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.

No comments:

Post a Comment