state."

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - March 20,1898

If Allaire was a hidden gem, nearby Lakewood, the site of the Giants' training camp had already experienced the "boom" predicted for its neighbor.  The New York party of 20 was housed at the Lakewood hotel, described as the winter headquarters of Tammany Hall, the New York City political machine.  The Tammany connection helps explain the Giants choice of Lakewood since Andrew Freedman, the controversial and unpopular club owner, had deep Tammany roots.  The 1898 visit marked a return to what the Giants owner considered the "only place suitable for training purposes," even though it was reportedly expensive.  Perhaps some of the cost was offset by not hiring a trainer which the club felt was unnecessary, a sentiment apparently not shared by the New York Sun writer covering the team.  However, with the exception of the lack of organized gymnastic exercises, practice sessions were not significantly different than those at Allaire.  In spite of the short distance, no exhibition games were played between the two rivals.

Controversial New York Giant owner Andrew Freedman 

Much further south, at least within New Jersey, the Philadelphia Phillies traveled by rail to their spring training headquarters at the Aldine Hotel in Cape May.  Relatively large crowds at the intervening stations suggested to the Philadelphia Inquirer writer that "south Jersey was more interested in the team than Philadelphia itself."  Like Brooklyn, Philadelphia included a trainer in its party of 20 and similar to the Brooklyn experience, practice was delayed due to the late arrival of the trunk with the uniforms.  Fortunately some players had brought old uniforms so the first practice of the year was held in old Philadelphia uniforms plus some apparently "borrowed" from the St. Louis, Richmond and Columbus clubs.  After practice trainer, Mike Scanlon shepherded the squad into  "a luxuriously furnished 'sweat room," supposedly warmed to 115 degrees where the players received rub downs.  Not in camp and unable to receive such attention was future Hall of Famer, Napoleon Lajoie who was holding out over the "spirituous liquor" clause in his contract.  Apparently the hard hitting second baseman was to receive a $2100 salary plus another $300 so long as his "hitting" was confined to a base ball.  Hold out or not, the Inquirer reporter claimed Lajoie would sign the clause or not play and apparently he did.  In camp, but also unhappy was Kid Elberfield who objected to a local man calling him a "slob."  When the Phillie player gave chase, the man ran into a local butcher shop and grabbed a meat cleaver which failed to halt the embattled Phillie who "pounded him heavily."

Kid Elberfield later in his career with the New York Yankees 

Unfortunately, but probably not unexpectedly, spring training in New Jersey was literally a wash out due to rain and cold weather.  The Giants were so limited in their practice time, they resorted to something called "porch work," while three inches of snow forced Brooklyn to limit their last practices to mental exercises at "theoretical baseball."  To the south in Cape May, 40 degree temperatures put "top coats in heavy demand" amidst "the dreary refrain" of "rain, rain, rain."  Terming the experience a "gigantic fiasco," the Sun reporter claimed Giant players felt the prior year was equally unproductive.  Interestingly the lack of training didn't lead to a bad start for any of the three clubs.  Over their first 20 games, each team was around .500 with New York at 12-8, Brooklyn at 9-11 and Philadelphia an even 10-10.  None of them, however, enjoyed especially successful seasons.  Philadelphia and New York came in 6th and 7th respectively while Brooklyn was a distant 10th (out of 12).  Faced with serious on-the-field issues, Ebbets eventually took over as manager and "led" the club to a 38-68 record proving he was no Connie Mack.  All three owners, even the notoriously stubborn Freedman, apparently saw the light as the clubs headed south the following year.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

In Search of Charles Ebbets

Research for the Ebbets biography began in January by working through over 40 years of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.  The Eagle was a primary source for my other two Dodger books which, at the time, meant scrolling through microfilm at the Alexander Library at Rutgers.  The relatively convenient access at Rutgers was a plus, but the recent, highly user friendly online access to the entire run of the paper through the Brooklyn Public Library was a God send.  Working at rate of roughly a year per day, I was able to search for Ebbets and related references from 1883 to 1925 in just over a month.  The end result was a huge amount of material which will be the starting point for more specific research on the key issues of Ebbets life in baseball.  The process also led me to a wide range of interesting items including an account of a 1915 speech Ebbets supposedly made on the history of base ball.  I posted the below article on Facebook which led John Thorn (Official Historian of MLB) to comment that the quotes were like Alexander Cartwright's plaque in the Hall of Fame - they are all incorrect.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - Mary 28, 1915

