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.