For me, the article is somewhat indicative of the challenge in finding the real Charles Ebbets or, for that matter, any historical figure.  It's hard to understand how Ebbets got it so wrong, not just in comparison to what we know today, but even in relationship to the "knowledge" of his time.  Ebbets never claimed to be a historian and it's unreasonable to expect him to have known about the Magnolia Club, the match games of October 1845 or the reported formation of a base ball club in Brooklyn as early as 1846.  There is, however, every reason to believe Ebbets was well aware of what we now call the Doubleday myth as well as the Knickerbockers to take just two examples.  Just two years earlier in anticipation of the opening of Ebbets Field in April of 1913, the Eagle published a series of articles called "The History of Baseball in Brooklyn," supposedly written by Charles Ebbets and edited by Thomas Rice, long time Superbas beat writer.  Based on the style of the early articles, it appears Rice may have done some of the writing as well as editing.  But regardless of who actually wrote it, the Doubleday story is included without any mention of some unnamed civil engineer inventing the base ball diamond.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - July 6, 1846

While the Knickerbockers were also mentioned in these articles which Ebbets must have read, even if he didn't write them, he also had much more direct knowledge of the pioneering Manhattan club.  The Ebbets family dates back to about 1700 in New York City with multiple branches and deep roots in the city.  Two older cousins, Arthur and Edward Ebbets, were actually members of the Knickerbockers before leaving for California during the late 1840's gold rush.  Their father, Daniel Ebbets Jr., often mistaken for Charles father, was an officer at the bank where Alexander Cartwright worked.  Given his ultimate career path, it's almost impossible to believe the game wasn't one of Charles' childhood interests and that he didn't hear about the Knickerbockers from his family.  It's hard to know if Ebbets audience and those who read the Eagle account of the speech thought his comments as far off base as we know they are today, but for me what's important is that the difference between his probable knowledge and what the article says he knew/said is somewhat symbolic of what seems to be a gap between Ebbets' public image and the real person.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - January 3, 1913

From his "salad days" with the Brooklyn club in the early 1880's through his taking over as club president in early 1898, almost every mention of Ebbets in the Eagle stresses his competence and reliability.  He was popular enough that the club and players played a special benefit game in 1897 for Ebbets' financial advantage, an idea wholeheartedly endorsed by Henry Chadwick himself.  After 1898, however, a somewhat different picture emerges, one quite similar to how the Brooklyn owner is usually portrayed today.  Among other things Ebbets is consistently described as one of the period's cheapest owners.  The most common contemporary source for this characterization are anecdotes repeated in Fred Leib's Baseball as I Have Known It.  Lieb was a well known sportswriter of the Deadball Era who went on to write multiple club histories as well as serving as correspondent for The Sporting News.  Yet I've seen at least once instance where modern research called into question the factual accuracy of some things in Lieb's book.  While financial return was clearly important to Ebbets as shown by his frequent comments that he was not in baseball for his health, there is ample evidence of his generosity and a willingness to reward good performance.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - September 4, 1897

Ebbets is also portrayed as a kind of clownish bumbler, one of the best examples is a well known story about a speech he gave at a December 1909 dinner honoring Pirate owner Barney Dreyfuss for the club's World Series championship.  According to the account in Frank Graham's The Brooklyn Dodgers: An Informal History, during a long winded dissertation, Ebbets proclaimed that "Baseball is still in its infancy," a remark which reportedly provoked heckling followed by gales of laughter which infuriated the short- tempered, sensitive Ebbets.  Graham went on to say that the writers "in their stories of the dinner quoted Charley," and the quote was definitely attributed to Ebbets by the Eagle for the rest of his life. Yet in reporting on the dinner the next day, the Eagle made no mention of the comment, rather stating that Giants owner, John T. Brush was originally supposed to speak on "Prosperity," but for some reason never made it to the dinner.  Ebbets was a last minute replacement and while unprepared "made a valiant effort to do justice to the subject." A sampling of other New York newspapers shows the Sun attributing the quote to Gary Herrmann, Reds owner and chair of the National Commission while both the Herald and the Tribune make no mention of it at all.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - January 3, 1911

Here again, the point is not whether Ebbets made the statement, it sounds like something he would have said, but rather the differences between the various accounts.  A big part of the issue, I think, is that Ebbets has seldom been a primary research target or at least not for a full length biography.  Researchers focused on other aspects of Dodgers history and other Deadball Era topics use original sources for their primary subjects, but rely, as they must, on books like those mentioned above.  That's not a criticism, there's really no choice unless the researcher is working without a deadline.  Lieb and Graham were both contemporaries of Ebbets, but their books provide no sources so its impossible to evaluate their accuracy.  Graham, in particular, includes large amounts of dialogue which it is highly unlikely he actually heard in person.  The challenge of how to use these sources is real and one I will have to deal with, but since this time Ebbets is the primary topic, the research, God willing, will produce a portrait as close as possible to the real person.  Stay tuned.   

Friday, February 13, 2015

Of Sacks and Suits

When Paul Zinn and I were collecting Ebbets Field memories from fans and players alike, one of our standard questions was, "What do you remember most about the ballpark?"  Almost invariably the response included the right field wall, especially the scoreboard with the Abe Stark sign.  Deeply ensconced in Ebbets Field lore, the famous sign can be seen at the bottom of the scoreboard in the below picture of the last Dodger game in Brooklyn.  Hitting the sign entitled the lucky player to a free suit at Stark's Brooklyn haberdashery, but according to the legend, it was an impossible feat either because Carl Furillo stood in front of the sign or because of the angle.  Like most legends the claim apparently isn't entirely accurate as Bob McGee in his book, The Greatest Ballpark Ever, wrote that Mel Ott hit the sign twice in 1931, the first year of the more intimate ballpark which most people remember.  According to McGee, the sign people remember also wasn't Stark's first attempt at publicity at the potential additional cost of free suits.  Supposedly the original sign went back to Ebbets Field's earlier days and was much larger, and therefore, more vulnerable.  An employee at Stark's store later recalled that the bigger sign was hit so often, he spent more time altering free suits for ball players than for paying customers.

Scoreboard at the end of the Dodgers last game at Ebbets Field

At least part of the reason the initial sign was so big was because Stark took over the space previously rented by the American Tobacco Company for its well known (at the time) Bull Durham tobacco ads which also offered an incentive for hitting the sign.  Apparently determined to build on a connection between the supposedly manly habit of smoking and the even more manly national game, beginning in 1911, the tobacco company erected "large wooden bulls" deep in the outfield with a $50 reward for hitting the beast.  The below ad which appeared in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle right around  Ebbets Field 1913 opening, gives a sense of the size of the signs.  The text claims that in 1912 some 211 major league players hit one of the signs, costing the company "a grand total of $10,550."  In addition 72 sacks of Bull Durham Tobacco (apparently a nickel bag) were awarded for home runs hit in parks with Bull Durham signs regardless of whether the ball hit the sign or not.  Fortunately for the company this was along time before more stringent truth in advertising requirements as the ad claims the company awarded 257,400 sacks for 3575 home runs hit in "regular league games."  According to Retrosheet, only 442 home runs were hit in all major league parks in 1912 without or without the signs.  Regardless of the ad's accuracy, the signs had some practical disadvantages as Peter Morris noted in Game of Inches that Shoeless Joe Jackson was knocked senseless after running into one in 1912.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - April 9, 1913

It's not clear if a stand alone "Bull" patrolled the outer reaches of old Washington Park, but with the opening of his new ballpark, however, Charles Ebbets clearly planned to maximize revenue as seven different companies advertised their wares in right field alone.  A 1922 article in the Eagle indicates that selling the ads on the walls fell within the purview of Harry M. Stevens contract to run the concessions at the new Brooklyn ballpark.  Given the size of the tobacco sign in the below picture of the 1913 opening exhibition with the Yankees, the unfriendly location for right handed hitters was the only significant factor limiting the number of batters hitting the "Bull."  That raises the question of the sign's placement in other parks and whether the location was random or by design.  If the tobacco company had their choice in Brooklyn, they may not have done the best job of scouting the Superbas' hitters (the only name used by the Eagle  for the Brooklyn ball club through at least 1925) as three of their best hitters, Zach Wheat, Jake Daubert and the one and only Casey Stengel were all left handed.

Opening exhibition game at Ebbets Field - April 5, 1913

It should surprise, no one, therefore that Stengel was the first player achieve the feat on April 30, 1913 when he hit "a fast shoot from [Red] Ames" of the Giants, "impinging the 'bull' sign."  Stengel had quite a series against the once and future National League champions, compiling seven hits including a home rune which presumably also earned him 72 bags of the popular tobacco.  Stengel wasted no time in repeating his performance as a week later, on May 6th, he again earned "fifty good hard dollars off the payroll of the tobacco company."   Both hits went for doubles and Stengel must have wasted no time on the base paths as in early evidence of the unique nature of the Ebbets Field right field wall, both hits "bounded almost back to second."  Although one came with none out and the other with just one, in neither case did Stengel cross the plate.  As hot a hitter as Stengel must have been that month, he was not alone as less than a week later future Hall of Famer, Zack Wheat quickly joined the club and earned his $50 as part of an un-Deadball like 14 hit Brooklyn attack.  Their just deserts weren't a long time in coming as on Saturday, May 24th, umpire Hank O'Day presented the two men with their checks.  By that time the opposition had also gotten into the act when Martin Berghammer of the Reds joined what was rapidly becoming a not so exclusive club.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - May 25, 1913

It's not clear how long the Bull Durham sign remained on the Ebbets Field wall as there doesn't seem to be much further mention of it in the Eagle.  At the end of the 1917 season, however, the paper provided a summary of all the National League "Bull's eye's."  According to the article, the signs and rewards had been expanded beyond major league parks with "hits' in 100 different parks that cost the company $5050 so the feat was accomplished 101 times only 14 of which took place in National League parks.  Only two of these took place in Brooklyn both by visiting players with 11 accomplished at Baker Bowl in Philadelphia.  The Eagle took no notice of one of the hits with the other rating mention most likely only because the lead off hitter did the deed.  At some point after that Stark took over the space and it's no surprise a sign reportedly 150 feet wide covering the wall top to bottom cost more than its share of suits.  Nothing has been found about how the players felt about the exchange of suits for money, but 1917 newspaper ads offered suits at a price ranging form $12.75 to $17.50 so the cash reward sounds like the better deal.  Further recollections in McGee's book claims Stark tried to get away with providing cheap suits at least when the sign was bigger and the potential cost greater.  

Brooklyn Daily Eagle  - April 15, 1917

Regardless of whether the sign was in place in 1920, Mr. Stark was offered a far more unique advertising opportunity when Brooklyn attorney, Samuel Lagusker attended a September 12 game resplendent in "a new suit of shepherd's plaid."  No spendthrift, or at least not initially, Mr. Lagusker plunked down $1.75 for a box seat, doubtless after the best Charles Ebbets had to offer.  Unfortunately when the Superbas fan leaned forward in response to a call from a friend, a rusty nail "leaped for the coat and bayoneted it."  Consultation with Mr. Lagusker's tailor confirmed the worse, the suit was beyond repair and was donated to a war relief organization.  Not yet satisfied, however, and able to act as his own counsel, the Brooklyn attorney field a "suit over suit."  Apparently confusing the value of his damaged apparel with a hit on the "Bull" Durham sign, Lagusker sought $50 from Charles Ebbets who was only willing to pay for repairs, but not for a new suit at that price.  While no information has been found about the resolution of the weighty legal matter, the story would have been a golden opportunity for Abe Stark to promote his suits as up to the challenge of any nails at Ebbets Field or at least offer free repair of a damaged suit purchased at his store if accompanied by a ticket stub.

Cookie Lavagetto's historic 1947 World Series hit

When all was said and done, however, Abe Stark  advertised on the Ebbets Field wall to the very end as confirmed by the picture from the 1957 finale.  Interestingly though there does appear to be at least one gap in the record.  The above picture of Cookie Lavagetto's dramatic ending to Bill Bevens 1947 World Series no-hitter, doesn't seem to include the Stark sign at the base of the scoreboard.  In fact, it almost looks like the sign has been painted over or some how covered up.  It may have been some kind of accommodation to a World Series hitting background or perhaps Stark, while willing risk giving an opposing National League player a free suit, wanted no part of a triumphant Yankee showing up at his store to claim his prize.  

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Winter Carnival comes to Brooklyn

Had winter storm Juno not intervened, I would have spent Tuesday night at a college basketball game which was to start at 9:00 p.m., probably would not have ended until about 11;00 so that it would have been after midnight when I finally got home - late hours for this senior citizen.  It's part of a trend that seems to have begun about ten years ago where college football and basketball games start at unusual and sometimes ungodly hours.  Almost without exception there is a one word explanation - television.  Television has, of course, been part of sports for a long time, but it feels like the past decade or so has seen television take over starting times with little, if any, consideration for those actually attending the game.  Sometimes there is even a double whammy, sitting through a night football game in December is bad enough, but it becomes even worse due to lengthy and seemingly unending television time outs.  There's an obvious one word explanation for this as well - money.  The amounts paid by television for broadcasting rights are so huge that they dwarf ticket revenue.  Base ball is also subject to this trend, a major difference from the way things were back in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Charles Byrne - President of the Brooklyn Baseball Association - 1883-1897

From the very beginnings of major league baseball and well into the 20th century, gate receipts dominated club revenues, the same way television money does today.  It's not surprising, therefore, that back in the Deadball Era, for example, far more consideration was given to the fan putting down his 50 or 75 cents.  Starting times were set in the late afternoon to accommodate middle class office workers and games typically lasted 90 minutes or so allowing the clientele to get home in time for dinner.  The importance of gate receipts also helped drive the priorities of club owners.  One example was the attention paid to the schedule with every magnate (contemporary term for an owner) clamoring for his share, if not more, of what were known as "plums" - Saturdays and holidays as well as games with the premier clubs which drew large crowds.  It's a tribute to the skills of Charles Ebbets of the Brooklyn club that he could single handily develop a schedule which left the owners satisfied or at least equally dissatisfied.  Because of the prevailing economics, rain outs were even more of a problem since the forced conversion of two games into a single admission doubleheader was a major revenue loss especially for financially marginal clubs.  It's no wonder some owners, regardless of their religious background, became unapologetic "sun worshipers."

Brooklyn Daily Eagle  - 1909

Regardless of the size of the gate receipts, however, home games were played no more than 70-80 days per year, leaving parks vacant over 75% of the time.  Not surprisingly club owners continually sought alternative admission charge worthy events to generate additional income such as the ice skating at Washington Park discussed in the last post.  In 1919, Charles Ebbets reached what was probably a new low, offering local automobile owners the opportunity to store their cars on the sacred sod of Ebbets Field during the winter, confirming, if any confirmation was necessary, the limited parking in the neighborhood.  Obviously the timing of the auto storage proposal was at least partially driven by the difficulty of finding outdoor events during the winter months.  Not long after base ball on ice went by the boards, Brooklyn owner, Charles Byrne decided to bring another winter sport to south Brooklyn.  As with ice base ball, the idea apparently came from a northern neighbor, this time from outside the United States, in Montreal, Canada.  Beginning in 1883, promoters in the Canadian city decided to use winter as a tourist attraction rather than an excuse to avoid the city.  Through 1889, winter carnivals attracted numerous American tourists to Montreal, many of whom chartered special trains for the trip.

Montreal Winter Carnival

One of the events which apparently caught the fancy of the visiting Americans was tobogganing which by the winter of 1885-86 had been successfully transplanted to nearby Orange, New Jersey which, as anyone who has driven I280 in the winter time can testify, doesn't lack for hills.  Although located in Park Slope, Washington Park wasn't quite at that level or levels.  Bringing tobogganing to the home of Brooklyn's base ball club, meant "considerable expense" to construct a slide that started 10 feet above the steps at the 5th Avenue entrance.  Running some 400 feet, including a "declination" of half that distance, the 12 foot wide slide deposited riders on the 3rd Street side where they could begin the long drag back to the start.  Lit by electric lights as well as sometimes by the moon and the stars, the slide's surface had a base of blocks of ice, 10 inches thick which were covered with snow.  The always prudent Byrne also stored excess snow on a shaded portion of the grounds.   Open to the public on afternoons and evenings, admission cost 25 cents for adults and 15 cents for children, who were only admitted in the afternoon.  Recognizing that toboggans were probably not a standard household item in Brooklyn, 100 sleds were also available at 50 cents for the evening or afternoon.  Reportedly opening night on December 11, 1886 saw large crowds with Bryne himself enthusiastically helping people into the toboggans, especially when "so many pretty faces [were] present."

Brooklyn Daily Eagle  - 1-9-1919

New innovations seldom go smoothly and tobogganing in urban Brooklyn was no exception.  As with ice base ball, sufficient cold temperatures were essential and there was a five day gap between opening night and the second session.  Another problem (from Byrne's point of view) was the pricing as the 50 cent toboggan rental for a whole evening allowed five people to monopolize a sled for only 10 cents each.  The pricing problem was easily and quickly solved by changing to a per ride charge with tickets available at rates of 50 for $1.00 or 10 for 25 cents.  Addressing the weather was not so simple and by January 9th, the Eagle was warning Brooklynites to enjoy it while they could and a month later the season was declared almost over.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle  - 12-21-1886

However some in the Brooklyn Base Ball Association weren't ready to give up without a fight.  In December of 1887 it was announced that the tobogganing rights had been awarded to one Charles Ebbets.  While in the end Ebbets, like Byrne, couldn't overcome the climate issues, his marketing efforts anticipated his approach as president of the Brooklyn Dodgers for more than a quarter of a century.  Early in 1888 an article in the Eagle reported on an upcoming toboggan outing by the Nassau Athletic Club, an organization that Ebbets help found and lead for its brief existence.  Throughout his 15 year apprenticeship to Charles Byrne, Ebbets was a member of the local Elks Club, a Masonic Lodge, numerous bowling teams plus other social clubs, many of which would sponsor outings to both Washington Park and later Ebbets Field.  Ebbets also offered free admission plus four free toboggan rides to the students and teachers of school 39, symbolic of the many times, he would make his ball park available for free to good causes and/or provide free admission to Brooklyn games to groups of school children and similar groups.  The Brooklyn owner constantly looked for new paid uses for his ball park, but the tobogganing experience probably convinced him that winter events were a non-starter leading perhaps to his temporarily turning Ebbets Field into a parking lot.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

"If the Ice Permits"

The deep freeze which recently gripped the northern part of the country doubtless has many base ball players and fans, not to mention historians, thinking wistfully of warmer temperatures and the advent of a new season.   There was, however, a time when at least some base ball players welcomed colder temperatures because it meant they could get back on the field or at least the ice, in games that could only be played "if the ice permits" on frozen ponds and lakes.  As with everything else in base ball history, it's always risky to claim a "first," but one of the earliest reports of base ball on ice appeared in the New York Clipper during the 1860-61 "secession winter."  A brief  account in the January 19th edition of the paper said that on New Year's Day, two Rochester clubs, the Lone Star and Live Oak played a match on ice before 2500 people with the Lone Star Club prevailing 21-8.  Apparently intrigued by the idea, the writer challenged the New York clubs to hold a similar event at New York's Central Park so the upstate clubs would not be "ice-olated in this respect."

Washington Skating Club in action in south Brooklyn

A response wasn't long in coming, but from another quarter, nearby Brooklyn, then an independent city, where the enthusiasm for competitive base ball equaled, if not exceeded, its Manhattan roots. On February 4th, two well known Brooklyn clubs, the Atlantics and Charter Oak Clubs took the ice "upon what is known as Litchfield's pond" near 5th Avenue and 3rd Streets in south Brooklyn.  Understandably attracted by what the reporter claimed was the first such game "in our latitude," a reported crowd of 12000 including 1500 ladies lined the "abutting embankments" (seen in the drawing above ) while others watched from the comfort and relative warmth of their carriages.  Many in the crowd, however, hadn't come to watch, but to skate as both the Clipper and Eagle reported major difficulties in freeing sufficient space on the pond's ten acres of ice so the game could begin.  Finally, however, enough of the ice was cleared to allow the Atlantics resplendent in "red jackets and blue facings" and the Charter Oaks in "plaid" coats to try their hands at this new and novel approach to the old game.

Dickey Pearce

Each team had ten players with the extra position filled by a second catcher, probably in recognition of the risk of passed balls rolling without end on the slippery surface.  Not surprisingly, the conditions favored the "the best skater" over "the best player," but for the Atlantics, they were pretty much one and the same especially the legendary Dickey Pearce who made "several splendid fly catches," demonstrating he was "as good a shortstop on ice, as he is on a summer's day."  As a result the once and future champions triumphed, just as they frequently did "on terra firma," wining 36-27 to earn a silver trophy ball donated by Mr. Litchfield himself, the president of the Fifth Avenue Railroad Company.  Although the game was completed successfully, the conditions deteriorated as "water oozed up" through "ominous cracks and fissures" in the ice.

1865 Ad for Ice Skates

At the end of his account of the Brooklyn contest, the Clipper reporter again challenged the Manhattan clubs to host "a similar exhibition" at Central Park, but perhaps because of the war only a couple of matches were even attempted over the next few years. According an 1865 article in the Clipper there was an 1863 Brooklyn match at an unidentified site and an 1864 Empire-Gotham match at Sylvan Lake in Hoboken which was wisely halted because of breaking ice.  However early in 1865 with the end of the war hopefully in sight and base ball on the brink of a period of major expansion, the Atlantic and Gotham clubs agreed to play a best of three series beginning with a January 12th contest at Capitoline Grounds.  It was certainly an appropriate venue as the Brooklyn facility first opened to host ice skating and then became one of the first enclosed base ball grounds.  Bases for the match consisted of circles of "powdered charcoal" with runners permitted to over run/over skate the base.  A major challenge for the players was the difficulty in planting their feet on the hard and slippery surface.  As a result the pitchers focused on control to limit the number of passed balls while strikers concentrated on placing their hits outside the limited range of the fielders.  In match that featured the Wright brothers (George and Harry) in the Gotham lineup and the aforementioned Pearce as well as Joe Start and Fred Crane playing for the Atlantics, the Brooklyn club skated to an easy 32-5 win.

Sylvan Lake was reportedly at the foot of 7th Street in Hoboken which would put it on the Stevens family property at Castle Point - map by Andrea Magno 

Things were not so easy for the Atlantics in the return match four days later on the Gothams' home turf/ice at Sylvan Lake in Hoboken where the home team triumphed 39-19 in three hours of cold and wind.  Conditions were even worse for the deciding match on January 26th at Washington Pond (Litchfield Pond) in Brooklyn where it took 4 1/2 hours in the bitter cold before the Atlantics prevailed 50-30.  Beyond the obvious discomfort, the frigid temperatures made the surface so hard, the players had an even more difficult than usual time in getting a foothold in the ice.  By this time the reporter (possibly Henry Chadwick) had had more than enough of base ball on ice claiming that unless the weather was milder, the only appeal was the novelty factor which wore quickly wore thin in conditions that made the game "anything, but sport to players or spectators."

If this was meant to sound the death knell for the winter game, the words were anything, but prophetic as almost two decades later the new version of the New York game was still being played, at least in Brooklyn.  In January of 1883, Prospect Park was the scene of at least two matches of teams chosen by major leaguers William Barnie of Baltimore and John "Candy" Nelson of the Metropolitans (Mets).  Reporting on the event, the Clipper thoughtfully provided the following list of major differences between winter and summer base ball.

New York Clipper - February 3, 1883

A year later, the greater New York version of base ball on ice returned to its birthplace in south Brooklyn where the Brooklyn Base Ball Association (ultimately the Brooklyn Dodgers) built the first incarnation of Washington Park  in the same area as the skating pond mentioned earlier.  Accounts in the Clipper and Eagle make no mention of an admission charge, but the best bet is that anyone who wanted to watch or skate (which went on simultaneously) paid for the privilege as club president, Charles Byrne tried maximize the revenue from his all too frequently vacant ball park.  If the Clipper reporter who wrote so disparagingly of base ball on ice in 1865 was indeed the Father of Base Ball himself, Henry Chadwick had changed his tune by 1884.  Not only was Chadwick present, but he along with Brooklyn manager, George Taylor, selected the two "tens" of both amateur and professional players.  Among the professionals were Sam Kimber and John Cassidy of Brooklyn and it's interesting (at least to me) that Brooklyn management was willing to risk injury to their players even though this was long before such prohibitions in major league contracts.  I have a vague recollection from high school in the 1960's that basketball players were prohibited from ice skating during the basketball season as just such a precaution.  The game was close for three innings, but Chawick's team scores seven times in the fourth and added a ridiculous 27 runs in the fifth for a dominating 41-12 victory.

Base ball on ice at Washington Park 

According to Peter Morris' always valuable, A Game of Inches, base ball on ice seems to have gradually died out as the 19th century progressed although there was talk of a league being formed in Cleveland in 1912 if Lake Erie froze sufficiently.  Peter also reports that at least one old time player, James Wood, claimed that base ball on ice's one legacy was the rule change allowing base runners to over run first base.  While the frozen version of base ball didn't last as long at Washington Park,  a few years later the grounds were the unlikely site of another winter sport which will be the subject of the next post.  

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Ringing Out, Ringing In

It's hard for me to believe that A Manly Pastime will reach its third anniversary in February.  The blog began because it seemed to be the best way to start writing about 19th New Jersey base ball.  With minimal forethought, it then expanded into describing the adventures and misadventures of the Flemington Neshanock Base Ball Club seasoned with related historical reflections.  Other topics also found their way on to the "page," especially Brooklyn Dodger history and, more recently, second looks at what well known players considered to be their "greatest day in baseball."  All of this along with an interest in doing more work on the early days of the pre-professional period made it only natural to modify the blog's subtitle, formalizing both the expanded interests and possible future changes.

Article from the Jersey City Daily Sentinel of September 9, 1856, noting that two-thirds of the Eagle Club of New York's lineup in an upcoming match were originally members of Jersey City's first two base ball clubs

Earlier in 2014, in response to some compliments about a series of posts, I explained I was doing a lot of research and the more research, the more blog content.  Most of that work  was concentrated on working my way through all the extant 19th Century New Jersey newspapers.  It was a big job, made significantly simpler due to the large number of weekly newspapers and the high percentage held at Rutgers' Alexander Library.  The research not only confirmed how the game spread throughout the state's 21 counties between 1855 and 1870, but also generated most of the aforementioned blog content.  Much of the data has been entered on the Protoball web site and a goal for 2015 is to finish entering at least all of the club names. Reflecting on this especially in light of the recent SABR symposium on 19th century base ball in the greater New York area has made further study of the 1845-1860 period a future priority.  While that work will still have a heavy New Jersey focus, looking at greater New York as a region is, I believe, extremely important.

Rare box score from the Elizabeth Daily Mercury of July 29, 1869 of a match between two African-American Clubs.  

A subset of this is continued emphasis on African-American clubs through at least 1870.  To say original source material is scarce, is a vast understatement, but some combination of hard work and hard thinking should shed further light on the subject.  Coverage of the Neshanock will resume earlier in 2015 as I understand opening day had been pushed back into March (brr!).I'm also far from done with "My Greatest Day in Baseball," as there are a number of entries from the Deadball Era that merit further attention.  The entries in all three editions, of what was for me a foundational base ball history book, were originally published in the Chicago Daily News.  At some point, I'd love to take a look at the paper in some detail especially to see if there were more articles than the roughly 60 that were incorporated into book form.  To my knowledge, the papers is not available online, but regardless, it's not something I will get to in 2015.

Charles Ebbets in his prime 

I say that with certainty because of a much larger project which will take up most of the next two years, researching and writing a full length biography of Charles Ebbets.  It's a prospect that is more than a little daunting as Ebbets' Dodger career lasted more than 40 years including more than a quarter of a century as club president and primary owner which may partially explain why there are no earlier biographies of Ebbets.  At the same time, I've been interested in Ebbets for a long time and have always wanted to try my hand (and mind) at a biography.  Now with the much appreciated faith of McFarland & Company, I'm about embark on that journey.  Ebbets' years with the Dodgers span my two favorite eras, the 19th century and the Deadball Era and offer the opportunity for an in depth look at base ball club ownership during those periods.  As an added benefit, I'm confident the Ebbets' research will provide interesting content for this blog, so stay tuned.

This is the last post of 2014 and the blog will be back around the middle of January as the batteries need some recharging.  Thanks to all those who read along throughout the year and especially those who took the time to offer feedback, comments and advice.  The first post of 2015 will focus on base ball games where the biggest meteorological concern was whether or not it would be cold enough!  Until then best wishes for the holidays and all of next year.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Poems, Plays and Paterson Base Ball Clubs

Analyzing the spread of base ball in New Jersey requires looking not just at where the game took root, but also at where it didn't.  One of the most important places in the latter category is Paterson, the state's third largest city in 1860, located only about 20 miles from New York and 15-20 miles from Newark and Jersey City.  Yet in spite of its proximity to the cities where New Jersey's first clubs were formed in 1855, the earliest documented clubs in Paterson didn't take the field until 1860, some five years later.  While this is somewhat surprising, it's further evidence of the relationship between the game's growth and a railroad connection to Newark since unlike more rural Somerville and Morristown, a railroad link between Paterson and Newark didn't exist in the ante bellum period.  However, even though young men from Paterson got a later start than their urban neighbors, they finally got organized in 1860 and formed two clubs with the unlikely names of the Unknown and Flora Temple clubs.

Civil War era Paterson 

Not surprisingly the war slowed down the organization of other new teams in Paterson with no further club formations until 1863 (four clubs) and 1864 (another four).  Among the 1864 vintage was the Olympic Club which became Paterson's premier team of the 1860's only to go out of existence at the end of the decade before being re-incarnated in the 1870's and sending four players to the major leagues including future Hall of Famer, Mike "King" Kelly.  As with the rest of the country, the post war period then saw rapid growth in Paterson with 26 teams formed in both 1866 and 1867.  Each of these teams, of course, needed a name many of which came from the categories identified by George Kirsch in his book Baseball and Cricket: The Creation of American Team Sports, 1838-1872 including the use of patriotic/national monikers as well as those claiming some level of athletic ability.  Especially popular in Paterson were names endowing its members, at least figuratively, with superior mental and physical traits such as having a "quickstep," being "active" and "alert" or in such command they "neversweat."  Interestingly  another Unknown club was formed in 1866 with the name also adopted by one of the old-fashioned clubs that played in the summer of 1867.

Flora Temple in a Currier and Ives print

Given the number of teams formed in 1866 and 1867 alone, club organizers had to exercise a degree of creativity in choosing a name.  Some apparently decided to try to replicate some of the country's distinguished clubs like the Atlantics and Mutuals, but at least two other teams followed the example of the Flora Temple Club organizers by going outside of the mainstream.  In 1860 the most casual observer recognized the name Flora Temple and even today, it's an easy name to research.  Born in Oneida County, New York in 1845, Flora Temple was reportedly the famous "bob tailed nag" of Stephen Foster's "Camptown Races."  Originally named Flora, the relatively small mare (14 hands or 56 inches) wasn't recognized for her racing ability until 1852 when renamed Flora Temple, she defeated a horse named Brown Jim.  Over the next nine years, the trotter won 92 races, came in second 14 times and was the first horse to break the 2:20 mile.  Over the course of her career,Flora Temple raced throughout the eastern half of the United States and was immortalized by numerous Currier and Ives lithographs.  Less than two months before an 1860 account of a Flora Temple Club base ball match appeared in the New York Sunday Mercury, Flora Temple swept a best of five heat race against George M. Patchen, another famous horse before 4000 fans in Philadelphia.  It's no wonder these young men from Paterson (home to its own horse racing track) aimed to replicate the speed, strength and heart of the champion race horse.

Currier and Ives print of Mazeppa

Seven years later, another group of Paterson ball players also chose a name with an equestrian connection, but this time with a literary twist, deciding to call themselves the Mazeppa Club.  Unlike, Flora Temple, however, its less likely the average reader of the Paterson Daily Press immediately picked up on the allusion to an 1809 narrative poem by the English poet Lord Byron.  The work tells the story of Ivan Mazeppa, a Ukrainian page at the Polish court who has an affair with the young wife of a much older count.  Outraged when he learns of the incident, the nobleman has Mazeppa tied naked to a wild horse which is then released into the wilderness.  The bulk of the poem describes the long hazardous journey during which Mazeppa almost dies twice but ultimately survives and returns to his native Ukraine.  Unlike the founders of the Flora Temple Club, the reason for the Mazeppa Club member's choice is less clear.  It may be nothing more than a literary joke or possibly an attempt to compare their endurance on the ball field with Mazeppa.  Perhaps there is also a subconscious desire to share his amorous affair with a different end result.

Although the Mazeppa Club members get some points for obscurity, their efforts paled in comparison with the Michael Erle's, one of the old fashioned base ball clubs which sprang up in Paterson in 1867.  The only reference discovered to date is a play called "Michael Erle, the Maniac Lover or the Fayre Lass of Lichfield," by the English author, Thomas Egerton Wilks (1812-1854).  Reportedly one of many plays by Wilks, the text of "Michael Erle" survives, but Internet searches have revealed next to nothing about Wilks beyond an interesting connection to a much better known English author.  In 1837 Wilks edited the memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi, a famous British clown which he submitted to Bentley's Miscellany magazine for publication.  Apparently not completely satisfied with the text, Bentley's asked a young, but promising writer named Charles Dickens to finish the job.   Apparently a fan of Grimaldi's from his youth, Dickens undertook the project even though he was hard at work at what would become Oliver Twist.  Given the apparent literary inclinations of the men in Paterson, it's surprising that by the 1860's, at least one new club didn't choose a name from Dickens like the Fezziwigs or the Cheerybles.  Drawing on Dickens' works was left for a group of Jersey City players who opted to call themselves the Dolly Vardons after a character from Barnaby Rudge, one of Dickens lesser known novels.  Although none of these clubs produced memorable results on the ball field, they certainly chose club names that are hard to forget.